After a somewhat disappointing couple of days in Kabul, we were pulling up stakes and making an unannounced trip to Baghdad. We, of course, knew about the trip, but it was apparently news to the rest of the world. We cleaned out our underground room and dropped our bags off by 6AM. It would be a few hours before the motorcade would roll back to the airport so I headed over to the mess hall to have breakfast with the FOX crew.
The mess hall, called “Goat House” had a pretty extensive lineup of food offerings. Everything from made to order eggs to waffles and every imaginable kind of breakfast meat. Since I like burritos, I thought I would give one of the little breakfast burritos a try. I won’t be doing that again. I couldn’t even identify what was in this thing. When I cut it in half a molten blob of yellowish goo slowly oozed out. Was it cheese? Eggs? I honestly couldn’t tell. Even the taste was somewhat unfamiliar. It was a little cheesy tasting, but not really. I’m sticking to cereal from now on.
There was one last photo op at Eggers before we left. Bob would be meeting with the British Minister of Defense and we had about a minute or so at the top of the meeting to do a photo spray. The staff referred to him as the “MOD” which led me to wonder if he would arrive on a Vespa with a green parka on that had a Who patch on the back. The FOX cameraman asked if he had shaggy hair.
The spray took place in a really small room that could barely fit 5 people let alone the 20 or so that would soon pack in for the meeting. Right before the top of the meeting we were told that some of the British press would be coming in. I staked out my spot and waited. Seconds before Gates came in with the “MOD” a TV crew and a stills guy came in and proceeded to push me and the FOX cameraman out of the way. It was unreal. At least they didn’t just stand in front of us. I’ve gone down that road before.
We all geared up and made our way to the airport where an Air Force C-17 cargo plane would take us to Baghdad. The press and staff would sit along the walls of the plane in jump seats while Bob would be inside a customized Airstream trailer that was safely secured in the cargo hold. The five-hour flight was pretty uneventful. Unfortunately, I had packed away my iPod in my backpack that was now under a ton of bags that were strapped to a pallet. This made the flight a little dull. At least we had power so I could get some work done.It was nice to walk off the C-17 onto the tarmac in Baghdad and see the sun shining with temps well into the 60’s. The cold in the ‘Stan was getting old. About 100 yards away from the plane eight Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters waited to take us to Camp Victory, a five minute ride. Soldiers stood at attention outside the birds as the delegation made their way across the tarmac.
Being back in Iraq was like going back to my old neighborhood or seeing a house that you used to live in. We flew over the airport terminal and the infamous Baghdad Airport Road where I used to come to pick up colleagues at the airport. There was the parking lot where we would wait and on a few occasions watched mortars fall about 100 yards away in an open field. The memories were flooding back. The quick flight dropped us off near Saddam’s Al-Faw Palace. I was in this place back in 2004 and was so surprised at how poor the craftsmanship was for being such a grand palace.We were dropped at the Palace Hotel, adjacent to the Al-Faw Palace. It is a pretty nice hotel, a little gaudy, but nice. Bob and his staff would be staying in the hotel, the rest of us are staying in trailers with bunk beds. The rooms and beds were a step up from Camp Eggers.
An hour after getting off the helos, we were back on. We would gear up with flacks and kevlars as our flight was taking us out of the confines of the base and over Baghdad to the Green Zone where Bob was to meet with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.The ride over took us over the hotel where I used to stay, looks like it is still pretty much in tact despite being hit a couple times. After landing the motorcade made its way through the Green Zone, the pool was in the second to last car behind about ten. Upon arrival we had to run to get there before Bob got out of his car, he never waits for us. We were rushed into the meeting where throngs of press were already set up for the blink of an eye photo spray at the top of the meeting. The room was another dark one. After a few snaps we were escorted out.
There was supposed to be another photo spray for the next meeting with the presidential council but after waiting for over an hour we saw a rush of Iraqi TV crews come out of the room and we were told that we had missed it. Glad someone was looking out for us. This was where the day started to fall apart.
The schedule was going through a last minute change after PM Maliki cancelled his sit down with Bob and we were now on our way to the US Embassy to pay a visit. The Maliki snub would end up being the big news of the day even though it wasn’t really a snub. The dude was busy in some other meeting about the horrific bombing that occurred days earlier.
The Embassy was something else. A billion dollar building that resembles a maximum security prison in the middle of an ugly crumbling. I’d show you a picture of it, but I would have been shot trying to take that picture. It is really incongruous of its locale. The inside was a modern glass and steel structure the kind of place you see in Manhattan, not Baghdad. I can’t believe that they spent so much money to build this place.
There was confusion when we got back to the helicopters. Since it was dark and lights aren’t often used we had to rush to find the helicopter that we arrived on. Well, most of us made it. After donning the flack and Kevlar we noticed that the FOX producer and cameraman weren’t on the helo. One of the crew went to try and locate them to no avail. As we lifted off I couldn’t help thinking that we had broken the golden rule to leave no man behind. I expected to look down and see the scene from Platoon when Willem Dafoe was running across the field being shot by the enemy. Thankfully, the FOX guys made it back to Camp Victory where they received more than their fair share of ribbing.
Nolan Arenado(For ESPN The Magazine)
2 days ago