Sunday, February 20, 2005

Tennessee in Iraq

Peaceful Tea in Khanaqin

Iranian Border
FOB Cobra
Khaniqin, Iraq

I’ve finally returned to Baquba. My week-long trip to Tikrit was followed by a Blackhawk jaunt over to FOB Cobra near the Iranian border. It was the normal long helicopter journey in Iraq: flying below power-line level in daytime, slightly higher at night, until finally landing back at FOB Warhorse in Baquba. Stuck. I wanted to get to FOB Gabe. While I had been away, one American soldier had been killed and three wounded with an IED in Baquba. Two had already returned to duty.

Nearing midnight, I got lucky and found an MP captain running a combat patrol into Baquba who had his convoy take me to Gabe. Racing through the dark streets, we nearly wiped out several times. Speed is critical in reducing exposure to killing-shots with IEDs, but the “safety in speed” practice also kills many soldiers: nobody seems to wear seat belts. They don’t want to be strangled in straps during a firefight, or get tangled and burned alive.

We made it to Gabe, where, after an exhausting week, I fell asleep. Hours passed while I lay cocooned in my sleeping bag, when something woke me up. I felt the dull thud of what seemed to be a distant but large explosion and my eyes opened for a moment and I wondered, car bomb in Baquba? I drifted back to sleep while images of people lying dead and wounded from the car bomb mingled with the remnants of some dream until both faded from consciousness.

There were other thuds nudging me awake, until finally I stirred to breakfast and heard distant automatic weapons fire. I was walking by the tents of the 1st Infantry Division soldiers who are starting to leave Iraq when I noticed a young soldier pointing at me.

He jumped in the air and pointed in my direction and then put his hands on his head. His face froze in the way it does when somebody sees their little sister about to crash her bicycle, knowing they can't do anything about it.

It was only in that tiniest fraction of a second that I realized that he was trying to warn me…about something . . . the spark had just flashed in my mind . . . when--


Just feet from me a little Raven UAV slammed into a concrete barrier. The airplane shattered and its pieces clattered onto the rocks below. The Raven is designed to crash-land, but not into concrete walls, although, at that moment, I was glad it hit the wall and not my back.

The soldier came running over, “That idiot!” he yelled. “That’s the fourth time he’s crashed this thing!”

I leaned down and picked up a wing.

“Why didn’t you tell me to hit the dirt!?” I said.

“I, I, I, well . . . he keeps crashing this thing!” he sputtered, pointing at the “pilot” who was standing on a roof a couple hundred yards away, holding the remote control box.

They were among the soldiers who’ve just arrived in Baquba. Their predecessors could practically land the Raven in a large suitcase. The soldier on the ground didn’t know that hitting the deck causes other people to hit the deck.

I looked at him, “Next time if you want someone to hit the deck, just hit the deck and everyone else will, too! Don’t just point!”

“I, I, I . . . he doesn't know how to fly this thing!” The soldier examined the nose section, exasperated.

“Did he break it?”

The soldier rotated the little Raven’s beak, “He crunched the nose section . . . I don’t know.”

The “pilot” was still standing on the roof holding the remote control.

“Tell him to crash it into a field next time,” I said, “That Raven is important. Don’t break it!”

The soldier gave me the stupid-look, as if I were telling him that water is wet. But those little UAVs are lifesavers…and insurgent killers, and they just crashed one into a concrete wall. I handed him the wing and walked away.

[POST SCRIPT: After this story was posted, the "pilot" flew the Raven into the Sergeant Major's window.]

There were sounds of explosions, more automatic weapons fire in the distance, and I started to walk to the TOC to ask what was going on, but then I thought, "Why? It’s just the daily madhouse of Baquba. . . . " I went back to my quarters to write some notes about a few things that happened in Khaniqin yesterday.

Iranian Border

The air was clear and cool yesterday when the two Blackhawks lifted off from Baquba. We flew low and fast toward the snow-capped mountains that rise near the Iranian frontier; jinking left and right, climbing at times to avoid flocks of birds, the door-gunners constantly scanning the ground ready to fire. A half-hour later the helicopters kicked dust clouds at FOB Cobra, discharged a few passengers and roared away. Cobra fell quiet and when I pulled out the earplugs, the sounds of birds chirping greeted my ears.

I had flown to the border region merely as a day-reconnaissance, to see if I might want to stay there for an extended time, much as I have been doing in Baquba. Briefings and meetings later, I was in downtown Khaniqin with members of the 3/278th ACR from Tennessee.

Practically everyone on FOB Cobra hails from Tennessee; places like Nashville, Hendersonville, Murphysboro and Knoxville, and a lot of little towns I don’t know, but probably have been to, or at least driven through, at one time or another. The accents, the slang, these sounded like home. I half expected to hear mockingbirds in the morning.

A visiting CNN crew was getting a VIP tour, so I joined the entourage at various meetings with military and government officials, where people were listening to complaints about the elections, and expressing pride in the future of Iraq. Later, I shopped in the downtown markets.

The CNN crew, some soldiers and I lunched at a Khaniqin restaurant, and were served baked chicken and salads. The chicken was crunchy on the outside and juicy on the inside and needed no salt or seasoning. Not as good as German chicken, which still ranks in my book as the best-tasting in the world, but not bad. We left there and headed farther down the main market street. The people of Khanaqin would point to the soldiers’ weapons and say, “No need in Khanaqin. Khanaqin good!” and give the thumbs-up sign.

There have been very few attacks in the Khanaqin area, which is under Kurdish control. The Kurds kill insurgents and, as one Tennessean put it, “The PUK ain’t afraid of nothin’. . . . We did a raid one night and caught some bad guys and the PUK got hold of ‘em and started to beat ‘em to death and we had to stop ‘em. The PUK," he said, punctuating this last remark with admiration and Skoal spat, "they hates the insurgents."

The soldiers told me of a suicide bombing that betided their post the day before the elections. In a particularly gruesome display of insurgent character, the bomber had grabbed the hand of a girl, about five, and used her for cover to approach the IPs. The explosion occurred just yards away from the roof where I stood with the soldiers. Eight people and that little girl were killed that day. Unlike in Baquba where such attacks are common, attacks are relatively rare in this part of Iraq. Perhaps because of that, or maybe just because of the callous way the bomber eviscerated an innocent child, the incident seemed to leave a deep imprint on the soldiers who witnessed it.

I stood on the roof, fixed my gaze into the distance, and soaked in the view of snow-covered mountains. The tableau before me evoked images of the front range in Colorado. But I was looking into Iran. An American soldier with a machine gun told me of a “river of oil” nearby, and showed photographs as evidence, and yet another man told me of an old Jewish village nearby. But I had trouble pulling my attention away from the view. It was beautiful.

Later that evening, I asked the commander, Lieutenant Colonel Holmes, if I would be welcome on Cobra, and he told me to come on back.

There were a few things I needed to do first in and around Baquba, so I started to plan to return in a couple of weeks. I asked some of the soldiers if they wanted to buy a goat and have a cookout when I got back. “Sure, come on back and we’ll ask one of them I-raqis to bring us a goat. I ain’t never had goat."

Just like home.

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