Photo courtesy of
stops for a photo op just before heading out to
Jack is the Utah National Guard State Surgeon and the
commander of the Medical Command. He is currently on a
120-day deployment in Iraq and serves at a base camp north
IRAQ On Monday, I packed my bag, grabbed my gas mask and
sleeping bag, and headed for the helicopter pad. Six of us,
including the unit Commander, the Command Sergeant Major,
Col. Wickern, and Col. Moore (who is also in charge of the
church meetings at 1:00 PM on Sunday afternoon), boarded a
Black Hawk helicopter bound for Baghdad.
Col. Wickern is Commander of the Air Force
Hospital here. I later found he had gone to the same
Medical School that I did, USUHS, just a few years behind
me. He is an allergist, and he runs the evening Air Force
church services at 7:00 PM.
Col. Moore is a Dentist. He grabbed me the day
before at church services, and asked me to speak in church
the following Sunday. I of course obliged, and prepared a
talk. When I arrived at church the next week, he came up to
me profusely apologetic, and asked if I could delay my talk
another two weeks, as he had just been informed that there
was a visiting Chaplain who had asked to speak. The
Chaplains superior officer had accompanied him, and he felt
under pressure. He did a fine job, and I was happy to
relinquish the floor to him.
Enough rambling; back to the helicopter trip.
Our entourage included two helicopters, one flying just
behind the other one. As we loaded and strapped in, the
crew chief checked us out, made sure that we were wearing
earplugs, and then jumped in behind a loaded machine gun.
The machine gun protrudes through the door, so the side
panels stay open the whole time that you are in the air.
Luckily, I had brought some gloves with me. That, along
with the body armor vest that was required, was enough to
keep me warm.
The helicopters lift off smoothly, then jet
forward, skimming along about 50 yards above the ground.
All the while, the crew is manning the machine guns, with an
eye to the ground. We were not fired on, but a helicopter
behind us took some small arms hits.
Most of the terrain between our base camp and
Baghdad is dirt and farmland, with numerous crops and
forests of date trees. Dirty irrigation trenches
intermittently stripe the landscape. Cows are seen grazing
every few miles, and a few mud adobe type houses pop up here
As Baghdad approaches, the pinkish white houses
become more prolific.
Photo courtesy of
namesake or an honor? Dr. Jack is amused to share a
name with a camp in Iraq.
This conglomeration of residences crescendos as
the Tigris River is approached. The Tigris weaves like a
lazy snake through patches of palm-like vegetation, and is
spotted with people washing clothes and hanging laundry out
Every house had a flat roof, and most were
adorned with a satellite dish. This amenity only became
available after the American liberation. Two years ago,
such contraptions were outlawed.
Depending on your point of view, this could be a
bad thing or a good thing. I will be very interested to see
what impact these transmissions have on Iraqi society.
We swooped down sharply upon reaching the
Embassy, and landed close to Saddam Hussein's palace. Upon
landing, we were officially in the green zone, an area
around the palace and Embassy that is heavily guarded, and
where ID cards are checked around every corner. Until a few
months ago, security was not quite as strict, and some
interchange with the local community was allowed with
appropriate precautions. But then a suicide bomber came in
to the open market that was in the center of this complex
and caused a devastating explosion. Since then, this area
of Baghdad has been under heavy regular fire.
In Baghdad, I reported in to the Brigade that I
provide reports to, and got to see some of the faces that
receive my e-mails and phone calls. After a brief visit to
the clinic that our battalion runs in the Embassy, we went
to lunch. In Baghdad, I found, they eat much the same way
and type of food that we do back at our base camp. Most of
the soldiers who serve in Baghdad feel trapped and
landlocked, since they cannot safely venture out. Our group
was fortunate enough to marry up with a Colonel who had some
connections. He was from Connecticut, and knew our
Connecticut Commander quite well, so he offered to take us
on a drive in his up-armored Suburban. What a vehicle this
was! It had armor plating all around, with special
reinforcements in the roof and engine. The windows were all
bullet proof. Closing the door required the strength of a
With the Colonel's pass, and frequent stops at
winding concrete guard points, we were able to travel off of
the complex. The first stop was at the large sword statues
that overhang the road leading to the palace. The swords
were positioned just after the "war" with Iran.
At the base of these swords, imbedded into the concrete, are
a number of Iranian military helmets. One of the worst
insults that you can give to an Iranian is to throw his
helmet in the ground and walk on it.
Near the swords is a building dedicated to the
Unknown Soldier. Because of the danger in approaching this,
we only observed it from about 500 yards away.
The next stop was the Al Rasheed Hotel, made
famous for it's housing of many dignitaries and news
reporters. Very few people are here now, as it was bombed a
few weeks ago, and is still in the process of rebuilding.
It is very difficult to enter this hotel incognito. My ID
card was presented no fewer than five times to reach the
center. Inside are a nice chow hall, and some local
Across the street from the Al Rasheed is the
Convention Center. The Convention Center is on the border
between the Green Zone and the Red Zone. It is in this
Convention Center that the delegates from Iraq meet to
discuss the upcoming elections and other political items.
Photo courtesy of
colossal huge palace on Camp Victory was once
surrounded by homes for the Bathe Party elite.
This is where Collin Powell addressed the nation a few
months ago. And this is where Iraqi citizens may obtain
visas and travel permits. As you might imagine, there is a
great deal of security clearance needed to enter this
facility. But it is a place where Iraqi citizens can almost
enter the Green Zone. The road leading into the Convention
Center is blockaded with cement barriers, reinforced with
old cars, demolished tanks, and concertina wire (an
aggressive form of barbed wire). Standing on the edge,
there is an uneasy sensation of the darkness and danger that
lies mere feet from you.
My next stop was at the helipad, as I had to
make a trip to a camp about 14 miles away. Normally, such a
trip would take 20-30 minutes by car. However, with the
threat as high as it was, no vehicles were traversing the
highways. So again, I loaded in a Black Hawk helicopter, and
flew for 5 minutes, safely landing in Camp Victory.
We also call Camp Victory "The Palace," since
there is a large palace on this property. This is an area
where many of Saddam Hussein's generals had homes, since
they could live on the side of a lake, and be near the
center of Baghdad.
Photo courtesy of
Sitting in a grand chair in one of Husseins former
palaces, Dr. Jack relishes a few moments as an
meetings the next day were in the Palace. Inside the Palace
is a huge dome, with the largest chandelier that I have ever
seen. It sits in the center of a lake, and has a walkway,
resembling a moat with a drawbridge. It also has a throne,
which each of us took turns sitting in. Alas, there was no
crown and scepter to accompany this fantasy illusion!
The next day was spent trying to get a
helicopter ride back to our base camp. One by one, three
helicopters were either diverted or cancelled. Finally, a
General took pity and said that we could use his helicopter
while he was in a meeting. This was a nice ride. The seats
were more comfortable, and even though the side doors were
open and ready with the machine guns, it was warmer and less
They even had a computer screen visible to us
that tracked where the helicopter was flying over a map of
Iraq, similar to the progress projections that some airlines
show on their movie screens. We crossed the Tigris River
five times, and were not shot at even once.
Landing softly at camp, we headed for bed, in anticipation
of Thanksgiving Dinner the next day.
Here in the war zone, there is no such thing as
a weekend, holiday or day off. Thanksgiving morning was
filled with reviews and briefings for me. I was barely able
to make the end of the Thanksgiving Dinner at 3:00 PM. They
served rolled, pressed turkey, with dressing, sweet
potatoes, mashed potatoes, green beans, pumpkin and pecan
pies, and shrimp cocktail. a A fellow Utah National
Guardsman named Warren was here for a few days loading some
equipment, so I was able to eat Thanksgiving dinner with
him. He volunteered for a one-year deployment and arrived
here about nine months ago. His current duty station is
quite a ways south of here.
The day after Thanksgiving, another thing
happened to be thankful for. The mandate that we wear our
heavy flak jackets and helmets whenever outside of a
fortified structure was lifted. What a relief! It is much
easier going to the latrine and showers without lugging all
this gear with us! Of course, the best news was that the
General thought that the threat level had considerably
decreased. For the time being, it is a joy to walk about
unencumbered. All of us are a little lighter on our feet.
Photo courtesy of
Col. David Jack
Jack is assigned to a small clinic on a base north
of Baghdad where his patient load remains light.