Baghdad Bound

Written by Col. David Jack  - Published - Nov. 30, 2004

   

Photo courtesy of Col. Jack

Jack stops for a photo op just before heading out to Baghdad.

Col. 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 of Baghdad.

 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 Chaplain’s 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 and there.

            As Baghdad approaches, the pinkish white houses become more prolific.

Photo courtesy of Col. Jack

A 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 to dry.

            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 weight lifter.

            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 merchants' shops.

            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 Col. Jack

The 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 Col. Jack

Sitting in a grand chair in one of Hussein’s former palaces, Dr. Jack relishes a few moments as an imagined monarch.

 My 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 windy somehow.

            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

Dr. Jack is assigned to a small clinic on a base north of Baghdad where his patient load remains light.