Friday, July 13, 2012

Three Moons: How I Got to Iraq

I land in Jordan. From here it is like a whirlwind. I’m at a five star hotel that night. I recall having a terrific dinner at the restaurant there. And I ordered a second carafe of a very drinkable red wine they had, knowing that I would not have another drop of alcohol (or so I thought) for three months.
I had been told to be prepared for a pick up from the main lobby at ten in the morning. As I sat in my room, drinking coffee, I turned on the TV in my room and found, to my surprise and delight, a Chicago Cubs game.
My twin brother had given me a Chicago Cubs cap to bring on this trip. I put it on and watched a portion of the game. I don’t remember who they were playing or if they were winning. If you know anything about what it means to be a Cubs fan, you know none of that matters.
A large van arrived on schedule. Several more men came out of the woodwork and were apparently part of this ride. We drove out of Amman to some type of Air Base. There we boarded some type of cargo airplane. I’m not going to lie to you. I could go on the internet and figure out what that plane probably was. Oh, it was a C-something. Me and a bunch of other guys all sat down on the two sides of the cavernous interior. All the rest of them seemed to know how to strap themselves for the flight. I struggled with the piles of seatbelt-like materials until a man next to me finally showed me what to do.
The loud roar of the propellers filled the belly of the plane as I stared through the guys seated across from me. My mind went so many places. I thought of my family back in Wisconsin. I certainly thought of a mother scared to death at what I was doing. She had even had a medical emergency a few months earlier and I delayed telling her about it until just two weeks before I left, worried that the news would compromise her further. My mind soared through the story of how I came to be strapped in a C-Whatever on my way to Iraq.
A boy takes four years of Latin in high school. Then he’s offered a scholarship at the University of Wisconsin to declare a major in Classics. He studies Latin and Greek for four more years, but decides to study Biblical Hebrew before going to a Lutheran Seminary in Minnesota. He decides ministry isn’t for him and gets a scholarship for a Doctoral Program back in Wisconsin. He graduates with a PhD in Biblical Hebrew and Semitic Studies with an Arabic minor.
September 11th happens and he sends his resume online to the National Security Agency two days later. The government wheels roll slowly, but on June 18th, 2002, he is sworn in as an Arabic linguist at the NSA. As the US contemplates war in Iraq, he is sent to an NSA base in Georgia for intensive Iraqi dialect training. Early 2003 sees him working a night shift during the Ground War. After that, he’s studying Egyptian Dialect.
Early 2003 he receives the offer for a deployment to Iraq. He agrees. Spring of 2004. He gets a dozen inoculations in two weeks. Even Rabies! He gets on a plane on May 18th. He’s in one place [I’m not allowed to divulge where] for what was supposed to be a month. But that was shortened by a few days for the reasons I described earlier.
I’m back in the plane and feel us banking hard to the right. As I turn and look out the small circular window, I gasp at what I see. For months as I worked in the Iraq Office before, during, and after the Ground War of 2003, I looked at maps of Baghdad. Now, out that window, it was as if I saw the map. Except it was the real thing. There beneath me was the Tigris River winding its way through the city.  No one had told me about the maneuver we had begun. To avoid a possible surface to ground missile, planes were landing at Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) with a corkscrew approach. You come above the airport still thousands of feet in the air and descend in a tight turn until you are almost on the ground. As we continue to bank hard to the right (or maybe the left, I don’t remember), I see the ground is getting closer. I’m sure we’re about the crash on what looks like barren ground when suddenly the pilot turns out of the spin and our wheels hit the pavement of the run-way. Damn he was good!
Now we’re in a van and arrive at a beautiful large building described to me as the former villa of Uday or Qusay Hussein (I don’t remember which). This will be my home whenever I am transiting in or out of Iraq. I’m shown my bunk in a large room full of bunk beds. One thing, however, was starting to make me feel a little ill at ease. Most people were already wearing the side arms we were all supposed to be wearing here in Iraq. And I had been told that I would be issued my gun the following morning. I was in Iraq. It was a war zone. And I was defenseless.
And I’ll tell the story of how I became certified to wear a gun in Iraq in the next installment.

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