Thursday, May 19, 2016

When I was in Iraq: Part Six

The First Attack

I had come to Iraq knowing it was a war zone. The fact that I was required to wear a side-arm at all times showed how dangerous it all was.

But despite the constant weaponry around me, I had not encountered anything that meant I was in a war.

Until June 24, 2004.

When I first came to work at the NSA, I was sent to have a hearing test done. People doing the "listening mission" spend most of their day listening to audio and there is the concern that such a job could eventually minimize someone's ability to hear. As a result, they constantly test the hearing of linguists and if there is any degradation of hearing, they will pull someone off the listening mission as a precaution. Good of them.

I noticed my test was taking a long time. I didn't know if this was good or bad. I had been told to press the button whenever I heard a tone. I kept hearing tones, so I kept clicking. 

When it was all over, I was informed that I had supernaturally good hearing. The analyst told me that I performed as hearing an octave above and below the normal range for human ability. This served as confirmation for something I had noticed all my life. I would wake up in the middle of the night and not be able to fall asleep again because I heard dogs barking. Now I know that they were probably miles away.

Even now, I have the problem that I seem to not be able to hear someone close up, but that is only because I am seriously distracted by a conversation happening on the other side of the room.

All that serves to explain why, when I was sitting in my work station on Thursday, June 24, 2004, I suddenly heard several low thuds. They were far away. But they were real. I told my CIA agent boss, "Something just happened." 

"I didn't hear anything," he said.

Some minutes later we were learning that there had been a series of coordinated car bombs in the city. In the final count, there were 60+ dead and hundreds more wounded.

This was the first hint that things were beginning to unravel. They stationed a group of soldiers from the Pennsylvania National Guard on our base after that, in recognition that the security of our base needed to be bolstered. They would begin conducting patrols outside our perimeter, previously only monitored from within. 

I made friends with those guys. But, despite that, I never wavered from the strict schedule I have described in previous posts--asleep by 8pm, so I would have eight hours of sleep by 4am, to then work out for at least an hour before I had to begin my work.

The Pennsylvania soldiers would ask me over dinner to join them in a game of Risk. They had the hard copy version of the game. I told them I would, but not tonight. And not tonight turned into never.

They were part of the security detail that went to the airport when I eventually left in September. We were waiting on the tarmac for the plane that would fly me away. There was a mortar attack at some distance. We felt and heard the thuds but we knew it was far enough away that we did not need to take cover. Then we saw some American asset begin firing tracer rounds into the sky. I looked at them, streaming into the night. It was actually beautiful.  

Then one of the Pennsylvania soldiers said, "Hey, we never got you to play a game of Risk with us." 

In that moment I felt a deep remorse that is still with me to this day.

In my final few weeks, why didn't I just decide that my precious schedule didn't matter anymore? Those guys should have mattered more to me than my eight hours of sleep or my time working out.  I will always have a deep regret for not having accepted their invitation. 

That was almost twelve years ago. All I can do now is try to live my life in such a way that I don't ever repeat that mistake...

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