There had been a rumour floating around that, due to another day of Iraqi protests, we’d be in lockdown again on Friday (the protests are always on Fridays). Col. Soracco said it was just a rumour and to ignore it until we’d been officially informed. On Friday morning, however, we learned that we were, indeed, in another lockdown situation and under “restricted” movement. No-one was allowed to enter or leave the base unless such movement was classified as absolutely essential. There went my plans for taking the bus to Prosperity to go for coffee in the little Arabic café and then wander around a bit more in Sadam’s bombed out palace (from Dubba-ya’s “Shock and Awe” session). And, as with The Day of Rage protests, no Iraqi nationals were allowed on any of the bases, which unfortunately meant that the blue-domed souq was closed for browsing and people-watching amusements.
Since there were no humvees or m-raps parked outside our billeting building this time, I gathered there was considerably less concern than there had been with the Day of Rage. There were, however, more than the usual number of pairs of Blackhawk helicopters that always flew overhead (they almost always fly in pairs). I noticed they were also flying lower than they habitually did and making more frequent cycles around our base than usual. They were so close I could just about make out the individual features of the airmen sitting on the edge with their weapons poised and at the ready. One of them saw me looking up and waved at me.
There was really nothing to mark one day from another during this period; assignments and deadlines came and went and the days had all blended one into the next. I lost track of time and lost interest in trying to track it; not that time-tracking had ever been of much interest to me anyway. Always bored me silly.
Eventually we were given our final assignments. Along with two others, I was to go to COB Speicher, an army base with an air force contingent very near the northern town of Tikrit (Sadam’s birthplace). Four of us were to go to Taji and 3 or 4 to Aristameya. To celebrate finally knowing for sure, Valentina suggested we all go to the Oasis café to smoke shisha or, for some of us, to have bread, humous & tea. On the way back from The Oasis, the lieutenant-colonel who was walking with us pointed out the hidden bar that the NATO officers were allowed to use. Heading up the list of things we can’t do here is USF’s “General Order Number 1”, stating there shall be no alcohol while in theatre. NATO forces, however, are considerably less strict and allow their people two alcoholic drinks per day. Just as well I hadn’t known about the hidden, forbidden little bar before; there were a few times when I might well have thrown caution to the wind and gone to investigate . (See “Roommates”, for instance.)
I don’t even recall exactly when we left Union III; I think it was a day or two after our IZ tour but can’t say for sure. Travel plans were made and cancelled, new ones made and cancelled until, finally, it seemed like one plan really was going to happen. Valentina gave us our manifested times and our “show times” on a small stickie and told us it was important not to “leave it lying around”. When I got back to my room, I put it on my bed for a minute and then, promptly forgot about it for several hours. I mean, it was in my locked room and it seems unlikely that Deirdre and Joanne were likely to help the Iraqi insurgents, but still… bad form on my part. I’d have made a lousy spy (my adolescent career goal) since I’m both a bit absent-minded and have an inconsistent memory for numbers, dates and times. When I got back to my room, I tucked it away in the identity pouch we all have to wear around our necks so that I couldn’t lose it. Then I went to the PX, bought what’s called a ‘gorilla box’ (a black plastic trunk, packed the contents of one of my duffels into it and had it shipped to Speicher. I was trying to avoid having two duffel bags to carry along with my backpack, especially while wearing all my heavy body armour.
Well, a darned good thing I sent that gorilla box on ahead because I would absolutely not have been able to cope with both duffels and the backpack – especially while wearing the body armour which is SO heavy! I know I said that before but it really is. As it was, it was really all I could do to just carry the backpack over one shoulder; I had to drag the one duffel I had with me across the tarmac and, when there wasn’t tarmac, across the gravel. There is now, not surprisingly, a largish hole in the bottom of that duffel (along with a hole in my new slippers, in my laundry bag and in my mesh laundry hamper from Daiso).
Colonel Sorocco had briefed all of us on helicopter travel and protocol so we were sort of prepared. You must:
– wear long sleeved tops, long pants (no shorts or capris allowed), closed-toe shoes, all your body armour, protective eyewear and earplugs
– be solely responsible for all your luggage
– pay attention to the guy in the jumpsuit who will communicate with you using hand signals and small hand-written placards (this is because the noise of the rotors prevents any kind of conversation from being possible). The guy in the jumpsuit (who probably has a more official title than that) has several small hand-written placards with place names that the helicopter will land and, when it stops somewhere, you have to check and see if it’s your stop or not. If you get off too early or miss your stop, well, that’s your problem to solve.
– It was at one of these helicopter briefings that Col. Soracco had also given us our briefing on our personal beacons. Letting us know that “it’s not Hollywood folks – we won’t get to you in a few hours!” He assured us, though, that they would “eventually” get to us.
Along with several other people, I had purchased the sunshade variety of protective eyewear. I’d chosen them mainly because they were the cheapest ones I could find but, also, because I’d imagined that I’d be flying in the daytime and would need sun protection. Turns out, though, that the helos move around a great deal during the night (I’ve only ever traveled in them at night so far) so the sunshade version was not only not required, it’s been a ridiculous hindrance. The tarmac where the helos land and take off are generally completely or, almost completely, unlit and it is quite difficult to see anything at all while wearing the shades.
So, on whatever day it was we left, the 7 of us who were going to either Taji or Speicher got onto the “ice-cream truck” around 4 and were taken over to the American Embassy to wait around on the tarmac for a few hours until our helicopter arrived. Pretty exciting – this would be my first time on a military helicopter! I asked the guy in charge of managing us (really, herding a bunch of English teachers is very like herding cats) if I could have a photo of myself in my body armour, just against the white wall of a small utility building. Just a white wall with not identifying marks anywhere. He asked his supervisor for permission for me but the answer was no; the rule about no photos of the new American Embassy is absolute.
We had no idea what kind of helo we’d be flying on; several Blackhawk helicopters came and went as the evening advanced and darkness intensified but none of those were for us. Finally, our names were called from a manifest; we grabbed all our gear, were put into a single file line and waited on the tarmac to be ushered into the giant, black, insect-like Chinook which had just touched down. Here’s a link to some Chinook photos:
When our herder gave the signal, we all moved quickly towards the helicopter – not at all an easy thing to do when fighting the powerful wind from the rotors. Then, we went up the rear ramp and into the belly of the deafening beast, hauling our gear onboard.
As I said above, helo air travel often happens at night and, because we are in a combat zone, the whole tarmac area is dark. The experience is quite surreal; with a helmet on, ears stopped up with ear plugs and the dark safety glasses at night blocking whatever small amount of light there might be, it’s partial, at least, sensory deprivation. You’re basically left with just your sense of touch and smell. You do hear the rotors – even through the earplugs, the volume is quite astounding.
They muffle the noise but can’t drown it out.
The inside of the Chinook was very similar to the military plane from Kuwait to Baghdad – and almost as big. The sides of the craft were lined with uncomfortable canvas seats which faced the interior and the luggage was stored down the centre, creating a kind of low wall. It was when I was actually on board, though, that I began to understand the necessity for wearing ear protection; without it, you’d very quickly go deaf.
There was one airman in the rear (open) hatch on an anchored swivel seat with a gun and a bigger than usual helmet with night vision gear, making him look like a bizarre space traveler and there was another at the front on the side with some kind of massive machine gun pointing out the window. These two never rest; they are vigilant and constantly turning their heads, swiveling and looking around.
There was one stop in Balad (a main hub) and then, after more passengers came on board, we headed off to Taji, arriving around 11 pm. Wes, the site lead at Taji, met us at the heliport and took us all to billeting to set us up with accommodation (CHUs this time – containerized housing units). After we’d dumped our stuff, he took us over to the DFac for a midnight meal with some of the Taji teachers who’d come to welcome us,including