Skip to comments.Five Years in Iraq (Shameless Vanity)
Posted on 01/18/2009 3:05:52 AM PST by Allegra
Five years ago today on January 18, 2004, I arrived at Baghdad International Airport on a charter flight from Dubai with about 60 other people to begin working in Operation Iraqi Freedom. It was a mild and cloudy afternoon as we descended onto the tarmac for the short walk into the terminal. The dreary, desolate airport was not operational and didnt even have electricity, aside from a few lights here and there powered by a generator. We were the only people in the airport, except for a few local national employees wandering around as we lined up just inside to show our passports to a lone Iraqi man who gave each one a cursory glance.
After retrieving our luggage and body armor from a pallet, we were picked up at the front of the airport in three buses by our companys operations team and driven to nearby Camp Victory North, now called Camp Liberty. We were all quietly taking in our new and starkly different surroundings as we drove past US military tanks and jeeps, anti-missile batteries, T-walls and razor wire. Our adventure had just begun.
I had not slept well the three nights we had been in Dubai prior to arriving in Baghdad, but that very first night on Camp Liberty North, I knocked right out on my cot and slept uninterrupted for eight hours until six a.m. Then, the twelve hour/ seven day of work schedule began and I got busy right away, tracking down a large variety of equipment that had been ordered from companies in several different countries and I began expediting it into Iraq.
Some of my fellow travelers spoke of how they were going to stay for two or three years. I merely hoped to get through the first year so that I could do my part and get back home to resume my normal life. During the first four months in country, my thoughts frequently turned to home and its comforts and safety. Within five weeks of arriving, I experienced my first close-in mortar attack where four mortars landed very close to our office trailer early one evening, shaking and rocking it violently and driving all of us under our desks, reaching with shaking hands for our body armor. The next morning, five people were lined up at the Human Resources desk, signing out and heading home. I was quite shaken by the attack and the thought of chucking it all and heading home was tempting, but I had known before I left the US that mortar and rocket attacks were highly likely and my sense of duty prevailed.
After my first four months, I got to take an R&R and headed off to London to meet friends and enjoy life outside the wire and a break from the hard work and long hours that had dominated my life since I had arrived in Iraq. I spent two glorious weeks reveling in the freedom to go wherever I wanted to go, attending shows in the West End, eating great Italian, Argentine, Thai and other food that did not come from a chow hall and lying in the soft, verdant grass in Green Park, a luxury after being surrounded by sand and gravel the past four months.
A strange thing happened upon my return to Baghdad. I had just arrived on a C-130 from Kuwait and was waiting with a couple of others for the Operations representative to collect us from the military air terminal area. We were chatting while we waited and I looked around at the dun-colored landscape dotted with tents, trailers, bomb shelters, cement blast walls and Hesco barriers that had become so familiar to me and was very surprised to realize that I was absolutely delighted to be back. I had not expected this feeling at all and when I expressed it to the Operations guy who picked us up to drive us back to camp, he smiled and said many other people had told him the same thing upon returning from their first R&R.
After this, I settled into a routine and learned to balance work with a little social time with the friends I had made, became accustomed to reacting quickly but not frantically to mortar attacks and began to enjoy myself. I went to Italy in September on my second vacation and was once again happy upon returning to Iraq. In December, as my year in the war zone was ending, I took 24 days and went home for the first time. By now, I had decided that I could do one more year in Iraq, although I was thrilled beyond measure to be back home for a short while. For about the first three days home, I experienced a form of sensory overload and occasionally found myself somewhat overwhelmed at all of the abundance around me.
The most fascinating experience of my five years here (and there have been many) was the very first Iraqi election day on January 30, 2005, about two weeks after I returned from my home leave. In the days before the election, we all wondered Will they vote? After all, that what was this was all about. Al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army made numerous threats that those who voted would be killed. They spray painted in Arabic, red menacing letters, Vote and Die on walls in the major cities in the days leading up to the election and distributed hundreds of thousands of leaflets announcing the same threat.
The morning of Election Day dawned chilly and grey and we all gathered in our offices to work and wait. The polls opened at seven a.m. and we collectively held our breath from our very locked down position, hoping and praying that the people would exercise their new liberty that had come at a high cost. We prayed for our soldier friends who had been sent to guard polling places around Baghdad. We were all restricted to camp that day, not even permitted to go to the dining facility on base because nobody knew what was going to happen. We didnt mind eating MREs as long as the people went out to vote.
The first two hours the polls were open saw sparse crowds and I began to get a sinking feeling that all of our troops sacrifices and all of our hard work would not see fruition. Just as that feeling began to settle in, lo and behold, Iraqis began coming out of their homes in droves, entire families holding hands in case anything happened, bravely, defiantly swarming the polling places all around the city. Long lines formed around blocks, but nobody left. They kept coming and coming as the morning wore on and approached noon. They were proudly waving purple fingers, weeping with joy, and we watched on the TV in our office and wept unashamedly along with them.
Al Qaeda pulled off a few incidents, but they were few and mostly unsuccessful. The result was a small number of causalities, significantly lower than what had been feared. The local populace kept coming out in spite of the terrorists and the polls remained jammed until closing. Even in Anbar Province, where low turnout was expected, there were lines around the buildings where voting was taking place and purple fingers emerging triumphantly from the exits. In the late afternoon, the terrorists began launching mortars at our base and other bases around the area. Whats the matter? we sneered as the ground shook from their bombs. Mad because you couldnt stop the election? Their mortars all hit sand and did no more than rearrange the gravel around their impact points. It was not a good day for the terrorists. It was, however, an epic day for us and for the Iraqis. The country was awash in purple ink and every one of us felt the flush of success and the thrill of watching the birth of a new and free nation.
That was when I knew that this was going to work, despite the realization that there would be harder times ahead. That was when I decided I would stay indefinitely to see this through. In the years that have followed, people frequently ask me, How long will you stay? My reply is Until it stops fascinating me. I want to see the peace.
And now, the peace is evident. I have worked contracting, procurement and expediting functions on the construction of coalition camps, Iraqi Army camps and police stations, I have worked with the Ministry of Interior, mentoring and assisting the transition for their Contracting Directorate and I am now directly involved in the infrastructure reconstruction effort, which is moving along at a good clip now that the terrorists arent bombing everything in sight.
In less than two weeks, the Iraqis will vote again.
And that desolate airport I arrived in five years ago is a bright, bustling hive of activity, with shops, cafes and restaurants, clean restrooms and comfortable gate waiting areas. Another 17 daily flights were recently added and more airlines are signing contracts to fly in and out of Baghdad. In just a few months, there will be direct flights to Europe by major carriers, soon to be followed by direct flights to the US.
Godspeed, Iraq and may you continue to go forward and embrace the bright light of liberty and peace.
Great vanity, Allegra, and thank you for all your great work. Stay safe, and come home when you’re ready. Don’t forget, when you get back you can have some BBQ’d Bacon Sausage!
Totally shameless vanity ping.
God bless you! And thank you!
Well written account. If you write a book on your experiences, I’d buy it!
I greatly appreciate your account, and will add it to the stuff I maintain here.
THANK YOU!!!!! What a fabulous story!! And thank the others with you over there!!
I try to catch every briefing on Pentagonchannel.mil, and the testimonies from the commanders, not just the two stars or the MNF-I spokesmen, but especially the Colonels commanding the Brigade Combat Teams describing the mind boggling progress in that theatre are inspiring.
Warfare, as we understood it just 15 years ago, is gone forever. Major General Jeffrey Hammond commands the most technologically advanced infantry and armor division in human history but he spends most of his time as a conduit between the tribal leaders, the Iraqi Army commanders and the Baghdad politicians. He's not worrying about where his Apaches and Abrams are positioned, he cares about ensuring that the Baghdad bureaucrats get full payments to Sons of Iraq leaders and their troops.
You, and the other civilians who accepted hazardous duty, are a big part of the equation. The State Department volunteers heading up the PRTs are amazing. Ryan Crocker is every bit the hero as Petraeus, because in the new COIN reality they are equal partners.
I think Iraq will be a spectacular success story. I really do. I hope you feel some pride that you were part of making history.
Also, I'm curious as to when did you first start posting to FR from Iraq?
Of course! I'm flattered. :)
Also, I'm curious as to when did you first start posting to FR from Iraq?
January 2004. I've posted through the bombings, the Battle of Fallujah, the first election, the night an ammo dump got hit by a mortar and stuff was blowing up all around us, the so-called "civil war" (it wasn't one) and I've refuted the media's BS on here countless times.
Thank You. I always like to read your comments from Iraq.
Stay safe and enjoy he show. Its history right before your eyes.
Great work, Allegra! It’s too bad we never got to meet face-to-face over there, but we were both just a little busy!
Thanks for all your hard work!
Right back atcha, FRiend!
I'm sorry we didn't get to meet up here as well. I have met a few FReepers here over the years, and I just met another one in Kuwait as I was passing through after my R&R last month.
You're a gem and are more worthy to be President than B. Hussein.
My nephew is on his way out there this spring.
World’s best BK BTTT!
Nice essay, congrats!
Not a shameless vanity IMHO, these are the kind of reports that I used to help counteract the drive-by media reports with some of my co-workers.
Thanks and good luck with your future endeavors
None of the other BKs here measure up to that one, either. There was something special about that BK on the Bob Hope base.
Getting lost in the dark in the area around BIAP with a newfound friend....priceless!
Darlin', there's a whole bunch of us that have read your posts, your home page (and I, for one will admit to ogling the lovely lady pictured), and this is a welcome view into who you are and what you have done and continue to due.
More importantly ... the 'why'.
As we begin a new and trepidous journey into the future of America, knowing one of our own will report with integrity the truth of our military and political association with Iraq is a dynamic we must appreciate and admire.
Thank you, Allegra for all you do.
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