Thursday, August 19, 2004

A Story From My Local Paper

Recently, I wrote a letter to my local paper about my friends over at Iraqthemodel.com starting their own political party. I was looking to see if it was printed (I have been printed three times in the last 6 months) when I came across this piece from a local reporter that went to Iraq. Since you have to be registered to get on the site, I decided to post the entire article here so you could read, too.

The unit she was with is based out of Kansas, just a stones throw across the river from me. That was one of the things that I found interesting. Two things struck me: one, two soldiers asked her if they were "hated". Have I ever told you how much I really, really despise that any soldier has to ask that question in some fucked up reminder of our asshole Viet Nam protestor past?

Let me say this as simply as I can, I had better never hear any person say anything denigrating about our soldiers in my presence. They will find my displeasure mentally, if not physically, painful.

The second was a comment regarding "psy-ops" units as she referred to them. These units are the ones that go out and meet the local people and have given soccer balls, coloring books, etc to the children. I found that a little disengenous considering I know many soldiers that have created private charities to provide such things to children as well as school supplies, clothes, etc or just asked in private letters and emails to have extra candy and such sent in their care packages so they can share them with the children they meet. "Psy-ops" sounds just a little to planned for me for what might actually have been going on. This is one area I think she dipped her own personal prejudice into. Possibly one or two other areas as well.

However, the main story seems to read "good and bad" so, I don't want to prejudice my readers anymore than I might have against the article. In general, I found it to be fairly balanced. Go on to the inner sanctum to read...

Posted on Sun, Aug. 15, 2004



Photos courtesy of LEE HILL KAVANAUGH
Children in a town outside of Baghdad were drawn to U.S. military personnel and Kansas City Star reporter Lee Hill Kavanaugh.


Witnessing war from the front

For 3½ weeks, soldiers shared their joys, humor and often frightening mission

By LEE HILL KAVANAUGH

The Kansas City Star


I feel guilty as I tell the soldiers it's time for me to go home to my toddler and husband. I know they miss their children and spouses so terribly, but they have months to survive before they will see them again. I also know that like a gruesome lottery, some of these soldiers will never see their families again.



Editor's note: Lee Hill Kavanaugh made two trips to cover the war in Iraq for The Kansas City Star, the first in October of last year and again in March and April of this year. Here are some of her observations from her first visit.

After 27 hours of travel it has come to this: I am sitting on cargo netting known as sling seats in a darkened military airplane about to experience a “spiral” landing.

The only light comes from the full moon shining in through a porthole. Occasionally, an eerie glow from a wrist watch pokes the darkness as someone checks the time. All lights are off so that the eyes of insurgents with shoulder-fired missiles won't see us despite what their ears may tell them as we pass.

Two hours earlier, before we left the Kuwait military base known as Camp Victory, our “flight attendant” — an airman in a green jumpsuit — briefed the dozen of us on this swoop landing into Baghdad International Airport.

“We will swing two slow passes around the airport then drop like a roller coaster into a downward spiral. Use the puke bag if you must. Do not leave your DNA on my plane,” says the airman. And then as if an afterthought: “These guys have performed this hundreds of times.

“If we encounter enemy fire we will take evasive action, so hold on tight. … Oh, yeah, have fun.”

Fun? A year ago I would never have imagined myself here, a middle-aged mom carrying a Kevlar helmet and a 16-pound bullet-resistant vest with ceramic plates, sitting next to 20-somethings with M-16 rifles casually slung over their shoulders like metal backpacks.

The plane lurches forward and begins its descent.The spiral landing ends in less than a minute, my stomach contents stay intact and we are soon disgorged from the end of this C-130. Under the yellow glare of portable lights, I dig through the mountain of duffle bags until I find mine.

Two building-sized tents house troops coming and going at the airport. At the intake tent, dozens of soldiers sprawl on brown folding chairs and on the ground. The area is littered with old meal-ready-to-eat trash, some magazines with glossy-looking women on their covers and a few well-read Gun and Ammo magazines. A big-screen television plays Jay Leno.

Every face I see is tired and weary. Some faces look like they've seen too much.

It isn't long until my convoy arrives: three Humvees with four soldiers each wearing desert camouflage uniforms, with handguns dangling from their hips and M-16s in their hands.

“Good evening, ma'am,” says one sergeant. “How was your flight?”

His words are so polite it seems surreal. This is a war zone, not the Ritz. The soldiers ask if I have body armor. They suit me up, strapping my bullet-resistant vest down tight. In the process, my fuzzy curls are snarfed up into the fabric fastener on the vest. Soon, four soldiers are struggling to untangle my hair, being polite enough not to mention that Baghdad and long hair aren't compatible.

Next is a 10-minute ride to their base, an old Iraqi oil building outside the relative safety of the Green Zone.

“We'll drive fast,” says one soldier. “If we take fire, we'll drive faster. We won't stop to engage. If we encounter an IED,” the look on my face tells him to explain, “an improvised explosive device, we will still keep going. Unless we flip over. Then we'll try to assist you if we can. If we can't, stay where you're at and backup will arrive. Try not to panic.”

He stops and watches me. My head keeps nodding yes long after his words are finished.

It's obvious I'm scared speechless.

“We're the best that the 3rd Brigade, 1st Armored Division has, ma'am. You're safe with us.”

In the weeks to come, I'll find these men and women seemed to be a cut above others I've met. Or perhaps living in a war zone, people become more than they are because of the fiery trials they must endure, and the clarity of vision that comes when you realize what is truly important.

***

It's 3 a.m when I meet the colonel of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, Russ D. Gold. At 46, he looks very much like a young Robert De Niro.

His mouth grins, but his eyes give away how weary he really is. Later, I will learn he'd lost a soldier that day. For every death, all e-mail and telephones are shut down for 24 hours to ensure that the deceased soldier's family learns first about the death from the military, not from a phone call from a neighbor down the street.

Gold had just finished writing a condolence letter to that soldier's family. Something he does for each death, insisting on writing it himself because it is the last thing he can do for his soldier. But each letter he writes takes a piece of him with it, he'll tell me later. Out here, his soldiers become his sons and daughters. He shares their joy, their humor, their frustrations; he bears the crushing grief of their deaths.

He invites me to see everything his soldiers do, to ride with them whether it's a bomb-sweeping mission or visiting a village about to get flushable toilets. I tell him that I want the freedom to write about anything I see, good or bad.

We stare at each other for a few seconds after the word “bad.”

He's leery of my enthusiasm. I also know he's watching me very closely to see what my agenda will be.

“Every reporter has an agenda, don't they?” he'll ask me later.

The embedded journalist program with the military is probably one of the best ideas the higher-ups ever conceived. Journalists get a glimpse into the world of the soldier. And soldiers too, get to meet reporters as human beings, not as stereotypes.

At first, these Kansas soldiers are shy and uncomfortable around me, but after a few days, they begin asking me questions.

“What do they think of us back home, ma'am?” one soldier asks. “Do they hate us?”

He's so young. I can hear in his voice that he's sincere. I'm saddened because I fear that the average person probably doesn't think about these soldiers any more than the few seconds on Iraq that run across the local television news. It's not hate; it's apathy. I don't tell him that the court trial of a California murder is dominating the TV news, with soldier deaths in Iraq dropping to third or fourth place in news importance.

The soldiers want to know how the Chiefs are doing, what the weather's like in Kansas City, what movies are on. One soldier tells me that the news the armed forces see on television is always spun toward uplifting stories.“But I know there have been protests about us,” he says, quietly. I assure him that people I've interviewed who protested the war were never against the soldiers. But it's hard for him to separate the two issues. Especially out here, where soldiers cannot trust Iraqi civilians; friend and foe look the same. Another asks if I have any old newspapers with me. He's delighted with a stack of week-old papers crumpled inside my bag.

My first ride-along is with the bomb squad as it looks for IEDs. I meet my escorts: four soldiers who all chew tobacco and who all carry their own water bottles to hold their brown spittle. They're funny, serious, disciplined and not afraid to tell me there are times they're scared, too.

We drive through traffic. Buildings are riddled with bullet holes. I see bombed-out sections of the highway. Some Iraqi drivers glare at us as we cut in front of them or force them to stay behind us. But many more Iraqi drivers smile and wave.

We pass by a marketplace where makeshift pens house goats, chickens and sheep, grazing and waiting to be slaughtered on the spot for someone's supper. All the time as these soldiers talk, their experienced eyes look for the out-of-place, the soda pop can upright in the middle of the road, a flowerpot sitting on the edge of the highway.

We pass little shops and churches, cafes and automobile repair shops, gasoline stations, computer stores and the Baghdad University of Agriculture. Every few feet I see a donkey pulling a small cart. A brown dust permeates everything. Traffic stalls at checkpoints where American soldiers in dark sunglasses look inside cars, minivans, buses and trucks, then wave the vehicles on.

They hold up a hand in greeting as we pass by them. We drive by fast: when you're a soldier in a Humvee, you never stop in traffic. An idling Humvee full of soldiers is a juicy target for a sniper.

We hear over the radio that another squad found an IED. One soldier looks at me as he says that we had just passed by that same spot of road. For the first time, I understand how quickly death could come from a bomb.

The next day, I ride with the psy-op teams, soldiers who conduct what's called psychological operations, befriending local families. These soldiers know the children in the villages around Baghdad the best. They bring them volleyballs and coloring books that explain in Arabic to stay away from strange looking objects on the ground and to tell the soldiers about them. (It is mostly children who find the unexploded ordnance.)

Often, it's the children who tell soldiers where a weapons cache is.

I attend the opening of a reconditioned kindergarten in Abu Ghraib that had been so full of bombs under Saddam Hussein's reign that it took weeks of careful cleaning by the military to reclaim this building for the children. Several children cry at the sight of soldiers in full body armor. I make them laugh when I wave at them with my braids. I have to stop myself from scooping up a crying little girl who looks just like my daughter in the United States.

I witness several historical meetings of the fledgling steps of democracy, as a district advisory council meets. Col. Gold and his soldiers not only taught the townspeople in their area of Baghdad what democracy is, but they also organized the people into representatives, taught them how to debate without ending up in blows, taught them about voting and following a majority's decision — all topics that Americans don't think twice about, but these people had never experienced in their lifetime.

I'm awed when I learn too that no one told the soldiers how to do this: Their orders were to just figure out how to do it and execute it. I don't remember any college classes that could teach me how to do that.

After a few days in Baghdad the sound of gunfire doesn't scare me, until the day I learn that the Humvee I was just in was being shot at. I had no idea that was happening. Soldiers can't allow themselves to be lulled into the complacency that my untrained self slips easily into.

A few nights later after supper, the mortars are so close that each explosion shakes the walls of our building, sending white dust from the ceiling and giving me fear like I've never known before. Until I look at the soldiers around me. They had run to their posts and were alert but calm. This is a common occurrence in their lives. Later, they will show me a photo of a portable toilet that the insurgents blew up with a rocket-propelled grenade.

They joke with me that the Iraqi bad guys are bad shots, dark humor especially when everyone knows sometimes they do get off a lucky shot.

***

Col. Gold surprises me one morning by telling me that Sheik Dari in Abu Ghraib called him earlier asking to meet with me. I met the sheik at the kindergarten opening. You have to go, Gold says. You never turn down a sheik.

In the interview, Dari, who speaks excellent English, tells me the people of Abu Ghraib view Americans as a blessing, that so many good things were happening because of their support. He also tells me that some American soldiers are too rough when they pull a driver out of his truck, or when they raid a house looking for weapons.

Strangely, he didn't mention anything about the atrocities at the now infamous Abu Ghraib prison that shook the world, which was just a stone's throw from where we were standing.

As I am leaving his office in Abu Ghraib with my convoy of soldiers around me, an elderly woman wearing an abaya — a black robe — stares hard at me. I smile and say hello, but her expression does not soften.

She is a widow, a soldier tells me. There is no mistaking the look of hatred in her eyes.

But I also meet with some Iraqi moms, one of the highlights of my visit. After sharing photos of our children, we share nursing stories and toilet training issues of our toddlers. There is much laughing and giggling, especially because we have a male translator whose face grows red with each discussion. I ask these moms what they think of the American soldiers who zoom up and down their streets. Are they frightened of them? Do they want them to leave?

Their responses surprise me. The women embrace the security that the soldiers are giving them. They view the security as a gift they've never had before. One mother tells me there is controversy in her neighborhood about following the teachings of the firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who preaches that Iraqis should fight the Americans. She says he is too violent, that her neighbors only listen to him out of respect for his father, who was assassinated by Saddam Hussein years earlier.

Another mother tells me she cries whenever an American soldier is killed or hurt. She remembers what it was like with Hussein. His government wanted to arrest her, she says, because she asked about some relatives who had disappeared. In Hussein's world, if you even asked, it could mean your death.

The women laugh at my braided hair as it sticks out between the straps of my Kevlar helmet. One mother brazenly tells me that she, too, wears her hair in braids.

I extended my four-day visit to Iraq for 3½ weeks, writing about these soldiers and their world.

But I feel guilty as I tell the soldiers it's time for me to go home to my toddler and husband. I know they miss their children and spouses so terribly, but they have months to survive before they will see them again. I also know that like a gruesome lottery, some of these soldiers will never see their families again.

I'm driven back to the Baghdad airport with most of the same soldiers who picked me up almost a month earlier. I thank them for what they're doing.

And I pray again: this time for their safety all the way back to Kansas.

As I step aboard the C-130 that will fly me back to the safe sands of Kuwait, the airman in the green jumpsuit briefs his passengers again. But this time he asks if anyone has a problem with sharing the plane with human remains.

In five minutes, two black body bags are gently carried into the plane, the unmistakable form of a human being in each bag.

Two soldiers going home, too.

But I can't tell their story. I don't know who they are or what happened. I can only imagine, their young faces, the swift but deadly bomb or sniper shot or car crash in the crazy chaotic traffic.

I realize over the roar of the C-130 how different I am, changed by the servicemen and women I've met.

It was an honor to meet them.

To reach Lee Hill Kavanaugh, call

(816) 234-4420 or send e-mail to

lkavanaugh@kcstar.com.

5 comments:

Robert said...

Good article.

Tammi said...

It wouldn't behove anyone to say any negative thing about our military in front of me. It wouldn't end pretty for them at all.

This a nice article. Thanks for posting it. Let us know when they put more out there.

Tom said...

Wow, good article, definately worth posting. It shows the good work our troops are doing in the face of such adversity. Credit is due the reporter, too, for presenting an obviously honest report with no gratuitous mudslinging.

tim mccolgan said...

Kat, another insightful piece. As with CB's posts, it's good to read a piece that seems to be non-partisan, and by someone who REALLY WAS there. Not a second or third hand accounting by some editor with an agenda. A very heartfelt piece. Keep up the good work....BTW, how do you find the time to do all the research you do?

Kat said...

Tim...I have a stressful job. Reading and writing helps me relax. Plus, I travel a lot so I have plenty of time to read.

The writing is mostly accomplished in the time I should be sleeping. But, insomnia gives you plenty of time to read and write. LOL