I plan to spend the entirety of 2007 with our troops at war, until sickness, wounds or worse send me home, or the military tires of my presence and catapults me over the wire. Having spent most of 2005 in Iraq, I know what this means. “Drive-by reporting,” as some commanders call it, is worse than no reporting at all. The only way to approach describing what our troops experience, and what is really happening in Iraq, is to go the distance.
Going to war with the United States military is dangerous, and strange. In Kuwait, I was alone but with a group of unfamiliar soldiers who were heading into Iraq. We boarded a military bus in Kuwait at an airfield that is not secret, but whose name cannot be mentioned. A large cargo jet called a C-17 squatted on the tarmac, and the bus driver pulled near the jet, stopped, opened the door. A young Air Force loadmaster stepped up asking, “Does anyone have ammunition in their weapon?”
The soldiers all had automatic weapons.
“If you’ve got ammunition in your weapon, clear your weapon before boarding the aircraft,” he said. “The flight is mostly empty, so you can sit anywhere you like. Have a nice flight.” He stepped down, turned around and walked back into the jet. No x-ray machine, no magnetometer, no tickets, no boarding passes. No nothing. Soldiers waddled off with heavy packs, ammo cans and weapons that presumably had been cleared of bullets that might accidentally shoot us down from the inside. Soon we were airborne. A jet full of armed US soldiers is probably one of the safest flights in the world, except that this C-17 happened to be heading into Iraq.
There was a circular window up front near the cockpit, and I was curious about what was happening behind it. Down the aisle one civilian-looking man sat reading, and an Air Force crewmember was watching me practice with the camera. I unbuckled, walked up and asked him if I could go upstairs to the cockpit. He mumbled into the headset and came back with, “Sure.”
There were four seats in the cockpit. Two pilots had the sticks, and the two seats behind the pilots were empty. The left-seat pilot told me I could have a seat, then showed me how to flip on the emergency oxygen switch and how to wear the mask. I buckled up and gazed out the windows at Iraq miles below.
Military people who get out and actually touch the edge of the world tend to be the easiest-going on journalists, and these two pilots seemed like the infantry soldiers I had gotten to know: if a person is willing to ride with them, that person is usually welcome aboard. The pilots explained some of the gadgets like the HUD (Heads-Up Display) and one of them leaned over to allow me to make a photo for the folks back home.
As we began the descent, I asked the pilot if it would be okay to stay in the cockpit during landing. He said it would be fine, but also said the crew was going to wear body armor although I could make my own choice. I stepped down from the cockpit and returned with body armor and helmet. Behind the wide-open cockpit were passengers armed with assault weapons, pistols and knives. The pilots were letting me sit in the cockpit during landing but they were wearing body armor. The rules are very different here.
While getting this far is progress, journalists still must obtain final press credentials, and to do this, they must find their way from BIAP to the IZ (International Zone: AKA the “Green Zone.”) Already there at BIAP when we landed was a clutch of what appeared to be journalists waiting for ground transportation. But I knew something they didn’t. I had seen journalists waiting here before, and had helped them catch helicopters only to find them trying to muscle in on my flight. Not today. Just thirty seconds’ walk from where they would wait most of the night for ground transport in a “Rhino” (armored bus) was the booking desk for “Catfish Air.” I walked in, got on a helicopter flight and flew away, leaving them behind.
I spent one night in the International Zone and there I met a German professor and writer named Dietmar Herz. Professor Herz had been stuck in an open-bay room alone in a bunk bed for five days while trying to cover the war for a short embed. He said he’d been educated at Harvard, and we talked into the night about subjects ranging from communism to Karl Mai, and he seemed surprised that an American would know about Karl Mai; I didn’t offer that I learned about Karl by accident rather than scholarship. The short version is that Mai was a wacky German author who became famous and rich writing romantic adventures about the American southwest. Coincidentally, he even wrote about the Kurds. Hilter is said to have strongly encouraged his soldiers to read Mai’s mythic stories of heroism. Ironically, Mai had never been to the places he wrote about.
Professor Herz did not have adequate gloves for combat. I gave him my back-up pair, not wanting to read about his death only to wonder if flame retardant gloves would have made the difference between escape and conscious cremation. Later that night, a raucous but friendly NBC crew swarmed in.
Next morning, gaggle of five Iraqi journalists arrived for a press conference. One worked for the BBC and when I asked if he were Sunni or Shia (assuming), his hesitation was so pregnant that the room nearly burst, then he answered “Sunni” with an embarrassed and fleeting micro-grin, mindful perhaps that many Shia call the BBC “Sunni TV.” I wondered what they call CNN?
One Iraqi reporter asked about ways to get to America and I explained the Fullbright scholarship. He said he didn’t actually want to study, but would just go to the United States and disappear. During the brief time between when I first talked with that Iraqi reporter and the publication of this dispatch, another AP stringer was reported killed in Baghdad.
Professor Herz was into his sixth day stuck in the IZ when a friendly Public Affairs Captain took me to the helipad to grab a flight back to Camp Victory to begin my embed. The flights were getting socked-in by weather so she put me on a Rhino that convoyed down Route Irish, whose dangerous reputation is true, but vastly overstated these days. Command Sergeant Major Jeffrey Mellinger, the senior enlisted soldier in Iraq, with whom I was about to tour parts of the country, suffers the converse fate of having an excellent reputation that is not well-known outside of military circles.
Military leaders tend to be strongly averse to seeing their name or photo too often in the press, but it’s important to explain why I have tried so hard to ride shotgun with Jeff Mellinger throughout the war, and doing that entails mentioning his name a number of times.
Many people have asked if my military experience was helpful during previous embeds. I downplayed it because the experience did not seem overly helpful. In retrospect that was wrong. When I first came to Iraq, in fact while the sun was rising on the very first morning I was in Iraq, I met Command Sergeant Major Jeffrey Mellinger and asked to ride with his people.
I did not want to talk with any generals, not at that time. Where the military experience truly did pay off was in knowing that the key to Iraq would not be with a general, because no general was likely to know the ground situation as well as his command sergeant major (CSM) would. A general looks at a more regional and global level. A CSM’s responsibility is to walk the line and report back directly, in this instance to General Casey, who runs this war.
CSM Mellinger has more access to Iraq and the entire theatre than most leaders have. Access that includes every guard tower, secret chamber and ditch, and anywhere else US or Coalition forces might be in Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, or even out on ships in the Gulf. For this reason, I spent about six months back in 2005 trying to get a ride with CSM Mellinger.
This is now my third trip with CSM Mellinger, and he has gained a kind of iconic status among young soldiers, because he pops up in every remote and dangerous corner, from mailrooms to maintenance bays, hospitals to police stations, to combat missions and memorials.
With nearly 35 years of continuous military service, Mellinger is the senior most active duty draftee; yet he cruises Iraq like an infantryman. More than 3,000 of our people have been killed in combat here, but if it weren’t for this type of leadership, found in commands throughout Iraq, that number might be 10,000.
Grandparents should know that a grandparent is watching out for the young men and women who are fighting in Iraq. CSM Mellinger has spent three consecutive Christmases in Iraq and is going on his third straight year walking the line. One young sergeant, a team member on CSM Mellinger’s crew, told me the CSM’s team has been hit 26 times so far, and when I asked the CSM, he shrugged and said, “Sounds about right.” Five of his Humvees have been destroyed by IEDs, two that he was riding in at the time. Astonishingly, nobody in his crew has even been seriously wounded. He goes into combat, but you’d have to see how he rolls to understand why nobody has been killed so far. Experience multiplied by luck.
I didn’t write all this to build up the CSM, there’s not a lot I can add there: quite the opposite and this can cost me. But it also explains why I gravitate to senior sergeants and field grade officers, and why I will sit with young soldiers on a cold guard tower or on a dangerous rooftop, or range down the roads with platoons under the command of young lieutenants, yet rarely print a word from a general, though I communicate with some regularly, and they can be very helpful in clarifying the big picture.
I’ve had to agree with the CSM not to write about him, and to use his patrols and access only as a vector to the troops. That said, we can begin Walking the Line.
(End of Part One)