Wednesday, October 18, 2006

My first visit to Iraq

After a week in Camp Commando, Kuwait in late March, early April 2003, Dale Foster, the Operations officer for my unit, pulled me aside and gave me a mission to go into Iraq in response to a request by the British First Armored Division for civil affairs support. This was a very significant moment in my life. For the first time in my military career I was being asked to lead men (and women) into combat and I immediately recognized the significance and importance of the task that I had been given.

While I admit the mission was significant to me, and was the first of dozens of siimilar missions that I was to perform over the next ten months, in the range of possible military leadership tasks this one was not very high on the scale of difficulty. For an untrained civilian this would have been an overwhelming and frightening prospect, but I was a Colonel and the Army had invested a considerable amount of money in training me to do what was, in this instance, essentially a squad leader's task. In spite of the fact that I was trained and confident that I could perform this mission, I was fully aware that I had never before in my life been responsible for so many lives in so perilous a situation.

From Camp Commando to the Iraqi border was an hour and a half, depending on the traffic, and the traffic was heavy, consisting mostly of military vehicles hauling supplies north to Iraq and empty vehicles heading south for more. The date was April 10, 2003 and there were twelve of us in four vehicles. The Brits had just seized Basra but the inteligence briefing I had received that morning was not reassuring: several of the smaller towns that we had to pass through on our way to Basra were still not totally pacified.

We were instructed to report to a Military Police checkpoint at a refueling site in Kuwait just inside the border. When we arrived the scene was reminiscent of the second Mad Max movie. There were hundreds of military vehicles battling for fuel in a lunar landscape. The dust was thick and pervasive. We were supposed to meet a British Army officer there and he was going to escort us to a meeting of tribal leaders in Safwan, a town directly across the border. The populace of Safwan resembled Dodge City right after a crew of hungry and horny cowboys arrived with a fresh herd of beef. The main supply route for all of Iraq (not the alternate, not the secondary, not even the tertiary supply route, but the MAIN) went through Safwan and the locals wanted a piece of the action even if it meant thrusting their children in front of convoy vehicles. This problem was only solved by building a bypass road around the town.

The Kuwaitis had built a giant berm along their border with Iraq to aid in keeping out Saddam's hordes and for those of us in Kuwait going to Iraq meant going "across the berm." I still had not crossed the berm, but settled down to wait for my British Army guide. Entertainment was availble from dogs and children, which were provided in abundance. The weather was warm, hinting at the furnace to come, and the dogs were in a constant state of pant. Some soldier sentries gave them some water in a dish.

After a hour and no contact with my guide, I pulled out my satellite phone and started making some phone calls. After two more hours I had my answer: my guide had been stricken with diarrea and vomiting and had been rushed to a hospital. We were too late in the day to make it to Basra and we certainly didn't want to return to Commando so I requested and received permission to go to the town of Um Qasr. Um Qasr was Iraq's only port and was now held by the British and had a large contingent of U.S. civil affairs soldiers. I decided to head there to spend the night and go to Basra the next day.

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