Sunday, March 17, 2013

On the 10th Anniversary of the start of the Iraq War

The New York Times reported this weekend that the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq war would arrive this Wednesday, March 20. I had vivid memories that the war started on March 19. After a check I discovered that through the miracle of time zone travel we were both right: when the bombs started falling in Iraq on March 20 the date in my temporary home of Ft. Bragg, NC was still the 19th.

On that cold, rainy North Carolina evening the room that I shared with Colonel Dale Foster in a dilapidated World War II barracks filled with officers and soldiers of the 358th Civil Affairs Brigade. The object of our attention was my transistor radio, tuned to the local National Public Radio station, from which we expected to hear a speech by the President of the United States. We were all wearing crisp, newly issued Desert Camouflage uniforms. I still carry the memory of the raindrops forming on the window panes behind the radio.
March 19, 2003 Packed and ready to go.

I didn't know if this speech would be the start of the war or not. I had been working full time for almost five months preparing my unit to go to war and in that time there had been a series of important speeches and announcements, any one of which could have been the one that signaled the start of hostilities. On March 10th I celebrated my 25th wedding anniversary at Ft. Bragg without my spouse. I had kissed my wife goodbye, not knowing when I would return or if I would be going to a war, not once, not twice, but three times. The fourth time, on February 8, 2003, I squeezed her hand, gave her a smile, and jumped out of the car. That was the best we could do. I wouldn't see her or my family or my home until December 21, 2003.

The crowd in my barracks room showed no outward display of emotion after the President's speech, even though this was a very significant event in our lives. We were going to war, some on us for the first time. For others, like my good friend Leo Rivera, who had served in the Gulf war, this would be his second trip to Iraq in a U.S. military uniform.

The next day, March 20, we finally got the word that we had been expecting and waiting for since we had arrived in Ft. Bragg six weeks before: Donald Rumsfeld had decided that it was time for the civil affairs units to "start flowing into theater" (in the quaint Pentagonese term for it all). On March 21 we loaded out luggage (2 duffel bags and a ruck sack ) on a truck and climbed into buses with our carry-on items. Our immediate destination was Green Ramp at Pope Air Force Base.

March 21, 2003 - Waiting for a plane at Green Ramp.
One of the innumerable lessons of military life, especially relative to military contracted or U.S. Air Force flown intercontinental air travel, is to live in the moment and keep expectations at a very minimal, even subterranean level. This is no knock on my Air Force brethren, as I have always considered the Air Force to be a suitable substitute for military service. Let us just say that a United Airlines B-747 showed up at the right place at the right time, and didn't break down, and we left for Kuwait on the day that we were assigned. The platoons of staff officers in the Pentagon could check off one more box completed in the war effort.

March 21, 2003 - Boarding the plane
In a burst of egalitarianism, no doubt inspired by the Air Force, we boarded the plane in alphabetical order as opposed to rank. Thus, the World continued to inflict crass discrimination upon me because of my last name and condemn me to the end of the line.

March 22 - Camp Wolf, Kuwait
After a stop in Germany we arrived in Kuwait the next day and greeted our luxurious accommodations.  The Air Force Technical Sergeant who greeted our plane at Kuwait International Airport recommended that since the Airport was a target for the Scud missiles that even then were descending on Kuwait we should unload the plan and get off the runway as quickly as possible.

We all agreed with the Air Force Sergeant and did our best to comply.