Getting There: Carrying the Spirit of Christmas to Iraq
Here we go again...back to Iraq! After two previous trips in 2004 and 2006, Dave Kimmel and I were determined to return once again to lift the spirits of New York soldiers far from home for the holidays. This time we're bringing along Jill Nicolini of the PIX Morning News to help spread some of the cheer.
The paperwork began: embed applications, MNFI in country clearances, Centcom authorization. Attempts to hitch a ride on a military aircraft were rejected, though I had the support of military brass. Stringent military rules restrict journalists from traveling on military aircraft from the U.S., I was told. I remained determined to make it happen. I reached out to Kuwait Airways, which recognized the positive nature of our mission, and offered to provide the transporation.
We established direct contact with the unit with which we are to be embedded, the 133rd Quartermaster Company, and spent weeks working out details of what we would do, when we would do it, and the intracies of doing live broadcasts out of the of the Iraqi desert. This week, after a 14 hour flight, we arrived in Kuwait where we had to cut through Kuwaiti red tape before being cleared for transfer to Ali Al Salem, a base that serves as the main transit hub for military travel into and out of Iraq. Everything is pre-fab and dusty, and so military. Like standing on line is the primary activity of the day. If not at a documentation desk, it's at the Pizza Hut or McDonalds. And the wait is outside as the wind blows a 30 degree chill through the night. No, no deliveries to tents here. We have to wait the night as our passports are massaged by some bureaucrat. We bunk down in a tent city. We're assigned to scruffy double bunk beds with no sheets or pillows or blankets. I found a bargain at ther PX, a blanket for $4.99 and a pillow for $5.50. Oh yes, the towel cost $2.15. We sleep in our clothes and share the tent with a dozen others under the glow of four fluorescent lights that remain on throughout the night. Thank goodness I saved the eyemask they gave us on the flight over. Incidentally, there's no plumbing in this tent. If you gotta go, you've got to venture out into the cold for a short walk to a nearby trailer. Just think of it as taking yourself for a walk instead of a dog. We're told to be prepared to wait 24 hours before can board a C 130 into Baghdad. So, for now we wait in Kuwait, passing our time in the Internet Cafe. At least it's warm in here. When I say cafe, don't think of anything fancy. It's like a wood barracks with rows and rows of computers. No coffee here. You have to venture outside where Green Bean Coffee offers a cup of brew. Well, tomorrow is another day. For now, Dave and I have taken a dose of Ambien and hope to get a few hours sleep. Jill has made friends with the Internet guy and he's still trying to get her online.
It takes a lot of work, many hours of preparation. But no regrets. It takes special people like my colleagues Jill and Dave to give up their holiday with their family. It is an emotional drain saying goodbye to our families at the airport. It is tough trying to sleep on a military plane being strapped into an armour plated vest and helmet.
Sure, it's a lot of work, but it is also a blessing to be in a position to do what we're doing. We're letting our neighbors - our citizen soldiers - know they haven't been forgotten this holiday. We're bringing them taped greetings from Governor Paterson, Mayor Bloomberg and members of their own families. And we're bringing them, courtesy of DHL, cheesecake from Juniors, hotdogs from Nathans and H&H bagels to provide a taste of New York.
To see a smile come to the face of a soldier, and to hear their expressions of gratitude for coming here and telling us our presence made a difference for them this holiday, well, that is the moment we take a deep breath and realize the magnitude of what we have achieved. We brought them the very spirit of Christmas. It was all worthwhile.