David Feherty's personal journal from Iraq & Kuwait

David Feherty’s personal journal from Iraq & Kuwait

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"The closer we get to Baghdad, the more I suspect that the smartest Americans are in Iraq, and they get progressively dumber the closer you get to Washington."
Michael Clifton/USO Tour

What the hell am I doing
going to a war zone?
That’s what I thought as I boarded a flight from
Dallas to Kuwait City, and then to Iraq, where I
would join Butch Harmon, Tom Lehman, Tom
Watson, Howard Twitty and Joe Inman on Operation
Links, a USO-sponsored visit to boost the morale of
American servicemen and women.

I grew up in Ulster,
in Northern Ireland, in the 1960s and ’70s, and the thought of being in
a war zone never bothered me. So why did I feel uneasy this November
morning? Perhaps because I was a child then, and now I had children.

On my flight out of Dallas, I examined the USO’s press packet, filled
with useful information about Arab culture, such as: Don’t lean away if
a man tries to embrace you, even if he’s just farted — Arabs have little
concept of “personal space.” Me, I have a Heisman stiff-arm zone around
me into which only freshly showered family members, friends, and
beagles are allowed, so if I was to avoid an international incident,
adjustments were in order. Before I knew it, we were wheels down.

Day 1: They pay how much for gas?
We landed in Kuwait City
and were swept through
immigration. Early the next
morning, we set off for Camp Arifjan,
comprised of 7,500 people on 64 square
miles of powdered camel dung, and
then Camp Beuhring, the major staging
area for troops entering Iraq.

Along
for the journey were Capt. Trevor
Garrett from the Pentagon’s Armed
Forces Entertainment Department and
Scott Past from the Department of
Defense, both packing heat. And, not for
the last time, I wanted to shoot
something. It was quail season back
home, and we passed through scenery
that makes west Texas oil country look
like the snowcapped Tetons. Kuwait
smells like a camel’s arse.

As we roll
down the road in our bus, massive oil
refineries loom to the left, and majestic
white-stucco houses line the right. I
can only assume that every time a Kuwaiti fills up his tank, the government
gives him a hundred bucks. (In fact — I’m
not making this up — a gallon of
unleaded goes for 78 cents in Kuwait.)

On both bases, our first stop was the
D-FAC — the dining facility — where I
ate seven scoops of Baskin-Robbins ice
cream and a cheeseburger, in that order.
We did our first meet-and-greets, signed
golf balls, gave away goodies from EA
Sports, Cobra, Titleist, Ping and Adams
Golf, all while Butch offered tips to the
boys hitting balls into a net. After shaking
hands with about 200 Marines, my
right hand was mangled. On the bus
back to the hotel, I fell asleep on Twitty, who’s very comfortable. Henceforth,
we called him “The Desert Sofa.”

Day 2: To the theater, President Lincoln?
In route to Al Asad Air Base,
in western Iraq’s Anbar
Province, we were strapped
into a C-130 — a four-engine turboprop
aircraft that roars louder than Roger
Maltbie after two pushups. We wore
heavy body armor and helmets, and as
Kuwait slipped away behind us, visible
through the open tail, a young Marine
behind a jackhammer-sized machine
gun scanned the desert floor for nasties.
Harmon might have looked like a
camouflage Teletubby, but he’s been
on these planes before, having served
three years in Vietnam in the ’60s.

Now run by the Navy, Al Asad was
Saddam’s main air base. One year ago,
Anbar was considered unwinnable, a
haven for car-bomb factories and Al
Qaeda. But as of Thanksgiving, the
base — which has two runways,
thousands of troops and many locals — had not received incoming fire for
several months. We went to our billets,
known as “cans,” dropped off our
luggage, and hit the D-FAC (more ice
cream for me). Then we met the
legendary “SeaBees,” Navy engineers
who can build anything, anywhere — roads, bridges, fortifications, driving
ranges — ahead of schedule and under
budget (and can blow the crap out of
anyone who tries to stop them.) We hit
balls, shook hands, signed autographs,
and heard from the grunts.

“Tell
everyone at home we want to finish
this,” one of them said to me. “Give us the
chance, and we will.” I thought to myself, At home, why is
all the news bad?


Around the perimeter, we visited a
Harrier Jump Jet squadron. They’d
planted in their sandy range a 3-by-3-foot board bearing my smiling puss, which they use for target practice. “I can
do you one better,” I told one airman
and ran to the 100-yard mark, dropped
my pants, and gave them something to
shoot for — a thin sliver of Arabian
moon. But the hole was too tight, even
for major champions Lehman and
Watson. “I missed on purpose,”
Harmon said. “No one wants that kind
of a lie for a second shot.”

The base’s hospital had hardly
anyone in it. In one room lay a young,
Asian-American soldier who’d been
electrocuted, his life saved by a female
sergeant who kicked him off an
electrified fence that was in the process
of broiling him. Of the six patients here,
two were insurgents, treated, I’m told,
with all of the care and respect given to
coalition forces. We weren’t allowed
to see the wounded insurgents, which
is just as well, as Harmon or I might have
“accidentally” stepped on an oxygen
hose.

In the next room, we visited a
U.S. soldier, who, on his third tour, was
struck down by depression. I didn’t
have to ask what was wrong; I could feel
it enveloping him, and trying to suck the
air from my lungs, too. When I was
researching my family history, to find
the origin of my battle with mental
illness, I discovered that my grandfather,
David Weir, fought in the Great War, at
the battle of the Somme, where more
than a million men were killed or
wounded. He did not speak a word for
three years after he came back, one of the
few in his regiment to survive. The
horrors he witnessed in the trenches
lingered for the rest of his life. While this
young man had all his limbs, he might
have been the most broken soldier in the
hospital.

From Al Asad, we visited three
Forward Operating Bases (FOBs), each
closer than the last to Baghdad. Our
first trip was to FOB Hit on a Marine
Corps CH-53 Sea Stallion transport
helicopter, which was dripping
hydraulic fluid ominously onto its
tailgate. I asked one of the crew if this
was, umm, normal. He screamed over
the roar of the rotor, “If it’s not leaking,
we don’t fly, because that means it’s
empty!” Very reassuring. We make it,
though, and meet Lieutenant Colonel
Jeff Dill, one of many base commanders
who explained eloquently why the
Anbar situation has so dramatically
improved. His men move freely among
Iraqis outside the base’s barbed-wire
perimeter in the town of Baghdadi,
where just a few months ago they
regularly endured small-arms fire and
IEDs (improvised explosive devices).

The locals now have electricity and
clean water. They no longer have to
slaughter a goat every day for fresh
meat. They have an optimism, thanks
to the determination of Coalition forces
and the bravery of locals, such as Colonel
Shab’an B. al-Ubadi, the local police
chief who has survived eight
assassination attempts, seen family
members killed, and spurned countless
bribes on his way to delivering the
No. 1 insurgent into the hands of the
Americans, precipitating the collapse
of Al Qaeda in the area.

From FOB Hit, a V22 Osprey tiltrotor
Marine chopper (Watson, aka
“The Desert T-Wat,” reassuringly noticed
that it wasn’t leaking) whisked us away
to Haditha Dam, the only operating
hydroelectric plant on the Euphrates. A
driving range has been fashioned atop
the dam, where soldiers splash shots into
the Euphrates some 300 feet below. It’s
a hoot, and one hulking Marine won
the long drive with his first swing,
smacking his drive a good 400 yards, 50
past Watson and Lehman!

It was back into the Ospreys,
westward, close to the Syrian and
Jordanian borders to FOB Korean
Village, named for the Korean workers who built Saddam’s roads. The camp
bears the scars of war. That night we
visited the men who run the IED seek-and-destroy missions using a “Buffalo,”
a massive, blast-proof, Kevlar-reinforced
vehicle with a pneumatic shovel arm
designed to break away if a device
explodes. The men were about to take
it out to play. Walking past heaps of
defused and exploded devices, we
retired with a bunch of soldiers to the
chaplain’s quarters, and then to his
rooftop range, where we broke open
glow sticks, poured the chemicals over
a bucket of balls, and lashed them like
tracer bullets into the inky blackness of
the Arabian night. One soldier caught
a ball dead on the heel and gonged the
chaplain’s satellite dish, prompting a
“Holy Crap! There goes my ESPN!”
from the man of the cloth. I turned in
early, my right hand crushed, a result of
shaking the hands of thousands of
muscular men — and two dozen women
who could kick my ass. Ego deflated, sex
life ruined.

Day 3: Good news is no news
We were billeted together in
a sand-bagged, cinder-block,
50-caliber-pockmarked fleapit.
It turned out to be a riotous farce,
with me playing the part of Rear
Admiral Farting, Inman as Private
Nothing, and Harmon as General Idiot.
I peered out from under my blanket
that morning to see Inman standing
in the middle of the room like a mule
staring at a new gate. “What’s up?” I
asked. He looked at me sheepishly. “I
needed to pee so badly, I went to the Port-
O-Let and got lost. I peed myself before
I found the toilet.” I thought, Why
would he tell me this? Doesn’t he know
I’m writing a story? Then Harmon
stumbled in from the next room,
rubbing his eyes, and in a moment of
weakness said, “Yeah, I did the same
thing!” This was too good. Now, along
with the Desert Sofa, we had the Desert
Sprinklers.

I wasn’t exactly innocent
myself. Even a casual glance at any pair
of my shorts would show that my
talented-yet-noisy digestive system,
fueled by mint-chocolate-chip ice cream
and the vast amount of sand I’d
swallowed, had turned me into “The
Desert Fertilizer.”

I soon hit the showers, where a G.I.
was toweling off. I’m not one to strike up
a conversation with a man with a visible
willy, but it was cold, and I thought I’d
seize the chance to see if I could get a
negative reaction from someone about
being stuck here, about how we’re losing
the war. This soldier had no idea who I
was, so, as we stood side-by-side shaving,
I said, “God, but this sucks, doesn’t it?”
“Maybe,” he said. “But can you
imagine how bad it would be if we
weren’t winning?” I told him who I
was and asked why I hadn’t seen
another journalist. His answer: “You
know that saying, ‘No news is good
news’? Well, it should be, ‘Good news
is no news.’ ” Then he pointed at my
groin and laughed.
Like I said — it was cold.

Day 4: Call me Florence of Arabia
In route to the former hellhole
of Ramadi, nearer Baghdad,
there was evidence that the trip
was growing dangerous. Captain Garrett
looked increasingly more alert as we
lifted off in the Ospreys, and two Cobra
gunships rose menacingly alongside
us, with Marines manning 120-mm
machine guns jutting out each side.
Even I, Florence of Arabia, felt safe
surrounded by men packing this kind
of heat. We’d gotten a close look at the
Cobras minutes earlier, as each of us
signed one of its missiles — just a polite
message to our friendly neighborhood
insurgents. I wrote “You’re welcome” on mine. But Butch, who saw and lost the
most in Vietnam, was less polite.

At the Ramadi base, we met
Command Sergeant Major (CSM)
Clarence Stanley, a bull of a man with a
bristling military mustache. He was
overjoyed to see us. While politicians and
generals move their little chess pieces,
it’s the sergeants major who run and
win wars, who get things done, who
feel the sting when young people die. “I’m
more like a parent,” CSM Stanley told us.
“My job is to ensure that my children get
home safely to their families.”

He gave
us a tour of the intel center, which was
too intelligent for everyone except
Watson. Between satellite images,
stratospheric spy planes, human
intelligence (squealers) and other top-secret
sensors, if Bin Burpin lets out as
much as a goat-falafel burp in the desert,
coalition forces can have a laser-guided
surprise up his man-dress within
minutes, provided the trajectory of
same surprise is uninhibited by the
presence of anything innocent or friendly.

So if the Bearded One wants to launch
a rocket at the base, he’d better do it
from the hood — though the hood is now
against him too. In February of 2007, the
Ramadi base saw about 30 attacks daily.
As of November, they’d had only one in
the previous four months. Recently, the
townsfolk even held a 5-K run and a
parade with fire trucks to celebrate their
freedom from Saddam and Al Qaeda.

Two more stops, the Ospreys replaced
by a CH-46 Sea Knight tandem-rotor
assault helicopter, with gunship
outriggers. In the services, where
everything has a code name, we were
now “Watson’s Wussies” (hey, Hogan
had his heroes) and were headed for
Fallujah, some 40 miles west of Baghdad,
on the Euphrates. Just a year ago, Fallujah
made ’80s-era Beirut look like Miami
Beach. We met a general who reported
that violence is down and the troops
are being welcomed. Politicians and
TV talking heads arrive, see the
difference, and forget it on their way
home, he explained. The closer we get to
Baghdad, the more I suspect that the
smartest Americans are in Iraq, and
they get progressively dumber the closer
you get to Washington.

Day 5: Extreme Makeover:
Saddam Edition

The next day — shadowed by
the Cobras that crisscrossed in
our wake like hunting dogs — we bypassed Baghdad International
Airport and landed at Camp Victory,
where the second-ranking U.S.
commander in Iraq, General Raymond
Odierno, has thrown out Saddam’s crap
at one of the henchman’s former palaces and turned it into his military
headquarters. Saddam’s old digs were
impressive from a distance. But once
inside, the place seemed to symbolize the
cruel man who slaughtered his people.

The marble interior is a thin veneer,
held on by liquid nails; the massive
chandelier in the entrance hall is made
of Perspex. The place looks like Saddam
sent a few of the Republican Guard
down to the Home “Despot” to buy
materials and do the job themselves.
It’s big, hollow, and falling apart on its
foundation of camel dung. On the way
up to the general’s office, Inman had a
senior moment and went up an extra
flight of stairs, almost setting off a total
lockdown. We put him on a leash for the
rest of the visit.

Next, we had urgent business, the
opening of a driving range dedicated to
CSM Jonathan Lankford, much loved
by his soldiers, and whose idea it was
to give the troops somewhere to whack
a golf ball. CSM Lankford died of cardiac
failure at Camp Victory, leaving behind
many broken hearts: his wife, 2-year-old
daughter, and, judging by the turnout,
hundreds of servicemen and women.
Wherever we went, golf was a common
denominator. Our soldiers have covered
Iraq with makeshift driving ranges.
They hit balls off of roofs, into blankets,
into rivers. Golf is a shared language here
that helps ease the stress of being far
from home and in harm’s way. There
was a huge turnout at the range, which
backs onto the house where Saddam’s
two scallywag boys, Hooray and Poosay,
or whatever their names were, practiced
their favorite hobbies: rape, torture and murder.

It seemed surreal to be
out there watching Watson, one of golf’s
great champions, surrounded by
American troops and whacking balls
off a patch of artificial turf out onto a
walled-in section of desert. Harmon
and Lehman gave lessons, the Desert
Sofa and Sprinkler hit balls, and I
roamed the crowd pretending that I
know Tiger. Operation Links was all but
complete — but as it turned out, we had
an unexpected stop to make.

Day 6: The long flight home
In all, we visited five hospitals,
11 bases, signed about 50,000
autographs and I ate 14 gallons
of ice cream and discarded seven pairs
of underpants. We boarded the C-130 to
go back to Kuwait, and that’s when it
happened. “We have to pick up HR,”
the brass told us. “HR” means human
remains. We landed at Balad Air Base,
about 40 miles north of Baghdad, at
dusk. Our group walked off the plane
and watched from a respectful distance
as six Air Force airmen stood in doubleline
formation. A flag-draped casket
was wheeled from an unmarked white
van into their awaiting arms, and was
carried to our plane with the delicacy of
a funeral procession. In the background,
a pilot taxiing his C-5 Galaxy transport
plane saw the unfolding scene, stopped,
and silenced his engines. Only the distant
screams of F-16s that patrol the Iraqi
skies 24/7 could be heard as the body of
the fallen warrior was gently loaded
onto the tailgate, slid into our aircraft, and
secured to the deck, resting inches from
our seats.

As it should be. This wasn’t
cargo. This was another passenger.

Moments later, we were wheels up, off
on our 24-hour journey home. It was
hard on Butch, who had seen this before,
many years ago. I sat in a trance, staring
at the gunmetal-gray casket for most
of the trip, and the words of Baghdadi
police chief Shab’an B. al-Ubadi came
back to me. “The tree of freedom does not
grow without the blood of sacrifice.”

I wish I knew who was in that
casket — one of the 3,887 Americans
killed in Iraq as of December — so I could
write to the family to tell them what an
honor it was to be on the same airplane
as their son or daughter, and to thank
them. I owe a debt of gratitude to the men
and women of the U.S. armed forces, not
just because of what they are doing in
Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, but
because of what they left behind.

The
insurgents they face have left one barren,
theocratic hellhole to go fight in Iraq.
Big deal. Americans leave behind
America, the best place in the world to
live. The message that Tom Watson,
Tom Lehman, Butch Harmon, Howard
Twitty, Joe Inman and I bring home is
right from the lips of people who,
thousands of miles from their families,
lay their lives on the line every day to
protect our way of life, and to improve
it for the inhabitants of wherever they
fight. The worst thing we could do is
make them come home before they
have had the chance to finish their job.
I am proud to write their message.

About the USO

The United Service
Organizations (USO) is a privately
funded agency that relies on the
generosity of the American public.
Almost every U.S. household
receives a USO mailer, so this year,
please read it, or go to USO.org for
details. They do great work, and
they need your help. — D.F.


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