First in a two-part series
Washington, D.C. -- Some holidays are unforgettable. If I sit down and think about it, I can recall where and with whom I celebrated nearly every Christmas of my life. That's not the case with St. Patrick's Day -- an inexcusable lapse given my maternal Irish heritage. But wait! There is one St. Paddy's Day that springs instantly to mind. It was exactly a decade ago and I vividly remember it well, for I was being chafed and chided by scores of old friends for how badly I embarrassed myself on live television.
It had nothing to do with Guinness stout, green beer or Irish spirits. As our friends in the states prepared for St. Patrick's Day 2003, Griff Jenkins, my Fox News cameraman/field producer, and I were embedded with "The Red Dragons" of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 268 at Ali Al Salem Air Base in northern Kuwait. There was little of anything colored green in our part of the world. The Marine aviators and Navy corpsmen we were assigned to accompany on the attack across the border into Iraq had even exchanged their green flight suits for desert khaki.
Now, as for "the embarrassment" -- still, 10 years later, one of the major hits on my "blooper reel."
While we were in the midst of a live satellite broadcast on Fox News, the missile attack warning sounded. Known as "The Great Giant Voice" to the 200,000 U.S. and Allied troops deployed in tactical assembly areas (TAAs) along the Kuwait-Iraq border -- the alarm meant we had about a minute to get into a revetment or bunker. Though the Patriot missile defense batteries surrounding our position never failed to hit an inbound SCUD -- nobody wanted to be standing in the open if one of Saddam's Russian-built rockets got through.
Unlike prior alerts, this time the chemical attack alarm sounded as well. Suddenly, Marines were running, not walking, to the bunkers and hastily putting on their flak jackets, helmets and chemical protective suits and gas masks as well. Trying to appear calm and unflappable, I looked into the camera lens and said, "Well, I guess that's it from here for nowâ¦ we'll have to get back to you later."
Assuming (never a good thing to do in any war) that Fox News headquarters in New York had cut away, I pulled out my earpiece, placed the microphone on a box in front of me and told Griff to head for the nearest bunker. I then proceeded to don my gas mask and began trying to put on my two-piece, military-issue chemical protective suit.
It was an ungainly dance. Try as I might, it was impossible to pull the heavy trousers up to my waist or get the suspenders over my shoulders. For more than a minute on live TV I fumbled with the leggings and suspenders -- at one point observing out loud: "These [bleep] things shouldn't be this tight in the crotch."
During this none-too-graceful struggle, the nearby Patriot battery opened up on the inbound enemy missile. I instinctively ducked and suddenly realized why I couldn't get the trousers up: The microphone and earpiece cords running between my legs were tangled in the leggings like snakes wrapped around a tree limb. By the time the "All Clear" sounded, I had unsnarled the mess, but it was too late. Scores of my old Marine comrades had seen the fiasco live and they filled my Fox News inbox with unsolicited advice and ribald comments. One of them emailed: "Your demonstration on how not to wear chemical protective equipment was better war comedy than 'M.A.S.H.' or 'Catch 22.'"
The humorous emails and messages we received on St. Pat's Day 2003 offered a brief respite and a bit of levity in what was otherwise a deadly serious time. Later that night, dozens of Marines gathered around our tiny satellite transceiver to watch President Bush issue an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein and his sons Uday and Qusay, telling them to leave Iraq and that "Their refusal to do so will result in military conflict, commenced at a time of our choosing." When he added, "The tyrant will soon be gone," and closed with his customary, "May God continue to bless America," he looked grim. So did the Marines around us.
Two days later, they went to war and we went with them. Among those watching the president speak that night a decade ago were the first four Americans to die in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Next week: Was it worth it?
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of "War Stories" on the Fox News Channel and author of the New York Times bestseller, "Heroes Proved" from Threshold Books. He's also the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty.