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Editor's Note: Ollie, Mal and Andy have left Iraq safe and sound, and they would like to thank everyone who has written to them and passed on kind words and comments.
Over the next few days, there will be more behind-the-scenes looks at life on the road in Iraq and how small things in hard places sometimes make you smile. Mal writes a regular blog on life on the road covering the Middle East and worldwide trouble spots for FOX News. You can check it out here.
December 20, 2006
Ramadi, Iraq — The Air Force flight Chrome 24 took off before we had even landed, which was annoying, given that it taxied past 14 other people without bothering to stop and pick them up, and had left them stranded in Iraq along with us. Welcome to Air Force Air. Such is life in Iraq — you do not worry or even bother to complain, because it basically just happens.
Things like this happen, and all it means is that people work very hard to then make more things happen, and we got word last night that we were manifested on a C130 flight named Midas 10 — an angel flight.
An angel flight is the saddest way to end our time in Iraq, because “angel flight” means that the plane is carrying a “fallen angel” — a young man or woman who has died and is going home.
In moments of reflection, we think of very golden images. I swear that if prophecy has an angel, then, as I climbed on board the C130 through a narrow door wearing body armor and carrying two bags, the scene inside the hold of the plane truly took my soul away.
Imagine an empty plane, stripped bare. No seats, nothing. At the end is a coffin, tied down, with a flag covering it. A beam of sunshine shines through the only window on the side of the plane, and the beam lands on the coffin exactly. Above the coffin, another flag hanging proudly, lit up by the spill of light on the coffin.
I stopped, just plainly stopped, and realized that a young soldier was going home a “fallen angel,” and I thought of the wife, mother, father, brother, or sister who would watch their angel carried off the back of a plane in the next few days.
We all know the image. We have all seen the pictures, and have heard words of bravery as the flag-draped coffin is carried of the back ramp.
Some people use the image of dead soldiers in body bags to describe how bad the war is going, and how the pundits in Washington do not want to talk about war casualties.
These people have never sat alone in the hold of a plane looking at the rays of sunshine reflected on a coffin. As we flew back into Kuwait, the rays of light changed and altered, but in the entire flight of just over an hour, the sunbeam rarely left the angel.
In the last minutes of daylight, we landed in Kuwait, and an honor guard lined up and slowly saluted as the coffin was carried out of the plane.
I do not know the name of the soldier, sailor, or Marine who was in the coffin. I do not want to know; it would of not made any difference. The respect a son was paid defies my words.
But an angel did cast a sunbeam on a fallen angel the whole way home.
December 19, 2006
Ramadi, Iraq — We have all heard the stories of days being brutally hot here in Iraq, where the mercury in the thermometer reaches up past 120 degrees in the shade and where patrolling the streets feels like 140 degrees. That's all you hear about — weather in Iraq is hot. It is always baking hot.
I can attest to the heat here, back on a previous trip with Ollie North in the summer of 2004. It was so extreme that on numerous occasions, I ended up with an IV drip in my arm, due to dehydration and heatstroke.
Thus when I packed for this trip, I naturally factored in that the weather would be warm; not too hot and not too cold. That is, because Iraq is never cold.
Having said that, it is obvious what the weather has been like on this trip. One morning, I was filming on a firing range and the wind chill was way below 0 degrees. The wind off of the desert felt like it was ripping the skin from my face.
Yesterday, we went to the roof to try and film an air strike on the city. I put on every piece of my clothing, and even with 60 pounds of body armor, it was miserably cold. The type of cold wet weather that makes doing anything hard. Ollie took the picture of me in my pathetic miserable state, claiming I looked like the poor child in the school playground that no one will play with.
Would I have traded yesterday for an Iraqi summer? Not likely. But the noisy air conditioner in the room has been cranked up to heat ever since we arrived here. It is not the prettiest air conditioner in the world but it blows good hot air into out little bunkhouse.
December 15, 2006
Ramadi, Iraq — Perhaps the best line of the last 24 hours happened when I was coming back to the base here at Hurricane Point from Camp Ramadi.
A gunner in the humvee with me said,"Sir, can I flash bang him?" (*)
Now, don't jump to any conclusion that we are on a secret clandestine mission and about to kick in a door. No -- we were actually at the front gate to the compound. Blocking us was a security issue, in the form of a large armored vehicle designed to stop a suicide bomber driving his car near the checkpoint. The Marine in the aforementioned vehicle was just too slow to move.
As I was sitting in the blackness of the night, here with the driver and Staff Sergeant in the front seats on night vision, and me alone in the black back seat, it was a funny line.
Life here is full of lines, during the days and nights, that make life feel rather real.
The entrance then opened up like Ali Baba's cave, and we entered and returned safely to the base.
In the blackness there is nothing funnier than a simple line, to diffuse the stress and tensions of moving around this city.
And no we did not flash bang him, but it would have been fun to.
(*) A"Flash bang" is a steel canister that can produce a 175-decibel explosion.
December 14, 2006
Ramadi, Iraq — There is no lycra and no women. No one is fat or overweight, there are no rows of pristine treadmills and elliptical machines with multi-channel TVs attached. There is no reception area where your membership card is swiped. There is no membership fee or promotion. No changing rooms, showers, toilets, lockers or sauna bath are present.
It is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and your membership is valid for four years.
There is no natural light — in fact — there aren't any windows. The entranceway is sandbagged, and you walk past the drop off point to send out your dirty laundry (Laundry is picked up at 6:30am Tuesdays and Fridays by a seven ton armored truck, back on the next run.) Eight fluorescent lights are strung up and the rumble of the heater, that manages to warm the air in front of three machines, enhances the atmosphere in the gym.
Most benches and surfaces have some duct tape holding them together. There is dust and cobwebs in corners — in fact — most surfaces have dust. It should be noted that almost everything in this part of the country has dust on it, if left for more than 30 minutes.
And yet for all its faults and negatives, the gym here on the Marine Base at Hurricane Point, Ramadi, Iraq has what any gym in the world wants close to; 100% of the community belong. Virtually every Marine works out, and they work out hard, heavy and tough. In a realm where the Alpha male rises to the top, he who bench presses the most per body weight is held aloft.
I use the gym here everyday, one because I like going to the gym, two because it is far too dusty to run my usual trail. Inches of dust do not make for conducive times — let alone ruining a pair of good running shoes. Three, it is too cold to run in the morning with the clothes I bought, and lastly I had an operation on my big toe last night. (More on the big toe later.)
In the Corps, discipline and respect are the cornerstones of the world. You do not see Marines walking around the Camp endlessly saluting or standing to attention; but you do see respect and honor.
In the gym, every Marine is equal because they all want to be the best. No one wears any insignia of rank in the gym; everyone has the same sweats, everyone has the same haircut and everyone wants to be better.
The gym will never win any trendy award. The old broken treadmill in the corner will still be gathering dust in six months. However today, tomorrow and for every day there after, the Hurricane Point gym will have close to 100% of the population. Walk past the sandbags and push open the door.
December 13, 2006
Ramadi, Iraq — Yesterday, I was sitting in the armored Humvees getting shot at by RPGs; today, a sniper decides to try and take a shot at us.
The worst part about it, is that there is no warning, no sense of impending danger — all that you experience is the sound. The air simply cracks ... the sound of one single round is the trademark of a sniper.
We were down at the Government Center — well, to use the terms "Government" and "Center" together is an oxymoron, because while it may be known as the Government Center, certainly no administration has taken place there for a while. On previous trips, it was always this place where you met the Provincial powerbrokers, but that was before six major bombing attacks happened to the building compound and before the daily assaults from mortars, RPGs and snipers.
The Government Center is now a shell, cold and stark with tables and chairs covered with dust. No heating exists and the cold in the rooms reflects what is left of the town. Across the road from the GC, there used to be shops and buildings; now there is rubble. The buildings were first leveled by 500 pound bombs and then by demolition teams — the buildings have become a haven for terrorists to attack.
This morning, we to the GC with the Marines, who were escorting a local contractor and his foremen. The foreman's job would be to remove the rubble from outside and make the area suitable for a GC car park. Planners even have ideas for a park — now, given that no parks exist in this city, it seems like an ambitious urban planning scheme to say the least.
The Marines escorted the contractors out through the safe, back to the alley, and then to the street, so that they could assess the task ahead. We tagged along, wanting to shoot a segment link for the War Stories Special.
We had a couple of takes in the camera and moved to change the angle with the camera rolling; Ollie was just about to start, when the sniper took a shot. It shakes you up for a second or two and Ollie headed for the wall. I just ducked down and waited for the inevitable gunfight, but the discipline of the Marines is so intense, that locating the position from which the shot was fired is more important than blasting away.
The site survey did not last much longer and we moved back into the safety of the GC and spent time filming Christmas Greetings with the Marines, even then the cracks in the air continued on and off. Just another day in Ramadi.
December 8, 2006
Ramadi, Iraq — Just finished the first live shot of the day — to emphasize the difference of time zones, it was shot last night back in the states, very early in the morning at home in the Middle East and lunchtime for my girls in Australia.
I have never been as cold as I have now been in Iraq; it’s well down into single digits on the thermometer. In my effort to keep warm, I’ve been at the small military store (called a post exchange, or PX) on base — Think of the store as a small Mom-and-Pop operation. Some bases have stores that are Wal-Mart-sized. In fact, on one base, they actually took us on a tour of the store, proudly proclaiming it as the largest in the country. I did not have the heart or inclination to mention to this public affairs officer that I was impressed with their Wal-Mart — they actually sell flat screen TVs and vacuum cleaners. It also gives you an idea as to how “close” they are to any combative arena. The small PX on base here at Hurricane Point in Ramadi, sells the basics to help life, which for most Marines, includes the following essential items:
• Body building supplements & magazines
• Magazines about cars and trucks
• Chewing tobacco and cigarettes
• Various soft drinks like red bull
• Wacky-Mac? In microwave-size portions
• Microwave popcorn
• Tuna, tuna and more tuna in tins and foils
• Holsters and pouches for weapons
• Corn chips and Oreos
• And a few clothing items such as socks T-shirts & warm fleeces.
Now this all brings me back to the original thoughts I had this morning about the cold weather. I walked over to the PX to buy another fleece (to add to the only one I have here.) Instead, I grabbed another three T-shirts, to add to the four I already have. Now, I have seven brown military T-shirts and one fleece — meanwhile, the store will not open again 'til Monday.
No doubt the Wal-Mart-sized PX store is open 15 hours a day, seven days a week, for the troops and civilians in the rear — but here on the frontline, it’s going to be a cold weekend for me.
December 7, 2006
Ramadi, Iraq — From where we are based with the Marines in Hurricane Point Ramadi, it is like the world ends ten feet away. It is one of those nights that does not have a moon — a wall of blackness envelopes everything and swallows up even the lights we have for broadcasting.
That does not stop the noise of war that continues. It's not the sound of gunfire. In the past five minutes a large explosion rocked the building we are in, one of the palaces of the Saddam family. A solid building virtually shook us. I sit back and wonder, "What the hell, was it?"
All we hear now is choppers and jets overhead, no lights, just the noise of darkness being broken by the blades of flying choppers.
Its something you can never get used to — the tranquility of darkness. It can often hide the horror of war. We have another live shot in twenty minutes, before we seek the sanctuary of a sandbagged bunkhouse.
December 5, 2006
Washington Helizone, Baghdad — In the modern world of air travel, e-tickets are pieces of paper conveniently imprinted with a computer code that will somehow be interpreted by the person behind an airline counter.
When you fly with the military, it's called an “S-Ticket.” Instead of a savvy computer-generated code, an S-Ticket is created by writing your flight number and destination with a Sharpie, which is handed to you, on the back of your hand.
While boarding the chopper, the noise makes conversation impossible; the loadmaster simply grabs your wrist and checks that you are going to where they are flying. We are scheduled to fly on Marine Bird 251, destination Ar Ramadi.
Other small points to factor in: you MUST be wearing a flak jacket, a Kevlar helmet and earplugs (they're not for fun, but again, a mandatory safety requirement). Guns must be unloaded and clear, and protective eyewear is again required. As you arrive at the helizone, a sign clearly states that deadly force is authorized (hopefully you understand what is meant by deadly force).
You carry your own bags on and then sit in the pitch black on webbing. Alone in your thoughts, you fly further into Iraq and right to the front line that is to be home for you. It is hard to think in the noise and amongst the vibrations of Marine airlines; but most of all, you think and pray that all will be safe.
There is nothing glamorous or exciting at times like these; it is a combination of fear and adrenaline that supports you. That and the feeling of being alone in your thoughts, in the blackness that 200 feet above the ground provides you, flying to what is one of the most dangerous places in the world.
Ar Ramadi flight 251 will be departing in an hour.
• Check out Mal's photos from Iraq
Mal James is a combat cameraman based in Jerusalem. He is in Iraq with Lt. Col. Oliver North and "War Stories" producer Andy Stenner, covering the current conflict.