The KLM flight from Amsterdam to Kuwait is full of Americans, including Halliburton contract workers and soldiers returning from Christmas leave.
Next to me is Jerry Parsons. The 33-year-old from Baltimore ended a 13-year stint in the Army in June. He did computer tech support.
Now he does much the same work not for the Army but as a Halliburton employee. He works 80 to 100 hours a week and talks of annual pay that for some Halliburton employees can top six figures.
A bachelor, Parsons says he's willing to commit to a few years of Iraq duty, then maybe take a well-earned, around-the-world sightseeing trip.
Contracting comes naturally, too: His father works for Halliburton at a camp not far from his son, and the two see a lot of each other.
Halliburton's role in Iraq is largely in support of the U.S. bases, taking care of such things as housing for the troops, plumbing and carpentry; it even subcontracts to feed the troops such American standbys as hot dogs, hamburgers and pizza.
Parsons works as a computer troubleshooter at an Army base outside of Tikrit. The camp now sports washing machines, a satellite link to pull in football games, and hot showers.
As we talk, Parsons tells me to look out the window. High above is a sliver of the moon. Far below are the fuzzy yellow lights of Baghdad. Obviously, there’s electricity there but it appears to peter out near the fringes of town.
The plane is flashing its lights and on a straight-arrow path to Kuwait. At 32,000 feet, we’re not a target to anyone. We leave Baghdad behind, cocooned in KLM luxury that includes hot face towels and a selection of after-dinner liquers.
Soon we cross into Kuwait, where the airport is lit by a blaze of lights.
Only a few years old, the airport is punctuated by expansive spaces and polished marble floors. The travelers in the main terminal are an interesting lot: Some men wear suits, while others dress in tan, brown or green robes with red-and-white headdresses known as dishdashrs, which drape down their backs in elaborate folds.
Some women dress in robes and veils, while others wear skin-tight pants and have manes of dark hair frosted with blond streaks.
The airport is 21st Century Americana. The food court offers Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King. And there is not one but two Starbucks, the familiar green letters in English then topped by Arabic script. The featured drink here -- a seasonal Toffee Nut latte. Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Rod Steward and Willie Nelson play on a sound track.
Most of the stores, including Starbucks, are open 24-hours. Well after midnight, a bunch of men in headwear gather, sipping coffees, smoking and talking.
We recline in our Starbucks chairs to while away the wee morning hours until we can hop a military flight to Baghdad, and then take another plane to Balad, the city once known as ground zero for the Baath Party sentiment in Iraq.