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Hal Bernton & Thomas Hurst
Hal Bernton Thomas Hurst
Iraq dispatches

Reporter Hal Bernton and photographer Thomas James Hurst have returned from spending a month in Iraq, reporting on the U.S. military campaign as well as the lives of Iraqi civilians.

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December 31, 2003

Mice and men

The mice in Iraq have no fear.

They roam with near impunity across U.S. military bases, and have the audacity to nibble on Christmas treat boxes sent from home.

Yesterday, I was writing in a plywood barracks strewn with gift boxes, some of them closed and others open and full of candy.

And then I spied a bold little intruder.

Indeed, he appeared quiet fearless.

He scooted around my feet several times, then climbed into a nearby Christmas box to gorge himself.

After a bit he vaulted out and hit the floor, seemingly in no great hurry.

The soldiers here at Base Vanguard have a lot more contact with Iraqi citizens then do soldiers at some of the larger bases I have visited.

They know which kids will score them a quick kabob sandwich, or a savory roasted chicken. And some soldiers are learning a little Arabic. The community involvement has increased as the violence has ebbed.

The New Year, however, promises no quick cessation of terror.

On an early morning patrol this week, which I had decided to skip, soldiers ran into an ambush on a main route, Highway 1.

They returned fire, and fortunately none were hurt.

A bit later an "improvised explosive device," or IED, blew up on the same highway, damaging a couple of trailers and a piece of heavy machinery in a convoy. Again, no injuries.

In the afternoon, soldiers responded with a search of farms near the base, confiscating weapons and detaining five men for questioning.

As we finally sat down to a New Year’s Eve dinner, a couple of mortars were lobbed at our camp. They fell far short and I didn't even feel them hit.

But it was the first such shots in a long time, and the base deployed a squad to search the perimeter.

So I wonder what will happen in the next few hours before midnight?

None of this has stopped the soldiers from putting on the first annual FOB Vanguard Talent Show. It's scheduled to start in a few minutes.

Most Iraqis who fled the regime of Saddam Hussein did not dare venture back. But at a town council meeting on Tuesday in Ad Dujayl, I met a brave soul who came home.

He is 63-year-old Ali Aldijaili, a short, husky-voiced engineer who spent more than 35 years in America.

He moved around quite a bit in the states, ending up in Alabama. In 2001, he decided to return to Iraq to help aging family members even as his own wife and children remained behind.

Aldijaili told me that when American troops came into the town of Ad Dujayl earlier this year, he greeted them and helped facilitate a peaceful takeover of the town.

Such work has not earned him any friends among the insurgents. He has received numerous threats and a bomb was thrown at his home.

Remember all those messages the Bush administration was broadcasting to the Iraqi military during the war? Telling them to lay down their arms and welcome the American invasion.

Well, those message got through to a lot of people, said a former military officer I spoke to this week.

But he complained that the Bush administration did not follow through in good faith.

He said he was stunned by the war's aftermath, when the Bush administration opted to simply dissolve the Iraqi Army. He said that put a million men out of work in an economy ravaged by runaway inflation. He thinks it was a bad mistake both for Iraq -- and the United States.

Posted by Hal Bernton at 11:37 AM

December 29, 2003

Next stop: Bravo Company

On Sunday we said goodbye to Alpha Company.

We're driving some 18 kilometers to a nearby Washington National Guard unit -- Bravo Company of the 14th Engineers Battalion.

We travel in Humvees along a well-used and well-patrolled road.

Even before such a routine drive, Sgt. 1st Class Alexis Cruz gives the soldiers the standard briefing to keep their eyes open for IEDS (Improvised Explosive Devices), and to be alert to small arms fire.

We head out of the base's south gate and down a road lined with small sheep farms.

The trip is quiet then suddenly there's a loud explosion back off the road, which kicks up a towering cloud of dust.

Thomas and I jump at the sound. We're told it's nothing -- just an Army team setting off some ordnances.

We arrive at a soggy outpost for some 300 soldiers. It's called Forward Operating Base Vanguard, full of "container" bunkhouses spread out across an old Iraqi fuel storage depot.

The most curious landmarks here are the "anthills," tank farms that are covered with concrete and then topped off with earth, apparently to make them harder to see from the air. This will be our home for the next few days.

Posted by Hal Bernton at 12:16 PM

December 28, 2003

Wired Iraq

Living conditions in Iraq for U.S. soldiers varies a great deal, depending on what unit they serve with and where it is located.

For some in the field, it’s still difficult to stay in touch with families back home. But here at Washington state’s Army Reserve Alpha Company, which flies Chinook helicopters, is a wired world.

This is all the more impressive when you realize that nothing was here -- not even tents or bathrooms -- when the company arrived last spring to claim this dusty corner of a former Iraqi air base.

Since then, the soldiers transformed their digs into an Internet hub. They have pitched in money for several different satellite dishes. Cables snake every which way from the dishes, across the graveled earth.

Inside the tents, personal computers are everywhere, sometimes hooked to stereo speakers. Soldiers are e-mailing; online shopping; and even use webcams to keep in touch with loved ones.

Some screensavers show off desert photos from their time in Iraq. Others feature snapshots from home.

Inside the “morale tent,” you can sit down in front of a big screen television that's hooked up to a satellite network. Soldiers can catch the latest on CNN, watch football bowl games, or take in a movie.

Phoning home is tougher. There is one phone that works through the government network to connect soldiers and families. A few soldiers also have sat phones that offer quick -- if somewhat expensive -- connections.

Chow comes from a field kitchen, a kind of mobile trailer that is capable of cooking up hot food but now serves meals that are trucked over from a large mess hall run by a contractor.

Yesterday, when I was headed through the line, I asked the cook, “hotdog or hamburger?’’

"I wouldn't know sir," said Sgt. Cathy Morgan. "I'm a vegetarian.”

I'd never really thought about the plight of vegetarians in the military so I went back after dinner to chat.

Morgan, 30, was born a Texan. Back in the states, she now works as a chef at the Olive Garden in Olympia. She says became a vegetarian six years ago, though she does eat some fish.

I asked her how she survived during the Alpha's Company tough stretch in April and early May, when the unit was in southern Iraq and had only the Army's prepackaged, Meals Ready to Eat, or MRE.

The MRE typically feature a big calorie meat entrée, and warn on the back of each package that you better eat hearty to sustain yourself in the field.

Morgan told me that the MRE have four vegetarian offerings, including burritos and Alfredo pasta. But she's not too keen on the vegetarian main dishes. Instead, she said she typically scrounged side dishes that other soldiers didn't want -- stuff like rice, beans and cheese, and packaged fruits.

The head cook, Robert O'Brien, is a 55-year-old gem stone cutter from Camano Island. In his spare time here, he even cuts stones here in Iraq.

O'Brien is a Vietnam vet. He was 19 then, working in communications.
He says the huge difference between this war and Vietnam is the support that soldiers get from home.

During the Vietnam era, O'Brien says he was told by the Army not to wear his uniform on leave back in the United States to avoid trouble. This time, when he returns home, O'Brien says will be wearing his uniform.

We heard, of course, this week of the tragic news in southern Iran with the thousands killed by the earthquake. A brief shudder of the earth may have caused more death than nine months of war here in Iraq, and all the bombs, rocket propelled grenades, small arms fire, mortar fire, improvised explosive devices and other weapons unleashed by Iraqi and coalition forces against one another.

Posted by Hal Bernton at 10:32 AM

December 26, 2003

Baghdad from the air

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.

Posted by Hal Bernton at 10:49 AM

December 23, 2003

Airborne at last

For this journey through Iraq, I fit everything into a backpack.

But it’s a heckuva of a pack — a Lowe’s Expedition, which looks like an over-stuffed sausage.

It wasn’t so much the clothes — though I did indulge in extra socks and boxers — but the flack jacket and ceramic plates took up an awful lot of room.

I tried tying my new helmet to the outside of the pack but the folks at the Northwest Airlines counter suggested that I might do better to carry it with me.

So along with my briefcase and computer bag, I’m now toting my Kevlar helmet en route from Seattle to Amsterdam to Kuwait, then on to Baghdad and beyond.

Our last view of Seattle was of the Christmas rush. Long security lines snaked up and out of the tram-area for what appeared to be a city block or two long.

The first leg of the flight was a straight shot, nearly eight hours, over the pole to Amsterdam.

We were plied with plenty of food while traversing over Baffin Island, Greenland and other Arctic climes. Outside, the temperature at 32,000 feet was 60 degrees below Fahrenheit.

We left Seattle at 1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 20, and arrived in Amsterdam at 7 a.m. Sunday morning. The morning sky was gray and woolly like...Seattle.

The tarmac was stacked with jumbo jets from around the world. Inside the terminal lots of shops sold cheeses, sausage and cheese pastries that — even more than the duty-free perfume — scented the lobby.

The international travel lounge is friendly place, offering plush reclining seats to help jet-lagged passengers sleep it off before their next flight. We cocooned ourselves here for most of the day, awaiting a 4 p.m. flight to Kuwait.

Posted by Hal Bernton at 03:14 PM

 October 2005
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January 2004
December 2003

Mice and men
Next stop: Bravo Company
Wired Iraq
Baghdad from the air
Airborne at last


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