MOSUL, IRAQ – It took me a moment to gather my wits after checking out of the Kuwait Hilton.
The bill was staggering. These people really know how to charge, but I suppose that’s to be expected when many of your customers are either long-robed Kuwaiti oil gazillionaires or high-powered execs with big expense accounts. The helpful lads at the army base nearby had suggested the place because this is where the outfitter KBR runs the bus operation to Ali Al-Salem Air Base. Clearly, they weren’t paying for it.
It is elegant, with spacious marble floors, muscular air conditioning, a big sandy beach, lots of locals throwing their money around. But it wasn’t that nice. One of the Army guys who helped arrange my trip stopped by to say howdy and bought a box of five cigars. It cost $60. I didn’t avail myself of any of the luxurious spa activites, the world-class Thai cusine or the shops selling Italian leather goods.
Never having flown on a military transport into a war zone, I hadn’t slept very well. I was still punchy.
I did go out to eat with a young major and a grizzly old master sergeant. “Know what this country will be good for in 15, or 45 years when the oil runs out?” one bristled. “A nuclear testing site. That’s it.”
Neither one of them had much good to say about Kuwait. “This place ought to be called ‘Asscrackistan,’” said one. They said that each individual Kuwaiti gets $120,000 a year in oil revenue. I’d like to think that if I got $120,000 a year just for breathing, I’d be a little more friendly that most of the folks at that hotel.
At 8:30 a.m. Friday I got a golf cart ride to the KBR office within the Hilton complex. The small thermometer I brought along said the temperature was 81 degrees. I chatted with a shipping executive, who was on his fifth flight into Baghdad, and an engineer who, like me, hadn’t been in this part of the world before, and a recently-retired military man, who was headed to Baghdad to consult on bomb matters.
The shipping exec was phlegmatic. “Security didn’t used to be one of our core products,” he said. “But we’ve found it is something we have to provide.”
One of the KBR guys demanded my passport, put it in his pocket, walked away. We were ordered to the bus.
The bus was big and nice. The curtains were drawn. That helped keep the temperature at 89 degrees. We didn’t talk much. It took about an hour to get to the air base, which may not be at the very edge of the world, but it can’t be very far away. After the bustle of Kuwait City, the expanse of the desert seemed endless.
It was hard to tell how many rows of barbed wire surround Ali Al-Salem Air Base. Four? Six? They all blended together, and faded into the distance. The horizon was indistinct. Some of the wire was spooled, some stretched between steel posts. Armed guards in full battle dress manned checkpoint after checkpoint.
We were shooed out of the bus at a staging area near the flight line. A couple dozen contract workers in desert camoflage uniforms bearing ACE ENGINEERING tags waited patiently at picnic tables and talked quietly among themselves. There wasn't enough shade to go around.
The temperature was 112. The wind must have come from hell. To get an idea of what it felt like, take a hair dryer, turn it on high, hold it a couple of feet from your face and count to 1,000 or so. The sun was as bright as the wind was hot.
An unsmiling retired Air Force man had us place our bags in neat rows – even my fanny pack, which he called a purse. He asked us if we had any firearms or ammunition. An Army dog came and sniffed all the bags, and purses. We were told to put our body armor in one of the luggage compartments in the bus and our carry-on items in another.
The humorless fellow who had my passport warned us that taking pictures on the flight line would be a quick way to lose a camera. Civilian employees of the Department of Defense, or its contractors, got to go to the nearby PX and mess hall, but not me. I tried, was denied and scolded. I was happy that I had two energy bars in my bag. A very light lunch aswim in melted, runny chocolate is better than no lunch at all. I washed it down with three bottles of water from a nearby cooler and managed to get my passport back from Mr. Happy Face.
We trundled onto the Air Force C-130 cargo plane as told – first the Baghdad passengers, then those headed for Mosul. The seating was nylon cargo netting slung between metal bars. It was three-adult-on-the-same-school-bus-seat crowded. Most of us sat on our bullet-proof vests. As one of the cargo guys said, “most gunfire is likely to come from the ground.” That certainly gave us something to think about during the two hours it took to get to Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.
The Army major on my right worked on a crossword puzzle. The two friendly British fellows on my left looked at girlie magazines. (Okay, I peeked a couple of times, but remember I was really jammed up against those guys.) The young sergeant across from me made sure to keep his M-16 out of the way.
Our baggage was stacked on a pallet toward the rear. The only windows, each a foot or so across, were at the very rear in spaces occupied by the loadmaster and his assistant. They were the only two people outside the cockpit with any measure of comfort whatsoever.
There were 38 passengers, plus the crew. I could only see two parachutes hanging on the wall. There might have been more, but there certainly weren’t 38. The roar of the engines was overwhelming. I was glad they issued ear plugs.
The descent into Mosul was a so-called combat landing, which is to say abrupt and serpentine. We banged into each other. There was nervous smiling and considerable wooziness. I figured if things got really bad I could barf into my loaner helmet – such ignominy! – rather onto than the guy with the assault rifle between his knees. Happily, that didn’t prove necessary. The pilot augered us in and stomped on the brakes like a teenager horsing around in the high school parking lot.
We landed in Forward Operating Base Marez, a great sprawling place on the edge of Mosul in terrain resembling southern Arizona, but without as many plants. It is home to, among others, my hosts. They are the 400-odd soldiers of the Indiana National Guard’s 113th Combat Infantry Battalion.
These people are our neighbors and they are at war.
Editor’s note: W.S. Wilson is embedded with the Indiana National Guard’s113th Engineering Squadron, based in northern Indiana and now deployed near Mosul, Iraq. Most of the 113th’s soldiers are from northern Indiana.