Welcome to war: A personal note on the opening of the Iraq fiasco

Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

“LIGHTENING, LIGHTENING, LIGHTENING” screamed “The Big Voice”, Camp Arifjan’s loud speaker. “What the hell is that?” It was March 20, 2003 the war had started and Saddam’s Scuds were inbound.  It would have been rather considerate it someone had bothered to tell us.

The 352 Civil Affairs Command, my reserve unit, specialized in the Middle East; my portfolio: Arts, Monuments, and Archives. The fatal call rang my Pentagon civilian job at Air Force Legislative Liaison on December 2. “You’re being mobilized; you have two weeks. “What happened to thirty days” I said. “Two weeks” came the reply. My boss came out of his office, order in hand, “Does this mean what I think it does?”  “See you in two years” I answered.

I was now part of the advance party into the “Area of Operations”.   By Dec 13 we were at Ft. Bragg, by Jan 13, we were in Kuwait encamped at Arifjan, a new installation crammed full of bridging equipment, tanks, trucks, and soldiers.  Our barracks was a requisitioned warehouse, privies were trailers, and you sucked down quarts of water to stave off thirst and dried off almost instantly after a shower.  Heat? Get into the oven with the turkey on Thanksgiving and you’ll have an idea.

In the runup to the war life in Arifjan was endless checking equipment, supplies and preparing for what was to come. The nightly exchange of ideas in the mess lifted one from the mind-numbing routine of daily existence.  (By now the public affairs officer, I was able to get about and into Kuwait City for meetings and supplies).  Confined to post one wag conceived of T-shirts with the logo “Arifjan Jail”.  Surrounded by razor wire and berms topped with machine guns, it wasn’t too far off the mark. With men and equipment pouring in Arifjan had rapidly gone from minimal manning to bursting at the seams with long lines for everything. You got on line to get in line.

With war in our immediate future, we reconned up to the frontier close enough to see smoke from the Iraqi port of Uum Qsar. All along Highway 80 the Kuwaiti government was clearing the emirate’s northern quadrant of its subjects.  Humans and camels were moving south, the herds crowding the road, ambling on, bemused at the strangers in their midst.  Less bemused, were those of us preparing our vehicles, and ourselves for the inevitable.  A story making the rounds was some Iraqis had crossed the berm into Kuwait to surrender to the British and were told “come back later, it hasn’t started yet.” When it started a mailed fist smashed into Iraq.  Everything went off at once — land, sea, air– there was no lengthy air preparation as in Desert Storm. It was just as SFC Malone and I had predicted from watching the rapid build-up at Arifjan.

Day two of the war, March 21, my birthday, opened with several SCUD alerts lasting into the wee hours of the morning. Quite the wake-up call. In those first few days we went through sixteen SCUD alerts, Patriot batteries presumably taking the missiles down.  By now the uniform of the day was those god-awful “J-List” protective suits, or as I called them, J-Lo suits because they gave you a big rear. The name stuck.  With helmet, ballistic vest, weapon, and having to walk everywhere it was a guaranteed weight loss program. Alerts were worse in the middle of the night, scrambling into –MOPP 4 (full protective gear) — then sheltering in-place, tensely waiting for a missile to explode, ours or theirs, or the “All Clear” to sound. Procedure dictated using our cell phones to call the check point. Ft. Bragg had loused up my mask eyeglass inserts so I couldn’t see the keypad, I had to have another GI push the buttons. Col. Kim Langley, our communications officer unfazed by it all, put his mask on and went back to sleep—and snored!  Some rockets hit close in, one so loud it felt like a direct hit on our barracks. The Iraqis were also firing Silkworms missiles that came in under the Patriot radars one hitting the movie theatre at the ritzy Sharq Mall in Kuwait City.

In spite of regulations, we weren’t wearing our uniforms, just the chem suits over our underwear because of the heat and that included Brig. Gen. Kern, our commanding officer. One female lieutenant asked if we weren’t wearing our uniforms what if we had to DECON (decontaminate). It told her if we had to DECON we’d be in our birthday suits.  Don’t worry about it, I said, if we were “slimed” everything is coming off.  Bad as it was, being caught in the TOC (tactical operations center) during a Scud alert was worse.  The suits were impermeable and along with rubber overshoes and rubber gloves plus the masks it was claustrophobic, you just wanted to rip the mask off to breathe. You could hear your heart pounding, your pulse racing and had to psych yourself down, breathe slowly and remain calm. In the TOC all vents and a/c to the outside were closed; the building was sealed. Fortunately, the attacks were brief as Patriot missiles shot down Saddam’s incoming Scuds. If Saddam had had any strategic sense he would have hit the command centers at Arifjan and Doha with a massive Scud assault wiping them out, smashing our war effort at the start. Instead, he resorted to desultory attacks which did not, could not, halt the inevitable.

We came to live with danger, carrying on as normally as possible. One day SFC Carter (my senior sergeant) and I were having lunch in Arifjan’s Chinese restaurant concession (yes, the amenities came in) when suddenly “LIGHTENING, LIGHTENING, LIGHTENING” sounded. The young GIs broke for the door; I yelled: “Stay put!”. If it were gas the building gave us protection, if high explosive, well there wouldn’t be much of us left. Continuing with lunch Carter would lift his mask, take a bite, pull the mask down and proceed as if nothing unusual. They must have thought we were nuts, but they took the cue from the two “lifers” and stayed steadfast.

One evening in the mess the “Big Voice” went off. Quickly masking we stood against the wall, the strongest part of the building. Suddenly, Kern, was running up and down the line shouting at people to get their asses moving. Standing hard against the wall I hid way in the back; I’d forgotten my mask, and as a member of his personal staff I didn’t want to be seen, or chewed out. The general, however, wasn’t wearing his mask, such was life in the Army.

As the allied force advanced into Iraq alerts grew fewer; chem suits were dispensed with, if they were ever needed.  Eventually, we too moved up. Battalions were already in Iraq and now the command as well. Those who didn’t go immediately across the border repositioned to Camp Doha before heading for Baghdad under the heat of impending summer and the heat of enemy fire. Meanwhile, medical reasons sent and Carter and I back to Walter Reed for evaluation. Carter’s medical issues prevented his being further deployed; I got a clean bill of health and was off to Baghdad. With the events of a lifetime unfolding before me I was not going to miss the biggest story of my life.


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