Hitchhiking to Baghdad

A couple of days ago, I finally caught a flight out of Ali Al-Salem, the Kuwaiti Groundhog Day in which I had been living for two days. In all of my frustration at the mind numbing monotony of waiting for space available flights, I really felt for the military people who go through this on a regular basis. "The Army says they need more people in I-raq, but it takes forever to get anywhere!" said a young private first class named Brian in his soft Louisiana drawl. As everyone else does, I had kept busy - checking on flight availability, reading, going to the gym, going to the chow hall - but even the time it took to walk from one side of the camp to the other and back again to perform various different tasks couldn't disguise its small size.

During a run inside the concertina wire-topped fenceline surrounding it, the base took on the feel of one of those Doom III sorts of video games, where you have access to a small portion of rooms or a specific area in the game until you procure the magic key needed to advance to the next level. For me, that meant getting flight orders, and as the bus to the air base passed through the gate on the way to the airfield - a gate I had walked past a number of times but never known what was beyond it - i saw a whole new world open up before me. I felt the elation of a video gamer who beat the level.

The bus ride, and then the hour and a half flight that followed it, were shrouded in silence, leading me to wonder at what was going through people's heads to cause such reticence. Were they nervous? Were they sad? Were they tired? When I thought about this some more, I considered the fact that since it was 6 a.m. and everyone was probably exhausted from two days of insufficient sleep on an unusual schedule, they probably weren't feeling too chatty.

We were all packed shoulder to shoulder on the flight, which was in the cargo hold of a C130. Anyone who has ever complained about being uncomfortable in a commercial airliner - because the seats weren't soft enough, or for whatever reason - should try riding in the cargo hold of a military aircraft wearing long sleeves, boots, a flak jacket, and a Kevlar helmet. Seating consists of a piece of nylon stretched across two long pieces of aluminum, forming a bench, with nylon netting as a backrest.

Those of you who don't adjust well to many forms of mild discomfort being layered upon one another all at once wouldn't fare well in this mode of transportation. For example, unless you have cushions implanted in your ass cheeks, they go to sleep in about ten minutes. Most of the guys on this flight dealt with the combination of dully uncomfortable seats, noise, and lack of space by immediately going to sleep. The guy next to me did, so my already limited personal space was further diminished when he slumped over onto my shoulder. Not much could be done about it though, because these seats didn't exactly recline. One of the flight crew began eating some left over KFC, filling the plane with the delicious aroma of greasy fried chicken. Those who were still awake began to stir, craning their necks to find out the source of this pleasure. "I think I'm dreamin'!" said the kid from Louisiana. I closed my eyes and imagined a flight attendant was about to bring me the the flight meal.

When the plane landed at Baghdad International Airport, I couldn't keep the grin from spreading across my face as the ramp at the back of the plane dropped and I got my first glimpse of Iraq's hazy sky. Blue, gray, and tan, the cloudless expanse was framed by a concrete-lined horizon. Luckily, there wasn't too much waiting involved in the next phase of travel. A blackhawk helicopter arrived within the hour and whisked me and a group of State Department employees who looked like they'd be more comfortable in an office in D.C. someowhere off to the International Zone in downtown Baghdad.

Blackhawks don't fly at a very high altitude, and from only a couple of hundred feet off the ground, the outskirts of Baghdad looked like a page from one of those pop-up books they use to illustrate the Old Testament in vacation bible school. Women clad head to toe in flowing black robes walked down streets lined with multi-storied tan buildings. This faded into palaces and modern high rises as we reached the center of the city, and the bird eventually came to rest in the midst of the labyrinth of concrete blast walls and concertina wire that make up the International Zone (IZ).

I hadn't slept in quite a while, but I was too excited to care. Still wearing the flak jacket and helmet and carrying my duffel bag, I set out to find the next KBR bus to the Combined Press Information Center and get my media credentials. I was eager to get down to business.

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