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Incredible Incompetence Slashes My Mission Time

By Michael Fumento

Baghdad, Iraq

During my last trip to Iraq, I blogged that the worst part of being an embed isn't what you'd think. It's not bullets, or bombs, or even diarrhea. It's the decrepit system of transportation in which the machines work fine but the people in charge don't. Last time it cost me a third of my stay in Ramadi. Then once I was back in the military airport outside Kuwait City, the shuttle to the commercial airport never came. Because I had a non-refundable ticket and had to spend time in a hotel, this added an awful $1,000 to my trip and forced a seven-hour layover at the airport. But this time it looked like I wasn't even going to get into Iraq, and then once into Iraq not into Baghdad's International Zone to get credentialed. The rules for embeds are constantly changing, usually for the worse, and having been through the grinder once before actually puts you at a disadvantage because you think you know the rules but don't.

This tethered aerostat above Baghdad's airport (Don't call it a blimp, the makers will get mad at you), along with another, is armed with a huge array of cameras and sensors that can be used to call in rapid deployment forces or indirect fire to protect the entire airport area including the road to Baghdad once called "The Highway of Death."
My first inkling that things wouldn't be easy was when my luggage was essentially hijacked by a jump-suited airport employee who loaded my bags onto a cart and started rolling away at a good clip while I tried to ask him where we were going. Eventually he handed me over to KBR contractors just feet away from where I was to meet my point of contacts (POCs) from the public affairs office. My offense? Wearing a uniform. "Were you aware that you're not suppose to be in uniform in Kuwait International, sir?" a KBR contractor asked me. "No, I was unaware of it to the point that this is the third time I've flown in here, including earlier this year, and on both previous occasions I wore a uniform." Came the retort, "Just answer the question, sir." Gee, I thought that was an answer. I was told the Kuwaitis decided to suddenly object to uniforms in the airport other than their own. Somebody should remind them that if it wasn't for Americans in uniform, the uniforms they would be wearing would be those of Saddam's army. But after I cooled my heels awhile, KBR finally sent somebody over to grab my POC, SSgt. Buckley, who had been patiently waiting.

So, it was off to my hotel to get some sleep before meeting Buckley at the commercial airport and heading off to the military airport, Ali Al Salem (pronounced "Saleem") over an hour away. Buckley had originally told me it would have been smarter to just skip the hotel and go directly to the transit area of "Ali Al," making it easier to catch a flight within the next two days. Here, again, I detected another major change in the rules. When I came over in April I specifically asked if I could go straight to Ali Al, but was told they'd never let me on base until my papers were processed. Now I was being told quite the opposite. Turns out the old rule was still in force -- but with a vengeance.

To fly to Baghdad International Airport (BIAP, you need a Baghdad visa which they give you when your PAO POC (Buckley, in this case) turns your passport in to the right people at Ali Al. Buckley had done so and now we were going on base to get the passport, try to book me a flight for the next day, and get me a bunk in the transient tent. But now we were stopped at the gate by soldiers who said they needed to see my stamped passport. Buckley patiently explained I couldn't show it to them as I needed to go onto the base to get it. The soldiers were properly following orders; somebody on the inside had forced me into a Catch 22 position. I needed to go in to get my papers; but I needed my papers to go in. After some time, Buckley went in on his own and literally sat down with the base commander himself to try to figure out what the heck was going on. What Buckley was told and relayed to me was stunning. I would be allowed on base only so long as he and a contractor that worked with him stayed with me, as if I were a criminal in transit. Fortunately, he wasn't required to cuff himself to me.

By now, hours had passed and the time to reserve a seat (get on the manifest) had expired. But if I didn't catch the next day's flight Buckley and company would be forced to spend two days with me and they really have better things to do than baby-sit journalists. So we tried to get me on a space available (Space A) list. That means if there's extra room on the flight, you can get on. That's where things went from somewhat unbelievable to absolutely incredible. Buckley was then told I couldn't get a seat without orders from my unit. Of course, I have no unit. I'm a journalist. Since the dawn of history, when that big black monolith appeared and one group of apes began clubbing another group while music from 2001: A Space Odyssey played in the background, journalists have never been told they need orders from their embed units. As I later found out, you can get something like orders from the Combined Press Information Center (CPIC), the people who credential you, in Baghdad's International Zone (IZ). But apparently Buckley's predecessor had been told to pack his bags quite suddenly just a few days earlier and nobody told Buckley about this.

The commander also said that after me each person from the media would have to be accompanied by somebody from the Kuwait PAO office! The next week, Buckley was expecting a group of 13 radio personalities on a single day. (Don't worry; they stay within the safe confines of the airport area and the IZ.) Buckley's entire office only has 16 personnel. Obviously this was really, really screwy. But I don't think the rule actually went into effect.

For my case, Buckley suggested all we could do was get orders, from my embed unit in Ramadi. There's a first for everything, right? So I contacted my POC in at Camp Ramadi outside the city and she did draw up what she thought orders for journalists might look like and sent them to Buckley. No good. So Buckley said my best chance was to avoid the Ali Al bedlam entirely and fly out with the Royal Air Force (RAF) from the military side of Kuwait International. I did this in the spring and found the RAF more organized than the Air Force, so I was quite happy with this option. Happy, that is, until just minutes before boarding when British troops unexpectedly arrived and knocked all of the civilians off the flight.

Is this beginning to sound like Gilligan's Island, in which the castaways have a chance of escape dangled in front of them each show only to have it bashed at the last minute? I had arrived in Kuwait on Thursday and by now it was Sunday and I was absolutely bouncing off the walls. Not even a Ginger or Mary Ann to comfort me. But by now Buckley thought it was time to give the airbase another shot. He couldn't get us there until late at night after all flights had departed to BIAP but I did sign up for a Space A with a roll call of 0400. To those of you who don't know military time, that means: "Extremely early." So up at 3:15 to pack and drag my stuff to the proper building fully expecting to be sent back to vie for the few Space A seats available at 1400. Lo! I had a seat. Some hours later (the only thing fast about the Air Force are its fighter jets) I was on a C-130 bound for BIAP. We had two guests of honor, Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist and apparently a congressman from Florida. Frist said, "We love you all." I wanted to tell him I loved him, too, but I was overcome with emotion. He then proceeded to have photo-ops with about half the GIs on board, which were designed to make him look good but I'm sure made some of the soldiers feel good too so I've decided not to be overly cynical about the whole thing.

It's only fitting that Camp Stryker near the airport is home to a unit of Striker armored vehicles. These machines, with their .50 caliber main gun, stealthy wheels instead of tracks, and RPG-blocking grates, have proved tremendously valuable in urban warfare. Only problem: There aren't nearly enough to go around.
About one and a half hours' flying time later, we were touching down in Baghdad. What a weird world when you're actually happy to be in Iraq! Fear not, it didn't last long. At the Space-A desk I was asked to turn in my passport. Repeatedly the military, as with Buckley, asks to take your passport and in the past they've always gotten it back to me before I needed it. I assumed I would get it when I arrived at BIAP. Wrong. My passport was still in Kuwait. No passport, no getting any closer to the IZ and CPIC than Camp Stryker at the airport. Yet another wasted day.

Fortunately -- or perhaps unfortunately -- it's impossible to break your skull by banging it against the side of a tent. So I did the next best thing and found somebody to call Ali Al and find my passport, then arrange to have it sent on the next plane which was scheduled to show up at 2000. It didn't; the plane had been rerouted to Mosul instead. But there was supposed to be another plane in from Ali Al a few hours later and I was told it would have my passport. It didn't. Then I was told that CPIC had gotten my passport on a helicopter coming in early the next morning. There was no helo. Then it was supposed to be on another Air Force plane, but the hours given for its departure and arrival didn't match any flights. Finally, late the next day, I heard it was coming on an RAF plane. I like the RAF and trust them more than the Air Force and truly believed this time it would come. It did. I'm not ashamed to say I kissed my passport harder than I usually kiss either my cat or my wife.

Ultimately, while I would love to solidly place blame for all of this exactly where it's due, I'm not sure exactly where it's due. I did get an awful lot of "Wha? Duh? Huh?" responses from CPIC, which is irritating as heck but I'm not sure whether they made up the "vapor aircraft" or were simply relaying information from contractors at BIAP or from the Air Force. I will say this. Anybody who can make military transport planes and helicopters just disappear can be a valuable asset. I suggest that the parties responsible be found and parceled out to vehicle check points so that they can make suicide vehicles vanish in the same way those aircraft did.

Some months ago milblogger/photographer Mike Yon and a reporter with the Columbia Journalism Review who had also been an embed asked me if I thought DoD was intentionally trying to dissuade embeds from coming. Yon was acting on his own experience; the CJR journalist on what other reporters had told him. I said I would find out soon enough. But actually, I haven't. Yet I'm not so paranoid as to believe that what happened to me has only happened to me -- though perhaps I caught it the worst. On my previous two embeds, I slid right into the country as if I were naked and covered with grease. It was transportation within the country that drove me nuts -- and may yet again this time. Moreover, these delays fall hardest on freelance embeds who pay their own way and can't just sit around the $400-per-night Kuwait Sheraton cooling their heels until they finally get a plane. (I got the cheapest hotel in the city at about $75 per night.)

Further, I assume it helps to have a major organization behind you that can make calls and perhaps pull strings for you. But for the little guys who go places the big boys generally won't and provide an alternative to the "everything is going to hell" stories the MSM churn out daily, there's no recourse. I wonder how many potential embeds and especially freelance ones reading this will throw their hands up in the air and say, "No way!" to the idea of coming to Iraq and perhaps even to Afghanistan.

Michael Fumento has paid for this trip entirely out of pocket, including roundtrip airfare to Kuwait, hotels in Kuwait, war insurance, and virtually all his gear. Please support him via PayPal Donate or Amazon Honor System via the logos below.


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October 5, 2006 12:32 PM  ·  Iraq