Reporting From the Triangle of Death

Selfie on the flightline waiting for our flight in Iraq

There were always two questions friends and family asked me before I deployed here, and looking back, I can see now that it was probably their way to make themselves feel better about me coming over here.“But your job really doesn’t require you to go anywhere dangerous, right?”

“Since you’re in the Air Force, you have nothing to do with the extra troops President Bush is sending over there, correct?”

At the time, I reassured them that the chances of me going anywhere dangerous were slim, even though I knew better. But now that I’m reporting in what the civilian media calls The Triangle of Death, I really can’t deny it anymore. (Sorry, guys!)

It all began when we flew out of our home base, destination Baghdad.

There was a stop at an airfield somewhere in Iraq (we weren’t sure where) to pick up cargo. We sat out on the flight line for about an hour, perched on top of our luggage pallet, watching as the Airmen loaded up this huge container into the aircraft. No matter how long I’ve been in the Air Force, no matter how often I’ve seen these things fly, it still amazes me that they even lift up in the air with all that weight.

Eventually, we landed at Baghdad International Airport in the midst of a mortar attack. JV went off to get us a vehicle, so JB and I lugged our equipment to our meeting point. As we did this, I counted about five hits. JB counted seven or eight. None of them sounded close, but we could hear the artillery responding all over. JB smoked while I played around with my camera, trying to record the sights and sounds. Everyone was just going about their business as this was happening, including me. It’s to be expected in that area.

JV finally arrived with the truck and we found our way back to the palace where we stayed before. The same group of Airmen were working there and recognized us, helping us get settled in. Once again, I got my own room with a view, but I didn’t have time to appreciate it. We went straight to bed (around 3:30 a.m.), waking up early the next morning (7 a.m.) to meet with the commander who would direct us to our next location.

 

This is how I carry all my gear. Bag in front. Bag in back. All above body armor. Wanna call me weak? 🙂

Our initial assignment was to get the story of Air Force joint tactical air control party who are providing support for the Army in the midst of the recent surge for control over Baghdad and the surrounding region. Contrary to their name, their job is no party (ha, ha). Though they are Air Force, these men (since women are not allowed to join this particular career field) spend their entire careers in direct support of the Army. Attached to the various Army units, they deploy with them and go outside the wire with them, calling in the air support (fighters, bombers, etc.) when needed. Their workload has increased significantly since the surge began a few weeks ago over here, and so our assignment was to bring to light (or print) their role in these operations.

And that meant for us to go out to them.

The commander at Baghdad who briefed us was very excited to see us. “This is a great story,” he said. “These are good guys out here doing amazing work.”

He told us he could get us on a helicopter that night to go out to one of the forward operating bases and that we needed to pack light. Knowing that I would have room in my bag, I asked if he needed us to deliver anything. He handed me a letter for one of the Airmen, which I put in my backpack. Then he handed over a brand new microwave in a box.

“See if you can get this to ’em, too,” he said.

After we left his office, JV, JB and I had a pow-wow. We decided to leave all our producing equipment (laptops, editing software, etc.) back in Baghdad and to take only the stuff we would need to gather information. We also decided to leave behind most of our clothing and toiletries – only taking the bare minimum.

For me, this meant I wore one uniform and brought with me three t-shirts and a week’s supply of underwear and socks. Also, I left behind my travel pillow and other personal effects.

The JTAC’s first sergeant drove us to the heliport later that night. It was hopping. Helicopters were coming and going. We all plopped down amongst our gear on a concrete slab and watched as the horizon lit up every now and then from artillery, listening to the drone of the helicopters coming and going. Right above me, there was an opening in the layer of dust and grime in the atmosphere, and I could see a few stars and the moon. At some point, I actually fell asleep.

Around 3 a.m., I woke up as people around me started scrambling. That’s when I noticed one of the guys in headsets screaming out directions.

“LET’S MOVE IT! OVER HERE!” he screamed. It took me a second to realize our helicopter had arrived – nearly two hours behind schedule – and it was waiting for us to board. I grabbed my body armor, weapon and bag, plus the microwave, and followed JV and JB to the Black Hawk, which was waiting for us, its blades whipping over our heads. It was nearly pitch black and I could barely see the helicopter’s crew chief as he waved us in. There were two compartments, each with benches facing each other. I climbed in the back half, next to Soldiers already buckled in. A civilian scrunched in next to me while the knees of the guy across from me wedged against mine. Needless to say, it was a tight fit, especially since all our bags were crammed into whatever space was available, not to mention the microwave I shoved underneath someone’s legs.

Buckling in was also an adventure, but somehow, I did it quickly.

The helicopter wobbled from side to side as the crew chief made his inspection before giving us a thumbs up and slamming the side door shut. Within seconds, the helicopter glided out and up, and I could feel us lifting off the ground. Soon, the heliport below us was gone and we were over the city of Baghdad.

It was neat to see the city from up there. We were high enough for me to see blocks at a time, but low enough for me to see street corners and balconies of the apartment high-rises. We made a stop in the “Green Zone” but were back in the air in less than ten minutes. Soon, the city lights vanished as we zoomed over open fields. It was pitch black in the helicopter. But then a strange thing happened as my eyes adjusted. Lights from below appeared in my peripheral vision, sort of how stars appear when you don’t look directly at them in the sky. I could spot individual homes and small villages. The water from the irrigation canals reflected the moonlight. At times, I could see the second helicopter flying next to us. With the moonlight to its back, it almost looked superimposed. I felt both nervous and intrigued, both wanting to hide my face in my backpack, but also wanting to crane my neck out to get a better look.

This is a pic of the guy sitting across from me.

It wasn’t too long before I sensed that we were descending, and before I knew it, we were on the ground. The crew chief slid open the door and using a laser pointer, directed me out. I saw JB, who sat in the front compartment, pull out his gear, so I followed him, grabbing the microwave. JV, who sat on the other side, soon joined us. Without the crew chief’s laser pointer, though, we were sort of stuck in our spot. The entire area was pitch black. But then I looked up and gasped. For the past month, I’ve been anxious to see the Arabian night skies I’ve heard about.

I finally got to see it. Never in my life had I see the Milky Way so clearly, with millions of stars in every direction. It was breathtaking.

But I didn’t have time to gawk.

“I think we need to go over there,” yelled JV, and I could barely see him point to a light a few yards away. Sure enough, there was a guy with a flashlight, swinging it for us to come over. The helicopter took off as we walked, and that’s when it really hit me – we were not in Baghdad anymore. The area was completely black and quiet, with only the sound of our shoes crunching over the gravel as we followed the man with the flashlight. He explained that the entire FOB goes black when the sun goes down. Even though operations continue inside the tents and trailers, not a single light gets out.

Two JTACs picked us up and got us to our rooms, which are really just plywood huts with wooden bunkbeds and metal wall lockers. Again, being a female, I got my own space a few doors down from JV and JB. We immediately went to bed.

The next morning, it was clear to us the second we left the huts that this is a forward Army location, and not just from all the Soldiers. Everything is bunkered down in the midst of cement barriers lined with barbed wire. All vehicles are heavily armored. There are explosions throughout the day, either outgoing or incoming mortars or rockets. Rapid bursts of gunfire can be heard at times in the distance. There’s a constant drone of generators and the occasional helicopter whipping through the air overhead.

That first morning, as we walked to breakfast, we noticed a whole bunch of Soldiers standing around a huge dirt pile. As we got closer, we saw a few with shovels in the middle. They were filling sandbags. Without saying a word, JV, JB and I grabbed empty bags from the nearby stack and joined them. We stuck out like glow worms in our tan uniforms amongst their digitized grays, but at least nobody could say that Air Force wasn’t there helping.

After breakfast, we spent time with the JTACs, who work at the headquarters level and don’t really do anything outside the wire. It provided a lot of background information for us and JV and JB got some good visuals. The Army PAO here, Maj. B., was very helpful in getting us access to the Army leadership, too, so we were able to get an interview with the Army commanding officer explaining how the Air Force helps him do his job. All good stuff.

Of course, JV, JB and I are always looking for news, though and we found a lot of it.

The first thing we found was a firefighter memorial erected in honor of the nine South Carolina firefighters who died last week in a warehouse. JB, JV and I were walking down the road here when we noticed their unit flag was half-staff. At the bottom of it were three cardboard posters with the photos and names of all nine firefighters with a brief explanation written next to it. JV mentioned he’d get a picture of it, to which I added, “That’d be great to market to the Charleston media, to show that in the midst of the surge, the deployed firefighters still wanted to show respect.” So, we did just that.

 

The firefighters eagerly posed for a group shot and I sent it to the South Carolina media later that night from Maj. B’s computer. One of the television stations put the photo AND my e-mail up in their broadcast and on their Web site.
As we were returning from the firefighter photo shoot, we walked past an Air Force master sergeant. Of course, we stopped him and bluntly asked, “What are you doing here?” The master sergeant just smiled and said, “Follow me!” He took us into one of the nearby huts, where we were introduced to his commanding officer. From that discussion, we learned there is an Air Force construction team here putting up buildings for the Army in support of the surge. So, we made plans to follow them around.

JB and me, looking like twins. Sort of.

So, the next day, JV, JB and I hung out with the construction team as they erected a hut which will eventually become a headquarters building for the Army. At first, everyone was ‘acting fancy’ as we set up our cameras and conducted interviews.
That’s me holding up a reflector for JB, who is conducting an interview about the construction project we covered
But by lunch time, they had accepted us, joking around with us and letting us get up close to their work. One even hoisted JV up into a crane so he could get overall shots of the work site.
Eventually, too, a few opened up to me, telling me more than just the things they thought I wanted to hear for my story. One guy told me how he’s only spent three days with his newborn son. Another told me how the Airmen are really feeling the pressure to meet deadlines, but they don’t get all their materials on time because convoys have been running behind. These guys really work under harsh, gritty circumstances, but they still get the job done. I was amazed and I hope I accurately reflect that in my story.
So, that night, while eating midnight chow in the dining facility, we found our third story as an Air Force weather forecaster walked by. We got her information, so this afternoon, we spent time with her and her peers, who do all the combat weather forecasting for the Army here.

JV took this photo, which goes along with my article.

 

We will be here for another few days before we head out to complete our JTAC assignment, which is in another forward operating location. When we got here, we were told that the only way to get to it was via convoy. But I managed to get us out of that because, according to JB, I’m a girl.

Here’s how it happened: I had some questions for our JTAC point-of-contact, so I went into the headquarters tent to talk to him. However, I noticed the helicopter guys sitting nearby. One of them, a chief warrant officer, made eye-contact with me, so I went for it.

I asked if there were flights to this particular FOB. The chief warrant officer shook his head.

“No…” pause … “but we could.”

“Oh really?” I asked. “It wouldn’t be any trouble? I wouldn’t need to get an officer’s signature or anything?”

“Nah, I’d just need your names and last four of your socials,” he said. “And the dates you need to travel, of course.”

I immediately supplied the information.

“Does the ‘copter go from there to Baghdad, too?” I asked. The officer shook his head again.

“No. We’d have to schedule that leg of the trip for you, too, but I can make that happen.”

We exchanged more information and I smiled and thanked him for his time. Then I returned to the Army PA tent to let Maj. B know about it. His news team, who just traveled via convoy from the same FOB, overheard and their jaws dropped.

“What? How? Who did…? What? How did you do that?” asked Ski, one of the Army PA specialists here. I shrugged.

“I don’t know. I just asked,” I said. He shook his head in disbelief and took out his notebook.

“I want the name of the person who did that for you, because that NEVER happens,” he said. “I swear to god, that never happens. They just built that flight up for you?”

Maj. B. just shook his head and told me to consider myself lucky. Apparently, scheduling travel like that is not typical, especially for the Army. But JV and JB were pleased to hear we wouldn’t have to be out on the road for days at a time.

“You played the ‘girl card’,” said JB. “Congratulations.”

“But I didn’t even realize it,” I said, which was the absolute truth. “I just asked nicely. And really, I haven’t showered in two days.”

“It doesn’t matter out here,” he said. “It just doesn’t matter.”

JB’s remarks did make me think. If he or JV went and asked, would they have gotten the same result? I don’t know. To be honest, the fact that I’m female out here hasn’t really been an issue. It does suck that I have to walk farther than JV and JB to get to my showers (which they have here, thank goodness) and I always get my own room when we’re traveling, but I’ve never been held back from anything out here and I appreciate that. And for the most part, I think I’ve been keeping up with the two men, especially when lugging all the equipment around.

Traveling with JB and JV has actually been a lot of fun. JV is the highest ranking, and the oldest. JB is in the middle in both rank and age by ten years on both sides. I’m, obviously, the youngest and lowest-ranking. This has made for a lot of funny conversations. JV remembers staying up to watch the first episode of MTV. JB sort of remembers it. I was four months old.

We talk about our families, our kids, our opinions on music, movies and the media. We’ve talked about religion and politics, realizing we’re on the same page about a lot of things. Though we are busy, there is a lot of waiting around when in the military, so there’s a lot of time to learn about each other. Both of them are very professional and serious about their jobs, which only makes me want to be better at my job, too.

Being with the two of them makes it easier for me to deal with being in these dangerous areas, too. I was taking a nap this morning (waiting for the guys to finish getting ready … they always take longer than I do) when an incoming mortar woke me up. I got spooked when the return fire went off, so I left my room and knocked on their door. Only JB was inside the room, and obviously, I can’t go in their quarters, so he came out to smoke and read a book while I sat on the barrier, playing with my camera.

 

I don’t know if he sensed that I was spooked, but eventually, JV returned from the showers and we were able to leave for our interviews.

A few hours later, as we were eating lunch, a mortar landed and it sounded close by. By this point, we’re used to the explosions, but since this sounded close and we’d had more than usual today, it was no surprise that an Army sergeant ran in and ordered everyone out. It was like a stampede as everyone surged toward the exits and into the cement barriers. JB and I popped into the first one available, wedging ourselves next to the Soldiers and cooks.

 

One of the female Soldiers brought her bowl of ice cream with her and kept eating it as others barked into radios, taking accountability. I looked over at JB, who shook his head. It was surreal. Of course, I whipped out my camera and took pictures. What else can you do?

To make up for the mortar attacks, the Army provided entertainment tonight. A team of professional football cheerleaders came here to perform. JV, JB and I watched the area get set up during dinner before we rolled our eyes and declined to attend. For some reason, I can’t get motivated to watch a bunch of half-dressed women jumping around with pom-poms as entertainment, but from the looks of those waiting in line for them, I suppose a few guys around here could!

Being here has definitely been an eye-opener for me. All the Soldiers will be here for 15 month rotations. A lot of them go out on convoys every day.

And even the ones who don’t go out the wire are still humping like mad over here as the work load increases and manning is stretched thin. As scary as it is to be here sometimes, I can’t help but be amazed by these young men and women. A lot of them aren’t even in their 20s yet.
There is no reason America shouldn’t be proud of their servicemembers over here, because really, they are all doing some pretty amazing work.

Doing laundry the best I can

 

Martin, my hair is getting longer.

 

Found this note in a candy bowl.