Thursday, September 11, 2003

September 11th Anniversary Inside Iraqi Airways Aircraft and Blackhawk Helicopter Flight to Airport

Sept. 11, 2003

It’s the two year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Today was also my first helicopter flight of my life. Two years after that nightmarish and surreal day, I was flying over Baghdad at around 0900 in a Blackhawk helicopter, on the far left side of the cabin. It was an interesting day to say the least. I showed up two hours early for my flight, and was able to sit outside in the cool air as the sun rose. I was already exhausted from being up 24 hours (I’m on 32 hours and counting now). I just came off my shift and walked over to wait my signal to board the chopper. I listened to some music and realized how sweet music can make life. I had to laugh as I listened to some house music and watched some finches (birds) hop about smartly. Maybe I am going a little bit crazy. I thought of you, as I thought about the good luck charms you gave me. After some time of enjoying the calm morning, the pilots signaled it was time to fly. We started walking across the former Iraqi tarmac and I started to get excited, very excited. I had to grin, it was uncontrollable. At the chopper, a young black man was walking around the helicopter in a brown t-shirt and coveralls rolled down to the waist. As we got on to the helicopter, he suited up in his flight suit and put his crash helmet on. I looked on and thought, ‘That’s American, a good thing about it. Two hundred years ago they were slaves. Now they’re flying around, and even flying themselves. I wonder what his friends are doing back home?’ Stereotypical images of black urban kids on the street were in my mind. Here he is doing at least something interesting. Funny though. One night I was telling Tariq about good American values, one being racial tolerance. He made me think though,
“Yes, that is also true in Iraq. Black people are treated the same here.” Hmmm, true.
I will never forget lifting off in that chopper. When we lifted off, the climb rate was amazing and we zoomed skyward. It was very maneuverable. Only a centimeter to the left of my left foot was open space, and a few hundred feet down. The chopper sped forward and then began to descend very low over the Baghdad rooftops. What surprised me the most was when I waved to kids from the chopper, they would wave back! We then flew down into the Tigris River area, past forests of palmetto trees and blown up houses and pitiful power stations. As we neared the airport, we passed over one of Saddam’s palaces, with a large lake with little islands in it. We then landed and I got off the chopper, thrilled with the flight and the experience of feeling like a bird, moving so freely through the air.
I was able to get to the main airport complex (our division doesn’t occupy that part) simply by walking about a mile and a half in the blistering heat in full gear. I was actually attracted to the airport after seeing the tails of some Iraqi Airlines jets. I wanted to see them, as I heard they were badly looted by soldiers, in a newspaper article. Sure enough, I was able to walk right up to the aircraft and explore them, no one was in sight. I went into a 727 and it was totally ransacked and vandalized. The cockpit was only a skeleton, all instruments stripped, seats, everything totally gone. All the planes were missing their turbines too. I considered taking a nap in the 1st class section of the 747 I explored. I went up a ladder behind the nose gear strut and into the electronics room, then onto the first deck. Everything looked 1980s vintage at best. I assume the 747 was purchased from a Chinese firm, because many instructions were in Chinese. The interior was oriental too. Again, it was ravaged. I went to the second level to sit in the cockpit. I just sat there and thought of all the flights and places this plane had been on. I gripped the throttle controls and pushed them forward, imagined those same controls at work not long ago. I sat and thought about so much. Walking down the halls of the planes, images of walking down plane aisles in the U.S. or Europe superimposed on the torn seats, the hanging oxygen masks, and the missing interior panels. ‘Wow, if I sit, I can pretend I’m flying home to Nora!’ I thought. It was surreal.
I exited the 747 and went into the ground floor of the airport terminal. I think it was terminal C of the main complex. I entered and it was like being in a ghost town, totally eerie. I was the only person in this huge terminal. I went past baggage claim, past the customs counters and immigration counters saying “Iraqis” and “Non Iraqis.” I passed through customs and entered the arrivals hall. I looked at the arrival board, and it had been played with, one saying, “I love so and so” and displaying all kinds of airlines. I then stepped up the escalator to the main floor, again, I was the only person there, free to go wherever in this huge building. I was amazed to find myself on the polished marble floor, looking at the arching ceiling with black arches with white pipes hanging down. It looked a bit cheap, but still notable. I walked to the ticket desk, past customs and on to a gate. I went to the gate waiting area and then went down the walkway to a plane that didn’t exist. I felt like I was coming home to you, as I walked down that walkway, the floor bouncing a bit beneath me, the hollow sound under my feet as I walked. All that was missing was the sound of a carry-on roller bag hopping along behind me. I got to the end of the passage and found no plane, but an open space. I stood there and pondered. I eventually turned and walked back. As I did, I remembered Boston, when I was walking up a jet way and saw you there. Wow! It was so clear! Spatzi, I love you so dearly!
I then decided to try to go to the central terminal, the largest, most decorated. I looked at it and could see “International Airport” in English, looked very professional. The “Saddam Hussein” had been removed. I noticed a lot of FBI and civilians at the main terminal, so I decided not to go there. I did find some Iraqi Airways boarding passes and luggage tags. I decided then to go back to our division HQs, even though I was tempted to catch a nap in one of the planes.
I got back to Division absolutely covered in sweat, drenched. I got a burger at Burger Poe and found a spot to sit in the shade. Then, after eating, I found a soldier support center, with American Red Cross morale phones. So, I called you, as promised, to let you know I got to the airport OK. It was so good to talk and laugh with you. I was dead tired, but felt so good talking to you! I LOVE YOU! So that was great! I went to find a TV room with good seats. I sat there and my sweat started drying, leaving a stink and a cardboard texture to my uniform, splotched with salt deposits. (The puppies like to lick our sleeves for salt). On TV there was a documentary about Sept. 11, 2001. It was intense. I realize that was a huge event in my life, our life. It was a turning point in how I viewed the world, having been raised in a Clinton-era general peace. At any rate, I even got upset watching the show, holding back tears. So senseless, the entire situation. Then to look back on all the international support the U.S. had then, to where we stand now – it seems so much damage has been done to our U.S. reputation. To see the reruns of Bush’s speech, it gave me chills to think about what has happened since then, and what will happen. Bush also gave the impression that he is an idiot. I wished Tom Browkaw was the president as I saw the two in an interview. I don’t know exactly how much, but a lot of what happened on Sept. 11 upset me so completely so, and brought into question so much. Sometimes I think that by expanding war and increasing security in the States to the point of hurting civil rights – the terrorists have got more than they bargained for – not at their expense – they don’t care, they want to die. We are paying though, in so many ways. Those 19 or so men got into millions of hearts and minds across the world and touched each one, in some significant way. I choose not to let them touch my heart or mind too much, and to stay focused, because to become too disturbed would mean they were successful. Who’d know 2 years later, I would be flying over Baghdad, September 11, 2003? Wow.
I waited along the flight line for my chopper to return. It was right on time at 1600. I climbed aboard and we took off. We dropped some people off downtown at regimental headquarters and then took off again, climbing and turning nimbly. Again we were flying low, very low, and people continued to wave and smile up at our helicopter. The chopper took me to my camp and I jumped off and walked a short way to my barracks room. I was so happy about the flight, it was a good break from being stuck on Rustimiya Base. I was also glad because I was safe on the ground, and I didn’t want you to worry. I love you so much! Well, it was a good day, but I hadn’t slept in over 24 hours, and I went straight to work after my flight, to stay up until 32 hours of no sleep. I woke up today to Sergeant Rush saying I had to go cut down trees and help with the fence.
[1] I ended up doing that for 8 hours working my ass off, sweating incredibly, caught myself almost passing out. I didn’t even get a break. We cut down a large, beautiful date tree, and the fruit up in its branches seemed to be popular with the Iraqis. They stood on the other side of our barrier fencing begging. They enjoyed watching us cut down this massive tree and using a personnel carrier tank to pull the log. We had a great many bunches of fruit, plenty to give a few to every Iraqi.
“Give it to that lady with the big titties, in the orange,” Sergeant Ramos said (actually, everyone said it of the high ranking who lounged around most of the day). I just thought, ‘One day you won’t have to deal with this anymore.’
So, they gave the fruits to the woman who they found most attractive. These men are so base, so unreal. I can’t stand them. Even our new S-3 major, Major Ramirez. He’s another story I have to tell. I just though, ‘Again, insignificant people in position of power.’ They were taunting peasants with fruit. There was enough for all, but somehow it turned into a beauty contest for food. After all of this, I went to my room and listened to Bach.

[1] Sergeant Rush sometimes insisted that we only needed four hours of sleep, and not consecutively.


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