Iraq 2008: Riding the Rhino in Baghdad

Aug 16, 2008
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A soldier guards a doorway in a village outside of Kirkuk, Iraq
Above: A soldier guards a doorway in a village outside of Kirkuk, Iraq

How I ended up with a one way ticket to Ride the Rhino in Baghdad

I didn't want to worry anyone more than by already going to Iraq, so I left out the full details of the last leg of my summer tour... Before I left, I decided that while I was in Iraq, I wanted to test the waters of my photojournalism ambitions with a military embed in Northern Iraq. I figured that since I was already in Sulimaniyah it would be a pretty easy to jump over to a military installation in the region without ever having to enter central Iraq... Well after two months of working with the military to arrange my embed, I found out four days before I was set to depart to Kirkuk that I was wrong about the ease of the process and that the planning phase had failed to shed light on the fact that I needed to make a stopover in Baghdad to get credentialed...

Since most embeds usually fly to Kuwait and then get transported into Iraq by the military, this was easier said than done. I instead would be flying a commercial flight from Suly to Baghdad International (BIAP) and then would have to get to the Military side of the airport on my own before getting taken to the International Zone (the Green Zone)! In the somewhat confusing words of the first person that described the process: he will have to catch the shuttle to the Mil side for transport to Styker Stable and then take the Rhino to the IZ.

Upon requesting further information, I received this response from another officer: There is no shuttle. You will need to pay for a taxi and then you will have to walk the rest of the way to the airport gate. Please be advised that this process is very dangerous.

At this point I was having serious second thoughts...... Finally, I received one final email from a Marine Corps Lieutenant that reassured me on the safety level of the process and set up a meeting point at one of the control gates within the airport. I did still have to catch a cab on my own from the commercial side of BIAP to get there though which was an nerve-racking 15 minutes thinking that I had just paid $20 to get kidnapped!

Striker Stables and the IZ

Striker Stables is the name of the transient holding area on the military side of BIAP. As you can imagine, a lot of people pass through there everyday... And there are some amazing facilities to meet the need. The chow hall is immense with several types of meats and side dishes, philly cheesesteaks, mexican, chinese, you name it. And the BX/PX (basically the general store on a base) is more like walking into a Target - with everything from clothes to food to video games to military supplies for sale.

The Rhino ride to the IZ is the name for the heavily armored bus that transports several dozen people to the green zone at some point between Midnight and 4am - the exact time varies daily for security reasons and no one knows for sure when it will be until the Rhinos arrive.

The IZ is an immense area of former Saddam palaces turned embassies and government buildings. The zone is completely secured with no entry unless authorized. I didn't get a chance to get around at all, but I hear the US embassy complex is amazing and has one of the best pools in Iraq.

Catch a Blackhawk to the Shinook

Catching a ride in a blackhawk
After getting credentialed at CPIC (Combined Press Information Center - welcome to the world of military acronyms), I caught a lift from a Blackhawk helicopter back to LZ Washington (Striker Stables). The helicopter ride was simultaneously one of the coolest and most unpleasant experiences of my entire life. My seat was the back row window seat facing forward, which meant that without windows my face absorbed the punch of all of the backdraft from the propellers... It was pretty miserable but only lasted about 10 minutes.

Jon Vidar in a blackhawk in Iraq
From LZ Washington, a fellow journalist and I caught a flight to Speicher, a common flight hub airbase in Tikrit, on a Shinook. For those of you that don't know what a shinook is - and I was one of those people about a week ago - it's the name for that giant two propeller transporter helicopter that you see flying over LA every once in awhile and in movies. This ride was a lot more comfortable and since we dropped of all but 4 passengers at a close by base we spent the rest of the hour long flight in spacious "luxury."

Speicher was a pretty bad dust hole where I ended up stuck waiting for a flight to Kirkuk for two days... Basically the way military flights work, is that you fill out an Air Movement Request (AMR) three days in advance to ensure space on a flight. If however, you do not get this form submitted on time, you can fly Space "A" aka Space Available... Similar to flying standby only your spot is literally not guaranteed until you are in the helicopter and it has left the ground. Cool thing is is that it is first come first serve with everyone being equal - I ended up getting on the flight to Speicher when a Major got bumped.

Going Outside the Wire

The phrase "going outside the wire" is used to describe leaving the base. Well on my first day at FOB Warrior in Kirkuk they decided to throw me right into the fire and send me outside the wire with the first patrol into the city. I spent the day visiting local police and government officials as well as just walking around the market and driving through the city.

Soldiers scan the rooftops in Kirkuk, Iraq for a possible sniper
The first intense moment I have had in Iraq that got my heart pumping a little bit was in the market when a kid came over and warned us of a car that drove into an alley with a man holding a sniper rifle. You could immediately see the patrol take concealed positions throughout the market as they scanned the local rooftops for a possible sniper. The car was spotted again however, and the troops sent the local Iraqi Police that accompany the patrol to check it out. Nothing bad came from the event luckily, but it definitely was one of my first adrenaline rushes since being in Iraq.

Later on in the patrol, we stopped to bring down an antenna from our vehicle when a couple of women quickly opened and closed the gate to their house in what looked like fear... A second later however, they emerged again with fresh bread for myself and the troops! It was one of the nicest moments of the day and one that made me feel like whether or not we are doing the right thing for the future of America by being here, we are definitely doing the right thing as human beings by being here helping a less fortunate group people that need someone to look out for them.

In total, I went outside the wire five times. Three of the times were patrols around the city which included raids on several house of assumed "bad guys." And two trips were about an hour outside of the city, one to visit a local Arab village's Sheik's house and the other for an opening of an Iraqi Police station in what was previously a hot zone of the province.

My Thoughts on the War

The war we are fighting in Iraq is not a war of ideology, so much as a war of economics. The only way we are going to be successful in Iraq is to help create a society in which the poor can rise out of poverty and provide for their family. This was one of the motivations for the Sons of Iraq program -- the program that is generally characterized in America as the US paying insurgents not to shoot at us... In reality, it is providing jobs for the less well off - the same people that are likely to take $50 to setup an IED and blow up a military convoy. Instead of doing that however, they are getting an honest wage and taking responsibility for the safety of their own city. This program is actually getting phased out though and a new Civil Service program (much like depression era Works Progress program in the US) is being put in place to help with job creation.

The US had no idea what it was getting itself into in regards to the culture of the Middle East. I was at a meeting with a US Army Major, Captain, and a Sheik of an Arab village, and I literally watched them practice soccer ball diplomacy - offering to provide soccer balls and schoolbooks to the kids and rice and cooking oil to the poorer families of the village. All as a result of troops having to be pulled out of their region and promised projects delayed.

A soldier holds onto a local child near Kirkuk, Iraq
Over the last few weeks, I have also had many talks with locals and foreigners about the war in Iraq. Having been here and experienced life in Iraq both locally and through the military, I can honestly say that what America did - removing a dictator - was a good thing. And while I still hold true to my beliefs that we went in for the wrong motives - at least the public ones that were told to the American people - I do feel that we can not just pull out our troops. By invading Iraq, we have a responsibility to finish what we started. And contrary to popular belief it is getting better. The last surge of military force has drastically reduced violence in the country. And economic development - especially in the north - is happening at a rapid pace.

Now we just have to start worrying about Iran and Russia blowing up the world...

A soldier guards a doorway in a village outside of Kirkuk, Iraq

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Chris | August 16, 2008 1:20 PM | Reply

Glad to hear that you are alive. What's it like wearing all that army gear?

Teresa Keenan | August 16, 2008 1:30 PM | Reply

Hey Jon,
Just wanted to say again we really loved getting to know you. I loved reading your update and seeing some of you pictures again. Enjoy the rest of your time in Dubai. Hey, thanks for the gifts, they are so cool!
God is Good,
Teresa K

Sandy | August 18, 2008 1:05 PM | Reply

Hey Jon ... I am soooo glad you are alive and seemingly well. The compacted re-telling of your stories is like a roller coaster of emotions, I can only imagine what the raw versions will be like.

Sue | August 18, 2008 1:29 PM | Reply

Hey Jon, It is so good to hear that you're safe! Your experiences with the embed are very interesting. We've been watching Generation Kill on HBO and it certainly raises many concerns about this war. I am opposed to war in general and especially to this war but I agree that we have to take responsibility for what we did as a country. Security and economic recovery for Iraq are essential. In this year of political choices we need someone smart enough to rise above the sound bites and try to address the complexity of this mess. Thanks for these portraits and travel safe. Sue

Rita | August 20, 2008 4:37 PM | Reply

Hi Jonathan,

Wow, what an adventurous and brave man you are!!! I cannot even imagine everything you've seen and experienced.

I've enjoyed reading your updates and like the previous posters, I am glad that you are safe!

Your photos are amazing.

Safe travels back to the States,

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