Umm Qasr, Iraq - It was frustrating that after eight days, I was still in the port city of Umm Qasr, but at least now we had an objective to help the Iraqi people by providing water, doing minor repairs at a school and building a park. My expectations to be part of the advance on Baghdad were falling by the wayside.
I was based with the Navy Seabees, NMCB21, a battalion made up of reservists from the metropolitan area, an assignment that was obviously more than a random choice by the military. These Seabees were among the most skilled construction soldiers, but up to this point, had not been utilized to their full potential based on my six weeks of observation.
We had spent nearly five weeks at Al Jaber Air base in Kuwait, a main target of Iraqi Scud missiles. The Seabees had been assigned there to build mess tents, construct bunkers and make repairs to buildings in addition to waiting for further deployment orders. We went on armed convoys to various desolate desert bases, only to return to Al Jaber. It was becoming clear we wouldn’t see any fighting. Six days after the battle began, we were finally headed for Iraq in the middle of a sandstorm. The Seabees would finally get to do some work: building dirt roads, removing high explosive water mines, building shower tents and filtering water from the bay for a dry port. At least one Seabee electrician, Frank Drewer, restored power with help from local Iraqis to Umm Qasr despite a looted power plant and sabotaged substation that soldiers had failed to protect. But even here, the Seabees would see little action other than a first day mortar attack and the occasional early morning missile raid forcing us into mask and chemical suits.
This particular day was their chance to show off to the media, but there was a catch - they would have to wear their heavy chemical MOPP suits in 100 degree heat until Rear Admiral Charles Kubic himself gave the order to remove it. At dawn, I joined the troops loading playground equipment onto flatbeds. I climbed aboard a 20-ton truck, and, accompanied by a two hundred gallon tank of water for the Iraqis, we made our way to the dusty town. (I had been asking to accompany an aid convoy for six days with no results).
It was already hot on the rock strewn soccer field as hundreds of children and residents gathered around our trucks. Another team had previously gone to the school and had put up new blackboards where black steel plates once served as slates. But the focus was our tank of water. “Water, mister, water,” were among the few words the children knew. A frantic shoving match began as soldiers raced to fill water bottles for the masses. Children punched each other, grabbed one another by the neck to get water. One Iraqi man attempted to control the crowd, only moderately successful. After we exhausted our water supply, the crowd was much more docile. People helped the soldiers erect the play equipment and scores of children helped carry it off the flatbed trucks. It was like they had never seen a park and this was probably true. All day, children repeatedly jabbered, “Surah mister, surah,” meaning take a photo.
What started out as a humanitarian gesture turned into torture as the Iraqis picked apart the convoy for food and water. They grabbed anything they could off the humvees. More journalists arrived at noon, including a group from the Boston Globe with a Lebanese woman interpreter. She was groped repeatedly before they were forced to leave. For most of the afternoon, the soldiers gingerly pushed the children away from the vehicles, but they continually probed the light defenses with smiles and charm. They would reach into vehicles, take gear and pick pockets. I lost a compass and a child returned my 1.4 extender lens in exchange for a treat.
Some of the adults attempted to teach us Arabic and
they wanted to learn more English; most picked it up quickly. One man
who said he taught English to his students showed torture burns up his
arm from Saddam’s police. He said his father has been missing
for more than 10 years.
I replied: “No, you will give the order now, because if any of these guys collapses from heat exhaustion, I will take the picture and you will fry.” The order was quickly given and the admiral continued his jaunt with the clueless press as he ignored the people who erected the site and built the soccer field. The children continued to hound us for water so I suggested to them that maybe the admiral had water!
Not ten minutes later, hundreds of children besieged the admiral’s convoy. Hordes of children climbed up on the transport, stealing water, food and gear, as soldiers stood by. The admiral departed in a humvee. The truck was cleaned out and soldiers were forced to intervene, leaving the humvees as looting targets. The remaining portion of the convoy fled with hundreds of cheering Iraqis racing after them.
This would be the last major effort that I would see with the Seabees as they would be relegated to operating water filtering and showers. A plan to go to Nasiriya was scrapped.
This Seabee unit was treated as a stepchild, their talents squandered. For me though, it was valuable and I made new and important friendships and learned more about the military than I would otherwise have known. I was gratified to become a conduit for many soldiers to get messages to their families via e-mail with my Inmarsat. The letters back from families were heart wrenching. But as much access as I had in my little localities, I was also limited by whatever the local commanders wanted us to see. There were skirmishes with leftover resistance, but we were relegated to the port. There were many aid convoys, but we couldn’t see them. When Iraqi workers were hired to fix the road, I was told not to take pictures of them being searched. We moved at the whim of local commanders based on where they needed to travel to make deliveries or do construction projects. It didn’t matter to the public affairs officers that my colleague, a reporter, was a decorated Marine lieutenant. We weren’t going any further.
In the end, I had to unembed much earlier than anticipated. I returned to Kuwait, and watched the rest of the taking of Baghdad on television.