A Lightning Strike Into Abu Ghraib
After the first revelations surfaced about U.S. military personnel abusing Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, I figured that once again I'd have to make that trip from my home in California back across the country to Washington, D.C.
Less than a week later I was taking pictures of the President, Vice President, and the Secretary of Defense as they marched out of Rumsfeld's office at the Pentagon after a meeting on that most unpleasant subject.
At one point it appeared that no civilian photographer was going to be manifested on the mission, but after I agreed to pool my photos it was decided that I could go along.
Under a shroud of secrecy, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the nation's top military leader, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers boarded a U.S. Air Force jet for the 14-hour non-stop trip to Kuwait.
We flew on the National Airborne Operations Center (NAOC), one of four National Military Command Centers, sometimes called the "Doomsday" plane, which is a militarized version of the 747. The NAOC is where the President would be taken in the event of a nuclear attack or some major emergency. The aircraft was chosen because of its ability to be refueled in midair, which happened twice each way.
In Kuwait, we boarded a C-130 cargo plane for the short flight to Baghdad. The aircraft made a tight corkscrewing turn as it descended into the Baghdad airport, pulling enough g's to make me feel like I weighed 500 pounds. The maneuver was necessary because of the real possibility of being shot at by surface-to-air missiles.
After landing in Baghdad, Rumsfeld was greeted by Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of Coalition forces in Iraq. They immediately boarded a Chinook helicopter for the short ride to Sanchez's headquarters in one of Saddam Hussein's old palaces for meetings with military leaders.
Our transportation at Abu Ghraib was an olive-drab bulletproof Winnebago the first time I'd seen such a vehicle. I suppose it would be the perfect RV if you wanted to vacation in Grozny or Fallujah.
I was inside the reinforced RV with Rumsfeld and Myers as we drove past hundreds of imprisoned detainees, many of who expressed their unhappiness with rude gestures toward the Secretary's party. A few held up an Iraqi flag. The best pictures on the trip I never got to take. It was forbidden to photograph the detainees behind the barbed wire, a now rigidly enforced provision of an old rule.
Rumsfeld had one more stop to make before leaving Baghdad. He addressed several hundred American troops at Al Faw Palace in a town hall setting where he answered questions from military personnel. At the end of his talk he was surrounded by the troops as they crowded around to him to shake his hand and to have their pictures taken with him.
From the time we departed Andrews Air Force Base at noon on Wednesday, May 12 until we returned at 6 a.m. Friday, May 14, the journey only lasted 42 hours-we were in the air for 31 of them.
My pictures of Rumsfeld's trip ended up on the front page of practically every newspaper in America, which was professionally satisfying to me. It's sad and ironic, however, that some of a journalist's greatest successes are born out of tragedies such as these.
© David Hume Kennerly
Newsweek Contributing Editor
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