Monday, January 28, 2008

Notes from Iraq

I was asked to talk to a couple of groups about what it was like working in Iraq. I have no idea what I'm going to say to them. I was going through my e-mails I sent while I was in Iraq shooting for The Times to prompt my memory and realized it was really the beginnings of a blog of sorts. I figured it would be a good place to start my blog. A little adventure to lure you into an otherwise ordinary life...

From: Eric Schultz
Subject: [The_Schlots] Getting fitted for my turban


That's how you say "hello" in Arabic. See, I've already learned something. I've also learned that when you haven't slept for two days things get really weird. I just took an Ambien so this note could take a peculiar turn at any point - my apologies.

After 26 hours of flying and an insane circular bus ride in Paris we finally arrived in Kuwait City, Kuwait. No real problems other than Paris being a little crazy. We were greeted at the airport by out Army and Air Force people and we ate Italian food at the food court. We were starving because we hadn't really eating since we left Huntsville. It wasn't pretty. Through a bizarre twist of circumstances we are staying at the Hilton Kuwait Resort in Kuwait City. ( It's tough, but sometimes you just have to rough it when you’re headed into a war zone. You'll have to excuse me, I have to go feed my complimentary goldfish... Ok, I'm back. I put his bowl in front of the TV and put it on the animal channel that seems to show a bunch of sea shows here. He seems interested. He at least hangs out on that side of the bowl. I fed him while I was munching on the fresh dates and orange juice left in the room. Maybe they have us all fooled about this army life?

Actually, we are staging here for a day and getting everyone in our group together. We have a briefing tomorrow - similar to the one Patricia and I went to at Redstone Arsenal. After that I'm not sure. My main goal is to catch up on sleep. I am missing almost three days of sleep. It's beginning to feel like I'm part of a Hunter S. Thompson novel.

Everyone has been very nice. Kuwait seems very clean. Looks like Mayor Loretta Spencer was here. We rode in a blacked out Mercedes from the airport to the Hilton. Once at the Hilton, it was like getting on post at Redstone Arsenal without a decal. Cavity searches, anyone? If anyone there is interested I'd be happy to bring back a burka - they seem to be the trend here. Hey, you don’t have to worry about your hair or make-up! There's that.

It sounds like we'll be in Kuwait for a day before they start moving us into Baghdad. We have to get processed in. It involves lots of paperwork and retinal scans and fingerprints. Sliding money seems to help. I will try to make some phone calls on Wednesday if I get some free time. It sound like our schedule will get pretty packed pretty quickly. We will be working stories in the day and flying to different bases at night. Seems they like to shoot at flying objects in the day.

I just wanted to give everyone an idea of what was going on. Feel free to pass his along to anyone who is interested. I don’t' have everyone names, I'm just ripping them off other emails.

Maybe I'll get fitted for my turban tomorrow? Or maybe I get fitted for my Hellfire missile?


Sent: Wednesday, October 31, 2007 3:31 PM
Subject: [The_Schlots] Waiting is over...

The waiting is over.

Major Kirkpatrick just called. The C-130 is waiting for us. We fly out of Kuwait City at 4 a.m. local time - I think that's 7 p.m. Huntsville time. The flight time is about 2 hours into Baghdad.


Sent: Wednesday, October 31, 2007 1:31 PM
Subject: [The_Schlots] Waiting

I'm waiting for the call.

We are supposed to get a call at 10:15 local time to tell us whether we fly into Baghdad tonight. It's just a matter of getting the aircraft lined up. It may not happen until morning. It's about a two hour flight from Kuwait into Baghdad. After that we've been told that it's non-stop. Sleep whenever you can. Right now it's all about the waiting. If we don't go tonight it might be tomorrow night. They won't fly us into Baghdad during daylight.

Just to let you know I have been with our lead Major Jason Kirkpatrick (USAFR) He's the real deal. He has his head on straight and his only mission is to take care of us and get us to where we need to be and to get us there safely. I can't tell you how much confidence I have in this guy. He's experienced and smart. He's also a local guy, he was born and raised in Athens.

It's been really nice here. We are here at the Hilton because the housing was all full up. Too bad. I'll miss my fish. I've named him Falaffel. It's strange staying here in such posh luxury before we hit Iraq. Sort of like a chapter out of a Hunter S. Thompson book. We are all ready to go.


Subject: Sleep, sleep, sleep.
Date: Thu, 1 Nov 2007 16:26:12 +0000

We made it to Baghdad, finally. I was up at 3 a.m. and we finally got here at 5 p.m. A long, long day. We had all sort of trouble with the plane - some sort of sensor problem. We were waiting on the flight line forever. Just out there by the plane in our flak jackets and helmets with all our gear while it got hotter and hotter. Finally after hours of waiting, we got off the ground. We were about 12 minutes out of Kuwait City when something went wrong. We lost an engine and they had to declare an emergency and go back. Ugh. The plane was broken. We sat on the flight line for hours while they tried to fix it and then they finally got us another plane. By the time we left Kuwait City it was mid afternoon. I did get to go up into the cockpit while we were flying over Iraq and take some photos. That was pretty cool.

Our flight into Baghdad was a little hairy. The flight in is a series of crazy turns and banks to throw off anyone who wants to do us harm. Our fearless leader, Major Kirkpatrick, looked over at us in the middle of the landing and gave a peculiar look. After we landed he said that the crew had fired of flares because there was a missile threat as we were coming in to the airport. The flares are used to throw missiles off our trail. Major Kirkpatrick had heard the flares firing out of the plane and that's when he was looking peculiar. I'm glad I didn't know that. We don't know if anything was really tracking us and apparently it's not that uncommon. Still, it made for a hairy ride. We were all very happy to be safely on the ground.

So, here I am on the ground in Baghdad. I have still not shot my first assignment. It's an odd journey, that's for sure. Tomorrow we are supposed to photograph a general in Saddam's old palace and a couple other assignments. There are some local people here we are trying to hook up with. I am just glad to be working. I am sick of waiting in flack jackets and carrying 100 pounds of gear and armor. I swear I'll be ten pound thinner when I get home. It's is all about hurry up and wait.

Now, I am off to shower in Sadam's old guesthouse. It's a very surreal life her. Patricia put it best, it's swanky in a Graceland meets Vegas sort of way. I have learned to sleep sitting up, standing up lying down, in a plane, in a bus, in a car, and I've almost perfected sleeping while walking. And now, sleep. Sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep.


Sent: Friday, November 02, 2007 6:48 PM
Subject: [The_Schlots] Hello from Baghdad.

Hello from Baghdad.

Today we went onto the Green Zone. We had to ride the armored truck called a Rhino from our hotel into the Green Zone. It's basically a Winnebago on steroids. We loaded up with a bunch of soldiers and contractors and headed into the heart of Baghdad. The humvees escorted us all the way in and then we were able to get to the credentialing center to get more paperwork done. Why you have to go into the Green Zone for a badge is beyond me. They fingerprinted me, scanned my retinas, and took half a dozen photos of me. All for a badge so I could move around. Very Orwellian.

While we were in the Green Zone we interviewed a soldier from Huntsville who is running 1000 miles (0.4 miles a lap) to raise money for St. Jude’s Children's Hospital in Memphis. A great story. We also got to go to a bazaar in Baghdad. I bought some old Iraqi money with Saddam's face all over it. Cool stuff. While we were there we also went to a few spots in Baghdad you may know, the parade grounds with the HUGE sabers over them. We also went to the tomb of the unknown soldier - which is HUGE. Saddam liked things huge. We did get to drive around Baghdad a bit. It is hard to explain what it is like. It's like time stopped. The buildings are still all bombed out. It looks like the land time forgot. Everyone forgot, except all the soldiers. There are humvees and helicopters moving CONSTANTLY. There is always the sound of helicopters overhead. They are always looking for someone to kill. Plenty of targets from what I gather.

We also interviewed Major General James E. Simmons. His office is in Saddam's palace. After the interview we got to walk around the palace. It is the most opulent place I have ever seen. The chandelier in the mail hall was as big as my Subaru - I kid you not. The general is guarded by these Marines from Togo. They are the toughest-looking dudes I have ever seen in my life. They would kill you in a millisecond, I have no doubt. The funny part is they were all humming these beautiful African songs. It was a strange contrast.

We were supposed to leave for a base up north, but things didn't quite come together. We will stay here at the hotel for one more night. Then we head north to look at robot planes. If I told you where we were going I'd have to kill you and put your head in a safe. But, hopefully, we'll be on the move tomorrow. I'm sure our lodging will suffer. We are staying in the VIP housing which is a palace built for one of Saddam's daughters as a wedding present. It's huge! The front doors are almost 20 feet high. There's nothing quite like using one of Saddam's gold-plated toilets. I don't know if I can ever pee in a plain white toilet again. Sigh.

I can tell you this - the war is real, very real. And it is everywhere here, there is no place I have been where you didn't hear small arm fire every few minutes. The helos are constantly flying. There is always the sound of an Apache or a Blackhawk overhead. But I will also tell you that these guys over here are extraordinary. In spite of all this going on I have never felt like I was not safe. All these soldiers are looking out for one another - and me. And they mean it. They may not agree with why they are over here but they are here dealing with a fucked-up place and putting their life in the line because someone told them to. It's an extraordinary, surreal, war-torn, violent place and they are amazing soldiers who show up for work every day.

So there is my first full day in Iraq. I can't sleep - it's 3:30 in the morning - and in a way I don't want to. I know it sounds crazy, but I don't want to miss a thing. We had been sitting on our ass for four days before this. It's good to get out there and see the real deal. I'm hungry to see more. I can't explain it. I love being around the soldiers. I am with a great group of journalists, too. There are eight of us. I haven't laughed so hard in my life, and we can't even find a drink. No alcohol anywhere. What is a journalist to do in a war zone without a drink? Instead we sit around and swap war stories over ice cream. Everyone has great stories and experiences and I think everyone knows that this is a once in a lifetime chance. Don't get me wrong, I will be happy to be home where I can shower and eat and sleep and do what I want to do without someone asking me for ID. This war also makes you appreciate those you love and want to be close to them. But for now I don't want to miss a second of this. It's oddly addicting and I've only been here a day.

Thanks to all who are praying for me. I think God is about to take the prayer phone off the hook because so many people have told me they are praying for me. If you say a prayer - pray for the soldiers. Pray hard for them. Pray for the families whose sons and daughters are here. They need it more than I do. And while you're at it pray for the Iraqi's. People get shot here every day because they pray, just because they pray.

Peace and love to all from the heart of Babylon, a place where peace and love are in short supply-


Sent: Sunday, November 04, 2007 7:56 PM
Subject: [The_Schlots] Sunday update on Eric

I heard from Eric this afternoon (probably around midnight Iraq time). He’s someplace else in Iraq that is different from yesterday, and not Baghdad.

Days have been full of periods of work separated by periods of waiting. Nights have been full of waiting and travel, with only a little sleep and a wide variation on quarters. Last night's quarters were apparently soiled cots in a building that smelled like something in between B.O. and an outhouse. Tonight's quarters are containers like those on trains - they are each divided into two units - Eric has his own unit tonight and is thankful for a bit of privacy (and no stink). He hopes to get some good sleep tonight, although as I write this, it is now just a few hours from morning in Iraq.

There are other journalists on the trip, some from Jane's Defense Weekly, and some other publications. So some of the interviews aren't of interest to everyone on the trip. And some are probably a bit of Army propaganda. There have been a few interviews in areas in which photography is prohibited, and Eric wishes he could have spent that time sleeping somewhere. Also with the military public affairs officers as "tour guides", some of the "hard" questions aren't allowed, which the journalists find frustrating.

So far, Eric says the most interesting things (at least from a photographer's perspective) have been in Baghdad and he hopes they will spend additional time there before the trip ends.

Anyhow, Eric is doing well except for being sleepy. We both appreciate your

Laura Lockhart Schultz

To:, Eric Schultz
Date: Mon, 5 Nov 2007 17:01:34 +0000

We're in Balad. Yeah, try and find that on the map.

I'll tell you this, it's better than Taji. Taji is like hell vomited and it dried up and people decided to put an airbase there. Really. To make matters worse, our room smelled like ass. It's the base where they fly the Shadows out of.

Then we flew a Chinook out of there to Balad. The flight was cool. I got to sit near the back near the tail gunner. They leave the back door open and you can see everything as the Chinook flies about 900 feet over the city. The whoop, whoop, whoop of the blade sounds so cool. And you can see the other helos following out the back. All the helos fly totally blacked out. You can see all the lights of the cities and look right into all the back yards. It's just too cool.

I finally got some sleep and feel much better. It's amazing how a few hours of sleep can make all the difference in the world.

We did finally see some UAV's - the e real reason we are here. So it feels like we're doing what we were sent here to do. There have been some bumps in the road but really things are going pretty well.

It's been really cool meeting all the soldiers. I know I said it before but I'll say it again. These soldiers are the best people in the world. How they keep doing what they do every day is beyond my comprehension.

It's been tough getting a link out to the real world. This is the first time I've had an internet link in days. I'm tired of carrying everything I own on my back. Not only do I carry my camera, computer, all my clothing and belongings, but I have to wear a 40 pound flak jacket and a helmet. I probably weigh over 300 pounds. Today we haven't had to wear the gear and I feel like I'm floating. Ahhhhhhh......

Hope everyone is fine. I have been thinking of home. I'm halfway there.


Sent: Wednesday, November 07, 2007 2:31 AM
Subject: Re: [The_Schlots] Off to Iraq

Hello from Tikrit.

It's a wasteland here. I have never seen a wasteland like this place in my life. There is no beautiful desolation here, either. It is just blowing sand from horizon to horizon. Everything is covered with sand, the houses, the trees, the humvees, the people, everything. It gets into everything. It's in my ears, mouth, nose - I don't know how anyone lives here. When a helo lifts off it makes a huge cloud that you can't even see through.

It's been sort of a useless stop for me here. The things I was supposed to photograph did not come through. I haven't made a photo since we got here last night. On top of that if we miss our flight it might be three days - yes three days - until we can hop another lift out of here. I don't know what I'll do here for three days. There is just nothing here - sand covered tents and sand covered soldiers. God bless the soldiers. I don’t think I could ever do what they do. This is an absolute shithole. But, I am trying to keep a positive attitude. I think we will get a ride out today because of our fearless leader, Major Kirkpatrick. He seems to always pull the rabbit out of the hat. I think he would steal a helicopter and fly us out himself. (He flies helicopters and C-130's.) No one has shot at us in days, that's a good thing. If all goes well I will be in Kuwait tonight.

Kuwait seems like a dream right now. The thought of sleeping in abed that wasn't slept in by Iraqi soldier for 20 years seems like a real treat. Running water would be a dream. I would love to have a shower by myself let alone my own bathroom. When you travel with eight others all the time, solitude becomes bliss.

Again thanks for all your thoughts and prayers. They must be working. Say a prayer we find a helicopter or a C-130 with nothing to do but drag some journalists out of this scab on the ass of the world. Again, say a prayer for the soldiers. I met a soldier who has been on seven tours over here. Seven. I can't even imagine.
God bless them all.

On to Kuwait and out of the blowing sand.


Sent: Thursday, November 08, 2007 4:22 AM
Subject: [The_Schlots] Stuck In Tikrit
We're still in Tikrit.

A sandstorm came up yesterday and sort of grounded us in Tikrit. They said our plane was broken in Balad but that seems to be a pretty common answer when a crew doesn't want to go somewhere. I don't know why anyone would want to go here. So we spent another night here on the dirtiest place on earth. There is almost no point in hiking the half mile to the shower because by the time you hike back to the barracks you are covered with sand again. Last night you couldn't even see the stars at night for all the sand in the air. But, one thing I have learned on this trip is patience.

So, we are scheduled to hop a flight on a Chinook to Balad where we will probably sleep in the PAX terminal and then hope to hop on a C-130 with some space to Kuwait. We were hoping to get back a little early but it doesn't look like that’s going to happen. The joys of hitching rides in the military.

We did a few interviews yesterday. We met some of the EOD guys who remove the IEDs and other bombs. That's a job I could never do. They had just finished a memorial service for one of their guys who had been killed when an RPG had hit him in his vehicle on a mission. Tough work in a tough place. Other than that it has been a lot of waiting. And waiting and waiting.

We are all looking forward to getting home. I just wish we were moving in the right direction and not just sitting here watching the sand cover everything.

Wish us luck!


Sent: Thursday, November 08, 2007 7:18 AM
Subject: [The_Schlots] Still waiting.

Ok, a couple surreal things in Iraq.

Yesterday, I photographed a soldier riding a unicycle on the flight line at the base where we are stuck. There he was with a backpack and his weapon riding a unicycle down the flight line. He said his mother, who also rides a unicycle, sent it to him. He figured he was here 15 months and had nothing better to do than learn how to ride a unicycle.

Today, because I had nothing better to do, I went for a run. I ran around the soccer stadium where Saddam's son, Udea (?) coached the Iraqi soccer team. When they lost the world cup, he broke the coach's legs and shot a couple players. I think that's where the photo of Sadam with the shotgun was made. We bombed it.

Still waiting for a plane or a helicopter or a hot air balloon - anything to get me out of here. No sandstorm today. Things are looking up.


Sent: Friday, November 09, 2007 6:28 PM
Subject: [The_Schlots] Awake In Kuwait

After a 36 hour journey we finally made it out of Iraq. It's tough when you are counting on favors to move you on military aircraft around the country. We kept getting bumped off our flights. Sometimes the plane was broken, once it was a sandstorm, another time there were soldiers on emergency leave trying to get home that kept us off the flights. I'm not going to be the one to tell a soldier he's not going home after he's been in Iraq a year, that's for sure. First, we were supposed to fly out on a C-130, then we were hoping to
get a ride on a Chinook, finally we got a ride on a Shirpa. What took 45 minutes in a C-130 took two hours in the Shirpa. Flying over Iraq at 4:00 a.m. in a Shirpa is no holiday. But it was a way out and I wasn't turning it down. We finally got to Kuwait City around 5:00 am. We got moving toward our military housing at 6:00 a.m. and I don't think I have ever been so tired in my life.

Right now we are stuck in Kuwait while we wait to get our passports back. They take our passports until the Kuwaiti government issues us a visa, ironically, so we can leave. Oh, and it costs about $12.00 and it has to be in KD. Sigh. So, I am stuck here without a passport. I hope they give them back soon. It is very unnerving to be here without a passport. Our military escort, Major Kirkpatrick, is leaving soon and I really would like to have it back before he leaves.

It is good to be out of Iraq. It was brilliantly exciting at moments and other moments it was like time stood still and nothing was happening. I guess that's what war is like. Great periods of boredom broken up by moments of terror and then replaced by relief and exhilaration. I loved the flying. On our first leg out, the Chinook flew in formation with another Chinook about 100 feet of the ground screaming along with the thundering whoop, whoop, whoop and the twin engines screaming. You could see right into people's houses! At one point headlights from a car were shining into the back gate of the Chinook. When they fly the gate is down so the tail gunner can look for fire. Let me tell you it doesn't get more exciting than flying blacked out over the rooftops looking onto Iraqi's living rooms. Well, it did get a little more exciting, but I'll tell you about that when I get home...

I loved the flying. I really did. It was by far the coolest part of the trip. The Chinooks were the best, but the C-130's and the Shirpas were fun, too. We were really hoping to ride in a Blackhawk but it just never worked out. I wish we could have flown more in the day, but we were working in the day and I think it is more dangerous in the day.

So, I'm here in Kuwait City after shopping and eating at a Kabob restaurant and Iraq already seems very far away in both a good and a bad way. It's good to be out of there. The best way I have found to describe Iraq is this: Imagine a nuclear test site about five years after the bombs went off. That's what it looked like. Just a stark, sandy wasteland. The trees didn't even want to grow. If they could, I'm sure they would grow legs and walk out of there. Baghdad was the exception. Baghdad was like a huge ghost town. Imagine Atlanta with about ten percent, maybe twenty percent, of the population living there. Just these huge streets with no one there except tanks and humvees t-barriers. The t-barriers were ubiquitous. Everywhere you went you were either driving around or walking around t-barriers. You can't see anything - no skyline or landscape for all the t-barriers. Concrete walls everywhere and nothing to see. I got lost once just a few yards away from where I was supposed to go because all the t-barriers looked alike. I felt like an idiot.

Today, when I woke up in Kuwait City, I heard something I hadn't heard since I left two weeks ago - children. There is a park on the beach across the street from our apartment and there was some sort of festival with music and children playing. We opened the window just to hear the sounds of life in the city. The best thing was hearing all the children playing. Laughter. There is no laughter in Iraq. A few of us just stood by the window and listened and watched and the children played and parents ran around in their burkas dishdashes and chasing them. We stood at the window and just listened to the sound of a day in the park and it was beautiful, simply beautiful.

I'm off to sleep in a real bed with clean sheets. How sweet it that?!


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