Dispatch From Downrange
Dispatch From Downrange –IRAQ
My travel here was, well a trip, no pun intended. The journey started at 3am in Jordan. I was escorting 3 dogs besides my partner, Mad. We loaded the dogs, crates and all, along with my gear and headed to the airport. I had to depend on a minder to get things arranged, as I didn’t know the rules or procedures here in Jordan. Once at the airport, along with the help of a couple baggage handlers, we unloaded the dogs and headed to the ticket counter. I have to tell you the 4 dogs in the Jordanian airport is not a normal event. Customs, health officials, security, baggage handlers, and officials from Royal Jordanian airline all had a say and a different thing or paper they wanted. Taking care of the paperwork, we headed to the oversize baggage check-in. There, the dogs had to be removed from their carriers and the cages x-rayed. The culture here is not a dog culture like we are in the States so when I got a dog out everyone got very nervous. Now three of the dogs were not especially vicious looking, two springer spaniels and one black lab but when it came time to get Mad, my German Shepherd out it was a different matter. He showed his protective side and made it clear not to get close to him or me. I calmed him down but inside I was pretty pleased at my protector. All dogs checked in and I headed to the gate. I short wait and it was time to board the flight to Bagdad. I noticed there were no other Americans on the flight but there were a good number of Kenyans going that would be working in the oilfields of Iraq. I heard very little English in the waiting area of on the flight. I had instructions to have one of the flight attendants check that my four dogs were in fact on board. No dogs and no travel for me. When the attendant came by my seat, I asked her to verify the dogs were loaded. She hurried off to the front and got on the phone. In a minute or two, she returned and told me, in a heavy Russian accent, that my dogs were loaded and ready for the trip. That settled, I relaxed for the 2-hour trip.
Landing in Bagdad was a first for me. In fact, there were a lot of firsts on this deployment. Once the plane stopped and parked at the ramp I collected my rucksack and headed to the front of the plane to exit. I was stopped by the same attendant and told I had to wait for the man in the first class section to leave first. He was a tall man dressed in the tradition dishdashas, which are long white garments covered by a black abaya, a long over garment, with embroidery. On his head, he wore the yishmaagh, that’s a head scarf with a egal, headband, to hold it on his head He had two large men dressed in western style suits clearing the way for him. When I got in the airport I saw him again at the passport control in the Diplomat/VIP line. Don’t know who he was but he was clearly being taken care of and treated with much respect. I, on the other hand, was told to go to the visa office and turn in my paperwork. I did this and was directed to a bank of chairs to wait. When I turned in my passport and visa paperwork I was the only one there. Within minutes, dozens of Iraqis and other Arabic nationalities came to the visa office. Two hours later, all of the other people had received their visas and passports. I still sat waiting. I heard a man call out my name and asked if I was from the K-9 company. I said yes and he greeted me and shook my hand. He said he would take care of everything. He went into the visa office and almost immediately returned with my passport and visa. He said his name was Yasir and he was the company escort to get me where I needed to be. To say the least I was relieved. When I followed him through the passport control he seemed to know everyone there. My passport was stamped and I was waived through. Outside he directed me to a van and said we were going to pick up the dogs and that it was all arranged. He already had collected my luggage and it was waiting for me in the van. He was a friendly guy and seemed to really like dogs. He said he had a German Shepherd at his home. That would be very unusual but I took him at his word, I had little choice.
We drove through several Iraqi Police checkpoints. They are manned by five or six policemen and an armored car. They check the paperwork, keep their distance from the dogs and after a conversation with my driver they let us continue on our way. We go to the cargo area and collect the dogs and head to the main entry checkpoint at the airport. On the way we pass a bad traffic accident. There are police standing around and a man is laying on the ground with his hands outstretched to them. No one seemed in any hurry to help this guy in the ground. I asked Yasir if an ambulance would pick him up? He said probably not. Wow. I told myself,” Don’t get hurt here”.
At the checkpoint he unloaded the dogs and my gear and said the team was on the way to get me. I assumed this would be an organized escort. To my surprise, and a little unnerving, the team was another van and an old pickup truck to carry the dogs. Yasir said to go with them and they would transport me. This was against everything I had been taught. Visions of kidnapping and hostage taking ran through my mind. I knew Yasir was the company man. I had had his name up front so I swallowed and got in the van. We drove through the streets of Bagdad through some of the craziest traffic I have ever seen. The cars all travel at whatever speed they can, obey no traffic laws, disregard all signs and lights and simply try to cut everything off. How anyone keeps from wrecking I don’t know. The drive was supposed to take about thirty minutes but about ten minutes in, the driver, I don’t remember his name, got a call on his cell phone. He hung up and told me we were going to detour and not to worry. He was taking me to a good place. The lump in my throat was getting bigger by the second. Everything bad you have seen on TV about these things was playing out in my head. We made a myriad of lefts and rights and stopped in front of a large solid metal sliding gate. There were two Iraqi guards with AK47s standing at the gate. They were not wearing Iraqi uniforms but were in the normal “contractor” uniform we all seem to wear. The gate was open about a foot and I could see another guard inside on the phone. Very shortly after the gate opened and we entered. Inside the gate revealed a large compound. There was a high wall all around. I noticed cameras and a guard tower that overlooked the entrance we had come through. We unloaded my gear and the dogs and I waited for what was going to happen next. I was met by a tall man who stuck out his hand and said “You must be Harris. Welcome Mate.” His British accent was a relief. I was shown in the villa and to a nice room. The dogs and my gear were brought in and the four dogs were put in the room where I was staying. The Brit explained that I was at a safe house used by the PSD team that was going to take me the rest of the way but travel now was impossible due to security conditions. He said we would try tomorrow. I was shown around and met the rest of the guys at the villa. All were either British or Irish. All were contractors and all were very capable at what they did. These guys were shooters whose only job was to transport people from one place to another and get them there no matter what. I had never felt safer. I can’t give their names of course or the company they work for or any other info that might jeopardize their missions. Just know they are there. I was told later I’d be staying with them a couple of days. I headed to the break room, played a couple games of darts, after all they were British, and watched TV for the next day or two. Two days later the team leader of the detail I was going with told me we were headed out as soon as it got dark. I was given a set of body armor, briefed on what to do if things went bad, asked my blood type and got in the vehicle. We loaded up in several armored SUVs with bullet resistant glass roll cages and all sorts of communication gear. Everyone in the vehicles were armed, except me. The team leader checked his radio and we headed out the gate. The next hour was the wildest ride I think I have ever had. The team drove extremely fast. They literally pushed one car that would not yield to them out of the way. The team leader, I was in his car, was in constant communication with the rest of the vehicles in the detail He would warn of road obstructions, slow cars, people on the side of the road, approaching and merging vehicles, which direction he was turning and anything else he thought was of importance. It was like clockwork. The local cars were everywhere and this team in their big SUVs simply either intimidated the cars to get out of the way or would cut them off. They let no traffic in between and of our vehicles. This was aggressive driving at it best, or worst, depending on how you looked at it.
After about an hour we arrived at a Taji Iraq. We processed through the checkpoint and once inside the base, were escorted to where I would be met by yet another team. These guys transferred all my stuff and took me to my final destination, at least for now. I got out of their vehicle and was met by two of my colleges from San Antonio. I got unloaded and retired to my new home, a 15 x 15 room. I got Mad and the other dogs taken care of and quickly went to bed. It had been a long day and a trip I won’t soon forget. Before I fell asleep I looked over at my dog who was actually snoring. He was bushed too. Tomorrow starts my new job. I’ll let you know how it goes.
This is Jon Harris and this has been a
Dispatch from Downrange-Iraq