Wednesday, January 04, 2006
Retired LtCol. Oliver North's signature in the "VIP" room, December 30, 2005
December 29, 2005
After several hours of waiting for my helicopter at the Fallujah landing zone, “Bhrama 65” touched down well after midnight. Although I'd already been at the LZ for 2 hours, I was told “Bhrama” was running at least 2 hours behind schedule. I spent the next 4 hours at the LZ lying restlessly on the dirty plywood floor, trying to make myself comfortable yet never quite getting there.
For the comfort of those awaiting their flights, the Navy “Sea-Bees” constructed several wooden C-huts, each a simple plywood shed large enough to hold a couple dozen passengers. These are no-frills shelters - just a floor, roof, and 4 walls designed to provide minimal protection from sandstorms, summer sun and winter chill. No windows, not even any paint. However, it keeps passengers elevated above the desert floor and keeps away the sand fleas that cause leshmaniasis, a nasty skin infection that eats away the skin of its victim. The “sea-bees” also ran electrical power to the C-huts. Each is outfitted with lights and a dual heater/air conditioner unit to stave off summer heat and ward off winter chill.
I had just dozed off when the thump of the rotors could be heard in the distance. The AACG-DACG NCO quickly popped his head into the door, letting us know the bird was inbound. We rushed to don our gear and headed out to the LZ, the evening pitch black and devoid of moonlight. Only the soft green glow of the helo’s interior lights could be made out in the darkness. Once aboard, the pilots throttled up and the helicopter shuddered violently, lifting up and pitching forward as we gained speed and altitude. Silhouetted by the glow of the cockpit instruments, the door gunners chambered their weapons as we sped away from the LZ.
The night air was cold and made colder still by the wash of the rotors. The temperatures hovered in the mid-thirties and despite two layers of clothing beneath my interceptor vest, I shivered uncontrollably throughout the flight.
Touching down at Camp Ramadi was extremely disorienting. Unlike the semi-lit LZ’s of CF, TQ and AA, Camp Ramadi is still governed by blackout conditions. Insurgents recently lobbed mortars into the base, apparently using visible light as their aiming point. Off base, the city of Ramadi is similar to Fallujah in early 2004. The insurgents are still very active and precious few civil-military operations are able to be conducted in town. Marines still occupy tactical FIRM bases or battle positions and when dismounted, hustle between locations, as snipers are still very active in the area. The Iraqi Army, or IA, are the only local authority around and patrol side by side with the Marines, still reliant on the Marine Corps for support.
It was nearly 4 a.m. when the helo sped away, leaving me standing in a darkened LZ, unsure where to go. Two National Guard soldiers were at the LZ and offered to drive me to an empty warehouse on the other end of camp, a place I could hang my hat for a couple of hours. Apparently, it contained a few mattresses and empty steel racks on which I might be able to catch some shut eye.
The warehouse was dirty and abandoned. However, just as told, it was littered with old bunkbeds and used mattresses. Finding a mattress with few visible rips and stains, I happily laid down (in full uniform, of course – I’m not sure what may have been crawling on those mattresses) and quickly fell asleep, much more comfortable than the plywood floor I’d been lying on earlier.
This morning, I found a convoy heading into the city and thumbed a ride. I arrived at Hurricane Point, a small FOB in Ramadi and home to the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, my host for the next several days. The S-3 chief showed me my "room", a 7’ x 10’ toilet that had been transformed into living quarters for VIP's. I wondered if they were trying to tell me something! Made completely of tile and formerly holding a toilet and bidet, a bunkbed now fills the empty space. The water and drainage pipes are cut and sealed, but the fact that the room was formerly a toilet is still vary apparent. It sounds less than pleasant but is heaven compared to the living condition of the troops in the field. I've actually got a mattress and 4 walls - more than can be said for the Marines outside the wire in Ramadi.
On several occasions, Hurricane Point has played host to retired USMC LtCol. Oliver North, known primarily for his involvement in the mid-1980's Iran/Contra ordeal. Now a nationally syndicated anchor on the FOX news network, he's visited the FOB several times, visting with our Marines in Ramadi. It turns out that Ollie and I not only share the same rank, we've shared the same bed, on separate occasions, of course!! On the wall of my "VIP" quarters is Ollie's signature, a note to his hosts thanking them for allowing him to visit.