Fallujah, Iraq - At about 6:00 pm a guy in civilian clothes walked into the heliport where we had been waiting for a ride to Fallujah all day, and figuring me for a press guy, came over and introduced himself as Tom Bowman, the National Public Radio Pentagon Corespondent.
Well it has been quite a day for me and NPR. It turns out that Tom was also on his way to Fallujah, because of a fairly major news event that will be occurring HERE in the next couple of days. I'll post the details as soon as we confirm them in the morning.
Tom is going to be staying here in Fallujah the next week also, and so I'm looking forward to spending some more time with him, and learning about military reporting from one of the true experts in the field.
At 7:15 pm we were lounging around in the heliport office watching "Finding Nemo", and chatting with Tom Bowman when the specialist running the desk announced a little excitedly that his computer was showing that our helicopter was already on the ground (15 minutes early) and we should grab our gear and hustle out to the helipad.
We threw on our body armor and picked up all our gear, and trotted out to look for our helicopter. I turns out that there were 2 Marine Corps Sea Stallions (? need to confirm designation ?) sitting out there on the pad with their rotors spinning.
We hustled over to where the loadmasters were forming up some other passengers who had been waiting somewhere else, and I proceeded to listen in on the coversation/negotiation going on between the loadmasters, one of the specialist from the heliport office, and a Iraqi man. The Iraqi man had 4 men that he was trying get on the flight to Fallugah, the specialist from the heliport office was trying to get us on, and it wasn't quite clear how many spaces there really were available.
Some passengers, like Tom Bowman, had what amounted to confirmed reservations, but CPT Lappegaard and I and two well armed serious looking guys who weren't wearing any military insignia on their nomex flight suits were all on standby. Apparently the 4 Iraqi's were also on standby, and their manager was getting pretty heated with the crew about getting his guys on. I think he was irritating the loadmasters pretty severely because one of them finally just grabbed the 4 of us ambiguously military looking guys, and took us out to his helicopter leaving at least 2 of the Iraqi's on the pad.
We got to talking to our other 2 mysterious standby passengers after we landed in Fallujah, and it turned out that they were NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigation Service) Agents on short term assignment to Fallujah. One of them said he normally works on cold case murder investigations. Sometimes life really is like TV.
Back to the flight to Fallujah: We loaded up on the helicopter and I got to sit right behind one of the waist door gunners. There was another machine gun setup on the ramp, and we flew the whole way with ramp down and the tail gunner perched out there on the edge.
The gunners all charged their weapons as soon as we took off, and we flew totally blacked out over the city. The view with the side windows open and the ramp down was pretty spectacular as we flew out over the city. I was surprised by how many lights there were. It really looked a lot like flying over any smaller American city. Tons of street lights and some cars driving, but no obvious city center.
Flying at night with all the doors and windows open is COLD! Next time I'm definitely putting on my long underwear first.
We made one stop along the way to drop off some people at another airfield, and then on to Fallujah. Fallujah was very dark, and jogging off the helicopter carrying a ton of gear toward somebody waving a chem-light definitely felt a little tactical.
And so 65 hours after walking out the door of my house in Minneapolis I'm standing on the side of a dark LZ (landing zone) in one of the more notoriously dangerous cities in Iraq.
Happily the LZ is in the middle of a large and well secured base, and so we gratefully take off our body armor, and start looking for a place to sleep for the night.
We can't get Bravo Company to answer the phone, and the Marines we are with don't know where they are, and so we head to the Marine Corps transient billets (another big tent on a concrete pad) to get some sleep. We'll figure out where Bravo Company is in the morning.
Day by Day, by Chris Muir (updated daily)
Chris Muir is the cartoonist that I met in Kuwait. He spent two weeks in Iraq at the same time I was there in February 2007, and so thought it would relevant to showcase his work on my site. Here is a link to Chris' humorous travelogue of this Iraq trip: http://billroggio.com/archives/2007/03/arrival_alignright_v.php