Many have asked me to write about my experience in Iraq so here goes...
So I'm on a US State dept-sponsored trip to Iraq as part of a delegation of high tech companies. I'm here with two others representing Google in the company of a great group of others from companies from both the west and east coast.
Let's get to to the good stuff.
So I arrived Fri night in Amman and headed to the Intercontinental hotel. A good friend of mine picked me up around 9 and we went for dinner and shisha. We drove around the city looking for any interesting nightlife to no avail. There was barely anyone out. By around 12:30am, I was back in my room and stayed up for a couple of hrs doing some work.
By 8am I was downstairs having breakfast and meeting the rest of the delegation. Jared Cohen from the US State dept briefed us on the schedule and logistics. At this point, it still wasn't registering that I was headed in to a war zone. For some reason, I was really relaxed about it.
By 9:30, we were all packed in to a big bus and we were headed for Malka airport (a municipal airport). We were going to board a military plane to head in the Baghdad. Our flight was scheduled to leave at 11am but I found out the hard way that military flights never leave on time. We were told that we were taking a chartered jet in to Iraq and not a military plane. I was really bummed about that because I wanted the full experience.
Lo and behold, 3 hrs later, we're about to board. We get into the bus that takes us to the plane. To our surprise, we were boarding a C130 Hercules military plane!! Here's what that looked like:
First of all, this was an amazing experience to actually be in this plane! It was so great looking at these young army kids doing their job. I had a lot of respect for what they were doing. So I get in to the plane, pick up a kevlar helment and a 20 lb PPE (bullet proof vest). Inside, there are 4 rows of benches. Two of them run across both sides of the plane and then two are opposite eachother in the center. I made a mistake and sat in one of the center ones. It turns out that these benches in the center don't have backrests so basically the person sitting behind you is your backrest. I didn't figure this out until he nudged me cuz I kept on moving :)
This is a pic of one of the army guys sitting in a swing-like seat, watching from the window:
View from my seat, looking to the front of the plane. Notice the two army guys in the front: One is playing on a PSP and the other is listening to his MP3 player :)
So this as you might imagine, the most uncomfortable plane ride I've ever experienced. There is absolutely no leg room - you are jammed opposite another row of people so you're basically fighting for the same leg room. I was trying to jam my legs between the guy in front of me, and he was doing the same. Let's not forget that I'm basically sitting on some mesh which has no padding - my rear end was numb by the time we landed!
I thought this would be a somewhat normal flight. I made the mistake of taking my carry-on with me. Let me tell you, there is no overhead bins in military planes :) So they told me I had to put it on my lap! Luckily, by the time I sat down, some nice military guy took my bag and threw it at the end of the plane. You might wonder what did they do with all of our checked-in luggage? Well, they just put it on one big skid and throw it in the back of the plane. So we're basically sitting next to the cargo...and yes, no business class, no meal service, and no frequent flyer miles :)
They then fired up the engines and because these things are not well insulated, it's annoyingly loud. So I wanted to grab my noise cancelling headphones. I ended up writing a note on my cell and passed it to the person to the left of me until it got to the last person...they then passed it back the opposite way...awesome :) So I slapped those on and it dampened the noise but it was still pretty loud.
We take off - and it was really uneventful. The trip was pretty uncomfy and I probably half slept through most of it since we were so exhausted. Oh and I should have mentioned that we were in suits all day which was a huge mistake - we didn't have to be in suits at all. People in the airport boarding with us were looking at us so funny since we were the only group in suits :)
Anyway, you knew we were there when the plane would make really quick drops, veer to the left, go up again, veer to the right, and repeat. They call it a corkscrew landing. Minutes later, we were on the ground. Bear in mind, we have no windows so we can't even see outside. The landing was so smooth that I wasn't even sure we landed!
We land and just as soon as the rear hatch opens, I see a military helicopter flying in the distance. That's when I knew I was in Iraq! We all get out, and file outside in two lines like we are in the army. Someone intercepts us and walks us off the tarmac to a holding area where they call us out (the tech delegation). We then go off to pick up our luggage. After that, we had two helicopters (bluebirds) waiting for us to fly us from Baghdad airport to the Green zone (which I've now learned is called the International zone).
Here are some pics of that part:
Walking to board our chopper after our C130 flight
View from inside the chopper as we are in the air
View from the back of the chopper
This guy was sitting right behind me. The window was popped out so he could take anyone out if we run in to problems :)
By far, the most amazing thing was the helicopter ride. I have never been in one before and it was an amazing experience. These pilots make it seem like it's nothing but it's actually harder than flying a plane. It was so smooth - it just felt like we were cruising! So, we were in the air and I took in the beautiful sights of Baghdad for the first time!
View of the helicopter with the rest of our group
After a smooth landing at LZ Washington (landing zone washington), we get our luggage, walk around the perimeter of the tarmac of a string of at least a half dozen helicopters, and we meet our motorcade which was 2 armored suburbans (in front and behind us) and two buses. We then were quickly briefed by a State department Special Agent (ex-army) that was assigned to us for the trip who mentioned that there are double digit number of people assigned to protect us during out stay (he wouldnt say how many exactly). When we landed, we could definitely see tons of security guys waiting around. So we got in and headed to the US embassy compound which is a huge, fortress!
Our lead car - armored suburban
At this point, we get checked in to the embassy guest housing, get assigned to rooms (4 to a room), head to our rooms, quickly freshen up and then head out for our first set of mtgs. We initially meet with various Embassy officials to discuss high level agenda and what not. We're of course bombarded with jargon and acronyms we've never heard before. We then get a 30 min security briefing telling us what we can and can't do, in addition to protocol on taking pictures. Luckily, everything is OK so long as we do it at least one day after the fact and never mention what we plan to do in the future since we could easily be targetted and kidnapped. This security briefing really got me excited - sounded so dangerous! :)
After this, we headed to the house of Gen Nasser Abadi who is the Iraqi Armed forces vice chief of staff. We had a very fine dinner and chatted for a couple of hrs before we headed back to the US embassy compound. What was really nervwracking was that every 5 mins or so, you'd hear a helicopter hover over us...then seconds later, another one. All night long. I found out that they come in two's for safety reasons. I also found out that my cell phone will rarely work while here. It turns out that there is cell phone signal jammers all over so it prevents any IEDs from exploding via remote device. Kind of a bummer since my cell service is sporadic, but I'd take that any day than an IED on the road! :)
That was the end of day one...so far so good.