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Somewhere in Iraq

Good Friday turned out to be a much-needed day of rest. These days a day of rest means coming into the office around 9 a.m., going out around ten a.m. to shoot one interview, then getting back in time for lunch. The real work was finding someone to interview; we made three stops looking for some Kuwaiti official, gave up, and settled for an American official. Trying to find one of the locals in his office on the Sabbath during Ramadan is about like looking for American executives in their offices on, say...well, on Good Friday, for example.

And a day of rest means just editing one package in the afternoon, done by eight p.m. This was a cause for celebration, and Bert the engineer provided the medium of celebration. I don't understand his connection to Wael, our guide, but it's definitely working because Wael keeps him supplied with Scotch. Bert's job is to maintain the TV equipment, and lately that task has exceeded his means. With no spare parts, diagnostic gear, or even a clean room to work in, Bert has been reduced to simply swearing at the machines and putting an "out of order" sign on them. It's enough to drive a man to drink.

Easter in Iraq
But he had lots of company on that trip Friday night. I arose from the dead on Saturday, prepared for another excursion to the Iraq border. By the time I got downstairs, assignments had changed and were about to change again. First we were going to stay in town, awaiting the announcement of the new Kuwaiti cabinet. An hour later, something new came up; the army wanted to send a crew out to spend Easter morning with the troops in the desert, and we were elected.

I was thrilled--an overnight camp-out in the Iraqi wilderness. This was as close as I was going to get to my original assignment of combat pool, and with none of the danger. It was really no more than a jaunt: fly out in the afternoon, get up early Sunday for the sunrise services, then be back in town by noon to get it on the air.

By the time we had added sleeping bags, an extra tape deck, a battery charger and extra tape to our regular gear, we were already overloaded. No room for food or water--the army would provide--and a change of clothes was hardly necessary. By one p.m. we were aboard an army Blackhawk helicopter headed out into the scorching heat of the desert.

I have commented before on how hard it is to hide any large object out in that wasteland, but from the air it was even more apparent. Against that flat, empty expanse every bunker, every tank, every gun emplacement stuck out like a pimple on a baby's behind. If a pilot didn't have to worry about anyone shooting back, he could hardly miss. He seldom did.

An hour to the west we set down at the division HQ for the Big Red One. Mark went inside for a briefing by the brass while Sean and I began shooting right away. We knew we would lose the light in a few hours, and we wanted to get a second story in the can that day before the Easter story the next morning. This was really above and beyond the call of duty, because we were shooting for the network pool. True, the competition would have equal access to everything we shot, but we held an ace card; our reporter was along on the trip. He knew what he wanted, while the other nets would have to piece the story together after the fact. Few of them would bother.

The story was a routine thumbsucker1--the mood of the troops still stuck out in the desert. We bounced around on dirt roads the rest of the day, visiting individual units to see what they were up to. The answer was nothing. We found a lot of laundry on the line, a G.I. cutting hair (or shaving heads), a game of Frisbee. We found a lot of bored, homesick kids. The most interesting thing we found was a captured Iraqi tent, now in use by American soldiers. A sergeant pointed out its superior design for the desert environment, and he acknowledged that the Iraqis had had centuries to perfect it.

After the obligatory shots of the sun setting behind an Abrams tank, we returned to our own camp for some hot chow. The moon came up just as the sun went down, blood-red and full. It was a magic time in the desert with the sky aglow, the bolder stars and planets making their presence known, a cool breeze carrying away the last of the overheated daytime. I walked up a small knoll to get away from the camp and to drink in an evening I would likely never taste again. As the horizon disappeared into the gloom, distant headlights flitted about like fireflies. Five miles away or fifty, it was just another of the desert's many illusions. None of it seemed real, yet it all seemed so perfect. Well, almost perfect. The one harsh reality that would not go away was the steady drone of a dozen electrical generators, powering the command post's radios and lights. If there is a bane to the professional audio man's existence, it is these infernal machines. Chugging, grinding, roaring away, there is always one within microphone range, churning out the power for a liberated Kuwait or occupied Iraq.

After I had heard enough, I crawled into my sleeping bag on my army cot, inside my captured but not vanquished Iraqi tent.

Desert Storm Bible
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition:
The military chaplains handed out Bibles
bound with desert camouflage covers.
No atheists in foxholes
We were rousted out at 5:00 for the 6:00 service. When the sun rose at 5:42 a.m. we were staked out behind the three large wooden crosses erected for the occasion. It made a stunning picture. The entire service was rather well orchestrated, including the orchestra. We took full advantage of the photo opportunity: an opening pep talk by the general, hymns sung by soldiers holding bibles and rifles, the army brass quintet playing "Home on the Range," a reverent sermon by the country chaplain.2

It's so bizarre to pretend you're invisible at these affairs as you dart among the crowd, poking lens and mic right into the center of everyone's attention. For the cameraman it's different; he can hide behind--even inside--his viewfinder. His view is myopic. The sound tech, on the other hand, has to look out for everything--the cameraman, the cables, the victims. And I can't help but notice the glances in our direction. Whatever event we attend, it is fundamentally changed by our presence. At least most people--American adults, anyway--play by the unwritten rules and pretend we are not least while they're on camera. I can't help but feel that this play-acting is somehow detrimental, particularly at what was once a solemn occasion. But then I tell myself they allowed us to be there, so somewhere, somehow, someone has paid the price in exchange for a little limelight.

We actually attended two services on Easter morning. The first was non-denominational, attended by maybe 75 people; after breakfast our Irish sergeant drove us out to a Mass by the Catholic priest. We worked just as hard (and just as conspicuously) at this one, but somehow this time I was drawn into the spirit of the occasion. A twinge of the old altar boy in me made me even want to take communion, but for various reasons I deemed it inappropriate. But at the end of the service, as the priest shook hands with each attendant in the "sign of peace," I couldn't resist. When he came to us at the end of the semi-circle, I reached out and grabbed his hand--much to the delight of the soldiers in attendance.

We rushed back by chopper to feed our material, so all the networks could get it on the air by sunrise in the States. Then I set about cutting our own version for CNN. All the elements were there: lovely pictures, natural sound, and a reporter with sense enough not to get in the way.3 I put it together with the usual (and forgivable) pride, but this time I felt a little extra. Call it a reverence, for a lack of a thorough description. But I do know I've watched the story six times, and I'm still not tired of it yet.

1Editor's note, 2011: In the cynical parlance of the newsroom, a "thumbsucker" is a trifle given to the news editors to keep them from whining. It's also so simple a baby could do it.

2Editor's note, 2011: The chaplain pointed out that we were very near the ancient site of Ur, the biblical birthplace of Abraham. Through Abraham's son Isaac all of the Jewish people trace their heritage. I will point out that Abraham fathered two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, but Abraham rejected Ishmael because his mother was a slave. From Ishmael the Arabs claim their origin. There have been armies in this desert fighting over this birthright for thousands of years.

3Editor's note, 2011: Full credit is due here: the reporter was Mark Dulmage and the cameraman was Sean Maroney.

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© 2011 Chuck Afflerbach for The Hick Town Times