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TUESDAY, MARCH 5, 1991
Dhahran

It's 10 p.m., I've just awakened from a sound 7-hour sleep, and I am exhausted. But before I go back to bed for the night, I need to make a few notes or I'll never get caught up on the last 40 hours.

It started routinely enough: after breakfast, I teamed up with reporter Jim Hill and freelance cameraman Sergei Bodic for a drive to a navy hospital in Jubail. "Fleet Hospital 5" is an intimidating labyrinth of interconnected tents spread out on a military base about forty miles (it was actually 60 miles--ed.)  up the coast from Dhahran. Any drive away from our hotel would be enjoyable, but this one was especially fun since I did the driving. We had a military officer with us as our escort, but he was a reactivated reservist and hardly the military type. The conversation was entertaining, the traffic was fast and light, and the freeway was in good shape all the way to our destination. The scenery was monotonous; the usual sand with sparse scrub brush, the kind of junkyards and dusty warehouses you expect to see along any highway in any country. I did see my first camel--a mangy beast browsing for grass along the side of the road. Clearly a derelict ship of the desert.

Once we found the hospital, we soon found it empty. We had come to interview troops wounded in combat, but in the 500-bed complex, there were only two casualties. A marine on patrol the day before had stepped on a mine; he was in surgery and obviously unavailable. But his buddy who had been next to him when the mine went off was already patched up, and he agreed to talk to us.

Marine Lance Corporal Rodney Ramsey was a small-town boy from Virginia. He took some shrapnel in his left leg which also broke a bone, but he was going to be alright. It was the obligatory poignant interview: thought he was going to die, more concerned about his buddy, would rather be fighting than going home like this. Unspoken was the irony of being a victim after a cease-fire, of being one of the few "light" casualties in an otherwise brilliant victory.

One of our requirements is that we not identify casualties until their families are notified. When we asked if his parents knew he was hurt, he blinked and said, "I don't think so." This threw our military escort and the chief surgeon into a tizzy, but at least the boy's mama got a phone call right away. It turns out the field commander had called earlier to say Rodney was hurt, but she was very pleased to learn he would be okay.

The chief surgeon talked about the irony of running an empty hospital. He had treated more sports-related injuries than combat-related. There were also car wrecks, but even those were down because the troops can't drink alcohol anywhere in Saudi Arabia. When I think of the concern back in the states before the war for all the casualties they expected, the blood drives and stockpiling of medical supplies, the irony of that empty tent is very gratifying. Too bad they don't use all those fine facilities on the people who need it--the Iraqis. From all accounts, what happened to them was a massacre.

Once we got back to Dhahran, there wasn't much enthusiasm for packaging our report. Our reporter wrote the piece, then Atlanta showed such limited interest in it that Jim also lost interest. But for some reason he decided after dinner that we should give it to them anyway. So at last I got to edit my first Saudi story. It wasn't much, only a minute and 22 seconds, but it must have aired sometime.

Big Red One shoulder patch

I was contemplating some serious sack time when we were put on alert; the returning POWs* were flying into Bahrain and Sergei and I were needed as camera pool. We would shoot their arrival and provide the footage for everyone. Also in the pool was one TV reporter, CNN's Bob Franken, who had just returned from weeks in Iraq with the Big Red One.1 Sergei had also been on this combat pool, so he and Bob were friends. The pool (our new one--ed.)   also included a still photographer, radio reporter, and two or three "pencils" or newspaper men, as we called them. We were to be bussed at midnight over the causeway into Bahrain, where the hospital ship Mercy was berthed. The returning POWs would be examined and treated there before flying home.

But the border crossing on the causeway again proved to be an agony of delay. It was made worse this time for several reasons. First, of course, we had a plane to meet. A three-hour margin seemed ample, since we were being escorted by officers of both the U.S. and Saudi armies. It turned out this cut no ice with the chief of border guards, who seems to rule a fiefdom of his own. We sat in the middle of that bridge, unable to leave the Saudi side, for an hour and fifteen minutes. Our passports were confiscated and examined page by page. The gang of reporters had great fun at first, but as the minutes passed, so did the amusement. Frustration was turned on our impotent escorts. One of the loudest complaints was aimed at the Saudis: "We saved your damn country and now you treat us like this!" Colonel Sharif, who had already been arguing vehemently on our behalf with the customs agents, answered back in anger. "Can you enter America without a proper passport and visa?" The point was missed, I'm afraid; he got a reply about how you can go anywhere in America because it's a free country.

I had kept pretty much to myself in the back of the bus, contributing an occasional wisecrack. But at this point I did offer the opinion that playing the ugly American role of "you owe us" was only counterproductive. This turned the conversation in an unexpected and informative direction. 5 or 6 of the guys on the bus had just returned from combat pool assignments, and their frustration at the handling of that needed an outlet. In most cases they were kept away from the story until it was over. They questioned much of what they were told: the strength of the Iraqi army, the body count, the prisoner count, even the need for the invasion. In short, the less the army showed them the more there was to question. It made me feel better to learn that a healthy skepticism still drove their journalistic instincts. I was afraid that censorship had been all too willingly accepted; but no, it had not.

We discussed the possibility that all they wanted was a bribe, but no one felt like paying. If there was a conspiracy in the works, it was made evident by the fact that we were finally released at 3 a.m., the time the POWs were scheduled to arrive. We dashed (by way of 2 more checkpoints and a hotel) to the airstrip, only to see the bus with the POWs leaving as we pulled in. So our army guide stopped to check us in! Once we got to the hospital ship, the prisoners were safely on board away from the press. The doctor who examined them agreed to an interview, so we went on board. To our shock, he revealed some information! They were all in good health, none appeared to have been mistreated, and the pilot with the swollen face was injured in his cockpit ejection. With this scoop we rushed back to file our stories, sailing through every one of the causeway checkpoints. Then the U.S. officer on the bus confiscated all tape and scripts for possible censorship. If they liked what we said, it would be released.

The benefit of this dry run in the middle of the night was strictly personal; it let me get to know my new partners for the coming days. Bob Franken is a reporter out of D.C. whom I had seen only on TV, standing in front of the Capitol Dome. He turned out to be (or he had become) a brash, take-charge kind of guy, a reporter who knows what he wants. As he put it, "I do asshole very well." Still, I liked his attitude, which was the opposite of the button-down image I had of him before. Sergei Bodic is a book all by himself, written in six languages, with a loose English translation.2 He's a freelance globetrotting cameraman with his own equipment. "This is my gear," he reminds me, regularly. He's a big, gregarious, Yugoslavian teddy-bear of a guy and I couldn't help but become an instant friend. If he's always talking, that's okay; people are always laughing. If he has a detrimental effect, it's that I already find myself speaking in broken English.

There was a further aggravation to our wild goose chase, besides not seeing the prisoners. We were also scheduled for an 8 a.m. story! Since we weren't back until 7 a.m., this meant a 36 hour stretch without sleep. But we were the only CNN crew left in Dhahran, so we had to go.

lapel pins

Of course we wanted to go. This was a flight via Kuwait City to southern Iraq, to witness the repatriation of 300 Iraqi POWs. At last a real story! A chance to see Iraq for myself. So who needed sleep? We boarded a Royal Saudi Air Force C-130 cargo plane, about 70 of us, consisting half of journalists and half what were evidently Kuwaitis heading home. We squeezed into the webbed seats arranged in 4 rows the length of the plane, and rumbled into the air. I napped as I could, but couldn't for long. The Arabs aboard began socializing in earnest, and I could not avoid being included even if I wanted. I was offered tea, chocolates, cigarettes, and olives (as good as any I ate in Spain.) In return I offered a couple of CNN lapel pins, and this created quite a stir. Everyone wanted one! A Saudi soldier gave me his own pin, two crossed swords crowned by a palm tree, the royal emblem. I dug into my bag and found one more pin for him. But I realized my faux pas in not offering enough for everyone. I will be more discreet with these pins, but it is true that they are precious.

Scud keychain

It was a half-hour flight to K.C.; after an hour in the air, passengers were getting restless. A Kuwaiti officer beside me was consulted by the flight crew--they were looking for landmarks along the Iraqi border. The Kuwaiti whispered to me that we were going straight to the prisoner exchange, bypassing K.C. Okay by me, but a surprise to half the passengers who were planning on getting off in Kuwait. Soon we began circling, and through the tiny porthole across from me I glimpsed much sand, an occasional oil well fire, and lots of smoke. It was too smoggy to land, either in Iraq or Kuwait, so finally we turned around and lumbered home.

I was too tired to care about anything but sleep, or so I thought until I found out that I would not be going on the same trip the next day. This time it would be a pool (yech!) arrangement instead of a unilateral, every-network-for-himself. And NBC was providing the camera this time.

I went to sleep disappointed about that, but worried about something else. One of the CNN crews had disappeared into southern Iraq. When they had gone too far their Kuwaiti driver had begged off and walked back; they had not returned twelve hours later. Best guess is they've been taken by the Republican Guard. The cameraman I don't know; he arrived last week after we did and was sent immediately to Kuwait. So he's totally green.** But the reporter is Greg Lamotte, from the L.A. bureau. He's a good friend, and in Valdez he earned the nickname "Alaska Man." He's been here for the duration, including combat pool. But he's very gung ho and just the one you'd expect to get into trouble like this. I hope to wake up in the morning and hear that he's safe back in Kuwait City.


*Author's note, 1991: The returning prisoners of war (POWs) were American pilots and a few soldiers captured by Iraq during the air war. They were released in a trickle during the cease-fire negotiations, and this particular group was the first one out of Iraq. Interest was especially high because among the POWs was a woman (Marine?) who was taken while patrolling the border near Iraq.

1Editor's note, 2011: "The Big Red One" is the nickname given to the U.S. Army's First Infantry Division. They proudly wear a shoulder patch with a red numeral 1 on it. The name also recalls the unit's bloody history, including the landing on Omaha Beach during World War II.

2Editor's note, 2011: At least Sergei is a footnote all by himself. It had already become folklore that during Desert Storm a CNN cameraman single-handedly captured two dozen Iraqi soldiers. Sergei assured me it was true and it was him. During the chaos of Desert Storm, he was separated from the U.S. soldiers he was accompanying. Driving back to friendly lines, he happened across some Iraqi stragglers. They promptly surrendered. So he escorted them to safety. I don't know who was happier to make it into the hands of the U.S. forces--Sergei or his "captives"--but he probably kept them from getting killed...by one side or the other.

**Author's note, 1991: The missing cameraman, Tyrone Edwards, had just arrived in the theater, but he was far from green as a cameraman in difficult situations. He had worked for CNN in Central America, including the Panama invasion, and other assignments in the Middle East.



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© 2011 Chuck Afflerbach for The Hick Town Times