Almost exactly 10 years ago, I sat in an airport. I smelled bad. I hadn’t showered or brushed my teeth in two days. I was worn out and anxious for sleep. But there was one more leg for my journey home after a week of work.
I had just spent a week in the Kuwaiti desert, spending a few days in at Camp New York as the 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade prepared to launch northward into Iraq. At that point, the order to go was only days away but nobody knew just how soon.
It took a few days to get from Savannah to Kuwait City — by way of Dayton, Ohio, and RAF Mildenhall an hour north of London. We traveled with a Reserve unit, a transportation detachment, and its two Humvees. They were going to conduct port operations.
Once we hit the ground and checked in, they were gone. We bunked down in a tent at the edge of Kuwait City International Airport. There was a shamal that night, a sandstorm, and in the morning, the folks from the 3rd ID came to meet us.
They weren’t prepared for us and said we might have to stay at a hotel in Kuwait for a few days. I made my case clear — I didn’t come all this way and sleep on the floor of the terminal at RAF Mildenhall and freeze in a C-141 jump seat with no heat to shell out $700 a night for the Kuwait Hilton.
“Get your stuff,” said Capt. Jimmy Brownlee. We headed out to the desert, a three-hour ride. I spent the next few days prowling around Camp New York and getting out to see and interview the troops. Guys like Capt. Brownlee, Lt. Col. Rock Marcone, Jeremy Doyle and so many others were affable, likable and supremely confident that if the order was given to go, they’d go and perform their jobs expertly. And they did.
We spent one day at Assembly Area Raider. It was actually a few miles further from the border than Camp New York but it was more austere. There were no large tents with cots, no shower trailers, no giant mess tents with turkey sausage and orange juice boxes, no phones, no cars, not a single luxury. Conditions were so Spartan that one poor soldier had the duty of pouring a container of kerosene over waste — not garbage, but bodily ejections — and throwing a match on it.
As we prepared to leave Kuwait, I remember one of the other journalists, who had stayed at the Kuwait City Hilton, complaining that the maid service didn’t empty the trash in the room every day. I turned to one of my other colleagues.
“He’s just gonna leave AA Raider, isn’t he?” I quipped.
I also recall coming back to Camp New York after our trek to AA Raider and in the line of vehicles waiting to get into the gate, I sat on what wasn’t a seat in the back of a Humvee. The soldier in the guard tower peered down the sights of his loaded M240 — and it looked to me like the barrel was pointed right between my eyes. Live ammo was being issued to the troops. There was no doubt that something serious was afoot and it was only days away.
When I returned to the States — Kuwait City to Abu Dhabi to London to JFK to Hartsfield to Savannah and then home — the scuttlebutt was the invasion could take place over the St. Patrick Day’s weekend. The invasion began March 20, as two U.S. divisions — the 3rd ID and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force — surged north and the British 1st Armoured Division veered toward Basra. Augmented by units from other countries, and with elements of the 82nd and 101st divisions following up the 3rd ID, they were greatly outnumbered.
Against a force of more than 1 million regular, reservist and Republican Guard troops defending their own land, barely a quarter-million Yanks, Brits, Aussies, Poles and others plowed northward.
I’ve been doing this job for nearly 25 years. That week in the desert remains the best week of work I’ve ever done. I was fortunate to be there, to see and talk to the troops on the eve of the invasion of Iraq.
I went to Kuwait believing the U.S. had the best-trained, best-equipped and best-led military the world had known. I left the desert reaffirmed in my conviction.
Ten years later, and even with the prospect of sequestration dangling over the military’s head like a dagger, if not the sword, of Damocles, it is still the best-trained, best-equipped and best-led fighting force.