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Iraq Journal - by S-R photojournalist Brian Plonka


Correspondent Jim Hagengruber, left, and Spokesman-Review photographer Brian Plonka ride a C-130 transport from Kuwait to Baghdad. 
 (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Correspondent Jim Hagengruber, left, and Spokesman-Review photographer Brian Plonka ride a C-130 transport from Kuwait to Baghdad. (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
The Spokesman-Review

Editor’s note: For two years, through the writing of James Hagengruber and the photography of Brian Plonka, Spokesman-Review readers have followed the journey of Robert and Matt Shipp from high school in North Idaho to Marine boot camp to the Middle East.

Today, Plonka presents a more personal view of following the story from his own Idaho home to a land of conflict.

March 11, 2008

4:30 a.m. A soaking rain outside makes Hauser Lake hard to see this morning. I say another gut-wrenching goodbye to my wife, Kathy, and son, Jordan, as I begin my second trip to the Middle East to embed with Matt Shipp and the U.S Marines in Iraq.

March 13

1:00 a.m. After a 34-hour flight from Spokane through Minneapolis and Amsterdam, I arrive at a military base in Kuwait. We’re not allowed to mention the base name in print even though several signs along the highway lead the way. I check into a transient tent where some journalists and even more contractors sleep. I toss my sleeping bag atop a plastic-coated mattress and walk across the base to McDonald’s. A Quarter Pounder with cheese is a Quarter Pounder with cheese – except for the pickles. They taste a little funny here.

5:15 p.m. My name is on the manifest for a 7 p.m. flight to Baghdad. A raging sandstorm has some skeptical we will take off in the C-130 tonight. A contractor asks if I’m with the press then grills me because he says I’ll put a bad slant on the war. He’s kinda overweight and I reply that he’s afraid the war will end and he’ll stop getting fatter from making his huge profits installing air conditioners at $125K per year.

March 14

12:07 a.m. The sandstorm has us parked on the runway. About 30 of us – some troops, journalists and contract workers – are lined inside the noisy plane. Everyone has on body armor and helmets. A 60-year-old woman sits near me worrying because her husband missed the flight and she’ll be in Baghdad without him.

1:30 a.m. After a winding and diving descent into Baghdad International Airport, we take a shuttle bus to await our armored escort into the Green Zone. I ask the man behind the desk when our escort will be here. He yells at me that the information is sensitive and the “Rhino” will be here when it gets here.

3:30 a.m. Three armored buses that look like something from a Mad Max movie pull into the makeshift bus station. Escorted by several Humvees, the drivers race through the dangerous Red Zone, twisting and turning around road barriers. After my baggage is searched I settle into a bunk bed at the Central Press Information Center in Baghdad.

5:30 a.m. The lights are turned on and I notice I’m basically in an office. Some 20 Iraqi journalists come in and start talking loudly and cruising the Internet. I get my official war press pass and I’m told to be patient for my rendezvous with Matt Shipp.

March 15

12:10 p.m. I’ve been in this office for over 36 hours. I’m not allowed to wander because the Red Zone is only one block away. This office complex is a series of trailers, parked underneath a parking garage. I have a great view of a 20-foot-high concrete blast barrier. Food is brought in from a nearby mess hall in large green containers with Salisbury steak steaming in gravy. I ask the Army about my trip to see Shipp. I’m told to be patient. I ask where I’m going to eventually. They say they really don’t know.

1 p.m. Take a ride in a Black Hawk helicopter to see a dog-and-pony show with a couple of generals who are observing the donation of U.S. Humvee vehicles to the Iraqi army. I ask one general if he thinks just maybe, someday, they’d be used against us. His stone glare squashes me like a bug.

9 p.m. Watch 16 episodes of “Family Guy” with some Army personnel. More green containers of food arrive. German journalists join us in the office sleepover. A British photographer steals my cigarette lighter.

March 16

10 a.m. Escorted to see Ambassador Ryan Crocker at the U.S. Embassy. The former Republican Palace is huge and opulent. I think Saddam Hussein was trying to compensate for something. After the meeting with Crocker we eat lunch poolside. I jokingly ask the young man escorting us back to the office about beer. He just happens to know a place near a soccer field. Ahhh, cold, lemon-flavored beer. Drink a few bottles in the parking lot. So much for the Holy Land, no recycling either.

4:30 p.m. Meet an Iraqi interpreter who works with the U.S. government. He’s one of several in his group who have survived; 15 others he worked with have been executed. War is the only thing this 25-year-old knows. He grew up with the Iran war, and now this. He tells a story with tears in his eyes about his cousin, whose newborn was abducted in the middle of the night by a death squad. The infant was returned the next day, cooked and stuffed with vegetables.

11:30 p.m. Ask about my trip to see Shipp. Told to be patient.

March 17

7:15 a.m. Told my flight to see Shipp is tonight. Spend the day watching the Iraqi press working on deadline. A poster with some 70 Iraqi press workers is displayed. In the center is a picture of hands holding a bloody camera. This poster pays homage to those who lost their lives covering the war last year. I find out the average Iraqi reporter makes 300 U.S. dollars a year and moves into a new apartment or home at least once a month.

7 p.m. Escorted to the nearby airbase. I tell my name to the guy in charge of the flights. He says my mission has been changed and now I’ll be photographing helicopters. After losing my mind I am asked to wait outside. Later they figure out my name and another photographer’s name were copied and pasted on the wrong pages. How are we going to win this war?

11 p.m. Take off from Baghdad in a Chinook helicopter. Gunners look creepy with their night vision headgear. All the doors and windows are open. It’s pretty cold. We stop in Fallujah for fuel and then land at Al Taqaddum Air Base. Is Shipp here? I’m told no. We’re told no more flights tonight. Check back tomorrow at 5 p.m. I secure a bunk in a nearby barracks. The air conditioning is freezing.

March 1

8 a.m. I walk to the nearby mess hall. I”m denied access by a guard from Somalia. I guess my Defense Department I.D. with fingerprint and eye scan isn’t good enough. After several minutes of checking and getting frisked, I’m allowed to eat.

3:30 p.m. Break personal high score on the Brick Breaker game on my cell phone.

5:00 p.m. I’m told our flight will leave sometime around midnight and should report to the flight line at least five hours early. Walk back to the mess hall. Denied access again. Checked and frisked again. Why does Salisbury steak follow me around this country?

March 19

1 a.m. An Osprey helicopter with glowing propellers appears on the runway. I thought they didn’t fly these things anymore.

2:15 a.m. Arrive at Al Asad Air Base. Is Shipp here? I’m told no.

3 a.m. After being processed onto base I check into another tent. A man reeking of whiskey sits outside smoking a cigarette. He says he works for Homeland Security. He says the reason for the prolonged war is all the uranium in the Iraqi mountains. A rat scurries over my feet. The man says welcome to Iraq.

7 a.m. Wake up hungry. Only thing left is picked-over MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat). I find a can of peaches. They seem kinda warm for some odd reason. I’m told our flight to see Matt is this afternoon. We’re going to Rutbah.

8 a.m. I start to sweat profusely. I’m really sick from the peaches.

1 p.m. I wait on the hot tarmac for the flight to our final destination with my co-worker and the writer for the project, Jim Hagengruber. Several different lines are formed for the many people going different places. Twenty or so over there, another 15 there and so on. To our surprise we are the only two in this line. Where is Rutbah? Why doesn’t anyone want to go there?

3:30 p.m. Land at Camp Norseman. Looks like something out of M*A*S*H. I hope they have a Swamp here. A commanding officer greets us and tells us we are going to play by their rules. Still no Shipp. He’s out on patrol.

7 p.m. I’m told no one in the higher-ups expected us to come here. The bigwig is really upset, but a smooth-talking lieutenant calms him down.

10 p.m. I finally see Shipp. We’re taken to the V.I.P. quarters, a small shack with two cots.

March 20

5:50 a.m. Jim Hagengruber thinks I’m dead. All the long days have caught up to me. Apparently he shook me for several minutes, trying to wake me up.

10 p.m. Take our first patrol today. Riding in the lead vehicle is scary. Cars and trucks line the streets and my sense plays games telling me one is about to blow up. What really makes the experience is the call to prayer over the mosque loudspeakers. Feel like I am in a movie. I’m not very color coordinated for the trip. My green camo body armor clashes with my sand-colored helmet.

11:30 p.m. Miss dinner but four bowls of Rice Krispies with strawberry milk hit the spot.

March 21

6 a.m. Another four trips into Rutbah. An Iraqi police officer wants my sterling silver bracelet. To cool the mood I buy several soft drinks and smokes for the guys. After the end of the day I am given a pair of sunglasses and an Iraqi lighter from the officers.

7 p.m. The kitchen at base is out of power. The commanding officers take to the grill making jerk chicken. All on base have to fill a sandbag for dinner.

March 22

11 p.m. After another long day riding in Humvees I’m able to take my first shower in five days. I ignore the sign that instructs one in the proper way to shower. I’m the last one in and run out the last of the hot water for the day. An officer says “uh oh” as we hear an explosion in town. We hope for the best. Almost an hour later a group of Humvees race onto the base. An Iraqi was trying to rig an IED with a grenade when it exploded in his hands. They call for a medevac helicopter to take care of the man. His arms are reduced to stumps and the copious amounts of morphine dull his senses as he struggles to raise his head. Some are glad the guy blew himself up. Others are more sympathetic when they learn this kid was given 20 bucks to carry out the deed. Out here people are desperate.

March 23

6 a.m. The mood on base is hectic. A general is coming to Camp Norseman today. Humvees are cleaned out for the entourage into Rutbah. The general travels with about 10 groupies and foreign press. Shipp is selected for the security detail. It’s all business today. We are parked for several hours in the Iraqi police station. A private stands next to a burn barrel for hours getting rid of human waste. They say you’re not officially in Iraq unless you burn feces. The entourage eats inside. We are not invited.

March 24

9 p.m. We were supposed to be picked up by a helicopter at 2 p.m. and waited at the improvised helipad from noon until 6 p.m. Someone was supposed to tell us our flight is canceled until tomorrow.

1 a.m. I make another high score on my cell phone game. Level 14 is pretty tough.

March 25

4 p.m. We’re told there won’t be another helicopter here for at least four days. I’m ready to freak out. Out of pants, T-shirts and socks. Recycling of clothes will start today. A group of Special Forces in armored vehicles offers us a ride one hour away to a base called Korean Village. They say we’ll have a better chance getting a helicopter back to Al Taqaddum Air Base. We’re in luck; after one hour there we join a group of Marines and begin the two-hour helicopter ride. Sleep deprivation has taken a toll on my perception. I flinch when I look out the window thinking we are only inches from the ground.

6 p.m. We’re one step closer to Kuwait and home. As soon as we land at Al Taqaddum Air Base a C-130 transport is loading for Kuwait. To our dismay only one extra seat remains. I give mine to Hagengruber. They say I’ll catch the next flight.

8 p.m. Bumped from flight to Kuwait.

10 p.m. Bumped from flight to Kuwait.

11:30 p.m. Bumped from flight to Kuwait.

March 26

3 a.m. Bumped from flight to Kuwait.

5 a.m. Bumped from flight to Kuwait.

5 p.m. Bumped from flight to Kuwait.

7 p.m. Bumped from flight to Kuwait.

7:30 p.m. I move my pack and sleeping bag from quarters and tell the guy at the manifest window I’m staying right here until I get a #@!&^(@ flight to Kuwait.

9 p.m. Bumped from flight to Kuwait

11 p.m. Bumped from flight to Kuwait.

March 27

1 a.m. Bumped from flight to Kuwait.

3 a.m. Bumped from flight to Kuwait.

5 a.m. I can’t believe it. My name is called and I board a plane to Kuwait.

4 p.m. I manage to get myself to the Air Force pool for the day. I remember a bottle of Scotch stashed before moving into Iraq. KFC (Kuwait Fried Chicken) with Scotch makes for a nice evening.

8 p.m. Arrive at Kuwait International Airport for my 35-hour trip home.

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