Letters from The Front
Monday 4/14 235p Kuwait time...635a Texas time. Kuwait Sheraton
The last 48 hours have been hectic, to say the least.
First, I made it through the war, intact, unscathed. I was not run over by a tank, no artillery, missed a 122mm Rocket by 20 yards, at least 4 RPG's shot at the Amtrack I was riding in...plus the bullet fragments that hit the Marine standing next to me, splattering me with his blood, and knocking us both to the floor of the 'track in a rolling gun battle. Not to mention the last two Haji's with AK-47's that fired on us on our way to fly out Saturday afternoon. They failed, we succeeded, and didn't even slow down to pick up the weapons.
There is no easy or adequate way to express what went on from my last e-mail until now. I did have a birthday, and thank all four of you who e-mailed me on the natal anniversary. The Marines artillery fired 48 rounds at Basra that night, using what they call Rap-Rounds... which have a rocket booster motor to give them more range.
I made a list of the places I slept. From March 18th until April 13th, I slept under a roof, one night, that at the Sheraton Ishtar in downtown Baghdad. It sucked, and I slept on the floor to avoid stray rounds. There were several nights in a single tent... a couple nights on a cot under the stars, and the remainder, on the ground, and some of those without sleeping pad, sleeping bag... just laying in the dirt and mud... same as the Marines. At no time were we further than 50 yards from a major road, so the blowing dust and huge noise of the war machine rolling by was a constant factor.
The editors in New York were on my case on a regular basis... for saying "We"...as in "We drove up Highway 1... a few shots fired from the farm to the right, and the Marines shot back". They would respond that I didn't drive...and it was the Marines. I rebutted with: I'm sleeping on the same ground, riding in the same damn Humvees, and eating the same damn food, and using the same open air toilet facilities, and drinking from the same over-chlorinated water tank... I think that should qualify as "We".
Remember that Charles Lindbergh called his book "We" and you damn well know that he was alone on his little plane trip. I was with 957 of the finest men that this nation can produce, and I would ride again with these Marines of the 2nd Tank Battalion to hell... to get some ice water.
What else to tell: It truly was a camping trip from hell... miserable conditions, flies for days, heat and cold and a dust storm of Biblical proportions, followed by lightning and thunder, and we're still waiting for the plague of Locusts. The anticipation of the action was worse than the real thing, but I knew two of the men killed, and at least a half dozen of the wounded.
The plan now...leave here Tuesday afternoon... and 27 hours later, by my best guess, land in New York. I suspect I'll be caught in rush hour traffic coming in from JFK... but there is the possibility I will walk in the newsroom by 5PM. I'll let you know... IF my cell phone is working by that time.
The follow-on plan, all in pencil, involves driving back to Texas... see the relatives and spring come to the south. It remains to see on the exact timing...
final piece of the story goes back to last Friday night. We're on the
north side of Baghdad, camped at the air defense school. Half a moon
lights the night sky... some scattered electric lights, and still more
random gunfire... bursts break the silence. There are two huge fires
burning within a mile, in either direction. I know I'm pulling the plug
in the morning, and the next night, will be here, with a shower, a bed,
no flak vest on... no helmet, no gas mask. I will be safe. These Marines
will be somewhere, further north, in what turns out to be the battle
for Tikrit, and the rescue of the POW's. I have trouble sleeping. I
feel a huge guilt, for leaving these men... who have become my friends
in the last month. I know I will be on-line, sipping a coke, and they
will be filthy dirty... most
at the sky, and the realization hits me. This is the most alive I have
been in my life. I am full-on, jacked up. I have given every moment
of the last month to doing my job, and I think, maybe, just maybe, that
has come through. This is the pinnacle. While the past may be prologue,
it will never be like this again. All downhill from here, no matter
what I do, how much they pay me, where I go. I accept that, without
question, because there's just no way that a month of my time would
ever be invested like this again. I feel ebullient, euphoric, a mental
tingling sensation that doesn't allow for the arms of Morpheous to wrap
me up in refuge as they have for the last month. I look up at the stars,
and cry softly. The tears come down my cheeks, soak to the sleeping
bag that has been my home, and I want to take it all in, to hold it...
to never let the moment go. To bring all this with me, to tell the story
of these young men who do what their country asks. It has been a huge
privilege to be a witness to it all... and that overcomes
I have changed in ways I don't even know. You may or may not notice. I think my quotient for misery is up...and for bullshit is down. I know what bad is, now. I have been there, slept there... and been shot at there (but, as a reporter, I was a non-combatant, so the Iraqis really weren't shooting at me, you understand). Less will phase me, and it should take more to impress me.
Please stop me from starting all my sentences with "When I was in Iraq" or "Kuwait", or "with the Marines"...because it will take too long to make a point, unless we're sitting around the fire, having a beer and a cigar, and telling war stories.
I have missed you. You are part of my life, large and small, near and far...but I tried to take you with me...
It was one hell of a trip. Let me know. I'm coming home.
Got back to Kuwait City for one night. a hot shower, indoor and unshared plumbing, a bed. And dinner at Chili's, (steak,mashed taters, ice cream, brownie, three cokes...)Luxury. Bliss. Civilization in the shower stall.
The President is talking from the Azores as I write this. Doesn't matter what he says.
I know we're going, and I know where I'm going, and what I'll be riding in, and what my view will be, and what I will see the first 36 hours of operations.
Except I can't tell you.
Let's go back in time, first, to last Tuesday..."The Day of the Embeds" loading up before 7, and getting in the CBS Tahoe for the 25 mile trip down south to the Kuwait Hilton Resort.a 45 minutes wait to drive through security, then they want to x-ray all our luggage... all for all the 160 reporters the Marines put in the field. No dogs, just the Kuwaiti security types...
A wait to load...then drag bags across the parking lot (nothing like we briefed) and get into poorly marked and non-air conditioned busses for the trips out to the desert. We started with 160. About 60 to the First Marine Division, which is the fighting force for the USMC in country.
A huge herd of Camels as we go through one security check point, west of the city. Must have been 150+ humps out there on the open range, a variety of size and color....yes, the little ones were cute.
The desert is barren and empty. The color comes from painted electric towers, from green and several shades of tan on military vehicles, and that's all you see now.
To a base camp, called "Matilda" where division HQ is. Load your gear off the busses, drag it in a "Haji tent" good for 100 men, or about 55 male reporters. Women in another tent. They use these tents in Mecca for those Muslim holy trips... we're using hundreds, if not thousands of them coming in three sizes. They are barracks, chow halls, and even chapels for the brigades, regiments and battalions.
Oh, did I mention we are sleeping on a plywood floor? No A/C, just our sleeping bags, foam pads... that's it. Porta potties for everything, chow hall about 300 yards away. An MRE for lunch, meetings, NBC briefings,and practicals, more briefings on procedures, etc. etc.
Next morning, breakfast.English cooks can ruin an egg better than anyone. hard and chunky. worst ever. Glad to have it. No toast, just slices of bread, frozen butter.
later, load gear on big and I mean BIG, 7 ton Marine trucks.
will be first across the line... the border...no doubt about it.
What was 160, then 60, reduced to about 25 to the 5th Marine Regimental Combat Team. (5RCT) Then, split to the battalions. Each gets 4 to 6. This is real up close journalism.
we had been in camp about an hour when the cry of GAS GAS GAS runs through
the camp at the speed of sound. It focuses you unbelievably. Your heart
pounds, you know this could be the real deal. It's not a drill...you
rip the mask out in seconds, slam in on your face, trying to remember
everything you were told, hope you don't screw up, because it's YOUR
OK... just a drill. Sweat had formed inside the mask... you wipe it out, put it away, and exhale. The warning system is sporadic, or should I say spastic. Another drill 90 minutes later, this one while I'm on the air... and I drop the phone, talk through the gas mask, and the station in Buffalo thinks it's cute... keeps asking about "drills" and I tell them.... "Who said it was a drill???" This could be the real thing. We're that close to the border. Within Artillery range.
OK....dinner with the troops. No tables. You sit on the ground, or in an adjoining tent, on a box of water, or MRE box.Dust everywhere.The unit commander has put us in 2-man tents...we each get one. 75 years to the toilets. 200 yards to the chow hall. Power is 25 yards away. We walk everywhere.
Wednesday night. Sandstorm. After dark. A face full of sand starts it off... and it gets worse. and it keeps getting worse. the wind is picking up... and up again, and more and more dust and dirt and sand and grit is blowing. I make it across camp with borrowed goggles.Into my tent. Seal everything up, and the dust keeps blowing in.
I have to pee, badly. That 1.5 liter water bottle is empty. Not for long.
I wrap a scarf around my face, put the goggles on... close every case, bag and baggie I have... the dust floats in, talcum powder fine.
isolating experience. In Hurricanes, even at night, you see lights,
you're with other people... in a shelter, something. In Texas thunderstorms,ditto.
sharing a tent, having a beer, saying "this shore looks bad"...
and "whoa, that lightning was close enough to lite a cigar".
Not here. Alone. in a little nylon tent. The wind gusting, the pebbles
and grit pelting your thin layers. There was nothing to do. Flashlight
had been on, batteries dead. Doing it all by braille. The nail that
had been glued on after a finger crushing in December, pulls off. Painful.
Still rooting in my bags, more grit comes in. The wind hits 40, and
then 50 miles an hour.
I fall asleep. Wake up at 3:30, 5 hours later. The worst has passed. Grit on everything. Dust in my mouth, ears, nose, eyes, lungs, mucus membranes, you name it. When I fart, it comes out dust. Next morning, in the porta pottie...it's not the toilet paper that's scratchy...it's the dirt on my ass, which had been under two layers of clothes, under a sleeping bag, inside two layers of nylon tent. That's SERIOUS dust.
I trust my description paints the picture for you?
thing about the Marines in the desert. They are OUT THERE, Isolated.
They have no e-mail. No phone, no TV broadcast... just every three hours,
a poorly read english language newscast. They listen to everything pertaining
to Iraq, Kuwait and the US Military, or the President. They tune out
is no way to compare it to you, right now. There are no papers, except
for Stars and Stripes, a week or more old.
These 957 guys would kill to read the want ads right now, they're so starved for something new.
Did I mention that We're going ?
This war has shown the failure of the post office, USO and every other relief organization. No more "Any Soldier" mail that resulted in pen pals, marriages, etc, from the last war. In the age of terrorism, can't trust that stuff. Where's the VFW, American Legion, sending Care Packages to specific platoons, companies, battalions? Beef Jerky and paperback books. Pringles and Doritos in a can (someone call Frito Lay in Dallas, have 'em send over 960 cans to the 2nd Marine Tank Battalion, 1st Marine Division) ((get the address from Camp Lejuene, N.C.) Spicy stuff.. a variety. People send potato chips in bags. They're crumbs by the time they get here... all of 'em.The stuff in cans is great. Baby wipes.Yeah, I know, Marines and BabyWipes. Clean your face, gas mask, or your feet at the end of a long day in combat boots, and change your socks every three days.
Every day is Groundhog day. The same. looks the same, sounds and smells the same. Variety. Needed. Morning formation.... one morning PT followed by a run... Take half a day off from training, but most men train anyway, go over plans, talk shop.
You clean your weapons, daily. You go over your vehicles, starting them every other day, run for 15 minutes...exercise the tracks every three or four days...
porno allowed. No booze. The CO had officers go through the gear, they
did a round up. They burned the porno (Playboy, Penthouse, and more)
and poured all the booze into the fire. A lot of "grown men"
cried at that, a couple of weeks ago. You're dealing with mostly 19-23
year olds...You guys remember how we were, right? You ladies were subjected
to the worst of our
The talent show Friday night was a huge hit. Lots of inside jokes... got cheered when introduced as being from Texas (should have brought a Texas flag, duh) The female photographer, Cheryl Meyer, from the Dallas Morning News, got 45 seconds of cheering from the troops, they had not seen a woman, in uniform, or out of uniform, face to face, in 6 weeks. She blushed for two days ( I have it on tape).
So, I decided that after 2 weeks in country, five nights sleeping on the ground, I deserved a day off. Sunday, noon, driving into Camp Commando, west of Kuwait City.one hour there. another hour waiting for a cab, or catching a ride with a CBS crew... whoa... walking in dirt and dust, then sitting in the Air Conditioned Tahoe with 500 miles on it... whoa. cold coke from the cooler... luxury. walking with a swagger into the sheraton, gas mask strapped to my waist... feeling very salty, and dust stirred by every step. I reverse the process Monday.
We are going. This week. Book it. Plan on it. Maybe in time for my birthday. I will ride with the spearhead, XX (censored) kilometers into Iraq in the first two or three hours of the land war.
Prior to that, we will have a communications embargo. No outgoing calls, cell or sat phone.
After the war starts...in the words of the great Keith Jackson ...."WHOA NELLY".. I will be melting those circuits.
fine, have lost at least 5 pounds...at the stores this afternoon, scooped
up a bunch of stuff for the Marines I'm with. I am eating, but not well(no
one does). Drinking more water than at any time in my life. We are going.
I am going with the Marines. A privilege to be with this group of young
men, who are putting THEIR ass on the line for their country. The tanks
are a very elite community within the Corps...disparaged in peacetime,
(They cost too much, burn too much fuel... we're not "light
They are planning for a pitched armor battle somewhere south of Baghdad, to smash the Republican Guards two armored divisions. We have most of the Marine Corps tanks with us. We will need them. We will convert those two divisions to scrap metal, because...we're going.
Love to you all... I will e-mail when I can...most likely from Iraq. Your replies to this e-mail will not be read for weeks. I had 156 messages in 5 days. (Got to cut that down) I am keeping a diary. Will have more detail and the story the next time.
Someone... anyone, hunt down Kent Voss at "The Man Show" or "Crank Yankers" at Comdey Central and make sure he's getting this, too.
Monday Night, March 10th, Kuwait City
The Line of Departure is the point from which you start an attack. In my case, attacking the story. As the sun rises on Tuesday morning, I am leaving the comfort and safety of the Sheraton in downtown Kuwait City, to go forth and kick ass with the First Marine Tank Regiment.
spent the day in briefings, and NBC class (The Nuclear, Biological and
Chemical class, NOT the network) It was very serious, for real, and
if you don't pass your final exam, it is one of those life-and-death
kind of things. The group embedding with the Marines, known to many
of you... Byron Harris from WFAA-Dallas, Ken Kalthoff from NBC-5 Fort
Worth, and the network
Oh, yeah. They tell us we have 9 seconds to get the masks on. Otherwise, well, let's not go there, it bums me out just thinking about it. They showed how to inject the chemicals to fight nerve agents, and how to decontaminate yourself, and scrub your face with charcoal, and how to go #2 while wearing a chemical suit and gas mask.
aside here: during a break in the class this afternoon, I chatted with
John Roberts... and it struck me "John, did it feel weird NOT being
at the White House, having Bill Plante in your seat, and asking the
President a question?" He said, It sure did...wishes now that he
had waited a couple of days to make the trip here, and says it was a
significant event, only the
Back to the classroom:They tell us we will be treated like any Marine or Sailor in the First Marine Division...and suspect that we will be "adopted" by our unit, and know that one NCO (sergeant type) will be assigned to watch out for us.
of the things I noticed as I went through the 50, count 'em 50 ground
rules for coverage: There are NO reporters assigned to ANY medical unit.
Hmmm. You would think that the AMA Journal could get a slot for that....
but no. They are very circumspect when it comes to patients and wounds
covered some of the ground rules: An unnamed General told us that our
coverage has "lethal security implications" when it comes
to talking about operational material. Which means, they feel that a
bad report(one with specifics), could bring death raining down on that
reporter, and the unit he's with. I will tell you now that I will be
with the Marine Tank Regiment. WHERE we will be between now and then..."somewhere
in Kuwait" (close enough?) I also suspect that we will role into
Iraq at about 45
Then, a Marine Lt. Colonel got up with a briefing on what the 1st MEF is all about...2 divisions of troops, an air wing, and all the attachments, and took questions. I asked "Since you've been in on all the really cool war plans, would you like to share them with us?" He replied: "We have some really cool war plans... but no, I can't tell you, right now". I think that could make a good headline in your Tuesday papers.
of my long time friends, Tom Kent, in Cleveland, suspects that I could
be pro-war. He continues to pray for peace. I share his prayers. But
I am here, I see the reality, and know that we have a huge tiger, straining
at the chains, and they will be cast off in the next week or so, and
we will strike with unbelievable power and fury. We will eliminate the
military threat, and threat of weapons of mass destruction, and then
eliminate the madman who lives in Baghdad and controls it all. I wonder
if we will find
I'm writing this late on Monday night, from the CBS Bureau on the 5th floor of the Sheraton. One by one, reporters, photographers, sound men and producers are carrying their bags out the door, back to their rooms, for final packing... get things squared away. We are embedding about a dozen people Tuesday, with the Marines and 3rd Infantry Division, and 4 more on Wednesday. It will be very empty around here... dinner gatherings a great deal smaller. Those left behind have to plan on SCUD attacks here at the hotel, and getting a truck to transport an entire technical operation to Basra, Iraq, once the town is seized, and we will broadcast from there... and eventually, following the troops all the way to Baghdad.
security types, English and New Zealand 'mates who serviced in The Special
Air Service (NZ)(think Green Berets) and England's Special Boat Service,(think
SEAL TEAM) have their game faces on, making sure everyone has their
gas mask with them... has a helmet and flak jacket when they leave the
It has been odd, looking out the windows the last couple of days, seeing Czech and German armored cars, cruising the street, with their Chemical and Biological detection gear out....waving in the breeze. Oh, my vehicle buddies would and should love to get their hands on the Soviet built BRDM armored car. 4 wheel drive, gas engine, 4 speed, and will cruise at about 80kph (oh, 50 or so) has four other smaller, drop down wheels, for soft ground, to share the load. Room for 6, with a turret, and oh so street legal, and I imagine, very inexpensive. (Not much more than a WW2 jeep, and a heck of a lot more fun! Send money, I'll buy one from the Czechs, and ship it to Fort Hood. (they will never notice)
thoughts as I wrap this up. There is a variety of emotion as I "move
out" with the Marines. I am told it will be "The worst camping
trip you ever took"...considering some of the camping I've done...
that's a challenge, but there's no quick 2 hour ride home, or 30 minutes
to a Holiday Inn and a hot shower. There's no good, out of the way Chicken
Fried Steak just an hour up
There is some self doubt, as in "Will I measure up..will I be able to get the story out... to communicate the violence and chaos, The heroism of the men I am with, or will I wet my pants and break my ass falling off a tank?"
I feel very privileged to be here... doing my work for CBS Radio. I know that someone will get the story right, won't be biased, and will know what the hell he's talking about.
it has all lead to this. The odd hours, strained personal relationships,
all the moving. The hiring's and firings, the successes and failures
that have given my career such highs and lows... some of which you each
know too well. All your advice, best wishes, hugs and kisses and kicks
in the ass,
Reports from the field, start Tuesday on the radio. My next e-mail... well, we'll see. You've been a great audience, so far. It's been a delight hearing from so many old friends, who had lost touch for no good reason, through moves and .com collapses. (Speaking of which... someone get these to Kent Voss out in L.A....he's writing for Comedy Central's Man Show).
I am looking forward to a short war, a good peace, and coming home and seeing as many of you as possible. After that, we get on with life, as our parents did after another good war, so many years ago.
Because deep down, I see the need...and the eventual good, that will come from this campaign. I just hope they have a cool name.
Love to you all.
Kuwait, Day 4, Sit-rep
The first impulses are "where the hell am I?"...and you keep wanting to wake up from this Ground-Hog-Day like dream.
And you realize it... you're in the Kuwait Zone. There's a part of land not that far from here, known as "The Empty Quarter" and if you can imagine some territory with nothing... that's it... But enough about downtown Kuwait City. It's like that convention city where you never want to leave the hotel... even though it's the same country, same money, same language... only here, it's not!
On the streets of the city, the constant images of the Prince... who looks like a fun guy. The security is both police and national guard...their multicolored camouflage fatigues with a variety of indefinable badges and ranks. Some of them driving some really kick ass Chevy 2500 pickups in the same weird paint pattern, that would be right at home on the freeways of Texas, especially with the M60 machine guns in the bed..
We have about 10 armed guys on duty in front of our hotel. We are an attractive target, lot of Americans... and they're taking no chances. The bomb shelter in the sub-basement is well marked, and most of us sleep with our gas masks, helmets and body armor at about the same distance as our watch and glasses.
The "availability and accessibility" of the troops has slacked off in the last week... in other words, tough luck. That's from higher headquarters...that don't allow us to do those 'hometown shots'.
If you didn't get the word in the last note, I managed to lose my voice on the flights over here... and it's taken three days to get most of it back. Liquid lead twice a day is not tasty, and there are a handful of other pills to be gulped as time allows. Maybe that will be my one sickness while deployed.
The embedding process, getting the reporters with the units, is moving slow. A holdup in getting the chemical warfare suits and masks from Charleston, South Carolina. My CBS gear is also holed up along the way, somewhere...waiting for more to jam into my pack. I have run into a half dozen of the folks I went through the Marine Basic Training at Quantico, Virginia early in February ... and imagine, a month later (to the day) here we are!
There is also talk that we will be blacked out once the troop movements start..and that might last for the first 24 hours of the war. If you're sitting at home, your view of the whole thing will be far better than ours. The dinner table conversation tonight was of car bombs, scud missiles, evacuation plans and rally points if the hotel is hit. Great for the digestion.
I sat in on a CBS meeting, one of those phone linked to a hundred people type thing, where the actuality phone numbers and such were being discussed, procedures to "go on with Dan" either by phone or video phone. The technical resources are really amazing, a lot of money being spent here, and we all watch TV and wonder how we can get the sand out of our gear here, before we ship out to Korea.
There have been sandstorms in the interior part of Kuwait the last couple of days, visibility there down to 25 yards or so... and very unpleasant place to be.
So, on the list now, smallpox and anthrax, followed by kuwait press i.d. card. Today, the delight was the arrival of the CBS News-Kuwait hats... (no I couldn't get one for you... and I will frame mine, if it makes it home...) The t-shirts are not as nice as the hats, though.
and for dinner last night? kentucky fried chicken. Several locations here in town... very popular stuff. And yes, while still finger lickin' good... not quite the same as home.
And as I write that last line, thinking a week ago right now, this same time of day, I was frantically packing the last of the bits and pieces, stuffing it all into bags, and now, all of that is trashed across the hotel room, as I reload, repack, and decide what is or is not important to keep my pink ass alive for the next month or so. Amazing how that helps clarify things.
The earliest time to ship out to the troops will be Saturday. I will write before then.
Love to you all:
saving my extra ammo for when I come home... and you hook me up with some of your "trashy" friends. hope that went well. Hugs from here. #
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people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy.
All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce
the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.
It works the same in any country."
Block's Terror Journals