A day in the life -- Team Vance pilot provides insight into daily activities of deployment to Iraq

  • Published
  • By Maj. Vince Cobb
  • 33rd Flying Training Squadron
(Editor's note: Major Cobb is currently deployed to Iraq. This is an account of his experiences there.)
The alarm clock wakes me at 5:15 a.m. I get out of bed and slip on my running shoes, noticing my roommate has already left. We share an 8-foot by 22-foot trailer, which connects to another trailer by a common-use bathroom. I grab my palace identification card and start for the fitness center.
I'm surprised at the cool weather. It's May, and we are all expecting the Baghdad heat any day now. I make my way around the maze of sandbags that protect the trailers and stop at a checkpoint where my ID is scrutinized. I'm cleared through and walk about 100 yards to the gym. It's well equipped and buzzing with activity early in the morning.
Heading back to my trailer after my workout, I pass behind the palace and make my way around the sandbags again. There are also concrete walls for protection. Once in a while, we get a mortar shot at us from across the river. They're very inaccurate and often duds. In reality, few attacks are of any significant threat. Nonetheless, I avoid complacency and try to stay aware of my environment.
I've given up competing with the other three guys for our shared bathroom. The few times I've found the shower available in the morning, I've been left with no hot water or sometimes no water at all. So, I grab my toiletries and towel and walk an extra 50 yards to a larger community shower. So far, I haven't had any water problems there.
Now cleaned up and in my desert camouflage uniform, I grab my hat and M9 and take a short walk to the rear of the palace to start work. This place used to be Saddam Hussein's presidential palace. Now it's the U.S. Embassy of Iraq. All of the U.S. armed forces make a presence here, but the Army makes up the greatest number. I stop at my office to check my e-mail, get an intelligence update and find some coworkers for a breakfast run. We rally up and walk the long hallways to the cafeteria.
The cafeteria is huge. Decorative marble covers every surface, and a grand chandelier hangs centered from the ceiling. It used to be a ballroom. Now, there are tables covering the floor and food lines against a couple of walls. The food isn't bad. Sometimes it is almost quite good. I give credit to the staff, considering they are serve so many people. I've certainly had worse while deployed. After breakfast, my team and I find our way back to the office.
I'd love to describe exactly what I'm doing here, but it's classified. I can say I'm very proud of what I'm doing. In my own opinion, it will contribute to the transition of this country back to the Iraqi people. Col. Joseph Arvai, my commander, says "If we mess up, we'll make the headlines."
As part of our job here, we travel around to different portions of the International Zone.
The IZ, aka, the Green Zone, rests along the west bank of the Tigris River in Baghdad. More than 25 countries make up the coalition and are present in the IZ. Most of them work in the U.S. Embassy. The IZ is about 5 square miles and is surrounded by concrete walls topped with barbed wire. All roads and bridges leading into the IZ are heavily guarded with checkpoints. You've probably seen these in the news. Significant areas within the IZ, like the palace here, are also heavily guarded. At each checkpoint, traffic must stop. Once a guard signals a car forward, it slowly moves ahead about 50 yards where the guard inspects the IDs of the travelers, and on occasion, performs a vehicle search.
Today, I need to drive to the west side of the IZ. We don't travel alone, so I find a coworker who also has business there. We check out a vehicle and grab our "battle rattle." Battle rattle is the common jargon for our helmet and body armor. The vest, with its front and back bulletproof plates, weighs about 25 pounds. Some of the guys attach their first-aid kits, 9 mm magazines and other extras to their vests. It gets heavier. Sure, it's hot and uncomfortable, but the added piece of mind is worth its weight.
To get through different portions of the palace, we pass through security checkpoints. We pass through without any delays and head out of the palace toward our vehicle. Before we get to the parking lot , we'll pass through more checkpoints. Because we are outbound, there is almost no delay.
Today, we have keys to the Suburban. Rumor has it, after the armor modifications, this model is an easy $200,000. There are extra, laminated bulletproof windows mounted inside the vehicle's windows and windshield. Additionally, metal plating covers the interior and is bolted to the doors. I'm told the armor adds an extra 3,000 pounds to the SUV. The temperature has already climbed to about 90 degrees. Our body armor has given us a bit more to sweat about. We climb into the sun-baked SUV, ducking heads for the surrounding armor.
"Start the car," my friend shouts. We can't roll down the windows. Thank goodness the air conditioning works. I'm not looking forward to the real Baghdad heat.
I drive at a moderate speed as we depart the last palace compound checkpoint, but now it's time to move. My goal is to keep the SUV moving until we reach our destination. It didn't take long after my arrival to learn the rules of driving here ... none. Size really does have the right of way. I wouldn't say there is a lot of traffic, but enough to keep a driver busy. Though the IZ is pretty secure, I'm not interested in getting trapped between cars. I've heard those stories.
Nobody really stops at intersections; they just roll through and work it out as they go. OK, there is one rule. If the armed HMMWV, or humvee, ahead of you has a sign that reads "Keep back 50 meters," you obey. The humvee crew doesn't discuss this rule, they enforce it promptly with the most convenient means available -- their gun turret. After paying close attention to this fact, I pull onto a 3-lane divided highway. We are on the look out now.
While on our drive we see evidence of war all around. Above some of the security walls I can see the ruins of buildings. Next to much of the destruction are buildings without as much as a scratch. I'm awed by the obvious precision of the weapons. When a view opens up, I can see where a building was struck. It appears as though an east side room on the third floor was the intended target. What makes me think so, you wonder? Because that room, and only that room, is gone. All others are intact.
We pass some homes and apartments. The poverty is obvious. Homes are poorly maintained and weather-beaten. Children kick up dust as they play outside in old drab clothes. Not at all like my images of children back home. This place is a stark contrast to the streets I know. However, there is more greenery than I expected. Unfortunately, it is overstated by vast amounts of dust and sand. Everything has some shade of tan. Even the red car we passed along the way is coated with the talc-like dust.
Our drive isn't very long. After we spend a few hours working at the camp on the west end of the IZ, we are ready to leave. The battle rattle is back on and we make our way back to the palace. Again, I drive like I mean it. We get close to the palace where we reach a large "roundabout." This is a circle where four major roads come together. I've seen these before in other countries. Usually, the traffic circles counter clockwise. But remember, no rules here. Traffic is moving from all directions. I keep moving as we round the circle and roll into the palace checkpoint.
I slowly approach the guards after we get waved forward. They are inspecting our IDs when a car behind us fails to stop. The guards quickly raise their weapons and yell at the car, "HALT, STOP!" One of the guards is holding up the palm of his hand with the universal "stop" sign. The other hand holds his raised automatic rifle, finger on trigger.
I can see their adrenaline escalate. It's no wonder. Historically, suicide car bombers rush checkpoints, disregarding stop signs and guards commands. The driver usually detonates their bomb upon reaching the guards. Knowing this, my adrenaline races. My body armor prevents me from turning to see. The rear view is obstructed with the SUV's armor. There's a screech of tires, then silence. I see the guards shoulders relax as they lower their weapons. They look at each other with relief, shaking their heads in disbelief. Following their lead, I sigh and wonder if my pulse will ever slow back to normal.
We park the SUV and walk toward the palace. It is impressive. In front, there is a large ornate fountain that is dry now and receiving some minor repairs. The palace is wide and fills my vision. There is intricate carving everywhere; some are patterns, and some are long phrases in Arabic. I hope to find out what it all says before I leave.
Once inside the palace, I'm constantly amazed with its expansiveness. Much of the space here is now used by makeshift offices of plywood. I check in and get to work. Our department is the first of its kind here. We are busy standing up the unit as well as taking care of business. The details and obstacles seem never ending.
Today, I've put in about 15 hours. This is average. It isn't uncommon to go to a meeting at 8 p.m. or even later. Fortunately, some days are shorter. For those days, we can take in a movie at the palace. Morale, welfare and recreation also offers other activities, such as classes ranging from dance lessons to learning different languages. The chaplain's office has hundreds of books and videos to loan. Some who find the time take a break at the pool behind the palace.
Before I head to my trailer, I'll try to call my wife. It's late here and early there. I've been very lucky at being able to make occasional calls home. There is usually an annoying pause between the connections, but I can't explain the value of being able to talk to the family. With my day complete, I walk though tthe security checkpoint, then around the sandbags and walls to my trailer. Tomorrow I'll do it all again.
I've deployed before, and while we live with the constant threat of attack, the living conditions have come a long way. But as good as it is, I consider myself lucky; I'll only serve four months here. Some of my unit will be here for six. Members of Army will be here for no less than a year. Then, after a year at home, they will return to Iraq for another year. I met a civilian contract worker who is approaching two years here. These people are working hard for Iraq's future. They've certainly won my respect.