The Story of an American Soldier in Iraq

Life as a soldier in Baghdad, Iraq is definitely interesting and full of life changing experiences, like... being shot at and blown up! Yee haw, what fun eh?

Actually, it has its ups and downs, and as a journalist in the US Army (assigned to CJTF-7 Public Affairs) I've had the chance to see many things that others have only heard of through the news themselves - I hope you'll enjoy them too, through my eyes. ; )

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

After the rocket attacks we had to return for our gear - at least enough for a few days until the area was safe enough to move out of fully. This is what I saw...

The Aftermath and the power of prayer

Truthfully, when the attack happened I was too busy concentrating on what I was doing and too hopped up on an adrenaline rush to feel scared. As strange as it may be, I felt excited, like you get when watching a good thriller.
But, later, when it was time for us to return to the building to retrieve our belongings (and well after the adrenaline wore off), I didn’t really relish the idea of going back inside. All of my instincts were telling me to stay out, like a donkey sitting on its haunches. Still, it had to be done. Everything we have was in there.
Walking through the front doors nothing seemed different. The lobby was spotless as usual and the hotel employees, though looking tired and worried, were happy to see those of us they recognized.
One of the freight elevators was working alright and I jumped in to head up to what was my room only hours before.
When we were escaping the blast, the smoke and dust was so thick that you could only see a few feet. Looking through that opaque screen had saved me from seeing the devastation the tenth floor had experienced – one of the worst hit floors in the building.
As the elevator doors opened on the tenth floor it was like stepping into a war zone (‘ha ha’… it IS a war zone). The thick smoke had cleared and I could see what had really happened to us and just how lucky I had been.
Our floor had scored at least one direct rocket hit in one of the rooms directly across form the elevators, and VERY close to my room. The hallway was full of rubble, plaster and cement pieces the size of driveway gravel, and chunks of wood and ceiling panels. Only a few lights in the hallway were functioning and everything was soaked with water, forming in puddles on the floor, from a burst water main.
A small area that used to have a coffee table and a few chairs, where I sat regularly to talk to friends if Abbott wasn’t well or to wait for my room key, simply didn’t exist anymore. The only sign among the rubble and piles of splinters that there were ever chairs there were the shrapnel studded seat pads.
Opposite the elevators, the area where our Gurka guard once stood is shattered as well. The podium he sat at was ripped loose from the floor and slammed down sideways, and the interior wall there (and in front of the non-existent chairs) simply didn’t exist anymore.
Light streamed through the hole, almost big enough to walk through, allowing me to see what had happened in what used to be a decent hotel room.
I was shocked at the level of damage.
The room looked just like a cave - the blast peeled all the wallpaper and wood paneling right off. There was almost nothing recognizable as furniture inside – in fact, it looked like someone had emptied a garbage truck inside. Anything that had been wood, was now simply splinters. The bed mattresses were stripped of their sheets and thrown on end, and glass and bits of clothing and personal things are everywhere. Even a section of the ceiling that used to house the room’s air conditioning unit was turned into a gaping hole, as well as the area where a row of windows used to be.
The bathroom was the only recognizable spot, and it still looked like a level 10 earth quake hit it, but the walls survived.
The rooms on either side of the main blast aren’t in much better shape, and the rooms two doors down look like burglars ripped them apart and smashed all the glass.
Looking at the damage scared me, and also made me realize just how lucky I was. A huge swath of the hotel around the rocket was destroyed or damaged, including the room beside me, and though we were inside that zone, my room was barely touched!
Yesterday, a very interesting and amazing fact occurred to me.
Mom and Dad, back home, have a whole brigade of people praying for me and GOD LISTENED. There is NO WAY we could have possibly come through that blast so well!!! We were directly in the path of the blast and even rooms much further down the hallways on both sides had mirrors shattered and ceiling panels popped out, yet our room had NO DAMAGE at all other than the door blowing in from the force of the blast – even our mirrors survived. And, neither Abbott nor I got so much as a splinter while several people further away had injuries from glass or shrapnel.
I mentioned this to another soldier, one of the 22nd Signal soldiers who works to supply us with internet and phone lines, and he said that he had a similar experience.
According to him, a rocket was headed straight for his room and exploded against the cement outside. Shockingly, though the windows of the rooms surrounding his were shattered and pocked with large chunks of shrapnel, nothing so much as hit his.
He said that he had a huge group of people praying for his safety at home too.
I know that many soldiers depend on strong prayer networks and ask people they don’t even know to pray – know I know very well why. It DOES make a difference.
Quite frankly, I believe that Abbott and I would have been badly injured – should have been, given the berth of the rocket – but weren’t because people cared enough for us to spend a few minutes a day praying for our safety.
I want to send out a VERY strong THANK YOU to everyone who has been praying for me, and for other soldiers!! Who knows how many other disasters may have been averted thanks to a well placed prayer?
And please, keep praying!

Lots of Love,
Rebecca Burt.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

I wrote this within an hour of my exodus from the Al Rasheed after the rocket attack. I wanted to capture what had happened before it ‘changed’ in my mind and I started questioning myself about what had really happened or forgetting. I hope you find it interesting!

Inside the Attack on the Al Rasheed Hotel, Baghdad, Iraq

My mind tried to incorporate the sounds into my dream, but somehow the low reverberations didn’t quite fit into my idyllic meadow scene…
BURT! GET UP!” said my friend and sergeant Amy Abbott, a Army fellow journalist.
I was awake suddenly..
That was NOT in my dream!! Neither was the terror that filled Abbott’s face. We were under attack, and I wasn’t sleeping through this one.
The vibrations and volume told us both the impacts of the mortars or RPGs was close.
The door of my room blew inward, peeling off of it’s hinges and straight into the room like something out of a police action flick.
At the exact same time I rolled between our two beds and Abbott flung to the floor.
I saw flashes of what I thought were people… the enemy, my brain told me. I reached across my bed and grabbed for my weapon and ammo.
One of the figures came in my door, not one of the enemy at all but one of the young Pakistani men who worked in the cafeteria and lived on our floor. He was holding his arms over his head, whimpering. I ushered him to lie on the floor, returning to my small space between the beds as the thudding sounds continued, louder now without the door.
Thick, dusty smoke floated into the room as well as chunks of plaster.
The thuds stopped for a moment and Abbott ran to the door just as a young couple, the woman clad only in underwear, the man covered only by his hands, found the way to our door.
Abbott grabbed a pair of jogging pants for the man and he ducked into our bathroom.
“Hey Burt, should I open the window? To get some air?” Abbott asked.
The question hit me as a little ironic and I wondered if Abbott was going into shock, but then I noticed just how thick the smoke was getting… breathing was getting hard and it burned my throat.
“Yeah – good idea,” I said as I looked to see if the woman was bleeding.
The woman sat on our door, sitting at an angle and blocking the rest of the room.
“Are you okay? Are you hurt?” I asked her.
“No understand, Italiono.” She shakily replied, her pretty face contorted in shock and fear.
“It’s okay… here’s some clothing…”
But her face was buried in her hands. Abbott rapped a towel around her shoulders and she held it close. She seemed okay, several small wounds on her back trickled slightly, but nothing seemed life threatening.
One of the security officials for Bremmer appeared in the doorway.
“Get out of here! Go downstairs… don’t take the elevator…” he bellowed down the hallway. “Go down the stairs…”
“Get our masks Burt,” yelled Abbott.
“My gas mask is at the office…”I replied before noticing the small canisters on our wall – the emergency breathing masks the hotel had installed less than a month ago.
I jumped over the door and grabbed the green canisters as our guests hobbled out into the dust filled hallway, tossing one back to Abbott and working to put a pair of jogging pans and sneakers on – I wasn’t about to go outside in my undies (a stupid thought maybe, but God knows when I might find clothing again) and the hallways would be full of debris.
We stepped into the hallway, the air practically white with plaster dust and smoke.
I popped open the mask canister and slipped the hood over my head as I walked. I couldn’t see anything! After a few steps I was sprayed by a broken water line (I hadn’t seen) and took the mask back off… it wasn’t helping any.
We walked to the stairs and started down amidst a crowd of people, some wearing their emergency masks, others to struck with the horror of the situation to move, being carried down by friends, made in the moment.
The stairs were covered with glass, and after a few floors I yelled back to warn people they were slick too – slick with blood.
Coming down the stairs we ran into Lt. Col. Kevin Gainer – our commander, who was running up stairs to look for us with one of the most worried looks I’ve ever seen on anyone.
“We’re okay – me and Abbott are okay,” I yelled to him.
A look of relief washed across his face and we continued down.
MEDIC! We need a medic!!” yelled a man from on of the floor doors.
I looked around but no one was responding.
“I’m a vet (tech) but maybe I can help,” I said, jogging through the door.
“315! Room 315!” he called.
As I got closer to the room I could see the legs of someone inside, and someone else wiping away blood.
“Is someone hurt over here?” I asked.
“We need to carry him out! We need help to carry!”
I knew that I wasn’t strong enough to help with a full grown man. I ran back to the stairwell.
“Hey! You,” I yelled pointing at one of the men, “we need help in here! We need to carry someone out!”
The man, who turned out to be Sgt. Wes Wooten, a broadcaster in our office, ran past me.
“Hey, I’ll help!” yelled another guy I recognized from 124th infantry.
A colonel with what I assumed to be a combat medic bag came through the door.
“Someone need help?”
“Over there,” I said, pointing. “In 315.”
The group of volunteers started bringing someone out of the room toward the stairs. Knowing things were under control, I headed back to the stairs and started down again.
I saw several people I knew, American and Iraqis alike, and gave them reassuring smiles or held their hand for a second. Downstairs in the lobby people from our office were gathering together to make sure that no one was hurt.
I broke off to go to the bathroom (nothing like waking up to bombs with a full bladder!) and a young lady was using a cel phone. She let me use it to call my parents.
It was so strange getting my Dad’s usual happy greeting. I told them I was okay and that no matter what they saw on the news, not to worry because I was okay. They started to freak out (of course – what are parents for?) but I was trying to get off the phone so I could regroup with my office which was leaving the building. It did make ME feel better to talk to them, even briefly, but I felt bad for starting their day so ‘nicely’.
As I sit here, less than an hour after all of this mess, I find that I have an answer to a question every soldier asks themselves – “How would I react under fire?” True, it wasn’t gun fire, but it was still an attack. Now I know how I’ll react – with a rush of adrenaline, a little excitement and all the right stuff.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Hello everyone!!

I know it’s been a horribly long time since I last wrote a nice long letter, but there wasn’t much to talk about! I had to wait until a few things ‘piled up’ ; )

A few weeks ago the Al Rasheed Hotel,l where I’m staying in Baghdad was hit by mortars. The ‘bad guys’ set up seven in some scrub a ways away and only three fired – two hitting the Rasheed and one flying into an empty lot. Luckily, the bad guys were really lousy shot – they just barely hit the very corner of the building on the very top floor. It surprised those living in that section of the hotel of course (luckily the closest hit rooms were empty at the time). I, myself, slept right through the whole mess! I guess if anyone every says ‘You could sleep through a bomb going off,’ I could answer ‘I have!!’ The mortars knocked a few tiles of the building but really didn’t do much damage – the engineers here say the building was built to withstand American bombs, so there’s really not much these pitifully supplied bad guys can do (thankfully!).

Then, fairly recently, the Baghdad Hotel (across the river from where we are, about 5 miles away) was hit with a car bomb. We felt the blast come through the building – it rattled all the windows – but nothing here was damaged. That hotel is right downtown (among lots of shops and businesses) so there’s not much they can do for security. All over the city they’ve dropped these huge cement barrier walls, and apparently the hotel was surrounded too – that’s what the car hit when it blew up. The blast actually knocked a bunch of those over – they’re like 10-feet tall and 4’ wide!! Other than the barriers they didn’t have much down there, so I guess it was a fairly easy target, just like the UN building (that’s been hit twice now).

All in all though, we’re safer than ever here. The convention center and hotel are probably the two best defended places in the country, so there’s no where safer for me to be.

Things here have been fairly quiet – I continue to keep the web site running, and though we had some problems with a virus (not our systems, but the people who provide our internet’s) things are good now. We’re tucked away in a corner of the office so we aren’t bugged too much, and I like it that way.

I got a break of sorts recently when I was sent to Camp Dogwood (about and hour south of here) to cover a story about a unit that adopted a school. Me and the photographers they sent got eaten alive by bugs, but it was fun to go out to see the kids in one of the little Iraqi back-woods (or back-desert?) towns. The school was a tiny little hole in the wall – like a mini storage facility with the doors pulled off. Each room was MAYBE 12 or 14-feet square and held about 30 kids in old “Laura Ingalls” type desks. Still, it’s a LOT better than what they had, so they’re all VERY pleased. The kids run up and want to shake hands and know your name and some will kiss their hands and pat the American flags on our shoulders. It was really nice – just to see really happy kids who are PLEASED that we’re there. I swear, superman landing in the courtyard wouldn’t have gotten as much attention as we did : ) That’s the stuff that makes the rest of the crap worth it you know!

Outside of work things have been pretty good. I hang out with all my infantry boys and a bunch of the civilians who work with KBR and MCI here. I play poker at least twice a week and watch plenty of movies… and that’s about all there is to do. Boredom is king in Baghdad! You’d be amazed how often you wander stores and parks or go for drives in the US – you just don’t realize how often you do it until you CAN’T! There’s so little to do that entertainment tops the lists of “needs” now. Now that a lot of us are in ‘bases’ that have the basics, it’s just keeping sane that’s the challenge. Can you imagine living in a single building with no ability to leave for a full year? Even a week? Imagine being stuck in an airport for a week and you’ll get the general feeling : P I’m NOT complaining – there are still people out in the dirt, it’s just mind numbing. Stiff like games, puzzles, craft kits and books get passed around like crazy. You know, one of the infantry boy’s had a little bead jewelry kit that his wife sent him and he was actually sitting there making all sorts of necklaces for her – it was something to do! I just thought it was funny – along the same lines as the big tough, fully armored guy melting at the idea of a bubble bath – here’s a fully equipped guy sitting there asking his buddy if this bead will coordinate okay with that other bead and making little flowery seed bead rings. It’s just different : )

I actually spend a lot of time just working to keep spirits up, entertaining or talking to guys who need to get stuff off their minds. “My boys,” the Floridian infantrymen downstairs from where I work (2/124th Inf.) were officially extended another five months and morale has hit dirt bottom. I think the idea of spending Christmas over here instead of at home with their families hits hardest. I’m hoping to be able to scrounge up some Christmas decorations and maybe some treats to try to make Christmas better around here. What with being in a Muslim country, there won’t be any “Christmas in the air” but only what we’re able to work up for ourselves. I’ve written a few internet companies asking for donations, but at least half of those who have answered basically said they’re a reseller who drop-ships so they never actually touch the merchandise and didn’t have anything to donate. I wrote the VFW and USO too but haven’t heard back. If anyone wants to chip in at all stuff would be appreciated – nothing fancy, just the cheap stuff from the dollar store kind of stuff. Things like garlands, simple decorations and maybe scented packets (the SMELL of Christmas was always special to me). If anyone has an old artificial tree sitting around that would be a God send! There aren’t any pine trees here, and though decorating a palm tree back home might be ‘cute’ it sucks when you see them all the time and really just want to be home with the ‘same old’! We’ll make do with whatever we can get of course, I mean if we can’t get a tree I’ll make something out of cardboard – anything to make everybody feel a little better : ) My boys have really made me feel like I’m worth something over here, and I’ll do anything I can to make life better for them.

One of the other projects I just started helping out with here is the opening of a bar in the hotel. There’s already a ‘club’ but it’s quite expensive and VERY arab-styled (no offense – we just get tired of everything being foreign and miss home!) So MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) fronted money to rebuild one of the rooms in the hotel to create a sports bar hang out. They’re also donating two pool tables, a foosball table and dart boards. I KNOW it’ll be a HUGE hit – probably down right over-run. I’m helping with the other aspect of the project – making it feel like an AMERICAN sports bar. Right now all the walls are bare and we want to do the usual American poster collage type thing in there. So I’m spending a lot of free time writing beer companies, NASCAR, Harley, sports teams, etc. asking for posters or banners or stuff to hang up. If anyone has any old posters of sports stars or beer adds or whatever like that that they don’t want I’ll take them!

Whenever I actually get a little leave I’ll try to get some donations (or maybe just buy cheap stuff on my own) for both projects, but we’ll see. I might feel really ‘lost’ once I’m at home and ‘free’ again – it’s been 8 months since I was able to go where and do what I want. You know we had an Iraqi bazaar here and one seller had a corner set up just like a corner store… an I almost went into shock! “You mean, I actually get to CHOOSE what I want??” It’s just strange… You never really realize how nice it is to be able to get whatever you want at any time. I mean, if you want a bottle of hair dye, for example, you just walk out and buy it anywhere. You can’t do that over here – at best you can mail order and get your stuff in a few weeks, and that’s only if you happen to have internet access (we do, but most don’t). I don’t think I’ll ever look at things back home quite the same way again.

I guess a lot of this coming out negative – I really don’t mean it to! Things haven’t been bad, I’m just spending a lot of time trying to improve conditions for other guys, and enjoying the challenge : )

Anyhoo, I don’t have much else to say right now. I do have more stories and stuff so I WILL write again soon ; )

I miss and love ALL of you! I hope I’ll hear from everyone soon, and I know school pics for the kids came out recently, so I better get copies of any of the kiddies ; )

LOTS of Love,


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