LANDING ZONE WASHINGTON, Iraq — If you ever have a chance to hitch a ride from Baghdad to Baqouba on a Black Hawk helicopter at night in the middle of a minor sandstorm, don't take it.
This isn't a knock on the pilots of the 1st Infantry Division's Combat Aviation Brigade, who are experts at their trade.
But if there's enough sand in the air and the mission isn't critical, the pilots and crew members of the Demon Brigade, out of Fort Riley, Kan., would just as soon stay on the ground until the weather clears. Sand chews up a $6 million flying machine's rotors, engines and transmissions.
So somebody at LZ Washington taped eight pieces of pink paper that said INDEF HOLD on the mission board, one for each mission theoretically launching this night.
I waited with Hussein Kadhim, an Iraqi reporter in McClatchy's Baghdad bureau. We were going to Baqouba to talk to some Iraqi soldiers who were conducting an operation there.
We sat on metal chairs in an air-conditioned trailer with fake wood paneling on the walls and a dozen bored soldiers around us. A security officer nixed our efforts to record this glimpse of reality on film for the folks back home: No photographs are permitted in the waiting room, he said.
Hussein immediately began to read a months-old article about self-esteem in Self magazine.
The dinginess of the place, and the drowsiness, made it feel like an out-of-the-way Trailways bus station, except that everybody was carrying an assault rifle and there were free snacks.
Before you get to thinking how good American fighting men and women have it in Iraq, realize that there was only one variety of snack: Special K cereal in one-portion plastic cups. There was an infinite supply of these, along with napkins and tiny plastic spoons, but no milk.
We'd arrived two hours early for an 8:30 flight. Now it was 9:30. In military time, that's 2130 hours, but military time passes no faster than civilian time does.
Hussein was eating dry Special K with a tiny spoon and feeling pretty good about himself, presumably, having finished the article in Self. He opened a new magazine and read about Bentleys. "A quarter of a million dollars!" he said. "This is crazy, I think."
The TV was on in the corner. Military TV is just like regular TV, except that there's only one channel, and instead of commercials it has public service announcements with skuzzy-looking men contemplating date rape and clean-cut ones discussing the importance of information security.
Now it was showing "A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila." Two women and one man were the only ones left from a field of contestants who'd competed for her love, or something, over the course of the season, and Tila was making out with one of the women in the bathtub of a Mexican hotel.
"What kind of love can she have with these people?" Hussein asked.
Before the war, Hussein taught English drama, and he has a pretty good understanding of Shakespeare, Beckett and Stoppard, but he seems not to have kept up with the reality-TV genre.
Tila decided that she loved all three contestants. Which one would she choose? The pilot to my left chose the sudoku in that day's Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper.
Almost anything, it turns out, is better than military TV, even what the soldiers call "haji TV." You pay $200 for a satellite dish and get hundreds of channels of Arabic programming for free, forever.
"The good thing about it is that it's cheap," said a civil affairs man from Kalamazoo, Mich. "The bad thing is you can't understand a word."
There wasn't much conversation after that, and when someone did talk it was usually to say that it didn't look very sandy outside to him or that the whole thing was a lot of hype and some colonel somewhere probably wanted his own personal Black Hawk that evening.
By midnight, Hussein and I had had enough of INDEF HOLD. We grabbed our gear and headed for the bunks in the press center, stepping over the men and women sleeping on benches and on the ground outside, using their packs as pillows. It was as hot as an oven and sandy for real now, so sandy that you could feel it on your teeth.
(Spangler reports for The Miami Herald.)
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