War Stories: Operation Iraqi Freedomby Oliver North
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The mainstream media are trying to discredit our victory in Iraq by saying there was no reason to take out Saddam. But Oliver North knows better. He was there. Embedded with Marine and Army units for FOX News Channel during Operation Iraqi Freedom, North (himself a decorated combat veteran) vividly tells the story his camera gave us glimpses of during the campaign to liberate Iraq. This updated edition features a new chapter detailing the events after the end of major hostilities—including the capture of Saddam Hussein—and brand-new action photos straight from the front line.
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War StoriesOperation Iraqi Freedom
By Oliver North
Regnery PublishingCopyright © 2003 Oliver North & Fox News
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE ROAD TO HELL
* OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM SIT REP #1 Kuwait International Airport, Kuwait Thursday, 6 March 2003 2330 Hours Local
"Are you here as a member of the Armed Forces or as a member of the media?" asks the neatly uniformed but unsmiling Kuwaiti immigration official.
"I'm here to cover the war for FOX News Channel," I reply. "Does it matter?"
"Oh yes," he says, trying to be both firm and polite at the same time. "If you are here with the media, you are limited to a sixty-day stay and you must be escorted by the Ministry of Information. If you are here with the American military, there is no time limit and your visa will be stamped by the Ministry of Defense."
"Well, this time it's the media," I respond, hoping that my honesty won't precipitate an inordinate delay in passing through the immigration and customs bureaucracy.
It's my first mistake on this trip and entitles me to a two-hour wait for an absent civil servant from the Ministry of Information.
I had been through this same airport in November 2001, traveling back to Bahrain after covering the U.S. Air Force pilots flying over Afghanistan from Kuwaiti bases during Operation Enduring Freedom. Then, I had been asked only for my passport and U.S. military identity card, and had been amused when a Kuwaiti customs official dryly observed, "It's nice to see that you are traveling on your own passport these days, Colonel North."
Back in the 1980s, when I served as the United States government's counter-terrorism coordinator, I had been issued a U.S. passport with the name William P. Goode next to my picture and an Irish passport under the name of John Clancy. Whether the Kuwaiti official had remembered or a computer warning entry had alerted him to the fact, I had been reassured that by 2001, my prior use of "alias" travel documents wasn't reason enough to have me miss my flight.
Tonight it's a different problem. Without the appropriate Ministry of Information official on hand, no American media representatives are being allowed to enter Kuwait. The people of the tiny, oil-rich emirate may be grateful to us for liberating their country in 1991, but that gratitude doesn't extend to members of America's fourth estate.
The Kuwaitis aren't alone in their distrust of the American media. Most of our own military have a justifiable concern that the decision to embed reporters with U.S. units preparing for combat is unwise at best and a formula for disaster at worst. Many senior NCOs (noncommissioned officers) and officers can still vividly recall how the media turned on them in Vietnam, and since then, the less they have to do with the press, the better off they feel.
"Think about it," a Marine colonel challenged me before I left the States. "If you were a battalion commander in combat, would you want a guy with a TV camera and a live mike walking around talking to privates and PFCs?" I had to admit to him that I wouldn't.
"Do you remember the bogus CNN 'Tailwind' story?" an Army brigadier had responded when I asked him about his attitude toward having print and broadcast journalists traveling with front-line units and filing uncensored reports. "They [CNN and Time magazine] created that story out of whole cloth," he said of the discredited and now admittedly false account that U.S. forces had used sarin, a nerve agent, in Vietnam in an attempt to gas American deserters. CNN first broadcast the story on June 7, 1998, only to retract it a month later, but I could sense that the wound was still raw. The brigadier shook his head and muttered, "There wasn't a shred of truth to 'Tailwind,' but we're still answering the mail on that one. Just imagine the stories of atrocities, needless casualties, and bungled ops your pals in the media will spin from Iraq."
These thoughts are much on my mind when the appropriate Kuwaiti official finally arrives and carefully peruses a long printout of "approved" media representatives. He finds my name on the list and, with a flourish, slams a hand stamp with purple ink on my passport, my visa, and a "special media" pass.
As I walk out of the airport's customs-and-immigration restricted area, my field producer, Griff Jenkins, who flew to Kuwait several days earlier, greets me. I'm introduced to another Ministry of Information official, who hands me a sheaf of papers explaining, in several languages, the rules of behavior for "guest journalists," along with suggestions for a "historical perspective" on the region. As he drops us at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Kuwait City, he politely says, "Welcome back to Kuwait, Colonel North." Then, almost as an afterthought, he adds with a smile, "Please remember, correspondents aren't allowed to be armed."
As we enter the hotel, dawn is just beginning to insinuate itself over the Persian Gulf. In a matter of minutes, the sun will be casting long shadows over the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, 120 miles to the northwest-in Iraq.
* OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM SIT REP #2 Ad Dawhah Port Facility, Kuwait Saturday, 8 March 2003 1300 Hours Local
It is clear that the people here are worried. Ali, our driver, lent to FOX News Channel by the Ministry of Information to "facilitate" getting around the emirate, talks about little other than the imminent onset of hostilities. "It has to start soon," he opines. "There is no more space in the hotels here for reporters."
He's right about that. In the Marriott, where the FOX News Channel bureau has been set up, every room is occupied. It's the same in every other hotel in Kuwait. The Sheraton and the Inter-Continental-just down the street from where FOX has its headquarters -have now taken on the appearance of network affiliates. Commercial Humvees, brand new 4x4 Ford Excursions, and GMC Suburbans with satellite dishes secured to their roof racks line every hotel parking lot. Many of them have "TV" emblazoned on their sides with duct tape. Some are even painted to match the military's flat desert tan. There are so many U.S. and European reporters, producers, writers, and technicians here that the streets outside every hostelry look like those of a major American city.
As we approach the port area, Ali has to negotiate a series of military checkpoints. At each, Kuwaiti soldiers and interior ministry police inspect the inside and outside of the vehicle, using a mirror on a long wand to peer beneath the van. Ali produces his license and a yellow travel pass for the vehicle, and Griff and I hand over our passports, visas, press credentials, and a sheet of paper signed by the Ministry of Information official at our hotel, giving us permission to visit the port area.
Ali endures this ritual three times without complaint before we actually arrive at our destination. "Yesterday they caught an Iraqi spy trying to get into the port," he says. Then he adds with a sigh, "It's going to be this way until you finish Saddam. I hope you go all the way and do it right this time."
I ignore Ali's iteration of the frequently repeated Kuwaiti gibe at the United States for leaving Saddam in power at the end of the 1990-1991 Gulf War. Instead I press him on the apprehension of this Iraqi spy. I had not heard about the arrest, and it's precisely the kind of story we want FOX to break-if we can confirm it. But Ali claims he doesn't know any more about the spy and changes the subject.
"Were you afraid during the missile attack last night?" he asks, referring to the sirens that had gone off all over Kuwait City at about one in the morning.
"Not especially," I answer, instantly concerned that my reply sounded foolhardy. The fact is, I had grabbed my network-issued gas mask and lightweight chemical suit and raced for the FOX rooftop "studio," not out of bravado but because I knew that it was a safer place to be than the hotel basement bomb shelter if the Iraqis were firing chemical-laden Scud missiles at the city.
"I understand that one of your new Patriot missiles shot it down before it hit. Is that true?" Ali asks.
"That's the way it sounded to me," I reply, recalling the deep boom off to the north of the city. "According to the news this morning, it dropped into Khalj al Kuwayt," I add, referring to the bay just north of the capital-and falling into the trap of providing a recycled story I'd heard on the radio earlier in the day.
"But is that what really happened?" Ali presses, once again reflecting the uncertainty he and his countrymen are feeling as the allied buildup in Kuwait enters its fourth month.
"I don't know what really happened, Ali," I say, as sympathetically as possible. He had told me the day before how he and his family had to flee when the Iraqis invaded in 1990 and how anxious his little girl was over what might happen to them.
In fact, I looked for a report from Central Command that morning -something that would explain the sirens and the loud explosion. There was nothing.
As we arrive at the main gate of the port, an enormous military convoy is departing through the exit, about fifty yards away. There are at least fifty HETs-forty-wheeled, heavy equipment transporters, loaded with desert-painted M-1 Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles-forming up on the highway. Military police in Humvees with .50-caliber machine guns mounted on top scurry in and among the HETs like gnats swarming around a herd of cattle.
As I reach for my camera to shoot some footage of the convoy forming up, Ali holds up his hand and says politely but firmly, "Don't do that here, Oliver. If you get caught we will not only not make it inside, we probably won't make it back to Kuwait City tonight either." I put the camera back in its bag and nod to Ali. He works for the Kuwaiti government and doesn't want to lose his job.
Griff Jenkins and I have coerced Ali into driving us to Kuwait's commercial port, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, so that we can shop for some necessities at the allied forces military exchange aboard the base. I'm the only one with a U.S. military identity card, and we have a long shopping list from the other two FOX teams that will be going into Iraq with U.S. units. Ali waits in the van while Griff and I head into the enormous air-conditioned warehouse that serves as the exchange.
Inside the cavernous building is a well-ordered mob scene. At least a thousand American and allied soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are queued up at more than a dozen checkout lines. Nearly all of them are garbed in desert camouflage, though the varying patterns adopted by the different American, British, and Australian service branches lend a distinctively international air to the scene.
Nation of origin or branch of service doesn't seem to matter when it comes to what they are buying. Each shopping basket seems identical, and nearly every one contains packages of disposable razors, shaving cream, scores of socks, bungee cords, CDs, cameras, film, videotape, batteries of every size and description, flashlights, sunscreen, insect repellent, sunglasses, foot powder, large packages of toilet paper, containers of baby wipes, and candies-particularly M&Ms and Skittles, which supposedly won't melt in the oppressive heat-and brown, green, and tan T-shirts. Many shoppers also have GPS receivers, purchased in the electronics department of the exchange-an area that appears to be stocked with as many choices as any warehouse discount store back in the States.
Griff and I pick up the items on our list and join one of the slow-moving checkout lines. It's not long before I am recognized and there is a rush to take photos and get autographs. I'm soon out of the signature cards that FOX gives me for this purpose and I end up using a laundry marker to sign desert camouflage hats, helmets, and flak jackets. I begin to hope that I never meet the supply sergeants in these units for fear they will bill me for all the headgear that never gets turned in.
"What unit are you going to be with when the shooting starts, sir?" asks a U.S. Army sergeant first class as we creep toward the line of cash registers. He's a sharp-looking, well-built soldier with a close haircut and a 3rd Infantry Division patch on one shoulder and a small American flag on the other. His hands and neck are deeply tanned, as is his face-except where his sunglasses have stopped the UV radiation, leaving him with the reverse-raccoon look so common among real desert fighters. It's one of the ways you can tell the genuine warriors from the BS artists who talk about war and get their tans at swimming pools or the beach.
"We don't know for sure yet," I reply. "But I'm told that my cameraman and I are going to be assigned to the Marine air wing."
"Humph ... the air wing," he chides me with a smile. "I thought you used to be an infantryman."
"I was, but we all go where we're sent," I answer, feeling a bit defensive about my assignment.
"Well," he says, "I understand we're going to have a FOX correspondent with my battalion. I sure hope he knows what he's doing. I don't want to have to nursemaid some prima donna who can't find his way to the latrine." Then he adds, almost prophetically, "Once the shooting starts, I think we're going to be pretty busy."
* OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM SIT REP #3 Coalition Press Information Center Hilton Hotel, Kuwait City, Kuwait 10 March 2003 0900 Hours Local
"It figures that the military would take the nicest hotel in the city," says a producer from NBC as we walk out of the ninety-plus-degree heat into the air-conditioned comfort of the Hilton. U.S. Central Command, known as CENTCOM, has taken over this spacious facility to use as a press center. It's also the place where we get our embedding assignments, countless hours of briefings, immunization shots, gas masks, and chemical protective suits.
There is a general "mill drill" in front of the reception desk, where members of the media are clamoring for any information that's being offered by the four public affairs officers behind the desk-two Army and two Air Force-who are being barraged with questions. Finally, a diminutive Navy lieutenant, dressed in desert camouflage, comes out of a room behind the desk. She looks at the chaos, steps up on a chair behind the counter, and shouts, "If you already have your press credentials, back away from the desk and line up!" The milling stops.
She continues, "If you are here for your shots, line up over there!" Some of the crowd starts to move that way. "If you are here to draw your chemical protective equipment, move over here!" More of the crowd heads in that direction. "If you don't know why you are here or if you've come here to hassle us about your assignment-tough. Go away and come back tomorrow."
As she steps down off the chair, she looks at one of her Air Force colleagues and says, for the benefit of all, "Don't take this crap.
Excerpted from War Stories by Oliver North Copyright © 2003 by Oliver North & Fox News. Excerpted by permission.
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