April 1, 2003

When I told Lt. Col. Dominic Caraccilo that I wanted to watch from one of the planes as his paratroopers jumped into northern Iraq, he looked at his first sergeant and said, "We’ll put a monkey strap on him." I had no idea what he was talking about. When I walked up the back ramp of the giant C-17 sitting on the tarmac at Aviano Air Force Base, I learned that the plan was for me to wear a harness hooked to the floor so I could stand near the doors as the troopers exited. I was told to lie down and hold on as the plane decended and as it speeded away after the jump.

"This is the ugliest exit I have ever seen," I overheard one of the pilots saying, remarking on the speed and angle of the escape from the drop zone, which was situated in a valley surrounded by mountains. He added: "Don’t use that. Call it an aggressive exit."

Nothing could have prepared me for the drama of standing feet away from 99 paratroopers pouring out of an airplane in 58 seconds, headed for northern Iraq.

One minute I was flying smoothly in a jet that felt somewhat like a commercial flight, though it looked completely different. The Air Force had served a boxed lunch, and soldiers were dozing in their seats.

The next minute, the lights dimmed to red, the engines screamed and I was pulled to the floor as the plane dove from 30,000 feet to 1,200. Tension grew as the aircraft leveled off, the whine abated and men thrust open the two giant emergency hatches.

Cold wind gusted inside and I could see the lights of northern Iraq below.

In a blur of motion, the soldiers flew out the door, lugging 120-pound rucksacks fastened to their waists and rifles stuffed into canvas bags.

Suddenly, the cavernous jet was nearly empty, and it began its violent exit out of Iraqi airspace.

I wondered what was happening to them, these men I had gotten to know by face and by name. And I knew it would be five hours before I got back to Aviano and could find out.