April 4, 2003

BASHUR, Northern Iraq - You have no idea how good it feels just to sit in a plastic chair, under a thick sheet of canvas that keeps out the sun.

I'm writing this from the relative comfort of the Public Affairs tent, just off the airfield owned by the 173rd Airborne Brigade. I slept in my sleeping bag on the floor here last night, after spending a week in the field with 2nd Platoon, Able Company, 2nd of the 503rd. I wrote a story about the platoon that ran in yesterday's newspaper. (See story below, under April 3 heading.)

The tent is next to the runway, and my earplugs didn't quite block out the sounds of helicopters and transport planes landing and taking off throughout the night. Still, this place feels like the Ritz Carlton.

As I said in the story, the rear-echelon folks who live here by the airfield have access to all sorts of creature comforts that are a distant dream to the paratroopers protecting them in gun positions a few kilometers away.

I did laundry in a bucket today, for example. Drank actual coffee this morning, not instant. Read a day-old issue of Stars and Stripes newspaper. Surfed a broadband internet connection. And sat on a normal toilet seat.

Last night - and I would almost be embarrassed to tell this to the guys I just left in the field - I even watched a DVD, the Bourne Identity, on the computer that belongs to the television broadcast guys from the Army's American Forces Network. (A week ago, I flew in here on a C-17 with these guys - Sgt. Aaron Talley, 28, of Detroit, and Pfc. Jonathan Bell, 28, of Bangor, Maine. And - in as surreal a scene as I can imagine - we watched an old Sex and the City episode as we sat in the giant military transport plan packed with humvees, a five-ton truck and supplies headed for Iraq.)

There are reputed to be showers somewhere in this burgeoning tent city, but I don't see much point in it. I’ll be just as dirty tomorrow and I may not have access to them.

An apology: I haven't been able to keep up with this online journal as much as I would have liked. On days when I write a newspaper story, I find that I don't have a lot of energy left to write much more, especially under the hot sun or out in the cold night. And on some days, just moving from one place to another in this environment takes all the strength you've got.

But today offered some down-time, so I wanted to send a dispatch with some of the things I've seen and heard that haven't made it into my stories.

Although I've spent a lot of time with one particular platoon of 40 soldiers, I and the reporters from CNN and the Washington Post who are embedded here have been given access to almost any high-level meeting we choose to attend. The soldiers are used to us, and we can wander into any tent and barely draw a second glance.

About the only place we probably can't do that are the tents where the Special Forces guys live, in the shadow of their six giant search-and-rescue helicopters, studded with 50-caliber machine guns. The helicopters often take off at night for destinations unknown. During the day, the "soft guys," as the paratroopers call them (Special Forces are also called soft forces), can be seen sunning themselves in shorts and flip-flops, while the rest of the soldiers are required to wear their boots and full uniforms.

Last week, I would often wake up at 2nd Platoon's traffic checkpoint, eat breakfast with the guys, do a little writing and catch a ride in a humvee back to either brigade or battalion headquarters. Those are where the commanders hang out, in tents with maps, chairs, electric power and sometimes internet access. I usually charged my computer on their generator and sat in on whatever meetings were going on -intelligence briefings, operational orders, whatever.

On a few occasions I made my way over to security perimeter, where paratroopers and Kurdish peshmergas keep out civilians. There often was a gaggle of independent reporters there seeking whatever scraps of information they could get. For reasons unfathomable to me, the 173rd has opted not to deal much with the outside media. The public affairs officer brought in from another unit, the amiable Maj. Rob Gowan (who parachuted in) has neither a vehicle nor a phone, and struggles to meet the demands placed on him. Despite that, though, the 173rd has gotten a ton of press coverage - not just from us embeds - which, whatever else it does, delights the information-starved family members they left back home.

As I chatted with some reporters at the gate, I got a perspective on the pros and cons of embedding. I knew a lot more than they did about what the 173rd was doing and will do, but they knew a lot more about the situation in the surrounding area, including what was happening among the Kurdish populations.

Still, I wouldn't trade this access. I've gotten an incredible education in how the Army works, and how the average soldier views the world.

On that note, I'd like to share some of the sentiments expressed by the noncommissioned officers of 2nd platoon last week as I talked to them about the prospect of going into combat in the north. The comments by these squad and team leaders didn't make it into my newspaper story.

If there was a theme here, it's the internal struggle between their desire not to be left out of the war - they are professional soldiers, after all - and their worries about what could happen if they do engage the enemy.

"I'd kind of like to get into it, but it's kind of nice to be sitting here not getting shot at," said Sgt. Ted Condit, 26, a Brooklyn native and former substitute teacher. Then again, he said, "I've never felt greater pride in my country, and as much as I don't want to die, there is no more honorable way to die than serving my country."

Troy Ezernack, 37, of Shreveport, La., was once a pastor in Lancaster, Pa. He said something that brought home the weight of his burden.

"My biggest worry is that I would do something stupid and get somebody killed," he said.

SSG. Matthew Kahler, 24, a squad leader from Grand Falls, Minn., echoed that. And he talked about the burden that went along with the storied history of paratroopers.

"It's constantly being drummed into us - and we drum it into these guys - that you are better than regular soldiers," said Kahler. "Inevitably, there is going to come a time when you have to prove that."

He added: "Almost all war heroes have one thing in common. "They’re dead."