I was packed into the rear of a C-130 for the 1.5 hour ride north by members of the New York Guard. In all the hours I spent flying one of these I don't recall ever receiving a flight in one anywhere rear of the cockpit. I'm glad I didn't. Sitting sideways on cargo netting between two civilian women who clearly thought perfume was the way to go made for a long flight.
After getting our bags off we were shuttled to a makeshift terminal off the side of the flightline. Several C-130's, a few Beechcraft prop planes, and one or two I didn't recognize was all the sat on the ramp. I had to imagine in my mind what the scene was like five years ago--where parking space was a premium to the hundreds of US aircraft shuttling troops in and out. I then went further back, and imagined what it had to be like on the night we unleashed hell on this city--with massive explosions in the distance, and some here on this very ramp.
The heat was there, but as in Kuwait it is bearable. Now granted, this is not summer and the heat has not reached 130 degrees. But even more so, we are definitely in the desert as there is not a spot of green to be seen.
After dragging our bags in I was met by two officers--the AF site lead for Baghdad and his deputy. Fortunately I have a history with the site lead going back to my Tweet days, so the transition was easy. As I processed through customs I found it interesting that the customs officer claimed that I did not need a visa if I had an official passport--I'm still debating whether or not to bring that up in the future.
Once we left and were on the main compound, an annex of Baghdad International Airport, one thing is abundantly clear: this is a war zone. Bombed-out bunkers, 50' high walls, and armed guards are everywhere. Things are improving as there is construction everywhere, but it is definitely still considered a high-threat environment. As I suspected, the withdrawal of US troops did little to diminish the constant threat of violence this city holds. But one thing is different--its not the military here anymore, it's civilians.
From what I gathered when the military left, civilian corporations moved in to do the job that we were formerly doing--and likely at a much higher price. Americans are still risking their lives here, but now it is for the benefit of the companies they serve rather than their country. Funny how you don't see a whole lot of that on CNN.
My room is much like it was in Kuwait--a sparse trailer with a bed, a refrigerator with water, and not much else. The difference between here and Ali Al Salem, however, is that this trailer is surrounded by 50' high concrete walls and a giant roof to protect from falling mortars. Very kind of them.
Tomorrow I will head out with an overnight bag (again) to the embassy via helicopter to meet with my bosses and inprocess the country. Hopefully the reasons I am here will begin to crystallize and I will finish the day closer to getting to my final destination.