Rifleman At War: Iraq

posted on November 6, 2009

"Hey, cool shirt." Or at least that's what I think he said as he brushed past me. It was kind of hard to hear over the steady drone of an idling C-130. The heat was approaching 130 degrees, and the C-130's engines were kicking up sand on everything in a 100-yard radius. Not to mention that I had never been so absolutely terrified as I was at that moment when some desert-colored blur brushed past me and commented on my wardrobe. I looked down at my blue polo shirt and felt some sense of familiarity and comfort when I saw the embroidery that surrounded an emblazoned Eagle that said "NRA STAFF."

My next thoughts were to develop a plan of egress that would remove me from the scorching tarmac into a building that might not only provide shelter but answers to myriad questions, because I was standing in the middle of Mosul, Iraq, smack dab in the center of a war.

Don't get me wrong, I asked to be there. Truth be told, I begged. In fact, to the dismay of many friends and relatives, I diligently and tirelessly worked to get there for months. For whatever reason, my application to be an embedded war correspondent had been stonewalled by the Army from the beginning of the war. It might still be in some bureaucratic limbo had it not been for one lucky email that I wrote to the Division Public Affairs Officer of the 101st Airborne.

Maj. Trey Cate of the 101st replied to my request to become an embedded journalist. Within hours of its receipt, I was preparing to head to Iraq to report on the guns, uniforms and equipment of U.S. soldiers in Gulf War II. It was shortly thereafter that Mark Keefe, a friend and editor in chief of American Rifleman magazine, suggested that I take a film crew over with me to record segments on the guns of the 101st for "American Rifleman TV" on the Outdoor Channel. The crew consisted of Randy Schoening, cameraman for the Outdoor Channel and host of the show, "Adventurebound Outdoors." Randy, after a good amount of coaxing, agreed to come along but only for seven days. At my own request and with my boss' generous consent, my tour of duty would be 30 days, enough to qualify for the Combat Infantryman's Badge if my MOS was an 11Bravo. Now technically I wasn't TDY for TAR. This was on my own time and dime all the way. All I had from the Rifleman staff was a letter of introduction that secured my visa and press credentials, as well as their good wishes for an enjoyable summer vacation.

Following in the time-faded and dusty footprints of NRA's World War II correspondent Bill Shadel, I set off on the adventure of a lifetime. I would bring back a lot more than photographs and memories. I would be profoundly affected in many ways, not the least of which was a newfound sense of patriotism as well as an undying respect for American servicemen and women. My biggest shock was not the record-setting 137-degree heat (seven consecutive days), getting shot at (three times) or being attacked by wild dogs (once, well not exactly attacked by dogs, just set upon by one hungry enough to try to pull my socks off while I slept). No, my biggest shock was the reception I received from everyone I met and asked who I was and why I was there. Which brings me back to my first minutes in country and the Airport in Mosul.

The sign in huge block letters on the side of the airport read "Mosul International Airport." I searched for an entrance and found one beneath a sign that read "D-REAR 101st AIRBORNE (ASSAULT)." Maneuvering around a six-foot high maze of sandbags, I found the entrance and entered what was locally called the Division Rear HQ, Tactical Operations Center or D-Rear TOC for short. I called my Point of Contact at Division Main HQ, and then took a seat in the lobby with Randy while we waited for a ride to our new home somewhere on the outskirts of Mosul.

While we were sitting there in the lobby, looking as out of place as Osama at a Tupperware party, a curious major approached us and asked if we needed help. I told him we were journalists waiting for a ride to D-Main. He then asked the inevitable: "Who you guys with?" To which I responded "The NRA and the Outdoor Channel." He said, "No kidding? For real? Hang on a second, I have someone you need to meet." He turned and stuck his head inside the TOC and yelled, "Hey GUNS, you gotta' see this."

Now back home I have faced this situation a few times. More than once I have been asked where I worked by some stranger. Having taken the message of St. Peter's denial to heart, I always answer, "the NRA," boldly with great enthusiasm. To which the frequent response has been a quizzical, "The NRA?" My next reply is the broadside that usually gets my point across that I won't stand to be messed with on this subject ... "Yeah, the National Rifle Association, you may have heard of us, we're in all the papers." My inquisitor will then usually grunt and mumble something as they wander off or express great delight at meeting a kindred spirit. As "Guns" emerged from the TOC to meet us, I was placing my money on a kindred spirit.

"Hey, Guns, these guys are with the NRA, can you believe that?" Guns walked up, extended a hand and looked at me again for the second time that day and said. "You mean that shirt is for real?"

Recognizing him as the desert-colored figure that passed me on the tarmac earlier, I realized I was in friendly territory. "Wow! That's awesome!" he exclaimed as I explained who we were and why we were there, "I'm an Endowment member!" he added and with a smile as big as Texas he introduced himself as the 101st Airborne's Air Force Liaison, Lt. Col. Donald Koehler of Ft. Campbell, Ky.

He took one look at us and quickly realized we were fish out of water, quite literally. We were severely dehydrated and didn't know it. He gave us bottles of water to guzzle and invited us back to his sanctuary, an enclave off the main terminal floor that served as a broom closet and barracks for Air Force personnel, of which Col. Koehler was the only one at that point in time. We explained what kind of show segments we wanted to capture on tape and he quickly volunteered to show off his original Air Force procured M16 rifle and did a great job as our first victim on camera. For the remainder of our stay that scene repeated dozens of times.

Once we arrived in Mosul, Maj. Cate made arrangements for us to bivouac in a former hotel re-named the Civil/Military Operations Center or CMOC for short. It was the HQ of the 431st Civil Affairs Battalion from Little Rock, Ark. Sgt. Pitts of the 431st assisted Randy and I to our room on the sixth floor. In this, the former five-star Nineveh Hotel, floor selection was a catch-22. Lower floors were within easy RPG range and higher floors were a bear to access as the elevators were always a 50/50 proposition. (Sgt. Pitts own third floor room was blown up by an RPG two weeks after I departed; he escaped serious injury).

On the first evening of our stay at the CMOC, the elevators were nothing but a fond memory and we trudged up all six flights to deliver nine suitcases, boxes and AV cases to our room. To say I was hot, sweaty and tired would be an understatement. Never before had I ever felt all three so acutely. Sgt Pitts looked at us in our collective crumpled heaps and said, "Which one of you is from the NRA HQ?" I looked up and said acknowledged that I was indeed from Fairfax HQ. Then with a face that did not betray any emotion, good or bad, he said, "Fine, follow me, Colonel Bishop wants to see you."

I thought "How could this be, I don't know any Colonel Bishop, and I haven't been here long enough to have a Colonel Bishop mad at me." I said that I would just assume not meet any Col. Bishop just then, maybe later if that was okay?

"No, now is fine please."

"Well, I'm not dressed to meet the colonel right now, I'm filthy, un-showered and disheveled. Can you give me 30 minutes to make myself presentable?"

"No sir, you will be fine, the colonel will see you now."

Truth be told, I wasn't trying to get out of seeing the colonel because I was filthy, we had just completed a 15-hour day of filming, and I was exhausted and desired a cigar and some uninterrupted peace in the worst way. I was also just maybe a tiny bit scared of the colonel as well. I was afraid that, as the CO of the Civilian Military Affairs Battalion, he might have something to say about what I could and could not cover in the way of guns and gear. Sgt. Pitts set me at ease eventually. "Nothing to worry about" he said, "the colonel is a gun guy and writes for a bunch of your magazines, he is dying to meet you." With that a wave of relief came over me, and I grabbed a few desert color NRA members patches that I had made up as well as an NRA challenge coin the NRA's Secretary Maj. E. J. Land USMC (Ret.), had given me prior to my departure.

Col. Bishop was found in his map-laden office pouring over letters from local citizens and visibly transformed from the de facto mayor of Mosul to a fellow gunny as soon as he saw me step through his office door. We spoke for hours about Class III guns and some of the articles I remembered him authoring for various publications. It was just one more episode in being made to feel at home by some of our fellow members, a feeling that I was immensely appreciative of, as I had never been this far from home or safety in my entire life.

Following the lead of journalists I saw on television, I acquired a number of Desert Camouflage Uniforms for wear in country. I not only wanted to blend in but if I was successful in getting a publisher for a proposed book on guns, uniforms and equipment, I felt I needed to know how it held up and how well it wore. I had a number of nametapes made for my uniform pocket that said "NRA" and proudly sewed them on my new DCUs. After a few months of no word from the Army on my application, I changed them to "Press Corps" in hopes that I would not be pre-disposing myself to ill treatment. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Just about everyone wears DCUs in Iraq, many of them with a dizzying array of differing nametapes above the left pocket. Names like "DOD CONTRACTOR, DOD CIVILIAN, TRIDENT, SAFETY OFFICER" and others abounded. On the days that I wore the one uniform that still had an "NRA" name tape affixed, I would get curious G.I.s approaching me with a disturbed look on their face and ask, "NRA?" and I would respond, "Yeah, the National Rifle Association of America, you may have heard of us, we are in all the papers." To which they often replied, "Wow cool. What are you all doing over here?" And if I felt that they would take it in the spirit intended I would say, "Well, we heard a serious rumor that you all might be fighting this war with guns and we were very interested in what kind of guns, how they were working and how they were holding up for you." Most would then get a huge smile and say, "I'm a member!" or "My dad's a member," and start telling me about their favorite gun whether it was the Ma Duce .50 mounted above their HMMWV's or their Winchester .270 they used for deer season back home. Membership, or just even appreciation of shared values, was enough to crack the most battle-hardened façade and begin a delightful conversation.

On days when I wore my "Press Corps" marked uniform, you would have thought that I had a communicable disease. I could go all day without being able to establish eye contact with someone who would allow me permission to photograph them. A few times, some brave soul would walk up and ask me for whom I was writing. They would say, "The NRA? For real?" When I affirmed the statement they would gather their buds and say, "It's OK, he's from the NRA," and all would be well again. One day of this treatment and I pulled off all those "Press Corps" tags and hand stitched the "NRA" ones back on!

I brought more than 100 brown and tan NRA members patches that I had made up, as well as a significant number of NRA Challenge Coins, gifts from Maj. Land. At every stop we made to film weapons systems or photograph a firing demonstration, I tried to give each and every soldier who participated a small token of our appreciation in the form of one of the patches or coins. It was amazing to see the joyful look of appreciation in many of their faces when they received these items. It was an incredible feeling to know that something so seemingly trivial could be so valued and appreciated. It truly was an honor and privilege to record their stories and spend a month among true patriots and heroes. I had no idea how much value these fine people placed on our tokens until my exit interview with Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus the evening before I left.

During the course of our conversation-which centered on his sincere interest in my observations of their weapons systems and how they could be improved as well as my evaluations of what was performing well in the line of duty-I took the opportunity to present the general with one each of our patch and coin. He, in turn, from a pre-prepared station on his desk, presented me with his coin, and the Screaming Eagle patch of the 101st, which he said I had earned the privilege of now wearing on my right shoulder. Words could not adequately express my appreciation of that gesture, I am sure that I will not only spend the rest of my life in appreciation of those who served in Gulf War II, but I know that I will always try to live up to and earn to the honor the general bestowed upon me.

There have been many times in my 20-year career that some people have tried to make me ashamed to say whom I worked for, and they all have failed at that endeavor). This trip was one of my first forays into uncharted territory where I would wear my convictions literally on my sleeve for all to see. It was a sincere pleasure and an honor to have been so warmly received by members and non-members alike. God Bless them, every one.


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