I do not normally fling myself into dangerous situations, but one day in Iraq, I found myself cruising solo down Haifa Street. It was not my plan to wander a known battle zone alone…but there I was – by myself and slightly terrified.
As the Army media embed coordinator for the first Iraqi election, I was responsible for nearly all things concerning the embedded reporters in 2005-2006. This included providing them with logistics support, like taxi services and flight coordination. So on this particular day, I was required to pick up a reporter at Assassins’ Gate, which was one of the military gates into Baghdad’s International Zone.
While speaking to the reporter on the phone, I kept driving in attempts to locate him. Well, I drove a little too far and realized, I was in the exit lane. I immediately stopped and told the closest guard, a British Soldier, that I was not trying to leave the “Green Zone.” He simply smiled and told me to just drive out, turn around and come back in the entrance.
It sounded simple enough and frankly, there was not much choice as the road was a narrow, barricaded one-way path with combat vehicles behind me. Therefore, I drove – just me with my little pistol and my up-armored suburban. Talk about being on alert! I was sitting on the edge of my seat, literally. I had never been out on Haifa Street, let alone by myself. In addition, from what I knew, that street was treacherous, which is why the gate was named Assassins Gate, or so I assumed then.
Nevertheless, out the gate I went, but some of my common sense appeared to cling to the security of the compound. As I drove down the street, I felt like I had a flashing disco light on my vehicle that proclaimed my vulnerability. “Hey terrorists! Look at the blonde American girl all by herself here. You don’t get this chance every day!” Fortunately for me, the terrorists had not yet noticed the beacon of opportunity I was providing them, or were otherwise occupied.
As I tried to figure out where to turn around, I saw local Iraqis move about the city street. The bullet holes in the buildings and the mortar craters along the road where just part of their day. It was normal to them by then, but it frightened me. Don’t get me wrong; I had seen these things before. This was not my first deployment, but I had never witnessed them…alone. All of my prior experiences had been in the comfort of a convoy or patrol with armed friends at my side.
With only myself to rely on, I kept driving. I found a place to turn around and headed back in the direction I came. I saw the exit and shortly after, I saw another gate. When I saw the sign, “Do not enter or you will be shot!” I drove past it. (My common sense was obviously replaced with fear at this point. In hindsight, I have to assume that I would not have been shot had I entered that gate and that the sign was not intended for American soldiers. ) So, no shit, there I was, continuing to drive down around in the “Red Zone” by myself.
After a few minutes, I saw the building where I worked. Unfortunately, it was next to a pedestrian gate, and on the other side of the fence. So unless I wanted to abandon my vehicle, which I assumed would get me in trouble (and provide the enemy with a vehicle), I had to keep driving. At one point, I stopped when I saw an Iraqi police officer walking along the road. I attempted to ask him where the vehicle gate was. Unfortunately, all he did was point at my suburban and continually ask, “Car boom?” I repeatedly said, “No, no car boom. Where is the gate?” Getting nowhere, I smiled and drove away. When I came to a traffic circle that pointed out my way to Tikrit, Basra, and other places I had no desire to travel to unaccompanied, I started to panic. All I could think of was: I am going to die; I am going to be raped and killed; I am going to be on the news; and I will be known as the stupid blonde soldier who got herself lost and killed. Every thought pretty much ended in my gruesome death that was created by my embarrassing performance as a soldier.
In efforts to avoid an undesired outcome, I drove around the traffic circle, and yet again, headed back from whence I came. It dawned on me that I had been driving down a one-way road though. So, I drove up over some four-foot wide, curbed road divider. (Clearly, I would not want to break traffic laws at this point in my military career! And, remember that my common sense abandoned me at the gate and my hair was getting blonder with each dangerous second ticking.)
As I cleared the curb and my vehicle bounced onto the adjoined road, an intense beam of light blinded me. It appeared to be coming from a humvee up the street. “Great. Now I am going to be shot by soldiers!” was my thought. (I mean, as a soldier myself, I would have considered shooting a vehicle that was driving erratically over curbs at dusk.) Immediately, I responded to the warning light by stopping my suburban, flipping on the interior vehicle lights and raising my hands in the air. Within in seconds, two other humvees surrounded my car and six to eight men started to walk towards me with weapons. At first, all I saw were Iraqi Army uniforms, and I was terrified. (There were a number of reports then of Iraqi soldiers working with the terrorists.) My mind raced with dread. What if these were bad Iraqi Army soldiers? What if they could not understand me? What if they kidnapped me? If I tried to escape? They would just shoot me anyway, right? After a few seconds of paralyzing fear, I saw two American soldiers. I cannot even explain the sense of relief that washed over me.
The group of armed male soldiers approached my vehicle. One of the American soldiers asked, “What are you doing out here alone?”
“I drove a little too far in the gate and I am trying to get back in,” I replied with a timid, stupid-girl smile that had to show my desperation.
He translated my situation to the Iraqi men. They all laughed. Great, I thought. I have just completely embarrassed all females in the Army. And to make it worse, I was also a blonde lieutenant on top of that. At that moment, I was living up to all of the stereotypes that created bad jokes. But, hey, my odds of living now where much, much higher. So, I hid my disgrace with gratitude and held back my tears of joy.
The American stated the obvious. “You should not be out here alone. It’s very dangerous.”
“I know. That is why I am trying to get back in. I just got a little lost when I accidentally exited the gate.”
He translated my plight again. The group of men laughed, smiled and made some unknown comments, which I have to assume where not about the impressive soldier skills I was displaying.
“Do you know where to go once we escort you back in?” the translating soldier asked.
“I do. I just don’t know my way around out here. You all never let me out alone before,” I stated with an embarrassed smile.
The American soldier proceeded to tell me what to do and tell me how I lucky I was. Had I not been sitting in my vehicle and utterly mortified, I would have jumped out to hug him. However, in efforts to hang onto my remaining strands of dignity, I professionally thanked him and followed his vehicle back into safety.
I look back at this ridiculous story years later and thank God that I can laugh about it now. This very well could have been a completely different kind of story for me, one that I would not want to retell or would not be able to.
Everything happens for a reason though, or so I believe. What exactly the reasons were behind that day, I cannot be sure, but in the end, I learned a few things. One, certain signs do not apply to me. Two, that in moments of danger, I need to turn off fear and turn on focus and action to remove myself from the situation (which I call the art of cold heartless action – a later blog). Three, that being a blonde female lieutenant in this situation must have been extremely humorous for the men who found me. And four, that I never ever wanted to roll out of a secure compound alone again. Been there. Done that. And, I even got a few t-shirts.