Heat, Flat Tires and Bullets in Iraq

I haven't used a cardboard fan since going to Antioch Methodist church in Forsyth, Ga. I was 12 and as the preacher talked about salvation, my grandmother and I pushed thick, southern air around. A few days ago, I found myself with another cardboard fan in my hand, but the circumstances were totally different.

The alarm went off at 5:30 in the morning. It was already hot. I took a shower, grabbed a sandwich and put on my flack jacket. The armored car pulled out on to the street. The checkpoints whizzed by and I read over my notes. ABC News decided to cover the release of 500 Iraqi detainees from Abu Ghraib prison and I was the producer.

To get anywhere safely (and believe me this is a relative term) in Iraq, you have to travel in armored cars with the military, or not at all. I had two out of three. We met the military across from the Al-Rasheed hotel and the convention center in the heart of the Green Zone. A Rhino was waiting for us.

The Rhino is as close to an indestructible bus as you can find. It looks like a huge eraser on wheels. The entire outside is encased in bulletproof (and hopefully bombproof) armor. The windows are several inches of special one way bullet-proof glass. Bullets bounce off the glass but there are special gun holes that can be broken from the inside and allow the military to shoot back at whomever is shooting at the bus.

The Rhinos are used to transport V.I.P.'s up and down airport road, people like Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein. It depends on who you believe, but Route Irish, as the military calls it, is either the safest or most dangerous road in Baghdad. I lean toward most dangerous.

Arriving at Abu Ghraib

The 45-minute drive brought us to the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih made the same journey to announce the continuing release of 2,500 detainees -- these are Iraqis who have been caught up in sweeps and raids that the military decided were either suspicious or had committed a violent act against Coalition forces. It is estimated that there are more than 13,000 people who have been detained. A new review process culls the violent prisoners from those who were at the wrong place at the wrong time.

I arrived as 493 men were going home, the review found that they had not bombed, tortured, or murdered Iraqis or any member of the coalition of the willing.

What they have done is stay in prisons across Iraq for as little as six months and as long as 18. I spoke with seven of the detainees. No one I spoke with had talked with their family during their incarceration, and many said they were innocent. I find it odd how easily they seemed to take this derailment of their lives. In America there would be lawyers, press conferences and outrage. In Iraq, these men waited their turn to either shake Salih's hand or complain to him, then they got on a bus that returned them to their homes.

The story was over after the last free man, wearing a brand new U.S.-issued striped shirt, flip flops, and overlong khakis rolled up around the ankles, sat down in one of three grumbling buses. So it was time for us to get back into our matte black Rhino. My crew consisted of a local videographer, soundman, and translator. There were two Iraqi TV crews, four Iraqi newspaper reporters, two still photographers, and an Arabic-speaking Australian who works for National Public Radio. The remaining seats in the bus were taken by three Army translators and six soldiers. Our lead Humvees took off and we were on our way.

Flat Tire or Gunshot Wound?

I must stop the narrative at this point to talk about the heat in Iraq. This is my third time in the Cradle of Civilization, but my first summer here. The closest thing I have to compare to this type of heat is Arizona or Nevada on a late day in July. You just can't breathe. The sun seems to stay in the sky all day pushing down on your head and shoulders. The sand below throws the heat back up at your feet and hands. My watch has a thermometer -- it reads 110 degrees. Imagine being a turkey dressed in a flak jacket and shoved in an oven.

You learn to hydrate in Iraq. Empty half-liter plastic bottles litter the landscape. I drink one every two hours when I'm not running around. I was drenched in sweat by the time we climbed back into that Rhino Runner. I felt like a microwave, zapping everything I touched. Heat just radiated from my body. The black flak jacket came off as soon as I sat down. I grabbed a liter of water and started chugging. Without a rumble, the bus pulled away and we were on the road.

Forty minutes later, we were stopped on Route Irish in the most dangerous section of Baghdad. On many days, IED's line the road. At times, so do bodies. Someone on the bus heard a gunshot. I didn't. My iPod was turned up as Michael Stipe chanted "It's The End of the World as We Know It" (Perhaps I should have looked at my playlist before I got on the plane at LAX). We all found out that the tire of our indestructible bus was not so indestructible. I haven't heard if the soldiers found a bullet in the deflated rubber, but without a doubt our Rhino was hobbled. The tire was flat.

The temperature inside the bulletproof behemoth wasn't much different from the air outside. A steady 95 sweltering degrees. And since our detour left us in Ahmiriyya, known as the most dangerous neighborhood in Baghdad, I felt a compulsion to pull that ballistic lifesaver affectionately known as my flak jacket over my head and wrap its black Velcro arms around my waist. In other words, the microwave was back in action.

Our Humvee escort surrounded the wounded Rhino. Traffic behind us was stopped as three soldiers put on their lids, grabbed their guns, and opened the door of our bulletproof cocoon. They had a job to do. A flat tire was in need of oxygen.

Fifteen minutes pass. My watch reads 97 degrees.

The Rhino rises. The Rhino falls.

Twenty-three minutes pass. The temperature goes up 2 degrees.

ABC's cameraman (I won't use his name for his safety) pulled out his knife and started cutting apart the box that held our lunch. Don't let anyone tell you different, MRE's are durn tasty these days. I didn't eat everything in the box, but everyone ate the M&M's. After 10 minutes of cutting, everyone in the bus had their own cardboard fan. And a few of us were praying.

Thirty minutes in and it is 99 degrees inside the Rhino.

We can't open the door because of the gunfire in the distance. Fresh overheated air isn't worth a bullet wound. The water was almost gone. We started this trip at 6 a.m. The digital readout on my watch stays at 99.2 as the hands point to 30 minutes past 1 o'clock p.m.

The officer in charge joked with us, "This was not part of the regularly scheduled program ladies and gentlemen." The sweat hadn't stopped pouring down his graying hair, but somehow this military man's uniform was still all angles and starch. Forced laughter barks back at him from wilted reporters.

The U.S. military is the most powerful in the entire world. They mean well, with statements such as: "People should not suffer under the power of a dictator"; "We are in New Orleans and everything is fine"; "We are offering a trip to Abu Ghraib with a select number of seats for the press" … etc

Only the best of intentions, and yet it just seems like the brain behind the beast only thinks of its goal, not of its consequences. They transported us to a terrible place in a terribly expensive piece of machinery. They allowed us to witness a unique event. They fed us, gave us plenty of water, and HOOAH! bars. HOOAH! is the creation of the U.S. military to improve performance. Military research found: "subjects consuming the HOOAH! bar showed a 19 percent improvement" in physical performance. I thought we might need that added performance to make it back home in this heat.

Forty-five minutes pass. The temperature of the air stays the same. We are about to blow.

The U.S. military did not map out a plan on how to get us home if something went wrong. Sound like Iraq to anyone? The jack wouldn't work. It couldn't lift the Rhino and a gaggle of journalists off the ground.

One of the military's translators, Sam, picked up his helmet and dressed himself in Kevlar. He proved himself to be a loud man with a wide smile. The scowl he wore through most of the day peeled back as a Kurdish journalist sang a few bars of Lionel Richie's, "Say You, Say Me" to the pretty Christian reporter at the back of the bus.

Sam walked down the line of traffic behind us that stretched a mile or more with several hundred cars in a row. They didn't honk. They didn't try to get around us. They just sat there in the heat. Every Humvee has a sign hanging off its tail reading, "Danger. Stay back 1000 feet", in English and Arabic. I saw one where the D had been painted over and the message seemed more apropos.

Sam, the translator, finally found an Iraqi big rig in possession of an industrial sized jack. The Iraqis and the Americans joined together and lifted that impregnable automobile off the deadly asphalt. You could say it was a coalition force that managed to change the tire. Maybe that is how this war will be won. When both sides come together to fix a problem. The thought made me feel good.

Then the Australian journalist with a knack for Arabic looked over at me and said, "I hope they don't kill him for helping us." The stagnant air stopped for a moment: sobering thought. The Aussie has covered the bloodshed in Ahmiriyya. People she spoke to for her stories were found as bodies in alleys. Maybe the solution to Iraq isn't so easy after all.

So I kept flicking my wrist back and forth, the cardboard fan moving the hot, Middle Eastern air around. And I thought about a time when circumstances were totally different, the only bullets I had ever seen were used on a dove hunt, and I had never heard of Iraq.