Iraq: Last Day at Camp Victory

“Is there really a California Pizza Kitchen in the Green Zone?” I get that question a lot. I don’t know how it got started–an across the fence, around the water cooler internet urban myth. As a television journalist I’ll lay the blame for the California Pizza question on the lack of evidence–no pictures. Taking a camera out in the Green Zone is a quick way to lose your press credentials.

Still wondering? The answer is no, there is not a California Pizza Kitchen in the Green Zone. Technically there isn’t a Green Zone. Early in the war the term was used to describe an area that surrounded some government buildings, the US Embassy and a good-sized section of the city that was walled off and heavily guarded. Green meant safe, or at least safer. The military didn’t like the term because it implied there was a “Red Zone” that was, well, everywhere else.  It certainly isn’t green…more of a dusty brown with grey blast walls. Side streets are littered with garbage. So, whatever you imagined, if you did, it’s probably wrong.

Here’s another bubble to burst.  The IZ has not been the most important piece of real estate.  The heart of what was the US and Coalition effort is miles away at a place that is known as the VBC or Victory Base Complex. We can’t show you that either. So, as the last US soldier leaves the base today it’s a real challenge to share the stunning significance of the end of Camp Victory.   Yesterday, at a ceremony, this moment of monumental significance was expertly reduced to a bland piece of political symbolism. Vice President Biden, Prime Minister Maliki and President Jalal Talibani made a few speeches inside the Al Faw Palace at Victory. The foreign press was not invited and, of course, no pictures inside the base were allowed. There is a good reason for that, so keep reading.

Victory is about six miles from the IZ (or 10 kilometers—the US military has gone metric). To get there you have to travel down what was, at one time, one of the most dangerous roads in the world. You’re heading in the direction of Baghdad’s airport, known better as BIAP. (Baghdad International Airport) The VBC is right next to the airport. It’s so big it takes over 30 minutes to drive from one end to another. At the apex of the surge in 2007 over 40,000 soldiers were based in the complex and on any given day there were over 80,000 people inside its heavily guarded perimeter.

There are several bases inside the walls–Stryker, Liberty, Sather, etc.  Soldiers got around by taking mass transit…bus, green or red. Sidewalks were built. There were stores, several cafeterias (DEFACC or dining facilities) and well, it DID have a Pizza Hut or at least a Pizza Hut trailer with some beat up picnic tables. It also had a Burger King trailer–similar set up, a Popeye’s Chicken, a Taco Bell and a Cinnabon. Don’t go overboard with the visuals here…think catering trucks in a gravel parking lot. Still, there’s something wrong about seeing a soldier fresh from a fire fight still shaking as he sips a Seattle’s Best Coffee and tries to eat a cinnamon roll.

It was on Camp Liberty, inside the VBC, that I experienced my first rocket attack. They really do sound like a cliché  (“freight train flying overhead”). Fresh off a week of training I thought I was prepared so when the first rocket roared over my trailer I put on my helmet and grabbed my body armor.  That’s when things started to go wrong. I decided to put on my shoes. It seemed like a good idea at that moment. The next moment, however, all that changed. The second rocket shook the trailer so hard I fell down. I gave up on the other shoe and bounded out the door on one leg, helmet askew, one shoe on and carrying my body armor. The soldiers outside stared and took a long look before they broke out in laughter. Ten minutes later they were still laughing. Just for the record, ten minutes is a long time when someone is laughing at you.

The rocket hit the lake across the road but came within striking distance of the headquarters of the Baghdad Operation Command. That’s why no pictures are allowed. None of us really wanted to help provide targeting information for the not-so-nice guys firing the rockets. We didn’t complain much. But if we could show pictures you’d see that there are several lakes on Victory. Soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines…well maybe not Marines…but some of the others would go fishing for bass and large carp in the lakes and canals. Fishing in the toxic sewage pond was not smart but some did fish next to the water purification plant on the river. Yes, the place is that big—ponds, lakes, rivers, sewage dumps and a water treatment plant.  Incidentally the water from the “Oasis” water plant tasted like dirt.

Rockets were a regular events for several years at Victory. Some took lives. “DETS”, or intentional detonations, however, were part of life on Victory. Several times a day a siren would come to life quickly followed by an unintelligible voice on a public address system.  That was quickly followed by a loud boom and another ton or two or more of enemy ammunition or bomb-making crap would be blown into the air. The detonation area for unexploded ordinance is next to the wrecking yard full of damaged and blown up armored cars and a safe distance from the gas station, the car rental yard and the firing range.

The problem with the firing range is that it was so close to the nasty neighborhood of Ameriyah that it was almost impossible to tell whether soldiers were zeroing in their weapons or one side of the fence or fighting for their lives on the other.

Whole sections of Camp Victory look like a trailer park…only with 9 foot tall (yup 3 meter) blast walls. They are called CHUs or containerized housing units or more commonly referred to as a “hootch,” a nod to a Vietnam-era term for a building where you slept.  Don’t think double wides, more like half a single wide. Believe me it’s not exactly luxury when you stuff four soldiers into one of those tin cans–for a year.  The shower trailers, laundry trailers and trailers for married couples are a little bigger.

It is a city, or was a city.

When Gen. Raymond Odierno left Iraq on one of his brief stops home, he was asked about Camp Victory. It was 2008 and small bases were being turned over to the Iraqi Security Forces on a daily basis. “Nothing’s going to change Camp Victory…it’s going nowhere.”   He misspoke a bit but the meaning at the time was clear. Camp Victory would be a US base. He was wrong.

As I flew into BIAP yesterday the Royal Jordanian Embraer took a slow and lazy approach over Victory. There’s no cork screw landing to avoid missiles anymore.  I looked down on what was once one of the largest military bases in the world. It was a ghost town, an empty memory. That’s what it will remain for hundreds of thousands of America’s fighting men and women. A memory of what was once, to them, the most important place in the world.

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