I have long referred to Camp Victory, the massive military base in Baghdad as “the prematurely named Camp Victory” since victory seemed a long way off during the many days I spent there over the last decade. The base, which housed 70,000 troops and contractors at the height of the war, was one of Saddam Husssein’s former palace compounds. Surrounded by water and smaller houses for his family and friends, it was one of the Iraqi dictator’s favorites. It is also where Saddam would be arraigned for his crimes against the Iraqi people after his capture in December of 2003.
The first time I stayed at Camp Victory, I wandered through the hallways lit only by a small flashlight to cots that had been hastily set up. In the morning it was clear from the granola bars that had been in our backpacks that a rat had been sharing our room.
A few months later when I returned to Victory after an especially arduous trip into Baghdad, I went straight to sleep in a small house that the military loaned us on the base. An hour later I was awakened by a loud boom and crashing sound. A rocket had hit near the house where I was sleeping. I wandered outside, saw that no one was hurt and went straight back to bed. Rockets and mortars would be a common occurrence at the Victory complex, taking many lives over the years.
Despite the constant roar of helicopters and the whir of rockets, it was an incongruous place for warriors. Huge chandeliers hung from the ceilings, marble covered the floors of the main palace and U.S. generals were housed in quarters crammed with ridiculously ornate furniture and garish decor. You always found yourself wondering who had stayed in these rooms when Saddam was in power.
The marble and gold palace would serve as a backdrop to dozens of historic events in Baghdad. The visits of President Bush and President Obama. The handover from one general to another, and even a comedy show with Stephen Colbert. The USO would frequent Victory as well, with visitors from Wayne Newton (I often wondered whether the younger soldiers had ever heard of him, but they seemed to enjoy the show), to the World Wide Wrestling federation, which seemed a better fit.
My most profound memory at Victory was Easter 2005. I wrote this email to my family and friend that day.
“I started my morning at an Easter sunrise service at “Camp Victory” the main military base in Baghdad. It was held in the magnificent water palace, one of Saddam Hussein’s old favorites. There was a group of soldiers who had formed a gospel choir … and they sang a few hymns. General Casey and General Abizaid were both there along with Senator Jack Reed from Rhode Island. It was a lovely service…and put everyone in an upbeat mood. I kept thinking … if Saddam Hussein could see this place now…
“This afternoon I flew out of Baghdad on a C130—-the big cargo planes. There will be no pictures of this. When we walked on the plane, we saw in the middle, four flag draped coffins, stacked side by side. On the way home on Easter Sunday. The passengers are seated on the sides of them. Our luggage is next to the coffins. People didn’t say much during the 90 minute flight…. there weren’t too many of us on board … so you can walk around. A few of the soldiers slept. The retired General I was with walked back and touched the flags. I cannot describe how emotional it was to see these coffins so close to you … not knowing who they are , but knowing how they probably died. I do know that three were soldiers … and one was a civilian. The soldiers were all very young … and had probably only been in Iraq for a month. That cargo plane, with sweaty soldiers and weapons stacked on the sides, became sacred space.
“When we arrived in Kuwait, the General said he wanted to go back and ‘present arms and render honors’ with the soldiers who were picking up the coffins. So we stood at the back of the plane as the coffins came off … again close enough to touch them. There were probably thirty soldiers waiting on both sides … just random soldiers and Marines who happened to be on base. Our young pilots also came back. They salute slowly as each coffin is taken off the plane and placed in a big truck. Their next flight was probably headed to Dover … and then to their hometowns.
“It is not an Easter I will ever forget. ”
Despite the sadness and the danger at Camp Victory, it was also a respite , a place for dark humor, dinners with generals, mornings sitting by the water with a lousy cup of coffee … and fishing. Those waters are full of so many carp you felt you could walk across them. They were the most aggressive fish I have ever seen. Soldiers during down time would fish those waters, but I never saw anyone eat one. It was also at Victory where a I met a young Marine Corps pilot, Tony Bancroft, who I would later introduce to my friend and colleague ABC News correspondent Andrea Canning. They are married with two girls now. Good things can come of war………. And while no one is declaring victory here ……what a long way we have come.