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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

My Tour to Iraq

Dear Felicia,

For me I am good, but living in hell. Sadr Trend fighters control my neighborhood and fighting Iraqi and U.S. Forces. I do not feel safe in my area. Everyday they shell the IZ with mortars.

I miss you dear… I sent all required documents to NVC hope that they will respond my e-mail soon. When I get their respond regarding the date of interview I will leave this job. And travel directly to the States. Maybe we can live together as we planned before.

Please remember that there is a friend in Iraq cares about you even if you are far a way from here. You told me that I am a beautiful person with big heart and I am telling you now you are the beautiful, kind, and lovely friend.


Halfway into the my Junior semester, my sergeant from the Springfield Armory called me. Apparently, the 65th Press Camp really was in dire need of qualified MA National Guard journalists. Someone had done a search and my name came up as being qualified as a 46 Q military journalist. I was being asked to volunteer for the mission.

Will I ever finish college? I wanted to go. I was so crushed when I got sent to the rear the summer before and this was a better mission. I wouldn’t be at the security check points padding down Iraqis; I would be in the Green Zone, writing stories, escorting and embedding media, and assisting with press conferences.

Well, I didn’t get a chance to volunteer. By the end of the semester I had been, as we say in the military, “involuntarily transferred” for the mission. By then, I was a senior in college.

I knew what classes I needed to graduate. I sat down with various professors and explained my situation and asked if they would be willing to work with me as a student in their class, emailing in assignments from Baghdad. I met little resistance and it was set, whatever “free time” I had on this deployment, I would dedicate to my studies.

I returned to Fort Dix, NJ, once again ready to do my job for my country in Iraq. Mobilization training is not much fun. It is not a regular summer camp made to brush up on Soldier skills that we had supposedly been up to par with all along. I think it was a lot harder than boot camp, because every tactical movement, low crawl, shooting, convoy movement, and road march was done with the new 40-60 something pound body armor.

I lost 30 pounds on this deployment and had to cut off about ten inches of my hair, because putting my hair up an a bun wet for three months turned into a mold, mildew, and bacterial mess. Go Army; Hooah!

When I got to Iraq, Camp Striker was getting attacked. The alarms sounded and the mortar rounds started coming in. There was also small arms fire near the gate.

“Well I guess I finally made it. This is Iraq,” I thought.

Two days later I was picked up at the Rhino station, an armored bus station that is convoyed with up-armored HUMVEES through Iraq usually at odd hours in the middle of the night, by my Sergeant Major.

“Welcome to Baghdad’s International Zone,” he said.

Tired, but excited, I was given the tour around the Embassy. The U.S. Embassy was located in one of Saddam’s still standing beautiful palaces. I had never seen so much marble or crystal in my whole life. Las Vegas couldn’t compete. Cascading spiral staircases all laden with marble and even wall-to-wall marble from room to room was what I saw. I couldn’t believe that in a country where most of its inhabitants were dirt poor that palaces like this was scattered all over Iraq.

“Is this really a third world country?” I thought.

But the other structures, being either blown up, bullet holed, or greatly impoverished and barely standing, reminded me this was a war torn nation. And the mortars and Kenosha rockets would come, waking me up in the middle of the night or scathing the Thanksgiving spirit.

The International Zone was supposedly the safest area in Baghdad, but there were other things that reminded you that you weren’t.

I saw the Red Zone through the eyes of my Iraqi Interpreters. They were local citizens with college, some even master’s degrees, whose grasp of the English language brought to the Public Affairs Operational Center perspectives and ideals about what is going on in their country. They presented a documented viewpoint that higher ups in Washington, D.C. were interested in.

The letter this piece opens with is from my friend and co-worker Maggi. She is an Islamic Shia Iraqi who worked alongside me. Her job, as well as the Iraqi Media Engagement Team, was to take the local daily newspapers, radio, and TV broadcast news, translate a summary into English, and then bring it to me and Sgt “Sas” to edit. Once edited we would give it to our E-9 Air Force counterpart to edit further, then kick it up to the Pentagon for daily analysis.

I learned a lot about the politics in Iraq and what went on on the other side of the [security wall]. I could hear the car bombs go off and know that at the troops’ Baghdad IZ CASH, combat hospital, there were victims of IED explosions. It didn’t just affect the U.S. troops, but the Coalition Forces from all over the world, the civilian and Department of Defense contractors, (mostly retired veterans coming back to Iraq in a different capacity), State Department employees, and the Iraqi people-most of whom were just trying to keep food on the table.

I befriended Maggi. She told me how she lost two fiancés to war in Iraq. She was 40 years old and had lived through so much of Saddam’s regime. Things were prosperous in Iraq, before the U.S. invaded in 2003. War changes everything.

Now like the others in the Iraqi Media Engagement Team, she was working toward obtaining a visa so she could have a better life. We talked about religion and we talked about life in the States. I can’t remember how it came about, but she knew I was Jewish. For Chanukah, her and Karima, also from IMET, both bought me beautiful necklaces from near their neighborhoods.

I would buy them gifts too. I would order a couple hundred dollars worth of chocolate distributed throughout the deployment from CVS.com-Snickers, Baby Ruths, Andes Candies, and York Peppermint Paddies. These were things they just couldn’t get in Iraq. They would take the chocolate home to their children, nieces, nephews, parents and siblings. Whatever care packages I would get, I would share with the team.

Maggi and I would drink tea, and she would share her local food with me. We would dream about getting an apartment in Boston or New York.

One day she came to work and she hugged me crying. Between tears, she told me someone had broken into her home and stole everything of value-everything she had made and saved up to come to the States with. Her awards from the U.S. military were scattered all over the floor. She was scared to go home; she was scared they would kill her. She couldn’t go to her local police because they were corrupt. It just wasn’t safe. She wasn’t sure if she was going to be able to go home that night. Life was extremely dangerous for her and IMET: if their neighbors knew they worked for us, they could be kidnapped, hung etc.

She calmed down, prayed and went home. She could not sleep, because she did not feel safe in her own home. We had helped some of the members of the Team move to live among us in the camps surrounding the embassy. Maggi couldn’t do that. She had family obligations.

For Remembrance Day, British equivalent to our Veteran’s Day, I got to get on a helicopter with my M16 strung at my side, full body armor on, massive Nikon camera in my lap, and paper and pen in my pocket to fly to Habbaniyah. There is a historical monument memorial and cemetery from World War II for the British Airmen who died there. I took pictures and wrote a story.

It was wonderful getting out of the cage. Life in the IZ is protected and sheltered, but one can feel penned up. I was envious of the civilian journalists I’d drive to the helipad to embed into units that were out in Iraq fighting the war. The Habbaniyah mission gave me the opportunity to see a large portion of Iraq’s terrain peering out of the doors of the Blackhawk.

When I got there, the first thing I noticed was how badly managed the site was. Supposedly, the locals had desecrated it years ago. Next to the British cemetery was an Iraqi one. Many of their dead had fought in the same battles as the British. It had an eerie feeling to it. It made me wonder if their souls were near each other as well.

When I think of Iraq, I am reminded of all the awful smells, dust, exploded munitions and sadness that entail a war torn 3rd World Country. But I think of Maggi.

One of the best news stories to hit my desk was one where the Concerned Local Citizens were had taken up arms against the Al-Qaeda in their neighborhoods. The locals have had it. I have seen violence drop 80 percent in Baghdad, and thousands of refugees come home, during my tour. There is hope in Iraq. Things will get better.

I fought military red tape at Walter Reed and saw what a travesty war is and what Iranian munitions and Iraqi terrorists can do to our young men and women. After eight years and two deployments for the U.S. Army, I continue to look forward to seeing the world, in and out of my uniform. Perhaps I can return to Iraq someday, as an embedded civilian journalist, and captivate life on the frontlines, as I have always wanted to.

I still write to Maggi and I look forward to picking her up at an airport in New York and showing her my homeland. Who would have thought an Islamic Iraqi Arab and American Jewish Soldier, could be friends? Maybe the world really is growing up.

About the Contributor
Felicia Whatley served as the following positions for The Mass Media the following years: Managing Editor: Spring 2009 *News Editor: 2009-2010 *Whatley served alongside Caleb Nelson for these years.