Excerpt for A Foreign Affair by , available in its entirety at Smashwords





A Foreign Affair



By




Amanda Matti






W & B Publishers

USA





A Foreign Affair © 2016. All rights reserved by Amanda Matti.



No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping, or by any informational storage retrieval system without prior permission in writing from the publisher.


W & B Publishers

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W & B Publishers

9001 Ridge Hill Street

Kernersville, NC 27284


www.a-argusbooks.com


ISBN: 9781942981978


Book Cover designed by Dubya


Printed in the United States of America






Dedication



For our girls, Elise & Elaina; may you both someday experience true love.





A Note to the Reader

In order to safeguard the privacy and security of the individuals mentioned in this book, all names - save mine and Fahdi’s - are pseudonyms. The incidents recounted here are based on a combination of writings from a journal I kept while in Iraq, my own memory, and Fahdi’s relay of information to me regarding events I did not personally witness. All dialogue has been reconstructed to the best of Fahdi’s and my memories and in some cases has been translated from Arabic. Conversations in this book are not verbatim but are accurate renderings of what was said and what occurred at the time. The views expressed in this book are mine and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or any of its components.








A Foreign Affair








“Sometimes, right in the middle of an ordinary life,

love gives us a fairytale.”

…..Anonymous






Preface




You live only once. You breathe in. You breathe out. The days go by, each seeming like a replica of the one before. But you will never see the day you just lived again. It is gone forever, a speck of dust thrown upon the mounting sands of time. The sun rises each morning, but it's not the same dawn as the one you witnessed the day before. It sets each evening, but it kisses the ground in a different way each dusk. You are not the person today that you were yesterday, nor are you the person you will be tomorrow. At some point in everyone’s life, they begin to realize this. They “wake up” and begin to see the world in a whole new light. The veil lifts and the rose-tinted glasses come off. Some refer to it as a rebirth or finding the meaning of life. Others say it’s simply growing up. You realize your mortality, and you are able to embrace the beauty of life and the world around you. On the flip side, you are also more aware of the evils and darkness that exist in the world; for every good there must be an evil. Everything must have an opposite. The universe tends to balance itself out. For most people, it takes some kind of significant earth-shattering event to bring about their “awakening.” Oftentimes it’s a death or a tragedy of some sort. It can be a natural disaster like a hurricane, an earthquake, or a tsunami. Or, it can be a social disaster like the collapse of an economy or war–whether you’re an active participant in one or simply find yourself involuntarily in the middle of a hostile conflict. It can also be brought about by a shock of beauty, perhaps the birth of a child.

I consider myself one of the most fortunate. I voluntarily chased my answer to the meaning of life into the jaws of a brutal war. Tragedy, death, or bloodshed could have easily brought about my awakening, but that’s what I was expecting. I was poised for battle. I was ready to fight. I had hate and prejudice built up inside me. I knew what I was getting into. I’d coached my mind to be prepared for horrible sights, awful scenes. But as the saying goes, “If you want to make God laugh, just tell him your plans.” I was armed and ready to slit throats when fate decided to wake me up with a love story.



Chapter 1



Thursday, 24 March – Wednesday, 18 May

2005




I’m never going to love you the way you want me to. Those were the words I heard my boyfriend, Shawn, say several times while we were dating. After two and a half years of this, I knew it was time to cut my losses and end the relationship. But that’s a difficult thing to do when you live two miles apart and you have to see each other at work every day. Shawn was enlisted in the Air Force, and I was enlisted in the Navy. We were both Russian linguists stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland where we worked at the National Security Agency. (Yes, the infamous NSA.) The NSA is often misrepresented in Hollywood spy movies like Enemy of the State as the evil communications spy agency listening in on every American’s phone conversations and monitoring all Internet traffic. In reality, it’s a lot of overpaid government cronies who show up to work in sweatpants with no underwear and spend their time counting down the days until their retirement. Granted, there are a few hardworking, dedicated individuals sprinkled in here and there, too, who carry the load for everyone–got to give credit where credit’s due.

In early 2005, I was 22 years old and I’d been in the military for nearly five years–three of them spent at the agency. Shawn was working on year number seven in the Air Force. It was a mind-numbing job. The Cold War ended when I was in grade school, and what was left of the Eastern Block was a minimal military threat by this time; so there really wasn’t much use for Russian linguists. All the action was happening in the Middle East where the war in Iraq (the second one) kicked off two years earlier in March of 2003.

I felt like I had contributed very little to my country in my five years of military service, considering I spent the first two years learning a foreign language and then nearly three years sitting in the basement of the NSA twiddling my thumbs. I’d never even left U.S. soil. But hey, it beat living at home and the money was decent, so I just rolled with it. Most people in the military would be thrilled to have a desk job in D.C., but I was young and dumb and getting bored–bored with my job, bored with my life, and bored with my emotionally empty relationship.

Shawn was never the best boyfriend, but I thought I was in love. He was older and more mature, and I followed him around like a puppy even though he treated me like crap a lot of the time. After two years together, the most thoughtful gift he’d given me was a tank top picked up in an airport gift shop on his way back from a trip to Las Vegas with his buddies. I wasn’t even worth an entire t-shirt. I knew I had to get away from Shawn, but I didn’t have the willpower to be able to stick to a breakup while having to see him every day at work. I knew I had to put some distance between us, and I was desperate for some excitement and adventure.

The agency was constantly posting internal adver-tisements for general intelligence volunteers to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan for three or four months at a time in support of the war on terrorism. Even though I was a Russian translator, (yeah, not a lot of Russian being spoken in Iraq) I still held a top-secret security clearance, meaning, if nothing else, I could be a classified paper-pusher at an embassy. I figured a few months in Baghdad or Kabul would be an amazing life experience, and I wanted to contribute more directly to our military efforts in the Middle East. It was also great fodder to put on my military resume, which would be useful when promotion time rolled around. Since I already worked in the agency, I simply had to pass a medical screening. I was a little leery of volunteering to go to a war zone, but basic statistics stated that my chances of being killed in a car accident on the interstate were higher than being killed in Iraq. I also believe in fate and figured if I was slated to die at a young age, I’d rather do it serving my country.

I preferred a deployment to Afghanistan where there was mountain scenery and bearable temperatures, but there was nothing leaving until the fall. I perused the list of open positions, picked the most intriguing option, and submitted my application. The mission was a 120-day agency deployment to Baghdad, Iraq working as an intelligence analyst and Foreign Relations Liaison Officer for the Foreign Affairs Directorate. They must have been desperate for volunteers because they were asking for officers, upper enlisted members, or experienced civilians; but I, a lowly E5, was asked to interview and subsequently offered the position two days after submitting my application. I was stunned when they offered me the job, and I immediately doubted the commitment I made when I accepted. Holy crap, did I seriously just volunteer to spend 120 days in Hell?

My deployment date was set for May 16, meaning I had less than two months to prepare to go to war. Even though I was active duty military, I was still a desk nerd and had to attend a week of weapons qualifications before I could go over and play with the other soldiers in Iraq. I qualified on the Beretta 9mm pistol and the M-4 rifle, which is just a smaller scale version of the infamous M-16. I did just well enough to pass–which means I could load the bullets into the gun and pull the trigger.

During the weapons training, the instructor called out down the line, “Fire three rounds into the target then return weapons to safe position. Ready. Fire!”

When the shooting ceased, we were instructed to place our weapons on the ground and walk out to retrieve our targets. Mine was completely untouched.

“Well isn’t that something,” the Marine next to me said as he pulled down his target. “I fired three rounds and hit the target five times.”

Crap.

Yep, two of my rounds actually hit the target of the dude next to me and God only knows where my third round went. But in my defense, I think I was actually aiming for his target instead of mine–my bad. When the instructor started coming down the line to check everyone’s targets, I discreetly poked a hole in mine with my little finger so I didn’t look like a complete loser


*****


I was scheduled to fly a commercial airline out of D.C.’s Dulles International Airport to Amman, Jordan with a brief layover in Frankfurt, Germany then continue on to Baghdad via military aircraft after spending a night in Jordan. Shawn offered to give me a ride to the airport and I accepted.

“Oh crap!” I shouted as we merged onto the I-495 outer beltway of D.C.

“What?” Shawn asked.

“I forgot the damn power supply for my laptop. I left it plugged into the wall in the living room!”

“Do you want to go back?”

“Yes, we have to.” I knew it wasn’t something I could replace at an airport gift shop, and I was sure I’d have a hard time finding a RadioShack in Baghdad. So we turned around and sped back to my house. We lost about forty minutes, but thankfully we left extra early for the airport. I had a little over an hour to catch my flight by the time we finally made it there.

When we parked, we made a mad dash for the international terminal. I carried my briefcase containing my laptop and left Shawn to battle with my two larger bags loaded with body armor and military gear. We made it to the United Airlines check-in counter with time to spare, but I knew I was in for a fight with the guy at the counter over the weight of my luggage.

“Ma’am, your luggage is not within the weight limit,” the young man with no personality behind the counter informed me dryly. “You will have to remove some items before I can check your baggage or you can pay the $400.00 overweight fee.”

Damn. I could just charge the overweight fees to the super-sweet government credit card I was issued (specifically for such expenses), but considering the reason my luggage was overweight had a lot to do with the dozen family-sized bottles of Pantene shampoo and conditioner I had stuffed between the body armor, I was reluctant to immediately jump to this route. There was no way I was going to spend 120 days in the desert sun and sand with army PX all-in-one shampoo and conditioner–hell no.

“You take Visa, right?” I replied with a big smile and slid him my government credit card. Yes, your tax dollars hard at work. Don’t judge me–I’m not proud of it.

Once the bags were checked, we continued on to security where I had to leave Shawn behind. It was only a four-month deployment but we both knew it was a soft breakup. It reminded me of a scene from one of those sappy romantic movies where the lovers part for what’s supposed to be a simple summer abroad, but they ultimately fall out of touch and never see each other again.

“Kick some ass over there, girl,” Shawn said as he hugged me. “Take care of yourself and remember: shoot first and ask for forgiveness later.”

“I’ll call or email when I can to let you know I made it there, okay,” I replied, and then I walked away.

When I arrived at my boarding gate, it was already packed with people. A quick scan confirmed my fear that unless there were two planes departing from this gate, some of us were getting cut from the flight. As if reading my mind, an airline employee got on the intercom and read off a list of names with instructions for those individuals to approach the ticket counter. Mine was one of the names called. While waiting in line with the other unfortunate few to be rebooked, I learned the guy in front of me was active duty Army stationed in Germany and the guy behind me was in the Air Force and trying to get back to Ramstein. I sensed a pattern. Anyone on a government ticket was getting bumped.

Once I had my new tickets in hand, I picked out a quiet little corner of the airport terminal, dropped my carryon bags, and settled down for the night. The airline offered to put me up in a hotel, but it was already after midnight and I was more than happy to pocket the $75 cash they provided me with for hotel accommodations. After five years in the Navy and working a rotating shift schedule, I’d learned to sleep just about anywhere.

My flight the next afternoon left relatively on time, bound for Amsterdam instead of Frankfurt due to the rebooking. I was quite relieved to discover my neighbor was a young woman instead of a 300-pound angry traveling businessman with a drinking problem. When I sat down, we exchanged brief sideways smiles. She, too, was obviously relieved at the sight of me.

I soon learned she had just graduated from high school and was on her way to spend the summer in Amsterdam with her older sister who was there attending college. I was immediately jealous and remembered my awesome high school graduation trip to Europe five years earlier. I smiled and mentioned how cute Dutch boys are. I had a mind-blowing weekend with a group of Dutch Marines visiting D.C. a couple of years prior (one Dutch Marine in particular), but that’s another story.

A couple of hours into our seven-hour flight, I began feeling a little funny. Half an hour later, it turned into a full-scale attack of flu-like symptoms. I was nauseated, I broke out in a feverish sweat, my body started aching, and I could hardly keep still in my seat. I contemplated getting right back on a plane for the U.S. when I arrived in Amsterdam, knowing I’d be useless to them in Baghdad in this condition. But once I arrived in Amsterdam my symptoms subsided and I realized I’d probably simply suffered some sort of panic attack, so I decided to push on through to Jordan.

My flight from Amsterdam to Amman was nearly five hours, so I had time to recover from my anxiety, and by the time I landed in Amman, I felt pretty much myself again. When I stepped off the plane in Jordan, reality sunk in and I realized just how far away I was from everything I knew.

While stuck in D.C. I sent a message to the U.S. Embassy that I was going to be a day late, so I prayed there would be a representative waiting to meet me and give me a ride to my hotel. When I made it to customs. I scanned the area for my escort. I was told someone would be waiting with a sign that had my name on it. I spotted several people with signs but none of them had my name, so I began to freak out a little. After roaming around customs for about fifteen minutes, double-checking every person with a sign, I decided to go on through customs and try to find a phone on the other side to call the embassy.

While getting my passport stamped, I asked the man behind the counter if he could tell me where I could find a phone, but his English wasn’t advanced enough to understand my question and he got flustered.

“I…I…sorry, Ma’am,” the customs man stuttered. “I no speak English.”

I just smiled and was about to continue on in the direction of the crowd when a man leaning against the wall in the hallway behind the customs area walked over to the flustered agent and me.

“I speak English,” the man announced. “What can I help you with?”

“Oh, thank you,” I said. I had just begun to tell him about the people that were supposed to meet me when another man came jogging up to the counter and breathlessly blurted out, “Are you Ms. McEwen?”

“Yes,” I answered as relief washed over me.

“I am here to take you to your hotel,” he informed me in a heavily-accented voice. “Please follow me and we will go get your bags.”





Chapter 2



Wednesday, 18 May–Friday, 20 May

2005




I followed my escort, obviously a local Jordanian, to the baggage claim area where he stuck me with a group of four other U.S. government employees who’d also just arrived. Surprisingly, both of my jumbo suitcases actually made it to Jordan. I was sure they were lost due to the flight delay and route changes. I was the last arrival of the evening for our escort, so once I had my luggage in hand, we all headed out to the commuter van.

It was about a 30-minute drive from Queen Aliyah Airport to the hotel district in downtown Amman. Even though it was after dark, I still stared out the window of the van trying to take in all I could. I kept trying to wrap my head around the reality that I was now in an Arab country 10,000 miles away from home, would soon be in the middle of a war zone, and I was on my own. It gave me a rush of excitement with a taste of fear unlike any I had ever known.

Amman was a beautiful city and much more modern and westernized than I had expected. Of course they put us up in the ritzy part of town, but I was still pleasantly surprised. Everyone in the van was booked in separate hotels and mine was the last stop. I checked into my room, threw all of my stuff down, and collapsed on the bed. Once I peeled myself off the bed and splashed some water in my face, I pulled out my laptop and composed a safe-arrival email to send to family and friends.

I was told to be waiting in the lobby the next morning at 0800 for the escorts to take me to a private airport to catch a cargo plane to Baghdad. I waited in front of my hotel for over an hour the next morning and by 0900, I began to worry. Just as I was about to go back inside to track down a phone, one of the bellboys told me my ride had arrived. He pointed me in the direction of a luxury sedan with a single male driver. I was a little confused since I’d been dropped off in a van the previous night. I went over and the man asked me in very broken English if I was Miss McEwen. His English was so broken he totally butchered the pronunciation of my last name and I only understood that it started with the letter “M.” Considering my last name was difficult for Americans to get right, I figured he was talking about me and I jumped in the car.

I felt something was off when I got in the car. When the driver asked me where I wanted to go, I knew something was definitely wrong. I didn’t know the name of the airport I was supposed to be going to, he was supposed to just take me.

“Are you sure I am the person you were supposed to pick up?”

“Yes,” he replied as he pulled a paper from his coat pocket. I quickly snatched the paper to read what it said, but a lot of good that did me. Welcome to the world of squiggles and backwards writing. I began to panic.

“Stop the car,” I told him. I asked him to read the name on the paper very slowly.

“It says here I am supposed to pick up a Miss Marcum at 9 a.m.”

My heart jumped into my throat and I demanded he turn the car around and return to the hotel. The people who were supposed to pick me up had probably come and gone already while I was away. When we pulled up to the hotel I noticed the van that had dropped me off last night beginning to pull out of the hotel drive. I leapt out of the car before it had even stopped and yelled to the driver of the van to wait.

The hotel door staff apologized repeatedly for the mix-up and helped me transfer my luggage from the car to the van. I crawled into the van to discover six other very quiet and serious-looking passengers. It was an excruciatingly long and silent 15-minute ride to the airport.

When we arrived at the airport, we were shuffled into a small prefab trailer with some chairs, magazines, and, most importantly, an air-conditioner. Twenty minutes later, we were instructed to remove our luggage from the van and place it on the wooden pallet out front so that it could be fork lifted and loaded onto the aircraft. Once everyone’s luggage was on the pallet, the airport crew (of which there were only about five and all were wearing civilian clothes) conducted a quick roll call and instructed us to board the waiting cargo plane.

Toward the front of the plane, both walls were lined with netted seats. There were slots for twenty people, and we had exactly twenty people on our flight so it was a little tight. There was only one other female aside from myself, so she and I sat next to each other. As soon as I sat down I knew I was going to have a problem because it was stifling hot. I have severe issues with motion sickness and this situation had puke-filled barf bag written all over it. I immediately whipped out the sacred Dramamine, swallowed a couple, and then offered some to the girl next to me. She was obviously having the same thoughts and thanked me graciously as she took two for herself. None of the guys wanted any, and I was glad to save the rest for any other air travel I would have to endure over the next four months.

After takeoff, I tried to get comfortable for the two-hour trip, but a cargo plane isn’t exactly a luxury jet. Luckily, Dramamine has an extremely sedative effect on me, so about twenty minutes into the flight, I nodded off. I woke up a little while later freezing my ass off. I was dressed for 100-degree heat, and at 30,000 feet, a cargo plane turns into a flying metal freezer. I soon discovered enduring the subzero temperature was the least of my issues as the plane banked sharply and began a spiral decent. Dramamine is a great drug, but it’s no competition for a corkscrew. I turned green in about thirty seconds and the only thing keeping me from spewing all over the inside of the plane was sheer willpower. When we finally landed, I managed to make it off the plane, but as soon as I stepped onto solid ground I puked my guts up right onto the tarmac of Baghdad International Airport. Welcome to Iraq! Once I finished, I was mortified but felt much better and made my way to a line of waiting SUVs that drove us to the Welcome Center.

The Welcome Center was formerly one of Saddam’s small palaces, which the U.S. government took over and transformed into a makeshift hostel for government personnel traveling into and out of Iraq. It was set up to temporarily house personnel while they awaited transportation to their specific location within the country. It had a small cafeteria, transient rooms with showers, televisions tuned to AFN (Armed Forces Network), a gym, a computer room, and free stateside service telephones. All incoming personnel were also briefed here and received a photo ID badge to wear around their necks for the duration of their time in country.

Fortunately, I was stuck at the Welcome Center for only a few hours. I arrived at 2 p.m. and managed to get a seat on the next chopper for the Green Zone scheduled to leave at midnight. I napped until early evening and then made my way to the cafeteria to see if I could scare up some dinner. Still feeling a little queasy from my bout of motion sickness, I grabbed some fruit and returned to my couch to watch TV. The Armed Forces Network was nice for only half an hour. The shows were five-year-old reruns, and the movies were so edited they bleeped out the word crap. Every five minutes, there was a news break starring the U.S. Air Force’s finest reporter, Stevie the stuttering Staff Sergeant. I decided to pull out the trusty laptop and watched a DVD until it was time to head back out to the tarmac and board the chopper for my final destination.

Before boarding the chopper, I and six other new arrivals were instructed to don our body armor and helmets. I’m sure my 5’2” frame enveloped in thirty pounds of body armor and wrestling two 75-pound bags was an amusing sight. At midnight, we arrived at the unlit landing zone (referred to as the LZ) where the chopper was waiting. We unloaded from two black SUVs and walked single file across the LZ to the awaiting chopper. I was the last to board and found the chopper completely packed with passengers and luggage and no open seats. The chopper’s door gunner told me to “wait one,” took a cooler from the cockpit, and placed it on the last bit of open floor space next to the doorway. I sat on top of the slippery cooler lid and the Gunner stretched a single bungee cord across the open doorway. As the chopper took off into the night sky, I clung to anything within reach that was bolted to the wall, knowing that one swift bank could send me flying out the door.

A bright moon hung in the clear night sky and cast an eerie illumination upon the passing city below, which seemed to fade into an endless black horizon. As the warm desert wind whipped across my face, I felt a strange sense of peace and comfort; it was hard to believe there was a war being waged below. The moon was just bright enough to silhouette the expressions on the faces of my fellow passengers. They reminded me of mice in a snake cage. Aside from the crew, everyone looked extremely apprehensive. Oddly, I didn’t match my fellow travelers’ apprehension, but perhaps I was too exhausted to acknowledge its existence. I just desperately longed for a hot shower and a real bed.

When we landed in the Green Zone, we filed off the chopper and jogged across the LZ to another group of waiting SUVs while the ground crew loaded our luggage into the vehicles. We were shuttled to our base, also on the grounds of another former palace. (Seriously, how many did the guy need?) The base was composed of a few buildings that served as office space, a chow hall, a nice swimming pool, and numerous small prefab trailers (pods) that served as living quarters. Each pod also had a cable TV, DVD player, and high-speed Internet access. I wasn’t sure if this was war or summer camp.

When we pulled up to the gate, the guard checked our badges and did a quick walk around the car with a mirror to check for bombs in the undercarriage of our vehicle. Once we were given the all clear, we continued on to a small building with a sign out in front that said “Processing.” A friendly woman greeted and provided us with the number and keys to our assigned pods. We were also provided with a laundry bag containing a pillow and linens. Once I had my gear in hand, a small middle-aged man of Japanese descent approached me. He introduced himself as Tom Takaki, director of the small intel team detachment and my new boss.

Tom and one of the guys on our team helped me gather my luggage and escorted me to my room. It was a bit of a walk from the chow hall and main office area, but close to the swimming pool. Considering it was well after 1 a.m., I was surprised to see the light inside the pod was on. I knocked on the door and a small blond woman, who looked to be in her mid-thirties, answered. I introduced myself and told her I was her new roommate. She gave me a kind smile, told me her name was Elaina, and welcomed me inside. Tom told me to be at the chow hall the next morning at 0700 to meet the other members of the team over breakfast. He then handed me a mobile phone and informed me that each member of our team had one. He gave me his number in case I needed anything before morning and told me I could also use the phone to call the U.S. I simply had to dial the area code and number.

Once inside, I noticed the room was about 12- by-16 feet and had a small attached bath with shower. There were two sets of bunk beds and four wall closets. I shuddered at the thought of four people cramming into this small space. I was relieved to discover that Elaina’s was the only bed made up and I found that three of the closets were empty. She had one of the bottom bunks and I claimed the other. Elaina crawled in bed soon after I arrived, so I didn’t want to bother her by taking a shower. I just brushed my teeth and took a quick baby wipe bath–something I still affectionately refer to as the Baghdad shower. Then I fell into bed and tried desperately to get some sleep. Although it was the middle of the night, I lay there wide-awake. I was severely jet lagged (my internal clock thought it was only five o’clock in the afternoon), and my mind was racing. I felt very alone and very far from the world I knew. It was one of the most restless nights of my life. I managed to get less than an hour of sleep before my alarm rang at 0615 and I awoke to my first morning in Iraq.





Chapter 3



Friday, 20 May–Saturday, 21 May

2005




When I opened my eyes, I saw sunlight streaming in through the single window over Elaina’s bed and noticed that she was already gone. I rolled out of bed feeling like I’d been hit by a truck and began rummaging through my luggage for some clothes. One of the guys from my new team knocked on my door around quarter to seven and offered to walk me to the chow hall, a gesture I was thankful for since everything looked totally different in the daylight and I had no clue how to get to the chow hall. He introduced himself as Kyle, and as we made our way to the chow hall he told me he’d arrived in Iraq three months ago. We met up with the rest of the team and Tom introduced me to everyone. Aside from Tom, who was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force, and Kyle, who was a Sergeant in the Marine Corps, there were four other guys on the team: Seth, an Army Sergeant; Kevin, an Air Force Sergeant; Robert, a retired Naval Reserve Captain; and Josh, a young NSA civilian employee. I was not only the token female, but also the only one on active duty in the Navy. It was also at this first meeting that Tom explained to me what our mission was in Baghdad: our team worked within the Iraqi National Intelligence Service (INIS) on the far side of the Green Zone where members of various U.S. government agencies and branches of the military assisted in the reestablishment of an Iraqi intelligence agency. The new Iraqi employees were recruited, vetted, and trained by U.S. and coalition government agencies, and our team was one of the small U.S. contingencies within the INIS lending a hand. Our main mission was to help the Iraqis become self-sufficient in conducting intelligence operations to support their own free government. Our secondary goal was a simple public relations mission to prove we didn’t invade only to kick Saddam’s ass and then leave, but that we were genuinely interested in helping Iraq establish a functioning democratic government.

Our team worked in three shifts and had at least two members on duty at the building at all times. However, the week I arrived, Tom decided we no longer needed a night shift. He felt the Iraqi employees were now capable of handling the nights on their own and were given a phone number each night to reach the on-call team member.

Following breakfast on my first day, Tom showed me around our team’s private office at the base, which was two pods put together and wired so we could communicate with agency headquarters in the U.S. via computers and phones. He set me up with a computer account so that I could use any computer at the base and issued me a two-way radio. Each member of the team had a radio and call-sign–I’m not sure how, but mine ended up being “Triscuit.” I think Seth came up with it. This office space was also where we stored our weapons and equipment. We were all issued a personal 9mm pistol with three 15-round clips that we kept on us at all times. The team also shared several M-4 and M-16 rifles that we carried when we left the base to go to work at the building. Those we kept locked in the office while we were at the base.

We each worked eight-hour shifts six days a week, and Tom decided to start me off on the evening shift, which ran from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. After my tour of the office, Tom informed me that my first shift at the building would be the following evening with Kyle.

“Kyle’s been here the longest and knows everyone up there the best, so he’ll introduce you to all the department employees.” He then gave me the rest of the day to myself to unpack, get settled in, and explore the base grounds.

Kyle asked me to meet him back at the office at quarter to three the next afternoon with my body armor, pistol, radio, and phone. “Anything else I should bring?” I asked.

“Just a smile,” he replied. “Be prepared to meet a lot of Iraqis.”

I returned to my room and began unpacking. The first thing I dug out was my MP3 player so I could listen to some music while getting the job done. About an hour later, Elaina came home. She was a freak. I really don’t know how else to describe her. She was one of the weird government “lifers.” She was in her late thirties, had been working in the federal government intelligence ring since she was a teenager, and could no longer properly socialize with the rest of humanity–a typical occurrence in this business.

She struck up a conversation soon after walking in the room. At first, I thought she was being nice, but I soon realized she was simply exercising her interrogation skills. “So, Mandy, where are you from?” she asked as she dragged an exercise mat to the center of our room. I told her I grew up in Florida, joined the Navy when I was 17, and was currently stationed in Maryland.

“Wow, that’s exciting,” she replied with feigned interest. “How often do you get to see your family?”

“Not very often, which is plenty.” By now, Elaina was well into her yoga and had one leg hooked over her neck behind her head. “I drive out to Ohio to visit my mom every few months,” I added.

After I said this, Elaina scrunched her face into an overly-dramatic confused look and said, “Hmmm, I thought you said you were from Florida.” Her eyes screamed, Aha! I’ve caught you in a lie!

I was going to explain that my mom moved from Florida to Ohio a couple of years after I joined the Navy to be close to her family, but I decided she could hone her interrogation skills on someone else.

“I did,” I said flatly. I put my headphones back on and continued unpacking.

When I finished, I decided to try my first shower in my new place. By that point I’d have been happy with a hose and a bar of soap since I hadn’t had a real shower in four days. One good thing about showering in Baghdad in the summer is you never have to wait for the hot water. Thanks to the 120-degree daytime temperatures, I had the faucet laid over on the cold side and the water still came out nearly scalding.

After my shower, I walked over to check out the swimming pool. It was a good size and the sparkling blue water indicated it was well-maintained. It even had a swim-up bar and plenty of lounge chairs surrounding it on the deck. Oh yeah, this is going to be a rough four months.

Although I didn’t have to report for work until the next afternoon, I tried to go to bed early to get over my jet lag and adjust to the new time. I tossed and turned for hours and didn’t manage to fall asleep until around 4 a.m. I slept until midmorning and hoped I’d have more success the next night. I just prayed Tom didn’t switch me to the day shift any time soon and I’d have to report before 7 a.m. After throwing on some clothes, I headed up to the chow hall to get some food. Although it was between meal times, they always had snacks and drinks available. I didn’t cook at home and often subsisted on one of man’s greatest inventions: cereal with milk. I was happy to find the chow hall had a fairly good selection of American cereals. We had a small refrigerator in our room, so I returned to my room with a box of cereal and a couple cartons of milk.

The milk in Iraq was an interesting experience. It came in a rectangular carton and sat out on the shelf at room temperature until it was opened, then it required refrigeration. It was called UHT (Ultra-High Temperature) milk and, as its name suggests, was able to withstand the Iraqi heat for travel. Unfortunately, my stomach couldn’t stand the UHT milk. It took two weeks of battling daily stomach cramps and diarrhea to finally adjust to the UHT milk, but I refused to give up cereal. After a couple of weeks, the cramps stopped and I was able to tolerate the milk just fine. I learned that I was one of the few on the base who could adapt so I had it and the cereal pretty much all to myself.

After another scalding shower, I dressed and geared up for my first day of work.

I stepped out the door into the merciless Iraqi heat and was drenched with sweat after the short 5-minute walk to the office. When I arrived, Kyle tossed me an M-4 rifle and said, “Let’s head out.” We walked to the vehicle corral and were picked up by our security escorts in our team’s vehicle, which was a massive, white armored SUV that we affectionately referred to as the White Elephant. It was so heavy due to all the armor plating that it only got about four miles to the gallon. According to protocol, all team members were supposed to be escorted to and from the building by a security team, but since we didn’t officially exit the Green Zone, we eventually just drove ourselves back and forth so the security teams could be available to escort those traveling into more dangerous areas. When I climbed up into the back seat, I noticed the thermometer on the rearview mirror read 109 degrees Fahrenheit. It was only May and I shuddered at the thought of how ungodly hot it would be in July and August.

The base was fenced in with high concrete walls so the drive to work was my first opportunity to see what was beyond the borders of it. As we rolled outside the main gate, I plastered my face to the window and soaked in as much of the scene as possible. The Green Zone was a concrete jungle of barricades with concertina wire and checkpoints on practically every corner. Since arriving in Iraq, I’d been relatively isolated from the local population. Only Americans were allowed on the base and I’d seen only Americans at the transient house after arriving at the airport. Although the Green Zone (also referred to as the International Zone or IZ) was a secured area, there were still many Iraqis who lived and worked within the perimeter. The traffic was very heavy and the streets bustled with women in burkas and kids kicking soccer balls in empty lots. As we crept along the IZ’s major thoroughfare in bumper-to-bumper traffic, I felt nervous for the first time. We were soon surrounded by local traffic and I realized the possibility that any of these vehicles could be a car bomb and, in a booming flash, I could be dead. But I just figured when your number is up, it’s up, and if I was meant to die in a car bomb in Iraq then there was nothing I could do about it. I don’t know how rational this thinking was, but I immediately relaxed and never felt particularly nervous again while traveling around Iraq. I just couldn’t think like that or I’d go crazy–it was my way of detaching myself from the fear.

I realized how truly international the Green Zone was on this first outing. It was like Epcot Center at Disney World. Each country seemed to have their own sections and their own checkpoints. I saw Japanese, Georgian, British, and Australian, military personnel, as well as a lot of Gurkhas. The Gurkhas were my favorite. They were soldiers from Nepal and the northern regions of India who had served in the British Indian Army since the 1800s and were well known for their combat skills and military strategy. They carried long, curved knives that customarily were not to be removed from their sheaths except to draw blood. Gurkha regiments continued to be employed by both British and U.S. forces in several areas of the world. They were consistently very nice to us, and I always felt safe when they were nearby.

Our security escorts dropped us off in the rear parking lot of the INIS building and we had to walk around to the front gate, which was technically beyond the Green Zone, to access the building. Four Iraqi civilian sentries armed with AK-47s guarded the main entrance to the building. Once inside, I noticed several more stationed in the main hallway right outside a pair of large cherry wooden doors with the title “Director General” posted above. The director general of the INIS was basically the Iraqi version of the director of the CIA. I later learned that the director general at the time, who we referred to as the DG, was a former Special Forces general under Saddam and was actually trained in the U.S. by the Army Rangers during the Iraq-Iran War. He was also a helicopter pilot who made a name for himself when he defeated an entrenched Iranian force that numbered in the thousands via an air assault. He turned dissident against Saddam’s regime in the late 1980s and started assisting the U.S. government in plotting an overthrow in the early 1990s. He was one of the masterminds of an elaborate coup in 1996, but unfortunately, the coup failed. Three of the general’s sons were murdered by the regime, and the DG fled to the United States. Following Saddam’s ousting, the CIA appointed the DG as head of the new INIS.

Kyle and I continued on to a pair of tiny elevators near the center of the building. The building had nine stories and resembled a large Holiday Inn–almost a perfect rectangle with one main hallway on each floor and offices on either side. We took an elevator up to our department, which was located in the east wing on the ninth floor. As soon as we entered through the department’s large double doors, Kyle was heartily greeted by a group of Iraqi employees gathered in the main hallway for a smoke break. They waved and shouted hellos to Kyle. Kyle greeted and shook hands with each of them and then introduced me. They spoke no English beyond saying hello, but each smiled brightly and happily offered his hand for me to shake. Typically, this was a culturally uncomfortable gesture for Arab men, but these guys were obviously beyond that. Before coming to Iraq, my small-minded, media-shaped outlook had me expecting most Iraqis to be ignorant heathens clinging to ancient customs, but I was pleasantly surprised by the outpouring of warm welcomes I received on my first day.

After making it past the group in the hallway, Kyle shuffled me into a small office reserved exclusively for the U.S. liaisons assigned to the department. Two other guys from our team, Sam and Jeff, were sitting at the two desks in our office when we walked in. They were obviously happy to see us because it meant their workday was over and they were free to head back to the base.

The office had a couple of computers, one connected to the Internet and one on a closed network for our work stuff. You could definitely tell the place was used by a bunch of guys, especially when I noticed the TV with a Sony PlayStation 2 connected to it. There were also a few storage cabinets and a rack with a mainframe computer, which was basically the brain system for all the computers in the department. Once inside the office, I was able to drop my body armor and M-4 rifle, but I kept my 9-mm on my hip–after all, I was in a building with over 1,000 Iraqis and just a handful of Americans.

Once I had been shown around our office, Kyle asked if I was ready to tour the rest of the department and meet all the employees. There were approximately fifty Iraqi nationals working in our department and I was going to get to meet most of them in the next half hour. Because of the whirlwind of activity over the past few days, I hadn’t given much thought to starting work; but now that I was in the building, I was nervous and did my best to smile my way through the introductions.

Our first stop was to meet the Iraqi head of the department. His name was Abu Zaid and he had his own office at the end of the hall. He was a big guy who looked to be in his mid-forties. He spoke a limited amount of broken English but was very nice. He welcomed me to Iraq and to the department. Like the first group of Iraqis, Abu Zaid did not hesitate to shake my hand and flashed me a sincere smile. I instantly liked and respected him.

After a few minutes of chatting with Abu Zaid, Kyle and I continued on to the next office across the hall. This was the translators’ office. There were typically two translators on duty at all times to help us communicate with the non-English speaking employees and translate work documents between English and Arabic. When we walked in, an Iraqi man who looked to be in his late thirties quickly approached us. He said hello to Kyle and then introduced himself as Ihab while he shook my hand. Ihab’s English was quite good. His thick British accent made it obvious he spent time in the UK.

The other translator came over and my life changed forever. He looked at me with strikingly hypnotic green eyes and extended his hand as he introduced himself. His name was Fahdi. He was in his early twenties, about 5’9”, and had olive skin and black hair. He had a slender build and I noticed a hint of stubble on his angular face. He did not have the typical Arab facial features and I figured he was possibly a hybrid with a European parent. He smiled as he gently shook my hand. I managed to squeak out my name but couldn’t stop staring at his eyes. Kyle chatted with Ihab for a couple of minutes and Fahdi returned to his desk while I continued to ogle him out the corner of my eye. Kyle then shuffled me down the hallway to meet the rest of the employees, but I didn’t remember anyone after Fahdi.

When we returned to our office, Kyle sat at the secure computer, which was linked with another computer at the office on base, and started typing. I checked my emails on the internet computer. I noticed that every few minutes Ihab would come in and hand Kyle a small piece of paper with information that Kyle would type into the computer. I was about to ask him what he was doing when he turned to me and said, “I’ll show you what this is tomorrow so you can start doing it too, but for tonight just relax, roam around the building a little to get your bearings, and interact with the people here.”

I was still feeling a little shy and uncomfortable with walking around the building alone, so I tried to make myself look busy on the computer. A few minutes later, Fahdi entered to give Kyle another one of those small papers. I tried not to stare, but I couldn’t help myself. He and Kyle chatted for a few minutes while I did my best to gaze discreetly at Fahdi from behind my computer monitor. I overheard him mention he was in the process of applying for a visa to visit the U.S. and ask how he could apply to immigrate to the U.S. to live.

“The easiest way to get over there is to just marry an American girl,” Kyle informed Fahdi with a sideways smile. Then he turned in my direction and said jokingly, “Mandy over here is single, maybe she’ll help you out.” Even though Kyle was kidding, my face turned beet red and I did my best to hide behind my computer.

Fahdi smiled and said, “Well I don’t want to use anyone.” All I could think was Use me, use me! “I’ll do some more research and see if I can come up with anything,” Fahdi added and then returned to his office.

After Fahdi left, Kyle was giving me the well-get-out-there-and-mingle look, and I realized I couldn’t stall any longer. Instead of aimlessly roaming around, I decided to venture out and try to find the bathroom. I headed over to the translator room for directions, mainly in hopes of catching another glimpse of Fahdi. When I walked in, Fahdi and Ihab were at their desks and two other men were also seated in the office.

Fahdi gave me a passing glance from behind his computer and, as if he was expecting me, said, “Hi, come on in and have a seat.” I decided to hold off on getting bathroom directions until I needed to use it to break the ice or as an escape subject. Fahdi continued to type on his computer but asked, “So, how do you like Iraq so far?”

Things are definitely looking up, I thought to myself, but I simply replied, “I like it a lot. It’s a little hot, but everyone has been very nice. I just wish I could speak some Arabic so I could communicate a little easier.”

“If you want, I can work with you on some basics,” Fahdi offered.

Score.

“That would be great, if you have time. I don’t want to put you out or anything,” I replied.

“Trust me, I have time. I sit here most of the night playing online poker. I’m usually here from 4 p.m. to midnight. Are you going to work the evening shift regularly?”

“So far, the plan is for me to work 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. until Tom tells me otherwise.”

We made plans to meet the following evening at 6 p.m. in his office and start an informal language class.

I hung out in the translator room for most of the evening and successfully fulfilled my duty of mingling with the employees as they floated in and out of the office to chitchat with Fahdi and the others. As the shift wound down, Kyle said he’d give me a break for my first night and decided we’d leave a little early. As I reluctantly donned all my equipment, body armor, and rifle, excitement tickled the pit of my stomach as I thought of language classes with Fahdi the next day.





Chapter 4



Sunday, 22 May–Friday, 27 May

2005




My first week of work was laid back and I realized just how easy our job really was. All we did was make nice with the Iraqi INIS employees, focusing on upper-level department heads and executives, and babysit the computers and equipment within our department since a combination of U.S. intelligence agencies “generously” provided them. American technicians and personnel were responsible for the installation and maintenance of all of the equipment. If anyone in our department had issues with the equipment, we served as embassy liaisons and arranged for IT specialists to resolve the problems.

I met with Fahdi every evening at 6 p.m. during my first week for Arabic tutoring, and started picking up the basics. During our “class”, other employees would float in and out of Fahdi’s office. I chatted with the other employees about various topics, but Fahdi remained relatively silent and kept things almost rigidly professional between us. He sat back and simply observed while the others and I discussed the war and reconstruction efforts. Several, especially the younger ones, wanted to know all about life in the U.S. Most of them looked favorably upon America’s removal of Saddam’s regime, while others blatantly declared life was better under Saddam. But, they acknowledged that those days were over and that they could only move forward and try to make a better future for their country and families. Almost all of them had difficulty pronouncing my name, Mandy. The “M” at the beginning threw them off, and I ended up being called Sandy by many of the employees. I tried correcting them at first, but soon gave up and simply embraced my new name. Everyone treated me respectfully and I felt revered simply because I was American.


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