Congressman Mo Brooks sent us a report of his trip to the Southwest Asian countries of Kuwait, Iraq, Bahrain, Afghanistan, and Dubai. It’s a good read and we thank Congressman Brooks for writing of his experiences and sharing them with us.
Buck McKeon, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), strongly encouraged me to go on Congressional Delegation (CODEL) trips to our military facilities, so that I can be better informed about what our military does, and visit our troops to express my personal and our country’s support and gratitude for their sacrifices.
So, when I was asked to join a HASC CODEL trip to Kuwait, Iraq, Bahrain, Afghanistan, & Dubai, I said “yes”.
The bipartisan CODEL consisted of Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC), Delegate Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam), Rep. Chris Gibson (R-NY), and Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI).
Days 1 & 2 – Washington D.C. & Kuwait (Sunday & Monday, February 20-21, 2011)
We left the Rayburn House Office Building for Dulles International Airport at 2:45 PM EST on Sunday, February 20, 2011. I flew economy class. I was lucky. I had no one in the seat next to me, allowing me to catnap as best I could.
After 15+ hours of traveling, we reached Kuwait at 6:10 AM, EST (2:10 PM Kuwait time). My bioclock was starting to unravel.
We cleared customs and were then briefed at the U.S. Embassy by Ambassador Deborah K. Jones about Kuwait’s economy, population demographics, elected parliament, oil production, religion and the like. The American embassy in Kuwait is a beautiful complex, donated in part by the Kuwait government as appreciation for our freeing Kuwait from Saddam Hussein in Operation Desert Storm.
Kuwait City appeared prosperous. Cars were everywhere. Buildings were well kept. There was very little vegetation (compared to our Tennessee Valley, where everything is green). From the air, there is a clear demarcation line between Kuwait City and the desert. The barren desert begins where buildings and development end.
Day 3 – Baghdad & Tikrit, Iraq (Tuesday, February 22, 2011)
The CODEL left Kuwait City Tuesday morning in a C-130 loaded with 30-40 fully armed soldiers. There are two places to sit in a C-130: the cockpit or the cargo hold. In the cargo hold, passengers sit in nylon mesh seats facing the airplane’s sides. The few windows are for light; not looking out. Most military aircraft have no sound deadening. Earplugs are handed out before you enter the aircraft.
On this flight, Congressman Joe Wilson and I sat in the crew cockpit. We enjoyed conversation about the crew’s families, their homes and Middle East issues.
We flew over the Euphrates and Tigris rivers to Baghdad. The terrain is either farmland or arid desert. It is flat as a table-top and irrigated with numerous crisscrossing canals, reminding me of California’s Central Valley. It is easy to understand why, in ancient times, this land was called the Fertile Crescent and many empires arose from this region of the globe. The irrigated farmland could sustain relatively large populations.
Upon arrival at the Baghdad Airport, we were briefed by our security escorts and handed body armor and a helmet in the same building Saddam Hussein used to greet incoming guests.
We left the airport in a Blackhawk helicopter for downtown Baghdad to minimize the risk of improvised explosive devices buried along roadways. In Baghdad, we traveled in armored Suburban-sized vehicles. Usually we were in the “Green Zone”, which was relatively safe. Occasionally we ventured into the “Red Zone.”
We ate lunch at the home of an Iraqi Ministry of Defense General (I omit his name for security reasons), and we met the General’s wife and children. The General briefed us on Iraq’s security situation and the help Iraq needs to defend itself.
I should add at this point that I feel great respect for the courage of every Iraqi and Afghan leader I met. They are fighting for freedom and their lives, and the lives of their families are constantly at risk. This is particularly true in Afghanistan, where the Taliban and other enemies are assassinating democracy leaders at every level of government. For example, I vividly remember one large photograph framed on a wall in Afghanistan. It was the American equivalent of a town hall meeting. Since the photograph had been taken, the top three local government officials in the photograph had all been assassinated.
We next traveled into the Red Zone to meet with the Iraqi foreign minister. There were numerous traffic jams along the way, an encouraging sign of a reviving economy. Street shops appeared bustling. Armed security forces were at most intersections.
The Iraqi foreign minister shared with us his view of Iraq’s challenges, need for continued American support, and the progress they have been making.
Our armored vehicle caravan next traveled to a landing zone where we boarded Blackhawks and flew to one of Hussein’s former palaces, Al Faw. We were briefed by General Lloyd Austin and Ambassador James Jeffrey. They covered economic, political and military issues and strategies going forward.
Following the briefing, we again boarded Blackhawks and flew to an Iraqi security forces training center where Iraqis practiced attacking a terrorist building. We observed the training exercise from platforms directly above building rooms. Flash grenades and blank ammunition were used. The training exercise was professionally done.
Soldiers I later met with on the trip related to me another training exercise in which an Iraqi told his American comrades that he needed to go to a nearby riverbank to refill his canteen. While there he loaded his weapon with live ammunition, returned, and killed three Americans before he was killed by American forces. Such are the risks and uncertainties our American men and women deal with in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We re-boarded the Blackhawks, flew back to the Al Faw Palace, and had a BBQ dinner with a dozen or so soldiers from Alabama. We covered many issues but, as one would expect, college football quickly became a main topic. Auburn and Alabama fans were everywhere. Members of the 214th Military Police Company of the Alabama National Guard presented me with an American flag that had flown on December 25, 2010 over COS Marez, Ninewa Province, Iraq. The flag is now on display in my Congressional office on Capitol Hill.
Words fail me when I try to describe how incredibly proud I am of our young men and women who have been called to duty by our country. They face unbelievable challenges. They handle these challenges professionally with honor and pride. I thanked them for what they do every chance I got.
We put our body armor back on (as we did for every helicopter flight and armored vehicle drive), re-boarded the Blackhawks, and flew to the American Embassy complex where we stayed for the night.
Day 4 – Tikrit & Camp War Horse, Iraq (Wednesday, February 23, 2011)
The CODEL next flew to Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein. We were briefed by Major General Perkins concerning progress being made in Iraq. Iraqi security forces have improved significantly on all fronts in securing the Iraqi people from the threat of terrorism. Terrorist attacks are on the decline.
Much of the information the CODEL received from military and U.S. Embassy personnel is classified or top secret, and the briefings were extensive.
Camp War Horse
We re-boarded the Blackhawks and flew to Camp War Horse (northeast of Baghdad). Upon landing, the base’s radar warning system was explained to us. If we heard an advance warning, we would normally have a short amount of time to take cover. In that time we were instructed to ”duck and cover” and enter the nearest protected area.
We ate lunch in the Mess Hall with soldiers from our home states. Our conversation was abruptly interrupted by a loud explosion. The specialist sitting next to me reflexively picked up his rifle. Three to four seconds later the alarm started. Fortunately, we were in a secure area (our roof could withstand a direct hit from most mortars and rockets). A major at my table excused himself to determine the event status. He came back not long thereafter to inform us that a rocket had hit nearby, that there were no injuries, and that efforts were underway to locate the perpetrators.
The “all clear” was sounded. We resumed our lunch as if nothing had happened. I asked to see where the rocket hit to observe the damage. A group of us walked to the impact area. A rocket nose cone was embedded into the gravel road.
Nearby concrete walls had a series of gouges in them caused by flying shrapnel. These “T-Walls”, are about ten feet high with a large base so that they can stand upright. They are everywhere at every base I visited and show the lengths undertaken to protect our troops.
We next went to a conference room for a briefing. About 5-10 minutes into the briefing, another warning blared over the intercom. We were quickly ushered to an exterior shelter. The shelter was above ground and shaped like an elongated “n”, with both ends fully open.
We stayed in the shelter for a few minutes when another warning blared. Soon after, there was another, much louder, explosion.
We remained in the shelter until the “all clear” was given and the briefing resumed in the conference room as if nothing was amiss. Upon completion, we re-boarded the Blackhawks and flew back to Baghdad airport.
My general observation from Camp War Horse events is that our soldiers were poised, calm, and professional the entire time. They are the best America has to offer. They make us proud.
These events impressed upon me what America asks its soldiers to endure every day. Danger becomes routine. At any time, a mortar or rocket with your name on it can hit. Our men and women do their jobs despite the dangers around them. America cannot ask for anything better than what they give.
Baghdad to Bahrain
We de-boarded the Blackhawks, took off our body armor, and boarded another C-130 loaded with soldiers returning home. When we landed in Bahrain, we were informed that a rocket had hit the air base at or shortly after we took off.
Day 5 – Bahrain (Thursday, February 24, 2011)
The previous week Bahrain protests caused seven protester deaths. The U.S. Embassy advised us that we would still be safe, so to Bahrain we went.
Bahrain is an island in the Persian Gulf south of Kuwait and off the coast of Saudi Arabia. It is heavily developed. Much of Bahrain’s oil was pumped and sold decades ago. Their economy is based on government employment and services, travel and tourism, financial services, and light and heavy industry. Bahrain has the world’s largest aluminum production plant.
America has a significant naval base on Bahrain. We were briefed by U.S. Navy Deputy Commander Chuck Gaoutte on both the Persian Gulf situation and Somali pirates. Most of our time focused on the pirates and the recent execution of Americans on the yacht Quest.
We next met with one of Bahrain’s ranking Ministry of Defense members. He focused on the protester deaths and explained the protestors were killed by police using birdshot and rubber bullets to both protect themselves and disperse protesting crowds when they became unruly or dangerous.
Day 6 – The Longest Day: Kabul, Afghanistan (Friday, February 25, 2011)
Friday, February 25 was our “longest day”. We awoke at 1 AM Bahrain time and flew on a U.S. Air Force transport for Kabul.
Most of Kabul’s surrounding areas consist of mud/clay huts and homes. Almost all Afghan gardens and farm fields are walled in by a 5’ high mud/clay wall. Many rural huts and homes have no glass windows and are open to the elements.
Upon arrival in Kabul, we put on our body armor and boarded Blackhawks for Camp Eggers. We moved through Kabul in armored vehicles and were briefed by Lt. General Caldwell and Embassy representative Hans Klemm. They said that roughly 15% of Afghans are literate and that education is a key to success in Afghanistan.
We were next transported to the U.S. Embassy. Kabul looks very poor. The roads are either paved (with potholes) or dirt. The roadside shops are small. Such are the consequences of 30+ years of war with Russia, civil war, and Taliban rule.
At the U.S. Embassy we were briefed by the American team for Afghanistan: Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, Major General Jay Hood, and numerous Embassy personnel responsible for helping the Afghans with rebuilding their country (education, finances, agriculture, security . . . everything).
I asked how long it might take the Afghan economy to become strong enough to generate the revenue needed to sustain its internal security and services needs without American tax dollars. The answer: 15-20 years.
We were next briefed by General Petraeus on current security issues and going forward strategies.
We next flew to Bagram Air Base. The terrain reminded me of Appalachia circa 1900. Roads were dirt, narrow and poor quality. Homes and huts were mud, clay or something that looked like concrete. Many homes and huts had no roofs and appeared abandoned. Homes and surrounding gardens were surrounded by clay/mud walls. Poverty abounded.
At Bagram Air Base, the CODEL ate lunch with soldiers from our home states. I was elated to find two Grissom graduates, one Bob Jones graduate, and one Sparkman graduate, along with four other Alabamians at my table. Their consistent message to me was that “everything is going in the right direction; we are winning; please don’t stop us; we need long-term commitment”.
The CODEL next visited the Bagram AB Hospital. The staff was professional and spirits were high. Fortunately, there were many empty beds.
The CODEL re-boarded the Blackhawks and returned to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Ambassador Eikenberry invited us to eat with seven members of the Afghan parliament. They relayed a central concern often repeated during our Kabul visit: The elected parliament must be fully seated and the legislative branch permitted to act as a check and balance on President Karzai. There was an often expressed concern about whether democracy would prevail after President Karzai’s term concludes in 2014.
I slept in a “hooch”. Hooches are ground-level trailers about 6’ wide and 15’ long. Beds are on one end. A closet is in the middle. The bathroom with a small stand-up shower is on the other end.
Day 7 – Kabul to Kandahar to Dubai (Saturday, February 26, 2011)
I spent a restless night and finally decided to get up at about 5:30 AM. Outside, snow-covered mountains were in the distance. The skies were the kind of crystal clear blue you only get at high elevation (Kabul is over a mile high).
Since I had plenty of time before the working breakfast, I grabbed my luggage and walked towards the U.S. Embassy which was also in the direction of where the breakfast would be. I made it about halfway to the U.S. Embassy and was in the open pavilion area when I was startled by yet another, very loud explosion. I quickly looked for the nearest bunker. I saw none. I saw a man 80-100 yards in front of me sprinting towards me. I hollered at him, “What should I do? Where should I go?” He hollered back the obvious, “duck and cover”. My reflexive thought was, “Well, duh! Where? On top of flat concrete/stones in an open area?”
Not seeing a better option, I sprinted 40+ yards to a nearby building’s front door. I rushed inside, still hauling my luggage. I hurried into the interior of the building near the elevator shaft and pushed the elevator button so that the elevator would be on the first floor providing additional protection should a mortar or rocket land just outside the elevator shaft wall. Two more explosions ensued.
When the “all clear” sounded, I went to breakfast. Some of our CODEL members had been showering at the time of the rocket explosions and were unaware that we were on alert or to take cover.
Everyone in the breakfast area (servicing a hundred or so) acted as if it was just another day in the office. CNN was on TV in the background covering unrest in various Middle Eastern nations.
I was later informed that the rockets/mortar rounds landed roughly 1-2 kilometers from the Embassy. I don’t know if anyone was injured or killed.
The CODEL next had another Top Secret briefing with Embassy staff concerning political and financial issues and challenges facing Afghanistan. It was informative, but disconcerting. Lt. General Rodriguez next briefed us on current Eastern Afghanistan threat situations and going forward strategies.
The CODEL next drove in armored vehicles to the airport and boarded a C-130 flight to Kandahar.
Upon arrival in Kandahar, Major General Terry, Commanding General of the 10th Mountain Division, briefed us on the current Southern Afghanistan threat situation and going forward strategies. In sum, great progress had been made clearing the Taliban from Kandahar and surrounding valleys, but at a significant price to American soldiers. Our successes have forced the Taliban to try a different approach: assassination of government officials. Over 100 Afghan government officials have been assassinated by the Taliban in the past year.
We next boarded Blackhawks and flew to a nearby valley (the valley’s name is omitted for security purposes). We arrived at a military camp on the west side of and one-third up a mountain overlooking the valley. Above the camp the mountainside rock is pock-marked with holes caused by rockets and other fire from the valley below that overshot the camp and hit the mountain walls. The buildings are heavily fortified for protection from rocket fire and mortar rounds.
We met with the local governor, police chief, and Afghan military officials. They shared their stories, concerns, and need for American help. They are incredibly brave. They are standing up for democracy in the face of an enemy that is cruel, heartless, merciless, and relentless. My heart and prayers are with them.
We boarded the Blackhawks for the final time and flew back to Kandahar. As with Kabul and surrounding areas, the rural areas are impoverished. I recall no paved roads. The land between Kandahar and the valley are similar, with mud/clay huts/homes and walled gardens so that thieves would be less likely to steal harvests. The valley has no electricity, but electricity in Kandahar is now available as much as 12 hours a day.
At Kandahar airport we boarded a U.S. Army transport for Dubai. We arrived at 10:45 PM Dubai time. At 12:50 AM Dubai time, we boarded a commercial airline for the flight back to America.
Day 8 – Dubai to America (Sunday, February 27, 2011)
The flight from Dubai to America was almost 15 hours long and completely full. We landed at Dulles International Airport at about 6 AM EST. It feels great to be back in America!
Quite frankly, I was hesitant to take this CODEL. I knew my family (and, in particular, my wife, Martha, who just lost her mother) would worry about my safety. In retrospect, the CODEL was a tremendous experience that educated me about the Middle East and confirmed my great respect for our men and women in uniform. It is often incredible what we ask our warfighters to do. It is more incredible how well they do it.
In order to prevent anything in this report being useful to our enemies, and in order to respect the privacy of our combat soldiers, with the exception of generals, I omit the names of the military personnel I met with in combat zones and I omit many details of where and how events transpired. Generally speaking, I met with servicemen from Huntsville, Madison, Harvest, Scottsboro, Cullman County, Montgomery, Mobile, Tuscaloosa and probably a dozen or so other Alabama communities.