Monday, December 31, 2007
Baghdad Is One Big Party Tonight
I landed not too long ago after flying in a Blackhawk for nearly an hour back and forth across Baghdad tonight. I've flown across Baghdad at night many times before, but this time was different. The city was alive.
Most of the city had electricity, every main street and boulevard was jam-packed with cars, stretching as far as I could see. Fireworks were shooting up from every major intersection, and I could see outdoor markets and restaurants brightly lit up and filled with people. It's like a black cloud has been lifted off the residents of Baghdad, and they're finally able to do what they want to.
Sure, flying low over the city in a helicopter while people are shootings fireworks and weapons into the air isn't the greatest place to be, but the beauty and energy coming up from the streets far outweighed my fears. I feel lucky to have been a part of it all.
After I landed I made my way back to my office to catch up on some last minute email before dinner ended, and this Drudge headline caught my attention.
"For hopeful Iraqis, New Year's parties at last"
For once, Reuters got it right.
I'm leaving for home soon. My tour is only 6 months long, and I'm days away from ending my best job, my greatest achievement, as an Air Force Officer. I watched as the multiple rocket and mortar attacks nearly disappeared as October and November rolled along. I listened as Iraqi friends and coworkers commented every week on how much better things were getting.
One night in Amman Jordan last September I sat at an Iraqi owned outdoor restaurant and drank tea with 3 Iraqi Air Force Officers. The 2-Star General, one of the most intelligent IqAF Officers I've met and someone I have the honor of calling a good friend, described to me how wonderful and calm Baghdad used to be. He pointed at the city life in Amman, and to the people relaxing and enjoying themselves, and said that Baghdad used to be this way. Two weeks ago this same friend described to me how he had dinner at a nice outdoor restaurant the night before. He said that many restaurants were opening up throughout Baghdad. When I asked him if it was like the place we ate at in Amman, he said it was just like it.
I've watched the Iraqi Air Force grow from less than 90 sorties a week to over 300 since July. I celebrated along side of them as they received new aircraft, and I watched in awe at the videos and photographs my coworkers captured of IqAF Enlisted and Officer graduation ceremonies. Since my arrival, our organization started the IqAF pilot training school in October, set up tech schools, Enlisted Basic Training, helped them set up better methods of purchasing and maintaining their aircraft and helicopters, flew combat missions with them, along side of them, and then watched from the Air Operations Center as they flew those missions on their own with great success. The good stories of capturing oil pipeline thieves, supporting large civic events with coverage from the air, flying around dignitaries, guiding Iraqi Soldiers to the locations where they spotted IEDs being placed. The Iraqi Air Force has come a long way since July.
So have I.
The CENTAF Commander, Lieutenant General North, stopped by last week to chat with us. After walking around and talking to people in our office individually, he hosted an Airman's call to speak to everyone. Of all the things he said during that Airman's Call, one item stood out the most. He warned us that when we get back home we're going to be bored, and maybe disappointed. Not with our families or friends, but with our jobs. He's 100% right. How can anyone top this in a career? We're building an Air Force from the bottom up, and we're doing one hell of a job so far.
Today my Commander, Brigadier General Robert Allardice, shared with us something he wrote to his family. I want to share it with you because it puts everything we've done into perspective.
"The best way to summarize what we've accomplished this year came to me yesterday during a ceremony at a place we call ****.
In the morning I flew to the Iraqi Military Academy for the semi-annual graduation. The school produces second lieutenants in a one year course. I have about eight Air Force folks at this school teaching future Iraqi Air Force Officers. This school has been very violent for most of the year. In fact, I presented one of my Officers working at this school with a Purple Heart for wounds he received during a fire fight on the base a few months ago.
Besides the direct danger of this specific location, the mood of the place seemed to reflect the mood of all the Iraqi people during my first six months: despondent, dark, tired, sad. In May, people weren't really thinking about the future, they were trying to survive day to day. Where I lived and worked, we often got attacked 3-6 times a day, 5-7 days a week... in June, Iraq appeared to be in trouble. Six months ago, in July, the school held their last graduation. I saw pictures of it yesterday, and almost nobody came even though the Prime Minister was the guest speaker. Yesterday, 30 December, was different.
Yesterday, the guest speaker was "only" a four star general, but the place was packed. the Cadets stood proud, they marched straight, the band planed loud, the crowd... yes, it was a very large crowd, cheered and threw candy. They cheered Iraqi celebratory chants and clapped and danced. When the ceremony finished, the crowd stormed the floor, much like when I graduated from the Air Force Academy. Families stormed the floor, mothers and fathers hugged their child who'd become a man, tears streaming down their cheeks. Yesterday, I saw a proud people!
You have no idea how proud I felt. We are making a difference!"
A Father and Uncle proudly promote their new Iraqi Lieutenant
I was unable to attend that graduation ceremony because of another commitment, but I will hold onto those pictures and videos forever. The fathers beaming with pride, the mothers with tears of joy, and the smiles on the faces of the new Lieutenants as their parents and family slide their new ranks on their shoulders mean a lot to us all.
Today I was on the outskirts of Baghdad on an Iraqi Air Base working with one of our teams that is helping the Iraqi Air Force train helicopter pilots, as well as fly and maintain their helicopter fleets. This place has changed. The buildings are cleaner, painted, and organized. The generators spread around the base are getting fueled on time, so power was constant. I watched a team of Iraqis working on the engine and transmission on a Huey helicopter, something that takes a lot of training and expertise. US and Russian built helicopters with student pilots were flying around the pattern, and maintainers were working on the flight line. It looked like a real air base, and I couldn't hide the pride that I felt.
I also can't hide how tough it's going to be leaving the Iraqi Air Force behind. These people risk their lives doing what we take for granted, and they do it with a level of dedication and pride I could only dream of seeing back home. Don't get me wrong, they have decades to go before they'll achieve their past glory of being one of the most powerful and respected Air Powers in the world, but En Sha'ala (God Willing), that power will always be used for the good of the people rather than the whims of a madman.
The Iraqi Air Force, like the Iraqi People, have a very long road ahead of them, but they are moving forward and growing stronger every day. I'm just lucky to have been allowed to play a small part of the history of this ancient and proud culture.
This quote from the article I mentioned earlier sums up the growing stability and hope here in Iraq.
Some shops decorated their front windows with cotton wool, writing: "Welcome 2008" or "Happy New Year". Others had Santa Claus decorations and Christmas trees.
In a flower shop Iyad Issa, 42, was buying a New Year's Eve bouquet for his wife.
"Since we see things are getting better, I am trying to make my family happy. I decided to bring my wife flowers for New Year's Eve to bring happiness and renewal," he said while browsing among the blossoms.
In another street, Abu Wisam, 42, was buying party hats from a street vendor: "I wish the best to all Iraqis," he said.
A group of women in a nearby boutique were out shopping together for outfits to see in the New Year.
"Tonight I am invited to a wedding party. Then I will go with my husband to our friend's house to celebrate," said Azhar, 35, who was looking for a new dress suit.
"I wish peace to prevail, and nothing else."
I couldn't agree more.
Happy New Year!
Update: Flag Gazer found an actual photo of last night's festivities in Baghdad. I was right, they were getting wild out here.
posted by El Capitan at 12:30 PM
What a great post!! May I send it on? Congratulations, Tony, on a job well done! Considering the stuff you can't say, you've done an excellent job of taking us along with you, and I'm grateful - and very proud of you.
Happy New Year, Dear!
Well done and well said, Major T.
I know your family is looking forward to seeing you - about as much as you are looking forward to seeing them. Happy New Year to you and yours on both sides of the pond.
Happy New Year - this is a joyful post!6:01 AM
Can't wait until you're back in the friendly confines of our home state, but am so proud of all that you're doing there!!
Oh, Tony! I've been away much too long! Look at all you've been doing!! Well done, Sir ~ you all do us so proud!
Happy New Year to you~
(Even if you're going to be bored in your job here, I'm still glad to hear you're coming home soon...yeah, i know, it's that "Mom thing" raising it's head again.)
That's outstanding. Even though most of America doesn't know, at least you and your fellow members of the military know what you are doing is making a difference.
Happy New Year ... and stay safe.
great post, as usual. congrats on a job well done!4:43 PM
Happy New Year!12:59 AM
Love the new decor!8:16 PM