October 18, 2007
Iraq – I awoke from an hour’s slumber at 5 a.m. to prepare to join U.S.
troops southeast of the country’s capital, in one of Iraq’s so-called
buffer zones. I wiped away the crust from my lower eyelids and dragged
myself into the shower.
I dressed, still bleary eyed. We were supposed to be out the door by
5:30 a.m. to make a 6 a.m. rendezvous with a military copter in the
I attended to last-minute details, and hastily put on my bulletproof
vest. Whenever leaving the heavily guarded hotel compound, we are
always to wear our vests.
We bounded out in the darkness. Our driver used the light from his
cell phone to inspect the undercarriage of our armored Mercedes. Our
chase car followed as we drove through a maze lined with concrete
barricades and rifles.
We thought 30 minutes would be enough time to make it to the Green
Zone. When we approached the Fourth of July Bridge, the span that
separates the Green Zone from bomb-devastated neighborhoods, we hit the
morning’s first roadblock.
The private keeping watch over the bridge said the span would not
open until 7 a.m. He directed us to another route, requiring us to
drive by shops and parked cars, any of which could be laden with
Our alternate route, we quickly learned, would also remain closed until 7 a.m.
The media officer’s voice was thick and groggy when I roused him
from bed with a phone call. My trip would have to be rescheduled. The
copter and crew who were to shuttle me to my destination, of which the
specific location was still unknown to me, would have to depart without
Few things are seldom easy in Iraq. Careful planning can be undone by the smallest of oversights.
Unbeknownst to my security officer, Kevin, and the military media
officer who helped arrange my embed, the rules of entry into the Green
Zone had changed. Military personnel could come and go 24/7, but
civilian traffic was now prohibited to mostly daylight hours.
Certainly, the botched plans were an inconvenience. In a war zone,
oversights could lead to more than mere inconvenience. There were four
lives out on the road that morning – mine and those of my security
officer and two drivers. Who knows what else was out there.
October 18, 2007
Iraq – The man with the gun placed his fingers to the corners of his
eyes and stretched them apart as another soldier inspected my U.S.
“Chino,” said the first soldier.
“No,” I replied. “Yo soy Filipino.”
The second soldier chuckled as he listened to the playful dialogue.
“No, Chino,” the first soldier insisted with a laugh, again using his fingers to use his own face as a caricature.
“No soy Chino,” I reiterated.
“Tu, eres Mexicano?” I asked, turning the tables on him. I knew he
was from Peru, as were the dozens of troops manning the entry into the
Green Zone’s civic center, where I was to apply for my media
credentials at the Combined Press Information Center run by the U.S.
The second soldier smiled appreciatively, mocking his comrade. He
shook my hand. The first soldier motioned me to approach. He extended
his hand for a shake and I accepted it gladly.
At several other checkpoints, I bantered freely with the Peruvian soldiers, who were spectacularly polite.
Standing in one line was a group of men who I was confident were of
Filipino descent. Indeed they were. They were in Iraq as contract
workers. I told one “kumusta” – hello – as he passed. He replied in
Tagalog. I asked from where in the Philippines he was. I learned that
his native language was Ilocano, like mine.
We conversed for a while, then went our separate ways when the security process was over.
The visit to the Green Zone was a mostly pleasant one. The trip,
which began with the ordeal of putting on a bulletproof vest and going
through ominous bombed-out streets, lifted my earlier jitters.
October 17, 2007
Iraq – Concrete barricades line the drive into town. Machine guns aimed
at the ready. Columns of armored military vehicles shared the road as a
steady flow of cars played cat and mouse along the route, once the
world’s most harrowing drive because of mines, snipers and missiles.
Just outside the airport, panic filled the eyes of a harried woman
dressed in black from head to toe as she stooped to quickly gather
plastic water jugs that had tumbled from her arms while trying to cross
the busy road.
Children kicked up dust as they played soccer on a patch of barren
land strewn with rocks. Other people milled about in neighborhoods that
would not have appeared so sorrowful had I not known of the bleak
conditions throughout Baghdad’s grid of violent and deadly streets.
My driver hid his eyes behind sunglasses. Affable before the trip,
he was now driving in silent concentration. I was forewarned not to
distract him with chatter. My security guy, a veteran of the British
military, scanned the road for trouble, occasionally breaking the
silence with hushed commands to slow down or speed up. Now and then, he
would turn toward me, instructing me on what I should do if trouble
Should a bomb explode near our vehicle, he said, I should fall to
the floor and roll my body into a ball. I was instructed to sit away
from the window of our Mercedes, which is far from luxurious. It is
equipped not for luxury, but to keep its passengers safe from gunfire,
bombs and the enemy, whoever they may be. The car’s windows are made of
glass two inches thick and its underside supposedly able to withstand a
I wore a bulletproof vest, its heavy plates weighing down my
shoulders beneath a loose-fitting shirt I wore to conceal the bulk. It
took awhile to adjust my breathing.
Near the end of the flight into Baghdad international, I held my
breath and stomach to steel myself for landing, a popular discussion
among those new to flying into Iraq.
The landing felt like a dive out of the sky. The flight from Amman,
Jordan – a commercial flight shuttling a cabin filled mostly with
contractors – descended toward the runway in a steep corkscrew,
ostensibly to thwart the steady aim of any would-be attackers. The
touchdown was surprisingly smooth. The flight attendant thanked us for
flying Royal Jordanian and wished us a pleasant stay in Baghdad.
Gun-toting soldiers monitored the runway. As lines formed at the
immigration counter, Iraqi security personnel ordered several
passengers out of the terminal. The relieved travelers returned several
minutes later to report that dogs were used to inspect their bags.
Immigration was a breeze – the least trouble I’ve ever had. I
already had a visa. After a final stamp in my U.S. passport , I headed
to claim my baggage, two oversized bags bursting at the seams. My
security detail wondered what I had packed. Did I plan to stay for an
My luggage was filled with a tangle of power cords and cables for my
electronics. I also brought a sleeping bag, a few pairs of shoes,
including boots, and a week’s worth of clothes. I brought some DVDs,
including “Borat” and my favorite French movies.
I also took a compass, binoculars, flashlights, batteries, a pair of
cameras, a voice recorder, a stack of notebooks, a few books and a ton
of food, including boxes of tea, dozens of power bars, several cans of
smoked oysters, beef jerky, boxes of macaroni and cheese and a few
weeks’ supply of instant ramen noodles. My load certainly felt like a
Perhaps it will be these small comforts brought from home that will
help lighten whatever burdens weigh me down over the next six weeks.
October 16, 2007
AMMAN, Jordan — On the trip from the airport to downtown Amman, my driver asked if I was being sent to Baghdad against my will.
“No,” I chuckled. “I volunteered.”
He responded with a laughter that embarrassed me.
“You’re like those guys,” he said, and then stumbled for words. “Like those guys who climb Everest. How you say…”
I offered help: Crazy? Stupid? Nothing to live for?
“No,” he said with a second burst of laughter.
“Adventurous?” I suggested.
“Yes, you’re adventurous.”
My sense of adventure has always been a point of pride. But I was
feeling anything but adventurous when I awoke Monday morning, the day I
would board a flight to the Middle East to begin my assignment in Iraq.
I awoke to the news that an Iraqi journalist working for the Washington
Post was killed.
I looked at my passport. My Iraq visa is pasted on Page 13. Ominous,
I thought. I would also be leaving on Oct. 15, my late father’s
For the past few days, there had been discussions about holding me a
week in Washington, D.C., because of concerns over my safety. I would
arrive in Iraq with the prospect of being the only U.S. journalist in
our Baghdad bureau for nearly a week. A quirk in the scheduling had
placed me and the bureau in a pridacament.
I have never covered a war. I have never supervised a staff whose
native language I do not speak. I have never suddenly felt so
overwhelmed and frustrated.
I assured my editors I would be fine, that I would stay out of trouble, that I’m accustomed to being thrown into the fire.
My editors were more concerned about gunfire. Bombs, too. And there
was my relative inexperience. I have worked nearly two decades in
journalism, but aside from covering crime in Detroit, I had never been
in a truly hostile environment where I faced the real risk of getting
The Washington bureau’s top editor talked about a social contract,
that he needed a clear conscience about sending me out to cover the
world’s biggest story. Had he done everything possible, he asked, to
assure my safety? Was the company taking too many risks at my expense?
With or without a second U.S. journalist, the dangers would be the
same, I told him. A colleague won’t be able to protect me from a
missile flying into my window, I told him.
In the end, my editors decided to let me depart as scheduled.
Being a journalist means being a target. Being a journalist also
means being in a state of denial. I know of the dangers. Anything can
A colleague in Sacramento seemed to dismiss the dangers of arriving
at Baghdad’s airport and the trip to the hotel. Yes, it will take an
entourage to get me from the airport to the hotel. Yes, I will have to
wear a bulletproof vest. (Bullet proof? I don’t want to test it.) Yes,
there will be two cars that meet me, one to carry me and the other
ready to drive like a bumper car to block any potential danger.
Reporting from a hotel room, too, has its risks. It is Iraq, after
all, arguably the most dangerous place in the world. Two years ago, the
hotel that houses our bureau – as well as those of several other news
organizations, including the Los Angeles Times and NBC News, was
The truth is, I will not only be reporting from a hotel room. I will
be going to the Green Zone, the heavily fortified district of Baghdad.
I will be going on embeds with U.S. troops who are always a target.
Yes, journalists are targets, too. My colleague from the Washington
Post is the latest to die. Nearly 120 journalists have died in Iraq,
nearly 100 of them Iraqis.
I will be working with a staff of local journalists who risk their
lives so I can get a byline. In most cases, their names will arrive at
the very end of stories.
A colleague, who served months in Baghdad, demanded that I show my
Iraqi colleagues respect. Without them, we would be lost. Without them,
we could be dead, he said. My U.S. colleague recounted a harrowing
experience in the early days of the war, when a crowd surrounded him.
Factions in the crowd were arguing about who would abduct him.
His Iraqi colleague, one of the handful of courageous journalists
who works for McClatchy’s Baghdad bureau, began reciting verses of the
Koran. He spoke about the importance of showing hospitality to one’s
visitors. The crowd suddenly became disoriented by his words, enough to
distract the crowd and allow the journalists to get away.
My U.S. colleague reminded me not to take this assignment lightly,
even if it required me to remain in the seemingly safe and comfy
environment of my hotel room. On my final day in Washington, another
colleague, a former chief of the bureau, spoke about how nerves keep
her awake before returning into Iraq.
It is nearly 5 a.m. I am sleepless. I am exhausted. I am anxious. But more telling: I am excited.
October 9, 2007
Calif. — It’s never too late to turn back. The message was drilled into
me during war training. I’m off to cover the war in Iraq, but there is
no turning back. The truth is, I don’t want to turn back.
I depart for the Middle East on Monday and will arrive in Baghdad on
Wednesday. First, a stop in Washington, D.C., to attend to some
administrative details, including a meeting with editors who will be
giving me my marching orders while I’m in Iraq.
I’ve just learned that I may be alone in the Baghdad bureau. The
bureau chief is taking a break and won’t be there when I arrive.
Another reporter ships out the day after I land, enough time to show me
around the hotel and hand over the keys. Another reporter, the former
bureau chief, is expected to arrive the following week. I will have to
hit the ground running.
It is already shaping up to be an adventure.
When I told my oldest sister I would be headed to Baghdad to cover
the war, she responded with a pair of questions: “Are you depressed?
Are you thinking of committing suicide?”
No, to both, I told her. Sure, maybe I am a little crazy, I told her.
My family has always questioned my judgment. So have others. Sometimes, I do too.
When my mother called, I was ready. I’d use the same responses I
used to appease my sister’s worries. I won’t be covering the front
lines. I’d be spending most of my time in a hotel. I’d be protected by
a security detail. I won’t do anything crazy.
To my surprise, my mother’s biggest concern was whether I’d miss her
80th birthday celebration. I assured her that I would be there, in the
Philippines, for her big day. She was sufficiently reassured and ended
In the very least, good or bad, Iraq will be an adventure. It’s the world’s biggest story.
While I fret about the possible dangers, I am now more worried about
how I will fare as a reporter. Will I have good story ideas? Will I be
smart enough to make sense of such a complicated story? Will I remember
names, and will I know how to spell them? Will I have the proper words
at my fingertips to describe the unfolding drama in the theater of war?
I don’t know what to expect. I’ve talked to a few colleagues who
have returned from their tour of duty in the Baghdad bureau of
McClatchy Newspapers, which owns my paper, The Sacramento Bee.
Yes, it was certainly an adventure, my colleagues agreed. A
once-in-a-lifetime experience. Some have already turned “once” into
“several.” I’m still looking for my initiation into being a foreign
correspondent — will reporting mostly from a hotel room count?