By Jon Harris:
Just getting there is an adventure.
A couple years ago, I took a security contract in Iraq. I was an explosive detection canine handler, which is a rather small group, and being willing to go to Iraq made that pool of people even smaller. Contracting is a strange profession. You seem to see the same people in contracts all over the world. We run into each other all the time. After all, how many people willingly go into a war zone when they don’t have to. In my particular profession, mistakes are a onetime deal. You really don’t get a second chance when you are actually trying to find IEDs and bombs with a dog. Screw it up and you won’t know it anyway, so we didn’t worry about it. Guess it just takes a certain type of person.
I had been contracting in Afghanistan the three years before this and was pretty comfortable with it. You get your gear, fly into Dubai UAE, and then on a charter to an American base. I always flew into Kandahar and then helicoptered out to the final point. No sweat, military aircraft or contracted, lots of military folks and American run.
Well, my contract and transit to Iraq was a trip, no pun intended. After arriving in Jordon from New York, and being stuck there for a week, I finally got permission to proceed to Iraq. The journey started at 3am in Jordan. I was escorting three dogs besides my assigned German Shepherd partner, named Mad. Who the hell names a dog Mad anyway? I loaded the dogs, crates and all, along with my gear and headed to the airport. I had to depend on a minder to get things arranged, as I didn’t know the rules or procedures in Jordan. Once at the airport, along with the help of a couple baggage handlers, we unloaded the dogs and headed to the ticket counter. I have to tell you four dogs in the Jordanian airport is not a normal event. Customs, health officials, security, baggage handlers, and officials from Royal Jordanian airline all had a say and a different thing or paper they wanted. After going through every hoop imaginable, we headed to the oversize baggage check-in. There, the dogs had to be removed from their carriers and the cages x-rayed.
The culture here is not a dog culture like the one in the States, so when I got a dog out everyone got very nervous. Now three of the dogs were not especially vicious looking, two Springer Spaniels and one black Lab, these would be handled by the Zimbabwe handlers already at the final location. Now, when it came time to get Mad, my German Shepherd out of his cage, it became a very different matter. He showed his protective side and made it clear not to get close to him or me. I calmed him down, but personally, I was pretty pleased at my protector. After I got all the dogs checked in, I headed to the gate. After a short wait, it was time to board the flight to Baghdad. I noticed there were no other Americans on the flight but there were a good number of Kenyans going that would be working in the oilfields of Iraq. I heard very little English in the waiting area at the gate. This was quite different from my other contracting jobs. I had instructions to have one of the flight attendants check that my four dogs were in fact on board. No dogs meant no travel for me. When the attendant came by my seat, I asked her to verify the dogs were loaded. She hurried off to the front and got on the phone. In a minute or two, she returned and told me, in a heavy Russian accent, that my dogs were loaded and ready for the trip. I thanked her, in Russian, a former active duty skill learned from a year at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. Actually, I remember very little Russian but it was enough in this situation. With that settled, I relaxed for the 2-hour trip.
Landing in Baghdad was a first for me. In fact, there were many firsts on this deployment. Once the plane stopped and parked at the ramp, I collected my rucksack, a camel colored backpack that screamed American contractor all over it, and headed to the front of the plane to exit. I was stopped by the same attendant and told I had to wait for the man in the first class section to leave first. He was a tall man dressed in the traditional dishdashas, which are long white garments covered by a black abaya, a long over garment, with embroidery. On his head, he wore the yishmaagh, that’s a head scarf with an egal, (headband) to hold it on his head. He had two large men dressed in western style suits clearing the way for him. When I got in the airport, I saw him again at the passport control in the Diplomat/VIP line. I don’t know who he was, but he was clearly being taken care of and treated with much respect. I, on the other hand, was told to go to the visa office and turn in my paperwork. I did this and was directed to a bank of chairs to wait. When I turned in my passport and visa paperwork, I was the only one there. Within minutes, dozens of Iraqis and other Arabic nationalities came to the visa office. Two hours later, all of the other people had received their visas and passports. I was still waiting.
As I sat there, I noticed several people talking in low tones and looking in my direction. This included men in suits with sunglasses that were clearly in charge of the uniformed security. I was becoming very uncomfortable. I had always been use to not worrying too much about looking like an American in Afghanistan. That had an advantage when dealing with American run operations, but here was very different. With the civilian clothes I was wearing, tactical tan and green, ballistic dark sunglasses, and the baseball cap there was no mistaking who or what I was. I was American, probably military or CIA or whatever. The point was I had been careless and now I was paying for it. I stuck out like a sore thumb. You know that “pucker factor” scale? This was beginning to feel like the numbers didn’t go high enough. I was already in that state of looking at exits, who I thought I could take, who had weapons, which was just about everybody looking at me. This situation was not good and I knew it. Paranoia was seeping, no, pouring in.
From out of nowhere, I heard a man call out my name and asked if I was from the K-9 company. I said yes and he greeted me and shook my hand. He said he would take care of everything. He went into the visa office and almost immediately returned with my passport and visa. He said his name was Yasir and he was the company escort to get me where I needed to be. To say the least I was relieved. When I followed him through the passport control, he seemed to know everyone there. My passport was stamped and I was waved through. Outside he directed me to a van and said we were going to pick up the dogs and that it was all arranged. He already had my luggage waiting for me in the van. He was a friendly guy and seemed to really like dogs. He said he had a German shepherd at his home. That would be very unusual but I took him at his word, I had little choice.
We drove through several Iraqi Police checkpoints. They were manned by five or six policemen and an armored car. They checked the paperwork, kept their distance, and after a conversation with Yasir, let us continue on our way. We went to the cargo area and collected the dogs. We put the crates in the van and headed to the main entry checkpoint at the airport. On the way to the cargo area, we passed a bad traffic accident. There were police standing around and a man was lying on the ground with his hands outstretched to them. No one seemed in any hurry to help this guy on the ground. I asked Yasir, “Is an ambulance going to pick him up,” and he said, “Probably not.” Wow, I told myself, “Don’t get hurt here.”
At the last checkpoint before we left the Baghdad Airport property we stopped and he said we had to unload everything here. The dogs and my gear were piled up in a parking area and he said the team was on the way to get me. I assumed this would be an organized escort as I was accustomed. I was looking for three maybe four vehicles, heavily armed with a PSD (Personal Security Detail) team. To my surprise, and very unnerving, the team that arrived was another van and an old pickup truck to carry the dogs. Yasir said to go with them and they would transport me. This was against everything I had been taught. Visions of kidnapping and hostage taking ran through my mind. I really did not want to be the next sorry American on TV but I was stuck. I knew Yasir was the company man. I had had his name up front but this was different. I swallowed and got in the van. We drove through the streets of Baghdad through some of the craziest traffic I have ever seen. The cars all traveled at whatever speed they could, there were no traffic laws, and the drivers simply tried to cut everyone and everything off. How anyone kept from wrecking, I don’t know.
The accident with the man on the ground came very clearly into focus in my mind. The drive was supposed to take about thirty minutes but about ten minutes in, the driver, I don’t remember his name, got a call on his cell phone. He hung up and told me in broken English, we were going to detour. “It’s OK. Don’t worry.” Right! He said he was taking me to a good place. The lump in my throat was getting bigger by the second. Everything bad you have seen on TV about these things was playing out in my head. We made a myriad of lefts and rights and stopped in front of a large solid metal sliding gate. There were two Iraqi guards with AK47s standing at the gate. They were not wearing Iraqi uniforms. They looked just like the guys you see on late night news shouting, “Death to America.” I had a sinking feeling I was screwed. The gate was open about a foot and I could see another guard inside on the phone. Very shortly after the gate opened, we entered. Inside the gate revealed a large compound. There was a high wall all around. I noticed cameras and a guard tower that overlooked the entrance we had come through. There was another guy in the tower with a AK and he was not looking at the street, he was looking at me. At this point, there was little else to do except what I was told and to try to keep my cool. We unloaded my gear and the dogs and I waited for what was going to happen next.
I saw another man come out of the villa, wave at the tower guard and things seemed to relax a bit. He walked up to me, smiling as he must have known I was really nervous. He stuck out his hand and said, “You must be Harris. Welcome Mate.” His British accent was a relief. I was escorted into the villa and to a nice room. The dogs and my gear were brought in and the four dogs were put in the room where I was staying. The Brit explained that I was at a safe house used by the PSD contractor and they were to transport me the rest of the way, but travel now was impossible due to security conditions. He said the roads were black, meaning nothing was moving now, we would try tomorrow. I was shown around and met the rest of the guys at the villa. All were either British or Irish. All were contractors and all were very capable at what they did. These guys were shooters whose only job was to transport people from one place to another and get them there no matter what. I had never felt safer. I can’t give their names of course or the company they work for or any other info that might jeopardize their missions. Just know they are there. I was told later I would be staying with them for a couple of days. I headed to the break room, played a few games of darts, drank several beers, after all they were British, and watched TV for the next day or two.
Two days later the team leader of the detail I was going with told me we were headed out as soon as it got dark. I was given a set of body armor and a briefing on what to do if things went bad. The main thing was never ever get out of the vehicle unless one of his guys was there. He said, “If it gets that bad, the M4 on the floor of the truck I would be in was mine. He asked my blood type, that did not make me feel really good but was understandable and just part of procedure. My blood type is actually tattooed on my arm along with the words “No Allergies.” I showed him the tattoo, he nodded and we got in the vehicle. We loaded up in several armored SUVs with bullet resistant glass, roll cages, and all sorts of communication gear. Everyone in the vehicles were armed, except me, (officially). The team leader checked his radio and we headed out the gate.
The next three hours was the wildest ride I think I have ever had. The team drove extremely fast. They took up two lanes and drove in a staggered formation. There was a vehicle in front and a little to the left of us, one in back and one behind just in case we lost one and had to transfer. They literally pushed one car that would not yield to them out of the way. The team leader, I was in his car, was in constant communication with the rest of the vehicles in the detail. He would warn of road obstructions, slow cars, people on the side of the road, approaching and merging vehicles, which direction he was turning and anything else he thought was of importance. It was like clockwork. The local cars were everywhere and this team in their big SUVs simply either intimidated the cars to get out of the way, cut them off, or actually pushed them out of the way. Traffic was getting heavy and the convoy was slowing. This was clearly not what the team leader wanted to deal with so he told the lead vehicle on the radio to go, “counter flow.” As the lead vehicle veered across the median, the rest of the convoy followed. We were now driving at about 60 mph the wrong direction down the road. The traffic on the side we had been on was hopelessly stopped in a traffic jam, not us. We travelled this way until we cleared the stoppage and he directed the team back across the road. Just as before, the team moved as one across the median and we were back travelling with the direction of traffic. He told me, “We don’t stop, for anything.” They let no traffic in between any of our vehicles. This was aggressive driving at its best, or worst, depending on how you looked at it.
Finally, we arrived at Taji, Iraq. We processed through the checkpoint and once inside the base, were escorted to where I would be met by yet another team. These guys transferred all my stuff and took me to my final destination, at least for now. I got out of their vehicle and was met by two of my colleagues, got unloaded and retired to my new home, a 15 x 15 plywood room behind a series of concrete walls.
It had been a long day and a trip I will not soon forget. Before I fell asleep, I looked over at my dog Mad. He was actually snoring.
Jon Harris is an OpsLens contributor and former Army NCO, civilian law enforcement officer, and defense contractor with over 30 years in the law enforcement community.