The waiting game

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DIYALA, Iraq — The mission was supposed to last three hours. The plan: fly by helicopter to a small, U.S. military base on the northern edge of the Diyala Province, listen to U.S. Army General Ray Odierno give a few brief remarks, and then fly back to a central military base. From all of this, I would collect one or two usable quotes.

Standing on the flight line, watching Odierno’s helicopter depart, I heard the base commander ask the senior officer leading my group, “So are your helicopters coming in behind these?”

“No. We’re on weather hold,” the officer said, pointing to the dust storm on the horizon.

It would be at least three to four hours before our next window of opportunity, and even that was a stretch. To make matters worse, there were five of us waiting for the flight but only three seats available.

The senior officer surveyed our group, as though there were a decision to be made. In situations like these, journalists are almost always the expendable element. Predictably, the officer judged that it “made the most sense” for me to wait overnight for the next helicopter. Of course, the later flight was eventually canceled and everyone would take his or her chances again next morning.

Only one thing's certain when you’re traveling with the U.S. military in Iraq: there's no such thing as a quick trip. Whether flying by helicopter or airplane, more often than not you can expect to be delayed a minimum of a couple hours and sometimes up to a few weeks. It’s not the disproportionate amount of effort vs. reward that can irk a reporter. The Iraq war as a whole tends to bear little fruit for those journalists still covering it. As a British friend who works as a security specialist in Iraq puts it: “All the medals and tea were handed out a few years ago.”

It's the time spent hurrying to bases just to end up waiting. With bases spread out all over Iraq, soldiers and contractors must shuttle back and forth for meetings, to go on leave, or any variety of reasons. To accommodate these movements, the U.S. military has a number of helicopters and cargo planes that operate not unlike a commercial air service. There are regular flights between major locations, but unlike a civilian airline, for security reasons flight times are kept a secret from the passengers until the day of the flight.

Flying any of these circuits, you learn a new language. You don’t get booked on a flight, you get “manifested.” If you’re lucky, or well-connected, you can get manifested as a VIP. Standby is “space A,” or space available, and if you get put on a flight’s standby list you’re “space blocked.”

Military air travel in Iraq has all the appearances of an orderly system, with set flight routes and at least one route that lets you manifest yourself online. But speak to any regular user of military transport and it will make the six-hour delay you had during a snow storm last Christmas not worth remembering, let alone mentioning.

Earlier this summer, it took me a full seven-day week to travel about 60 miles from Baghdad to Baquba. I got bumped from my first flight when they overbooked, which is often the prelude to a long wait. Once you lose your status as a manifested passenger, you’re not allowed to manifest yourself for several more days, so you either have to wait or take your chances flying space A.

As my luck had it, within hours of getting bumped from my first flight, a multiday sandstorm blew in, grounding flights all over the country. Just like a blizzard in the U.S., a dust storm in Iraq creates hordes of stranded travelers.

This means most passengers are not going anywhere for days while the military works through the backlog. For those with clout, however, there’s often a way out. While I was sleeping on benches at the airport, battling for a flight, a senior colleague with serious connections decided that it was time to call in a favor. A few phone calls scored her a ride on a general’s private plane. But without the right phone numbers, there’s nothing to do but wait. If you wait long enough, eventually you’ll make it on a helicopter or a plane.

When my flight finally came to the tiny base in the north of Diyala, 20 hours into the three-hour mission, I was about to climb aboard the Black Hawk when the crew chief pulled me aside, pointed at my bare arms, and pantomimed slitting this throat to inform me that this flight was dead to me. It’s a rule that all passengers wear long sleeves on helicopter flights. For some reason, no one had stopped me on the way out, but now it appeared my luck had run out.

My seven-day delay still fresh in my mind, failure to board the flight was not an option. I motioned for the crew chief to wait as I undid my boots, yanked my socks off, and then pulled them over my arms. He looked at me and gave me a smile that said, “If you want it this bad, who am I to stop you?” He waved me on, sparing me from another lost day at a helicopter terminal somewhere in Iraq.