SAFETY FIRST

In the end, we were all fine—as untouched and untroubled as we’d been before Iraq.

If anything changed, if there was a single takeaway from what we saw in Kurdistan and what we learned during three days of “Hazardous Environment Training” in what our British instructors called “Virginiastan”, it was the absolutely jaw-dropping  realization of exactly how physically difficult it is for our military personnel on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.And  I’m not talking about  the fighting. I’m talking about just being there, moving about in regulation gear, training. the day-to-day.  Watching on TV and in films, perhaps you realize intellectually that the standard issue body armor, with the  ceramic plates weighs around 45 pounds, but until you actually wear the stuff, much less try and help carry the slippery dead weight of an unconscious man across broken ground, you have no idea. Add the additional burden of an M-16, ammunition, pack and gear, Kevlar helmut and you’re already humping about 95 pounds of additional weight through heat that, in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, reaches well over 110 degrees. The body armor doesn’t exactly breath. You’re running sweat within seconds—just standing still.  Presumably, you are being trained to—at moment’s notice, hoist a similarly attired buddy over your shoulder and carry his weight as well. It’s damn near superhuman. And that’s before you’ve ever had to fire a shot in anger. In the back of your mind too, I came to find out,  is the certain knowledge that none of this heavy armor—not the Kevlar vest, not the ceramic plates—-and not the helmut—will protect you in the slightest from an AK-47 round. Nor will a cinderblock wall. A bullet froman AK, the most widely used weapon on the planet, will cut through all of it like cheddar.

The vests we wore in training were decidedly lighter (except Tom, who got standard issue).  We were, at all times, properly hydrated.  Nobody was shooting real bullets at us—nor was anyone likely to in the wilds of Virginia.  While it was uncomfortable in our vests, being asked to treat realistic but still fake sucking chest wounds while being spoken to harshly by our trainers, we knew at all times that we’d be retiring at night to comfortable hotel beds and air conditioned rooms.  In the event,  our Virginiastan training ended up being a lot harder than Kurdistan in Iraq.  And Southeastern Turkey, which judging from recent events, was even more dangerous, couldn’t have been lovelier.

This show is complicated. The Kurds in Iraq are our greatest friends. We have used them (often badly) as our instrument many times-and if there has been any upside to our adventures in Iraq, it has been that the Kurdish people have, at long last, enjoyed a measure of security and autonomy unheard of in this century.  Iraqi Kurds are more   pro-American—and pro-Bush in particular than just about…anywhere else. And it should be pointed out that since the beginning of hostilities in Iraq, there have been exactly zero coalition deaths or injuries in Kurdish areas off the country.  Whatever your feelings about the rightness or wrongness or strategic value of invading Iraq, it is very hard to see present day Kurdistan and not be happy for them.

In Turkey, however, we see the same people as terrorists—and our policies reflect this.  Until recently, Kurds in Turkey were not allowed to even refer to themselves by their true ethnicity. They were officially called ” mountain Turks who have forgotten their language”.  To even use the word “Kurd” was to invite prison—or worse. Often much worse.  The Turkish government has been at various times despicably oppressive in their campaigns against Kurdish attempts at finding a political voice. And, to be fair, Kurdish groups, often armed and trained across the border, have attacked Turks and Kurds seen as too sympathetic to the Turkish authority with lunatic ferocity.  In Turkey, the Kurds don’t like us too much.  In Iraq, well, you’d hardly realize you’re IN Iraq.

Three British security experts with years of “on the job” experience in some of the nastier conflict zones on earth. Four heavily armed Peshmergas. Body armor. Training. And in the end, we were fine. A few tense moments, perhaps, a misunderstanding here and there. But fine. I’d recommend Iraqi Kurdistan to anyone looking for beautiful scenery and some off-beaten track adventure tourism.

And I have to say I’m pleased with my training. That will last a lifetime. Knowing that I can set a compound fracture, apply a tourniquet, stop a sucking chest wound,  tell how long somebody’s got before bleeding out, administer CPR,  identify my position and call in a Medevac or an airstrike, pick my way across a mine field, find cover, behave intelligently at hostile roadblocks—surely some of these skills might serve me well someday on location or at the supermarket. My “situational awareness” alone, is much improved. If you find yourself dismembered on the produce aisle at Whole Foods someday and I happen to be nearby? I’m your boy.