The bombed out, makeshift "Hotel California" at Baghdad International Airport
We were doing the "highway mission" for what seemed like an eternity. Gone were the exciting patrols, snap traffic stops, night raids and even the dreaded all-day cordon and searches that brought us into the living rooms of everyday Iraqis.
This was how it'd play out: our squad, like many other squads, would insert somewhere along one of Baghdad's busy highways and establish an observation post for about 12 hours before being relieved by another squad. We’d sit, watch, sweat and leave. Twelve hours on, 24 "off". That "off" time was filled with weapons maintenance, guard duty, "hey you" details, "hey you" missions, chow, rest and personal time. It was dull. It sucked.
Then, one day, our platoon was tasked with sending two infantry squads to Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) for a mystery detail that would last for at least a week. First and second squads were chosen (I was a team leader in first squad). Without knowing exactly what we were doing, we packed our gear and loaded onto a truck while the rest of the platoon looked on with envy. With our departure, their 12 hours on, 24 hours off just became 12 on, 12 off.
After Saddam's conquered palace in the Green Zone, the airport offered the most luxury to deployed soldiers in Iraq. Sprawling and unorganised, it was Big Box America. Going to the airport for a grunt, however short, was a welcome respite from the drudgery of a long war. BIAP had a Burger King, a massive store that was routinely re-stocked (the PX) and a first-rate dining facility. Soldiers would eagerly volunteer to accompany anyone going to BIAP as extra security just for the chance to use one the facilities.
With excitement, we loaded up our trucks, waved goodbye to the rest of our platoon and rolled out to seek fortune, glory and a Whopper.
After speeding along Baghdad’s infamous Highway 8, we got to the winged statue that welcomes you to BIAP. Passing through numerous checkpoints manned by nervous American soldiers, our eyes were drawn in unison to a tall multi-storey sand coloured building at the centre of the airport terminals. On its side was draped a canvas that read "Welcome to Hotel California".
Our truck snaked its way to the centre of activity near the Hotel California. Our platoon leader left to link up with whomever he was supposed to link up with. This left the rest of us with some free time to explore.
The Burger King was the obvious first choice. Earlier in the summer, our platoon sergeant brought back a single chicken sandwich from a trip to BIAP. That chicken sandwich had to be shared with the entire 36-man platoon. Each soldier took a tiny bite and then passed the sandwich to the next guy, this being repeated until it disappeared. As silly as it seems now, that single bite was amazing.
The line at Burger King was always ridiculously long. Wait times of over three hours were the norm, and by the time you made it to the window, “having it your way” was unlikely since most of their in-demand supplies had likely been exhausted.
Next was the PX, which was housed in an old sheet metal hangar with an extremely high ceiling. The PX sold a little bit of everything, but the hot items were junk food, magazines and electronics. Items would sell out as soon as they were put on the shelves. Soldiers stationed at BIAP obviously had the best chance of snagging prized items, which became a point of animosity for infantry troops who only got a few minutes to pass through and pick up whatever was left – usually shit.
The dining facility however, was always amazing. It was called the "Bob Hope" dining facility and a few months later President Bush would fly in and help serve Thanksgiving Dinner. For a unit that subsisted on an almost exclusive diet of Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) for months, the sudden availability of normal food instantly raised morale, while simultaneously stiffening disdain felt towards the lucky ones who had permanent access to it. You could eat healthy or go to town on French toast, cakes and ice cream. After eating there, trips to Burger King happened for the novelty of it or if you happened to pass by and noticed the line was short.
After our short tour of the amenities, it transpired that our two squads were there to serve as an emergency Quick Reaction Force (QRF) for the Baghdad area. If someone needed a coupe of infantry squads in a pinch, we would load up on Blackhawks and be inserted wherever we were needed. We passed the guys we were taking over for and the expressions on their faces suggested they were not happy to go.
To us though it was an awesome mission template. No guard duty, no nonsense. Just waiting for an emergency call that would whisk us away to a firefight via UH-60s to do the nasty work of infantrymen. In the meantime, we had some of the finest facilities that Iraq had to offer at our fingertips.
Our home would be the seventh floor of the Hotel California. Besides the first floor, the rest of the building seemed abandoned. We slowly climbed the seven flights of stairs with all of our weapons, ammo, rucksacks, body armour and personal gear.
Legs burning, we finally made it to the seventh floor, which once housed office space for an Iraqi travel agency. Most of the furniture was gone, but there were still some desks and cabinets with travel brochures harking back to a time before the war when Iraqis travelled for leisure. The tall windows were blown out, which let in a welcome cool breeze that kept the air temperature much lower than outside. The wind whipped through and whistled eerily. From our floor, we could see out over the sprawling airport all the way to where it met the beginning of Baghdad proper. A dark haze sat low in the sky.
The spartan conditions of American life in Iraq in 2003 brought out the latent talents of many soldiers. Amateur electricians became local superstars, and after only a few minutes of messing around they managed to get some lights on and jerry-rigged some electrical outlets. With that, the opportunities for what was possible expanded exponentially.
With electricity, freedom from details and an unknown amount of free time, it took little deliberation to decide that we needed to buy a television and an Xbox. Before our first night was over, we had both, with four controllers and a copy of Halo: Combat Evolved.
That evening, under weak amber lights, we gathered around the TV while the amateur electricians put the finishing touches to their setup, connecting wires, taping connections and double checking their work. With everything ready, we powered on the TV and then the Xbox.
Before anything appeared on the screen we heard a loud pop. Smoke rose from the Xbox. Our eagerness to start game time blinded us to the reality of circuitry outside the United States. The Xbox would only operate on a 110 circuit, and we plugged it into the Iraqi 220 circuit. We were completely bummed, especially the guy who shelled out the cash for the Xbox and television.
It was late and the PX was closed, so we decided that we would go back to the PX first thing in the morning with the Xbox and try to exchange it under the premise that we plugged it in and it didn't work (which was true).
The next morning, we again gathered around the setup, plugging Xbox no.2 into a small orange transformer.
Electricity is a magical thing. It worked.
Until it didn't, about ten seconds later. Apparently the small orange transformer was only capable of handling minor electronics, not the heavy-duty power needs of a modern gaming machine.
Two Xboxes down, but determined to make this work, we devised a new plan. One of us would go and try to exchange the second (!) fried Xbox while I scoured BIAP for a transformer powerful enough to handle the Xbox. Strangely, the manager at the PX had no problem accepting a second fried Xbox from the same guy in two days and exchanging it for a third, brand new one. I guess this happens a lot, in fact, you think they'd just start putting a note in the boxes. Anyway.
I spent the better part of the morning creeping around BIAP, looking for heavy-duty transformers. After asking around, I learned that there was a hole-in-the-wall store on BIAP run by Iraqis. The store was actually right next to Hotel California, but you wouldn't know it unless someone had clued you in. Behind a blank door was the store, the shelves stocked with local food, cheap jewellery, crappy paintings and other souvenirs. Stowed away in the corner were a bunch of metal boxes of various sizes. These were the transformers. Although I could have settled for a smaller model, I didn't want to disappoint the squad. I bought the biggest transformer they had which weighed at least 30 pounds and was complete overkill for our needs.
Transformer in tow, I made the slow ascent to the seventh floor. When I walked in with the transformer I received loud applause from the men who were gathered around the Xbox, waiting. With more transforming power than we could ever need we once again setup our system and carefully turned the power on, holding our breath, expecting another sizzle and pop.
This time, we reached the main screen and were greeted with the heroic title music of the Halo series.
Our squad posing by a Blackhawk helicopter (I'm second from the right)
The next two weeks became an in-country orgy of gaming madness. We were never called for a QRF mission. We never did any actual work at all. We spent our days bringing styrofoam plates piled with greasy food up to the seventh floor and playing 4-way Halo tournaments all day long. We gave each other mean nicknames like "Fat Elvis". If someone got on a hot streak, we changed the game to something we called "The One" (a nod to The Matrix, which we were all a little too obsessed with at the time) and played 3 vs. 1 until we all killed “The One”.
We played straight through mortar attacks, glancing briefly outside the window to make sure the rounds weren't exploding too close to our seventh floor retreat. “Eh, it’s not really close,” I’d say without really ever looking away from Master Chief.
Those two weeks seemed to last forever as we settled into our new norm of hot showers, good food, video games all day and the only threat of work being a sexy mission that would take us directly to the ultra-elusive enemy, where we would close with and destroy him.
When our platoon leader and platoon sergeant showed up a few days later pick us up, we reluctantly packed up our gear and wore the same sad faces of the guys we relieved two weeks earlier. Our leadership could sense that we had been getting over, especially as we loaded a couple of big screen TVs into our dusty truck to be brought back to our humble firebase where they'd be useless without electricity.
Arriving back at the old firebase, the rest of the platoon glared angrily as we settled back into our old spots in the platoon bay. Our gifts of Red Hot Cheetos were accepted, but it didn't change one of our most basic rules: if you got out of the firebase, you were getting over. This was especially true because while we were gone, the platoon had to accomplish the same amount of work with half of the guys. And word had spread quickly that we were living the high life at BIAP, despite our assurances that it wasn't that great.
We would only spend a few more weeks at our shitty firebase before moving to a larger consolidated Forward Operating Base, complete with a dining facility of its own and four-man rooms. There, all of us would get to enjoy the high life a little bit.
But nothing will beat those two weeks at Hotel California.
Follow Don on Twitter: @dongomezjr
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