“Are you nuts?”
t all started with a casual conversation with a friend who suggested that that I consider a short assignment with US Department of State as they were looking for health professionals, with my background/experience, who could help them in global health programs. He sent me a few forms to fill and after filling them I completely forgot about it until a few months later when I was contacted by federal investigators who interviewed me and also talked to a few of my friends. A few weeks later, I received a call informing me that they had received all my clearances and wanted me to serve as Senior Health Advisor in Iraq. My immediate reaction was to get Rashmi on board for this volunteer position and then start my research on Iraq. Later that week, I received a call in my office and the caller asked “Are you nuts?” Even before I could reply there was a follow-up question “Does Rashmi know about it?” And my muted response was “What did I do?” It was a friend who was calling to inform me that she had been contacted by the Department of State who had informed her that I was being considered for an assignment in Iraq and she was worried.
After convincing Rashmi, and receiving an extended leave of absence from my office administration, I conveyed my consent to the Department of State. When I informed my family and friends that I was going to Iraq, the general reaction was jaw dropping and the same question "Are you NUTS?" Probably I was but I had my reasons - most of them perfectly good ones! Most importantly, I want to do something outside of my "comfort zone." I wanted to do something different, more challenging and above all - make a difference.
Then the so-called "Iraq Factor" kicked in. People - strangers - started treating me with great respect. I began to realize that people did this just because I was going to Iraq. They looked at me differently and wanted to do things for me! Just a modest "Well, I'm going to Iraq for a year" elicited all sorts of help from all sorts of people! At the local Sheriff’s office, I had to get some paperwork taken care of and a deputy looked at me with the surprised look and "Thank you for serving."
I landed at the Department of State in Washington DC where I was met by a young FSO who guided me through the orientation process and introduced me to a US Marine Colonel – Col. David. Col. David had served in Iraq and would be my ‘battle-buddy’/best friend for my entire assignment. He became my guide/tutor as he provided me an overview of US Army protocols and answered all my safety concerns.
Everyone going to Iraq as a representative of USG had to take two training courses. The first course was the so-called "Crash and Bang" course which involved driving on a race track, getting into a controlled skid and even handling a mock ambush situation. For the “Crash” part, we learned the proper way to ram our way through parked cars that block our route during mock ambush situations – honestly it takes courage to hit another car, particularly if it is deliberate! For the “Bang” part, we trained to recognize IEDs and received training in using multiple weapons including pistols like the SIG and Baretta 9-mm pistols and rifles like M-16 and AK-47. Later I had unique opportunity of firing a few rounds from a big gun M109A6 155mm Paladin assigned to 82nd Field Artillery.
Second part of the training involved getting an overview of 2000 year old culture, history and customs of Iraq and learning a few Arabic words for conversation purposes. In addition, we had training on recognizing and dealing with stress, and how to work with security detail.
After successful completion of the training, it was time for confirmation and the swearing-in ceremony. A visit to the Pentagon completed remaining formalities and I received my “Common Access Card” or CAC card. Now the reality hit me and I had a few doubts – if I will be able to do it? How will Rashmi handle the stress of her full-time job, house-hold chores and attending back to school nights, etc.? But every time I wondered whether I made the right decision, Rashmi assured me that in the long run, it would be worth it.
First trip into Iraq
After receiving my diplomatic passport and travel orders, I was on my way to Iraq via Kuwait. I was used to being on long flights – whether Chicago-Delhi or Newark-Mumbai but there was a different kind of feeling, both apprehension and excitement, when I boarded 10 hour United Airline flight from Washington Dulles to Kuwait.
On reaching Kuwait, I was received by a US Embassy staffer who briefed me about my flight into Baghdad which was scheduled sometime next morning from Ali Al-Salem airfield from where our Embassy MilAir flight would depart for Baghdad. In the wee hours of the morning, we got a ride from our hotel to Ali Al-Salem where after going through multiple security checks we reached the airfield base. Here I met Colonel David whom I was introduced to in Washington DC. It was a big relief to see a familiar face! He tried to prepare me for the flight and asked me if I had ever flown in a C-130. I had no idea what a C-130 was but he kept on warning me that I should be ready for a ‘rough-ride’. Just the thought of it made me feel sick as it reminded me of a very bumpy ride in a Fokker-Friendship plane from Srinagar to Jammu, when I was probably 5 year old.
Finally we were given our personnel protective equipment (PPE) and we walked on the tarmac and entered a really huge aircraft, through a drop-down loading platform at the back. There were no seats just some nylon canvas straps and there were no windows. We were asked to use ear plugs, and after we strapped in, a large pallet with our luggage was brought in through the rear and finally the ramp was raised and closed. The airplane engines – all four of them started humming and the noise started getting louder and I could feel the plane was airborne. Almost two hours, I did not realize that we had landed until the rear ramp started to drop and we had landed at Baghdad International Airport, or BIAP as it was better known.
We are received on the tarmac by State department personnel and escorted to the State Department-operated Sully Compound. After completing some paperwork, I made a call to Rashmi. She enquired if I was still in Kuwait then I must defer my travel into Baghdad as there had been multiple car-bombings in Baghdad with scores of people dead. I reassured her that there was nothing to worry and I was already in Baghdad but had not heard or seen anything. After about an hour I was informed that a ‘Helo” was on its way for our ride to the Embassy. Soon we were scrambling back to the tarmac when a pair of CH-60 Blackhawk helicopters landed and we were guided to towards the waiting ‘Helos’. The noise and the downdraft from the rotor blades was real powerful and we had to rely on sign language and take our seats for a short 10 minute ride into the ‘Green-Zone’ where an official was present to receive me and drive me to the New Embassy Compound (NEC). I was taken to a two bedroom apartment and shown my bedroom and introduced to my ‘roommate,’ who occupied the other bedroom. This room would be my abode during my stay at NEC. When visiting places outside Baghdad, I would house in a wet containerized housing unit (CHUs) which have attached bath with running hot water. During my assignment, I took road trips in MRAPs, Strykers, Humvees and even a ride in a ‘Rhino’. I made many trips in UH-60 Blackhawks and a few rides in CH-47D Chinook helicopters.
Throughout my stay in Iraq, I had the privilege of enjoying Iraqi food including fresh naan, and also relish real Indian food. At the US Embassy dining facility and also at many large US bases, most of the cooking staff was from South Asia. Once a week, these dining facilities used to have ‘Indian night’ and they would serve chicken curry, a vegetable curry and some pulao. Initially, these workers were hesitant in talking to me because they thought I was an Iraqi who could speak little Hindi and Tamil. The Srilankan workers would keep me updated on cricket scores. Later when they found that I was originally from India, they became comfortable and would come and share their personal, some very interesting stories with me. They would even prepare a dosa for me from pancake mix (yes it did taste sweet).There were these thousands of workers who managed all the support services – cooking, cleaning, repairs, and laundry for not only the U.S. embassy staff, but for entire USF in Iraq. During my visit to a large US base in Iraq, I was requested by the US officials to address the support staff from India for whom they had arranged a ceremony to celebrate India’s Independence Day. It was real honor to be amongst these hardworking third country nationals (TCNs).
On a trip to one of the largest US Army bases in Iraq there was a small ‘Bazaar’ that had probably 20-25 small shops mostly selling gift items. While walking through this bazaar, I noticed that a shop had a sign ‘Bulbul Gift Shop’ and just by instinct I knew it must be a Kashmiri shop. I entered the shop with a few of Embassy officials and some senior Army officers who bought a few gifts. As they were checking out, I asked salesperson in Kashmiri if the gifts were genuine Kashmiri products. His jaw dropped and he was more shocked than surprised when I told him that I was a Kashmiri! As it turned out, he was from Soura near Srinagar.
During a visit a prominent Iraqi politician known for his temper, I was being introduced by my interpreter and suddenly the politician started arguing with my interpreter. On checking, my interpreter informed me that the politician was convinced that I was an Iraqi and should not be using an interpreter. Finally, I had to intervene and somehow convince the politician that I was not Iraqi but a Kashmiri. This really made him very emotional as he informed me that one of his grandfather’s wives was from Kashmir.
Due to my experience of working in refugee and IDP camps, the Embassy requested me to serve as refugee and IDP coordinator. It was interesting assignment as in this capacity I had an opportunity of working with many international agencies including USAID, UNHCR etc.
Lot of memories – mostly fond ones and one thing I learned was that there were contradictions everywhere, but the most important lesson learnt was that majority of people, wherever I went during my assignment in Iraq, had same issues – trying to live in peace, make a living and support their families. I am thankful for the opportunity given to me to make a small contribution in improving the quality of life of common Iraqi people. I would like to express my gratitude to the men and women of the US Armed forces, particularly my friend Late Col. David who made sure that I was safe and well protected.
Last but not the least; I would not have been able to complete my assignment successfully without the unconditional support of family and friends.
After his high school from Tyndale Biscoe School in Kashmir, he graduated in Medicine from Madras Medical College and later in Dentistry from King George’s Medical College, Lucknow. He completed his infectious diseases fellowship in the department of Obstetrics & Gynecology at UTMB, Galveston and was appointed as a faculty at University of Minnesota where he also received his Masters in Health Administration. In 2003 he joined University of Oklahoma and since 2007, he has been with Oklahoma State University as a faculty in the department of Obstetrics and Gynecology where he is also directing High-Complexity Infectious Diseases Clinical laboratory. During 2009-2010 he was appointed as the Senior Health Advisor to the US Department of State and served in Iraq.
Author, Dr. Awtar Krishan obtained his PhDs from the Panjab University (1962) and the Univ. of Western Ontario, Canada (1963) in Cytogenetics and Anatomy. From 1965 to 1977, he was at the Sidney Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School as Head of the Tissue Ultrastructure and Experimental Pathology Labs.
He has developed flow cytometric techniques for rapid analysis of DNA content by hypotonic propidium iodide, monitoring of drug retention and resistance, and more recently for monitoring hormone receptor expression in archival tumors. He is currently Director, Analytical Cytometry Laboratory , at University of Miami, Florida.
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