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Baghdad Dispatch

Ed. Note: This is one of a series of columns written by a New Orleanian stationed in Baghdad. Because of military regulations he cannot be identified. We can say that he is a Navy pilot and that he is from a prominent New Orleans family.

My life here in the International Zone (IZ) can be measured in time spent in duck & cover bunkers and distance kept from T-walls. June and July were tough months, near-daily rocket and mortar attacks had me spending more time in bunkers than in my room. When not in a bunker, I could be found slinking along the temporary concrete T-walls that shielded my path to and from work.

Lately, though, I’ve been spending less time in bunkers and I’ve been straying farther from T-walls. No, I haven’t become particularly reckless. Quite the contrary, I’m more cautious than before and I still believe the Saints can turn it around. Instead, I’m spending more time in the open because life here has changed.
Take, for example, my relationship with duck & cover bunkers.

Made of rebar and concrete and shaped like an upside-down “U,” hundreds of duck & cover bunkers dot the streets and sidewalks of the IZ. These ubiquitous cement enclosures are easily identified by their shape and size and also by the words “Duck & Cover Bunker” painted in big black letters on a bright yellow sign atop each one. 
Supposedly, these bunkers will withstand the blast of “indirect fire,” which is an Army term for poorly aimed rockets and mortars. After experiencing first-hand a number of rocket and mortar attacks, I have created a list of descriptions much more colorful than “indirect fire.”

My first opportunity to visit a bunker came on just my second day in Baghdad when a barrage of 122-mm rockets impacted not far from where I was walking. The impacts and ensuing “take cover” alarm (literally, a giant voice broadcasts the phrase “take cover” – as if you had other plans) sent about 27 others and me scurrying for the nearest bunker where we then spent the better part of the afternoon.

No one leaves a duck & cover bunker until the “all clear” signal is sounded (yes, a giant voice broadcasts the phrase “all clear”). Sometimes this announcement doesn’t come for a very long time. Waiting for the “all clear” turned many five-minute walks into 50-minute walks this past July.

The parts of my summer not spent ducking into the nearest bunker were spent walking in the shadow of T-walls.

T-walls are everywhere in Iraq. Another rebar and concrete creation, these towering giants are shaped like an upside-down “T” and placed side by side to line streets and surround buildings in an attempt to create impenetrable barriers. T-walls offer great protection but stand as silent reminders of the dangers lurking on their other side. The Coalition did not invent the T-wall, but these 10-foot-tall monoliths have become synonymous with our presence.

Until recently I rarely strayed from the shadow of T-walls. Whether on my daily run, on my way to work, or merely picking up my laundry, I always could be found just two feet away from the nearest wall. But, as summer turned into fall, things began to change for the better.

Where I used to allow no more than two feet between the nearest line of T-walls and me, I now allow three.

Similarly, where I used to allot 30 minutes each day for unplanned “bunker time,” I now allot 30 minutes per week.

Although local, my observations are more than mere anecdote: the silence between explosions here is growing. It is a hard-fought and hard-won silence and every minute we don’t spend in a bunker and every foot we can put between the nearest T-wall and ourselves is a minute and a foot devoted to the bigger tasks at hand.
It won’t happen before I leave but perhaps one day the duck & cover bunker will be just a crumbling concrete box, passed as one walks down the street, free from the shadow of T-walls.

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