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My Journey to Baghdad, Iraq

By Gordon Traill

September 11 2001 is a day that is indelibly etched in my memory , for two reasons. The first was watching the tragedy unfold before my eyes of the Twin Towers coming down and the terrible loss of life. The second was a comment I made to my wife Shona. “If it can happen there,  it can happen here”. I had been retired from the army for three years. Shona knew that our lives were about to change once again.

I was back in uniform within six weeks. Just my luck though, a desk job in Victoria Barracks Melbourne for two years. During those two years, I was to spend six months of each year traveling around Australia with work. During this time I was impressed by the facilities of the 1st Brigade in Darwin.

In late 2003 I received my posting to Robertson Barracks, Darwin. I was to spend three years with 5/7 RAR as the Warrant Officer Caterer. I was really glad to be going back to the unit I had first served in as a young Digger in 1976. At that time the unit was situated in Holsworthy, NSW.

We arrived in Darwin in January 2004. The first six days was uneventful as we settled into our new Defence house. I had just finished ironing my uniform around 5:30 in the morning when a huge crash of thunder and lightning exploded.  Expletives flowed from my mouth as I raced out of the house to have a look. I heard the guy from across the road yell out to me as he was having a cigarette outside. He said the lightning “lit up the house like a Christmas tree”. We couldn’t see any major structural damage in what light there was,  as it was zero dark hours.

Later in the morning Shona rang me to say our kitchen roof had fallen in under the weight of the burst solar hot water tank. Defence Housing moved us to a hotel for two weeks while they made our house liveable again. Defence Housing moved quickly, but not as quickly as the local paper. The journalist arrived with a photographer and put a photo and story on the front page of the NT News. Quite a feat to knock off a crocodile or cane toad story in the Top End.

In early February my Commanding Officer (CO) spoke to me about being part of Security Detachment 4 (SECDET 4). SECDET was responsible for the Australian Ambassador and his staff to move around Baghdad in the safest possible manner to conduct official Government business.

I went home that night to discuss my deployment with Shona and our two daughters. Our sons (James doing his Masters Degree in Melbourne and Joshua doing his Chiropractic degree in NZ) were definitely against the war in Iraq. The boys accepted the decision as I had been a professional soldier for so long. The girls knew that going to Darwin could mean a deployment overseas was highly likely. Shona knew when we packed up and left Melbourne for Darwin that being deployed to Iraq was a sure thing. The decision was made and the next morning I spoke to my CO, I was ready to go to war.

All soldiers go through so much training for war. They all want to know are they strong, tough and good enough to stand by each other in a crisis. My full attention was now focused on Iraq and especially Baghdad. I was glued to  CNN and Fox News channels. Cpl Steve Riley was to work along side  me for this deployment. In the short time I knew Steve I had seen many outstanding qualities in him. He was an excellent soldier as well as an outstanding cook. Steve had a wicked sense of humour and was hard working, strong decision maker; I knew I could trust him with my life.

Training for the mission was very demanding for me at the ripe old age of 48. I was very fit and also the oldest member of SECDET. It felt like I was going to war with my sons. I felt at ease when I heard Major Spencer Norris was going to be SECDET 4’s Officer Commander. My years of experience taught me that Spencer was the right person for the difficult job that lay ahead of us.

There were many things that had to be done before we were ready to leave for Baghdad. Official passports, daily Intelligence briefings on Iraq, nuclear, biological and chemical warfare training for what was a real threat. Saddam had previously used chemical warfare against the Kurds in the North of Iraq. Constant day and night shoots were done to handle the weapons in any conditions sometimes  wearing night vision goggles. You never went anywhere without your weapon, it became an extension of your arm, 24/7.

There was lots of activity: working with the ASLAVS (13 Tonne Armoured Vehicles); what were “actions on” if we had contact with the enemy whilst in the vehicles; briefings on being taken as a POW; lectures on welfare services available to family; making sure  your Will was up to date and all your finances were in good order. It was very difficult to get life insurance coverage especially when you told the insurance brokers that you were going to Baghdad!

Training was incredibly time-consuming especially with Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s, car bombs). This was the new face of fighting modern warfare. We received daily intelligence on how the insurgents used IED’s in many different ways: under a pile of rubbish, under rocks, dirt tracks, side of the road, anywhere they thought they could kill or injure foreign forces. The insurgents would dig out a piece of concrete in the roadside gutters and place the IED’s in the gap and cement over it. They would use this method for setting up a daisy chain effect. By placing the IED’s at different intervals along a road, they could hit a convoy and get maximum effect within the “killing zone”. Land mine detection was also a concern as was shown in Cambodia and Afghanistan.

Riot training was an interesting phase of the pre deployment training for me. We did training with helmets, batons, shields for controlling angry crowds and how to use pepper spray. I thought  that if I got that close to an angry crowd, I certainly wouldn’t want to be using just pepper spray! The Military Police (MP) detachment all had large expansive grins on their faces during the individual spraying of everyone in SECDET. The MP’s knew from their own training and using it in their job that it was better to be the giver than the receiver. To their credit the MP’s did cop their spray with a lot of laughs coming from the rest of the SECDET members. There were numerous bets and banter going on amongst the boys. They were making outrageous statements on how long they would last before they had to fully submerge their heads into the buckets of water to flush away the pepper spray. I had never seen so many hard nut characters be brought to their knees, after getting a dose of spray. I was not any better. It feels like you have coarse sandpaper rubbing  underneath  your eyelids as you blink uncontrollably trying to flush away the spray.

Biological and nuclear training was not much better but necessary. Nothing in the pre deployment training was taken lightly by any soldier of SECDET 4. It was time to leave Darwin and make our way to Iraq.

Food Asia, Singapore 1994. I had reached the pinnacle in my chosen trade as a chef. I was a member of the Australian National Culinary Team that competed for the ‘Battle of the Lion’ against seven other Nations. It was an amazing experience to represent your country on the world culinary stage. I was a Sergeant Cook competing with and against the best civilian chefs in the world.

Ten years later I found myself on a RAAF C130 Hercules aircraft flying into Baghdad, Iraq this time to represent Australia as a soldier.

Diary entry: Friday 7th May 2004

‘Left Camp Doha which is situated in Kuwait and drove to a rundown Kuwait Air Force Base. It still showed the battle scars of Saddam’s invasion years before. The C130 arrived, loaded Stores, Ammo and all the Security Detachment 4 (SECDET 4) personnel. The flight to Baghdad was very smooth until we began tactical flying. It was an adrenaline filled 15 minutes till we touched down. Tactical flying is the most exhilarating rollercoaster ride you could imagine’.

Once on the ground we were briefed by Sgt Moriaty who was in charge of the armoured vehicles that were to take us to ‘The Flats’, a shell of a building that was to be home. It was located next to the Australian Embassy in the “Red Zone”.  After a tour of the building it was time for dinner. It felt good to have some food as I hadn’t eaten all day.

SECDET 4 was a self-sufficient Battle Group of approximately 120 personnel made up of Infantry, Cavalry, Engineers, Signals, Cooks, Intelligence, Military Police, Medic, Mechanics and Q Store soldiers. Our role was to support and protect the Australian Ambassador and his staff in the most dangerous place on earth at the time, Baghdad.

Diary entry: Sunday 9th May 2004

‘Mother’s Day, once again I wasn’t there to share the day with Shona and the kids.’

Being in Baghdad really bought home how special my wife really is as a mother. She has been the one constant  in our children’s life. Shona is always there for them when I have been away with the Army.

My role during my time in Baghdad was to ensure that our soldiers got the best possible food available and  that there was plenty of bottled water to keep them hydrated. The temperatures ranged between 35 and 55 degrees with little change when the sun went down. My other role was to work in the Operations room which included manning the radios, keeping contact with the Diggers on guard duty, foot and mounted patrols in our Area of Operations

The room that was used as a kitchen was approximately 4 metres wide by about 8 metres long. It had no plumbing, no kitchen sink, four toilet extractor fans on a side wall, a household stove, BBQ plate, two freezers, glass door fridge, stainless steel work bench and shelving to store cooking equipment. The room had a window which was on the outer wall of the building. It was hidden by sandbags from floor to ceiling with wood and steel bars across them to minimise the damage that could be caused by  rocket attacks, hand grenades, car bombs or small arms fire coming into the building.

In one corner of the kitchen was a sandbagged wall where the local gas bottles would be stored and spew out a horrible odour when they were nearly empty. The gas bottles would arrive by donkey cart and kicked off by the driver to land on top of one another. No wonder they were all banged up and in poor shape.  The electricity was a constant source of ineffectiveness with blackouts that lasted hours at a time. At times evening meals would be cooked under torch light.

Diary entry: Tuesday 11th May 2004

 ‘There is always an Intelligence brief on the state of affairs in Baghdad and Iraq. I don’t need the Intel brief to tell me that this is a bad arse town with all the bombs and rockets going off.’

A normal day in the kitchen would consist of a cooked breakfast, a light lunch due to the hot climate, and a cooked meal for dinner. The food we received through the supply chain, were American 50 man Ration Packs. Some of the interesting items were frozen laser cut fried eggs (yuck), grape jelly and grits (I never did get around to cooking them), dehydrated hash browns and inedible bread rolls. Steve and I had our work cut out for us trying to make the food suitable for our Australian tastes using the American rationing system. I would source local eggs, potatoes, flat bread, fresh vegetables, fresh dates, fruit to add variety and flavour.

Every Friday depending on the threat assessment of flying into Baghdad, I would receive a BBQ pack that was flown in from Kuwait. It comprised of lettuces, tomatoes, onions, cheese slices and thick steaks that were frozen and tough as boot leather. To fix this problem I would marinate the steaks and add Bi Carbonate soda to make them tender.

Bottled water was extremely important due to the weather conditions and wearing body armour. On average a soldier would drink between 6 – 8 litres of water a day. It was my responsibility to  have  seven day Reserve Supply of American ration packs, Meals Ready to Eat (MRE’s) and water. They are something  I never have to eat again thank goodness.

Just outside the kitchen door was where we served the food. I had a large piece of cardboard which had a vegetarian MRE nailed to it with the words ‘Complaints Book’. I never did get any complaints!

Diary entry: Tuesday 25th May 2004

‘This was the worst day of the tour so far. A huge car bomb exploded right outside ‘The Flats’. The jagged bits of car and shrapnel that were hurled through the air were found throughout ‘The Flats’. I had never heard an explosion that loud before. There were locals killed which included children. This is a f – – – – – d up place.’

One of the sayings that the boys used to say when explosions went off was ‘if the building was not rocking everything was good’. The building did rock that day and that was not good.

Diary entry: Wednesday 16th June 2004

‘Today was very hot in the kitchen, found a small fan just to circulate the hot air.’

The breakfast was quite large with eggs, bacon, pancakes, hash browns, chipolata sausages, porridge, macaroni cheese and cereals. There was plenty of food for the diggers before going out on foot or mounted patrols. Lunch usually consisted of local flat bread and salad or left over dinner items to make toasted sandwiches. Dinner consisted of four main choices, vegetables and dessert.

I had a supply of sports and soft drinks that I had on ice in big eskies in the dining room. The ice came in metre lengths by 20 cm square-the frightening thing was the mud colour that ran through these ice bars. This was another good reason to use only bottled water for cooking and drinking. I swear I saw three headed fish in the Tigris River that curled its way around Baghdad!

One of the rituals the Cavalry boys brought to Baghdad from Australia was their ‘beer and cigar night’ that was held once a week. As the Middle East was a dry area there was a supply of American ‘near beers’ which had 0% alcohol. As you walked into their room smoke billowed out as you opened the door. There in front of you they would be smoking handmade Cuban cigars and drinking ‘near beers’. There was always raucous laughter with the many jokes they told. A carton of Iraq cigarettes sold for $5 US and Cuban cigars were around $3 US.

Diary entry: Tuesday 10th August 2004

‘A Bomb threat was made against the Australian Embassy next door. More stand to’s due to the threat.’

During these times you had to wear your body armour all the time except for sleeping. This made work in the kitchen all that more difficult due to the heat  generated by the cooking appliances. The kitchen temperature ranged between 55-60 degrees Celcius. No need for a Jenny Craig diet in Baghdad.

Diary entry: Tuesday 21st September 2004

‘Flying into Darwin the pilot announced that he had very special passengers on board who were returning home from their tour of Iraq. A loud roar and clapping filled the plane. My chest burst with pride and yet I felt very humbled’.

‘Saw the girls and gave them a big hug. Shona wrapped her arms around my neck like a vice and wouldn’t let go. I felt like a millionaire’.

‘Went out to dinner, I felt weird with no weapon and felt very detached from the family. The feeling of guilt hung around my neck like a lead weight because I should have been ecstatic to be home. Sleep was very difficult to come by’.

 My “My Journey to Baghdad, Iraq” was complete.  My long journey returning “home” was just beginning, but that’s another story.……


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4 Comments

  1. Hey Gordon,

    This is a great article. You write with clarity, strength and pace. My mind was alive with images while I read. Now I am struck with awe and appreciation by your service to Australia and the bond of your family.

    Thanks,
    Jenny

    • Thank you Jenny for your words of encouragement. I just had to tell the story that has changed my life forever.

  2. That’s really thinking of the highest order

  3. Good evening. Great article.

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