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Visiting a war zone

I left Iraq before sunrise on a medical flight loaded with sick and wounded soldiers bound for a hospital in Germany.

The massive C-17 jet took off in the same fashion we had landed three days earlier: sudden and steep. The engines roared as we lifted above the orange lights below.

Nerves are tight during these daily landings and take-offs into Balad Air Base, the most heavily mortared base in Iraq. Gunfire and missiles also remain threats.

Those first uneasy minutes in the air, I thought back to when we first flew “down range.” It was the first time we were instructed to strap on helmets and flak vests, just in case the aircraft took small arms fire from the ground. Only an hour before, I had been sitting in the cockpit as a crew member nonchalantly explained the maneuvers pilots are trained to take if an insurgent tries to hit the 179,000-pound Buddha-bellied jet with a missile.

I spent a week with the military, traveling with McChord Air Force Base crews as they shipped cargo in and around the Middle East. The highlight was our stop in Balad, a major Army and Air Force hub about 40 miles north of Baghdad.

I'd never been in the military, and this was my first trip to a war zone, although life within the wire at Balad seemed isolated from the car bombs and urban guerrilla warfare that have become this conflict's signature.

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This was a new world to me. It's a place where bathrooms are “Cadillacs” and cafeterias are “DFACS.” A place where taking cover from mortar attacks felt as routine as an East Coaster finding shelter from an afternoon thunderstorm.

The last days of my trip seemed to emphasize the cost in human lives. I spent a day in the combat hospital, where each hour, a helicopter lands with more casualties. I saw Iraqi policemen and U.S. service members wheeled in, some moaning in pain.

In Germany, I waited two days for a flight home because the only transport jets headed to McChord also were hauling coffins to Dover Air Force Base. The military doesn't want the media anywhere near those flights.

Yet, people manage to find their humanity, even in a harsh and hostile environment. At the bases I visited in Iraq and elsewhere, there were many airmen and soldiers doing their best to ease the turmoil of war, or the distance from home.

These personal sides revealed themselves in anecdotes such as abs workout classes in the desert or nurses baking cookies for wounded soldiers.

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People have asked me a range of questions since I've been back: Were you scared? How was the troops' morale? How was the weather? Was the invasion a mistake?

In no way can I judge from my few days at Balad whether the insurgency will be defeated or democracy will flourish in Iraq.

I spoke with a small segment of the 22,000 airmen and soldiers who are serving there. Of the 40 or so I interviewed, two openly showed some doubt or ambivalence about the mission. One shrugged and declined to comment further. Another, an injured Marine, said he'd lost faith in what he saw as a hopeless cause.

Most were optimistic that their efforts would pay off for Iraqi people.

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Beyond the razor wire at Balad are rolling green fields, which Iraqis are permitted to farm right up to the fence. We saw them out tilling their land and watching their sheep within view of radar stations and guard towers.

As we drove by one morning, two Iraqi boys, probably 8 or 9, played in the dirt right outside the wire. We tried to slow in traffic to snap a photo. They bounced up, wildly waving and smiling at our pickup full of U.S. reporters. Their innocence, radiating under the shadow of a nearby guard tower, still haunts me.

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The next day, I toured the combat hospital, where I saw examples of Iraqis who are willing to risk their lives to work with Americans.

One was an Iraqi policeman who was airlifted in after getting hit in an insurgent rocket attack.

Another was a man named Faraj whose family lived in the nearby city of Balad. He worked as a translator for U.S. doctors and nurses caring for Iraqi patients. I met him through Army 1st Lt. Richard Stevens, an intensive care nurse whose father lives in Olympia.

“This guy's helping me with my Arabic,” Stevens said as he introduced me and other reporters to Faraj, a young, dark-haired man in a T-shirt and jeans.

The translator said it's important to him to work with the military.

He's taught Stevens phrases such as “this is going to hurt” in Arabic and given him words such as “alam” to say for pain.

His services have been invaluable, Stevens said.

The translator took the job in part so he wouldn't forget his English, which is what he earned his four-year degree in at Baghdad University, he said.

Both men are well aware of the danger Faraj faces when he comes to work each day. Both know insurgents hunt and kidnap people like him — insurgents who would demand a ransom and return only his body. He knows his decision could put his family at risk.

“It's a good thing they are away and that they are not with me,” he said.

Faraj knows spies are out there but he tries not to think about it.

“You don't know, you just go,” he said.

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Stevens, 37, a former Fort Lewis soldier, and I had been talking about Balad life, about mortar attacks, and other things to get accustomed to while deployed there.

He said he dove under a truck during his first mortar attack and got funny looks. Now, as he's learned, they happen so often and rarely hit anything. So the alarms barely faze him, he said.

He's also no longer surprised by the menu at the DFAC and all of the different combinations of chicken the cooks prepare, he said.

“I'm done with chicken,” he added.

This trip marked my first experience getting mortared. The dreaded “incoming” alarm — which means a round is about to hit somewhere close to you in less than five seconds — sounded while I walked to the bathroom. I sprinted in my hiking boots and dove behind a tall concrete barrier, finally hearing a loud crack in the distance, thankfully far beyond my line of sight.

The base goes silent during the mortar attacks as everyone scatters for cover. When the “all-clear” sounds, it's like nothing happened. The roads again fill with soldiers or airmen. Troops in shorts who just cleared the basketball court resume their game.

I later ridiculed my own reaction, hiding behind concrete while clutching my notebook like a security blanket. My heart racing, I tiptoed back to my trailer like getting inside it would somehow make me safer. On a base that's as big as Olympia, the chances were slim I'd get hit. Yet, that was the closest I felt to danger in Iraq.

The first time I heard the mortar alarm was after a thunderstorm. I initially mistook the sounds of rockets hitting the base for thunder.

It rained twice while I was in Iraq, both times in the afternoon. While the temperature stayed between 80 and 90 degrees, the area had experienced hard rain and some flooding in the days before we arrived.

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Despite frequent mortar attacks, life at Balad seemed oddly normal. Soldiers went to work. Roads were cluttered with armored Humvees and civilian pickups. Chow was served three times a day. Troops checked their e-mail at the Internet lounge or stopped for coffee at the “Green Beans” espresso stand, where surprisingly, I found the best cup of Joe I've had in months.

One soldier, who spent time at another base in Iraq, said Balad's amenities have earned it the nickname “Camp Cupcake.”

It had its own sense of multiculturalism. The main military contractor — Kellogg, Brown and Root, which operates the DFACS and manages much of the construction on base — hires hundreds of employees from countries such as Pakistan, India and Nepal. Both an Army and Air Force spokesman assured me that all civilian employees' backgrounds are thoroughly screened.

The base itself carried eerie testaments to the war, such as a junkyard of Humvees damaged by roadside bombs or accidents. Not far from the junkyard was a train of old MIG fighters, now rusting hulks that were once part of the Iraqi air force.

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The Iraqis don't have much of an air force now, and if air support is essential to successful ground operations, they have a long way to go. British Air Commodore Mark Swan, director of the Combined Air Operations Center, which coordinates all coalition air missions in the area of operations, gave us a briefing on Iraq's air force. It now consists of three C-130 transport jets, some turboprop surveillance planes and a small contingent of helicopters. No fighters. No attack helicopters. No bombers. Iraqi pilots are talented and proud but depend heavily on coalition forces for training and air support, he said.

“It's a pretty slow and painful process,” he said. “We're starting from almost ground zero.”

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I didn't make it through Iraq without hearing a common gripe among service members that the media misses their success stories.

Army Capt. C.J. Jenni, who escorted us around Logistical Support Area Anaconda, said there are Iraqis who are openly appreciative of the military's efforts to rebuild schools and communities. He described accompanying an Iraqi army convoy as it rolled through a town and people stepped outside their doors to watch, their faces gleaming with pride.

“There was a big Iraqi flag on the lead truck. It was amazing to see the people come out and cheer for their country,” he said. “That's one side of Iraq you don't get to see in the media.”

Reporter Scott Gutierrez, 29, accompanied airmen out of McChord Air Force Base on their mission to deliver equipment and troops to and from Iraq. His reporting covers time spent on air bases in Iraq and Germany and aboard military C-17 Globemaster III aircraft.

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