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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis: A Look Back

February 2004

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No, life in the Foreign Service is not all a round of cocktail parties and croquet on the lawn, as is clearly demonstrated by the author’s account of events that she experienced in October 2003.— Ed.

LETTER FROM BAGHDAD An FSO Recounts a Memorable Recent Week in Baghdad

This morning (Oct. 31) in the wonderful city of Baghdad, I woke up at 6:00 and made some coffee. Sitting out in front of the Convention Center and listening to the birds, I watched the tail end of the sunrise and felt almost normal.

This week was a little more exciting than even I would like. Sunday morning (Oct. 26), I had just woken up to the Muslim call to prayer and was lying in bed thinking about getting up and starting another day. I'd had a really nice Friday off and Saturday was very productive, so the week had started out well. Suddenly there were huge explosions and my room was filled with smoke—the Hotel al-Rashid was under attack again, and this was a big one.

Central BaghdadI rolled out of bed, grabbed my sandals and phone (we'll leave the analysis of why I grabbed sandals and a phone until later—a friend grabbed her contacts and makeup case!)—and was instantly out of my room. The hallway was filled with smoke and I had almost reached the stairs when I heard an American woman screaming for help—she'd almost lost her arm. I ran back and immediately put pressure on her wound (thanks to State Department training on emergency medical assistance when I was in Kuwait). I yelled for assistance and after ordering several guys with tourniquets away (she could have lost her arm if we'd tied a tourniquet), I found several men to help carry her down the three flights of stairs.I remember calling for a medic once we got to the lobby of the hotel, which was already filled with people. Unfortunately, no medic had been stationed at the hotel, but a former South African special forces officer came to help (he's doing private security here, the most popular job in town) and helped somewhat while I continued to keep pressure on the arm. After what seemed like forever (but probably was 15-20 minutes), the army ambulance arrived. Because there weren't many medics, I stayed with the woman in the ambulance continuing to keep pressure on her arm, using my other hand to call the State Department and tell them of the attack. We arrived at the hospital and she was immediately taken into surgery for two or three hours. The doctors saved her arm and she is doing very well.

I called mom and dad and told them I was all right. I then started counting the casualties as they were brought into the hospital.

So, there I was at the 28th Combat Surgical Hospital in my green PJs (my favorite PJs!) and sandals, clutching my cell phone! I was covered in blood and still somewhat in shock, but I called mom and dad and told them I was all right. I then started counting the casualties as they were brought into the hospital. Someone gave me a hospital gown, so I could take off my top—but the gown kept opening and here I was, clutching the front of my gown, still wearing my PJ bottoms, carrying a phone covered in blood. I must have looked like a madwoman!

I must admit that I rather like having men with guns around.
At one point some officer ordered me away (I had no ID) couldn’t prove who I was, but luckily I knew the head of the hospital. He told the guys that I was the U.S. consul and asked them to let me hang around and give assistance to the injured Americans. I actually ended up helping everyone who came in only slightly injured with simple things like making a phone call home, finding clothes for people to change into, and getting a ride to the CPA headquarters (better known as the four-headed palace) for temporary lodging. Someone eventually gave me a T-shirt and shorts and I was able to clean up a bit.

When the lady came out of surgery, I helped her call her family and sat with her for a while until she went to sleep. At some point I managed to shower and then went back to the hotel to pick up a few things for her (and clothes for myself). In particular, she really wanted her glasses since she could not see without them, so I was glad I found them. I was very thankful for my own Lasik surgery, that's one less thing to worry about in a crisis—I can see!

That night I slept in a friend's trailer (she was in the U.S. on leave) and tried to figure out what to do. The homeless from the hotel were scattered throughout the Green Zone (protected area), with the less fortunate (meaning no friends with empty trailers) sleeping on cots in the basement of the palace. I decided that the best and safest place for me would be the spare room in my office. I got permission the next day to move into the Convention Center, and became the only woman living among hundreds of Florida National Guardsmen in a very nice fortress-type building!

Unfortunately, I was still at breakfast on Monday (Nov. 1) when bombs started exploding all over the city. I ran to the office of Global Risk Security (a private security company with some of the best people I've ever met, who take care of me and never forget me in a crisis) and listened to a first-hand report from my friend Chris, who had quickly arrived at the scene of the Red Cross car (actually ambulance) bombing. There were a total of eight explosions on Monday morning—luckily, miraculously, no private Americans were injured or killed. In fact, no private Americans were injured or killed in the Hotel al-Rashid bombing. However, one military officer was killed and four civilians were injured.

I became the only woman living among hundreds of Florida National Guardsmen in a very nice fortress-type building.
I went back to the al-Rashid on Monday afternoon to retrieve the rest of my things from the hotel room. The only thing I lost in the bombing was my World Space radio, which was on the window ledge connected to a small satellite antenna. As I looked out the window, naively thinking my radio might be on the ground below it, I saw a round hole in the concrete overhang over my bulletproof window (the al-Rashid was built by Saddam to withstand quite a beating). It turns out that one of the 20 rockets that slammed into the hotel hit my window overhang but did not detonate; it blew open the window (which was good because it otherwise would have broken) and shattered the glass in the other windows. Everything else in the room was perfect except for a layer of gray dust—amazing! I've never felt so lucky!

So I'm now resettled into the Convention Center (the envy of others who are still in the basement of the palace) and am ready for anything! It's going to be a rough few weeks—there's been at least one bombing each day so far, and people in town are pretty scared. I've told my staff not to come in on Saturday and Sunday and am going to take it easy for the next few days just in case something big happens. Luckily, I have the Global guys who call me several times a day, and tell me if I need to come stay with them (which I did several times). I must admit that I rather like having men with guns around!

So, I was very ready to board the plane on Nov. 19 for a brief R&R and take a nice break from the excitement! I have a new appreciation, though, for what it's like for you all on this side of the world as I am now worrying about everyone I love and care for back in Baghdad. I realize that I can't just leave Baghdad behind, even for a few weeks of R&R!

P.S. Check out my updated Web site: http//www.geocities.com/bethapayne/ usconsulbaghdad/BaghdadBlues.htm —I put in a photo of my new room. I promise to take more photos!


Republished from the Foreign Service Journal, Jan. 2004, by permission of the author and the Foreign Service Journal.


Beth Payne is the U. S. consul in Baghdad. An FSO since 1993, she has served in Kuwait, Tel Aviv, and Kigali. On Nov. 24, 2003, she received a Superior Honor Award and an Award for Heroism for her service in Iraq.

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