Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Marlboro Man

I was traveling through the capital city of this Middle Eastern country with my interpreter "David". We were on our way to a downtown business building for discussions on Coalition communications. As the senior American representative in the meeting, I would be relaying to our host nation the needs of our U.S. Ambassador and necessity of these capabilities for military success. These meetings were often hastily arranged after a volley of phone calls from my office and the U.S. Embassy. Bottom line was that we couldn't do our mission without our host nation agreeing to provide us help, and that assistance was critical in helping another nearby country...Iraq.

Although I always took the appropriate security precautions of dressing in civilian attire and taking different routes off-base to navigate the precarious driving conditions that foreign cities present to American servicemen, I never felt completely safe and always used that apprehension to my advantage. "David" would do all the driving. This allowed me to continuously survey the landscape for potential choke points and threats. "David" is Iraqi and although his main job was to translate for me, I also preferred to use his knowledge of customs and courtesies to the max extent possible. We were in a neighboring country to Iraq, but "David" blended right in to the local population and having him drive would present us with the best possible face on our Land Rover.

Our meeting was to take place at 10:30 a.m. It was only 9:30 a.m. but I wanted to give ourselves some extra time to circumvent the morning traffic jams and always present fender-benders and ensuring arguments between drivers while everyone else honked at the impasse.

Three blocks from our meeting location I discussed with "David" our parking options. He said there would be a special, gated parking lot with a very few number of spots located at the very base of the high-rise building. "David" said that parking lot would be fully guarded and is reserved for only the high-rollers of the local government and business leaders. I told him that we needed to park inside that lot at all cost. I wanted to make our vehicle harder to get to and if someone really wanted to take out our Land Rover, that terrorist would also take out the vehicles of the prominent local leadership.

As we approached the guard to the secure parking lot, "David" and I knew we had our hands full. The guard immediately started waving his hand and sub-machine gun when we closed within 5 car lengths of his position. "David" stopped our Land Rover and began to talk very calmly with this guard. The guard replied to our request to park in the lot also in a calm manner. However, this guard wasn't about to let us in. No way. No how.

I whispered to "David" that I would call our host nation partners and insist on parking in this lot. Crap, no answer. Dialed our Air Attache at the U.S. Embassy....voicemail!! After leaving a quick message I tactically hung up but left the phone near my ear and kept talking to no one. But I constantly made eye contact with the guard. I wanted him to know I was still working this issue and pressure would ensue upon him. After about 2 minutes I hung up and quietly told "David" we had no top cover. "David" then blew a gasket and began arguing with the guard that this was getting raised to the Interior department within the government. He demanded to speak with his supervisor. I asked "David" about giving the guard some money and he said that wouldn't work in this situation. How about cigarettes? Hmmm. Maybe...

Just as the guard caught sight of the 3/4 full carton of cigarettes that emerged from beneath "David's" seat, he ended his conversation with his supervisor on the walkie talkie. With one hand reaching out to take the carton of cigarettes, the guard's other hand pushed the button raising the gate to the secure parking lot. We were in.

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