A CAC is All You Need
While the danger was palpable, parts of my re-entry had been almost alarmingly easy. There were no visa requirements when I was going to Iraq as a contractor for USAID. At the airport, there was a separate area that handled US civilian and army personnel. That intake area seemed like an airport in another country. As I entered Iraq, I never saw an Iraqi official or passenger, which added to the elusiveness of being there. A Common Access Card, or CAC issued by Department of Defense was all I needed. The CAC I.D. card was the size of a credit card and within it, my photo, and some vitals had been micro chipped. No passport necessary. It always felt wrong; this is not how it ought to be and certainly a far cry from what it used to be. The early disregard for the country’s sovereignty was everywhere, but at BIAP, Baghdad International Airport, it was in your face.
Things change during a war, but I always thought if this many civilians were being processed and the C130 military transport planes were always full, some semblance of the reality of entering a foreign country should prevail.
The C130s are special planes to fly-in military personnel and troops; they could land on rough airstrips in danger zones and when necessary, perform the most difficult rescue missions. After getting off the uncomfortable and bare bones parachute seats of the C130s, I followed the other entering passengers who were directed to form two rows in a large makeshift tent on the other side of the airport. We were led to sit on aluminum bleachers that seemed to be plucked out of a local park; the bleachers were the kind used for spectators at baseball games. The metallic rows had made their way here and were a visual reminder that this is no ordinary airport.
I was entering what felt like an American military camp nowhere near Iraq and I was already feeling worried about the upcoming drive from the airport to the USAID compound.
There were no photos of Saddam at this makeshift airport. I followed the direction signs to get processed and every time I arrived, I had to remind myself that I was really there in Iraq with my other countrymen, the Americans. How strange for me and everyone around me that we are actually here. Years earlier when there was talk of it, I would never have thought it possible that thousands of US civilians and military would be here in Iraq as if we’d been here all along. My mother’s words echo in my head, “No one knows what God has written for them.”
A tall Hispanic Army officer paced back and forth whom I heard before I saw, “Welcome to BIAP,” he bellowed in a New York accent.
“State Department folks need to go over there,” as he pointed to the right. “Military, this way,” he pointed to the left and then went on to instruct the many security company personnel who are processed in another place.
He reminded us to keep hydrated and showed us where to find the stacks of bottled water, some refrigerated and others just piled in 6 packs on top of each other, dusty from their trip in from Kuwait. He collected the CAC cards that got processed and were then returned. Next I walked over with the others to an outdoor area where the bags are. As I walked to the exit, I saw the young Army men and women, really boys and girls, manning the different desks. There were always boxes of goodies from home lying around filled with everything from Girl Scout cookies, candies, teas and bibles to romance novels, Starbucks coffee, razors and candles. It’s all American stuff sent by Americans to Americans.
I grabbed my large bag; the only one permitted for a three-month stint and dragged it with difficulty across the gravel. There’s no paving at this facility to keep up with the military feel. No one checked anything.
With my CAC card hanging around my neck in a special holder that has to be displayed at all times and my bag- I walked over to another tent to await my ride on Road Irish…