18 Oct 2015

Sun, Sand and Armoured Vests

From Insight, 8:12 am on 18 October 2015

Accompanying the Prime Minister on a recent trip to Taji Camp in Iraq gave New Zealand reporters, more used to life in Parliament, a sneak peek into the life of a soldier.

Listen to Insight - NZ's Mission to Iraq

By day three, myself and the other reporters were becoming adept at donning our body armour, or in army lingo PPE (Personal Protection Equipment).

When we were first issued the cumbersome, beige-coloured armour we struggled to even get it the right way around.

But during the course of flights in and out of Iraq on airforce Hercules and American Chinook helicopters, and our visit to Taji Camp, we were throwing it on like pros, much to the relief of our army minders who previously had to help us with the various straps and clips.

We soon realised too that we had the bulky, rookie version, after enviously noting the sleeker types worn by the pros.

Primarily, the trip was for the Prime Minister to visit the 100 or so New Zealanders serving in a training mission in Taji Camp, north west of Baghdad, to show his personal support.

A camouflage painted armoured vehicle sits against a sunset

 An Australian armoured vehicle acts as a guardian angel for the New Zealand trainers. Photo: Pool Photo

Taking nothing away from the significance of that visit to the New Zealand defence force personnel, the trip at its core was a PR exercise, designed to show John Key suited and booted in military apparel, travelling to one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

From a media point of view, there were several restrictions.

We could not report the trip until the Prime Minister had left Iraq, so as not to create any security risk. However, that was stymied by the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who posted photos of Mr Key in Baghdad well before the embargo on the New Zealand media was lifted.

We could not take in any device that was 3G capable for fear of a New Zealand-registered device being tracked in Iraq.

Nor could we name or identify any of the New Zealand soldiers working in Iraq.

While we accepted the reasoning given - the soldiers and, potentially, their families back in New Zealand needed to be protected from any retaliatory attack - we did question why the Australians have no such policy, with reporters able to name and photograph their personnel.

Four Iraqi soliders in full kit and armed line up for photos.

Iraqi trainees at Camp Taji Photo: Pool Photo

All of that aside, it was fascinating to have a brief glimpse into the soldiers' lives.

At first we couldn't understand how the soldiers were able to nod off seemingly at will onboard the noisy Hercules, but, as with the body armour, we soon got knack too.

Richo, our Australian defence force media liaison, cheerfully warned us of the dangers of snakes, scorpions and wild dogs, noting many of the soldiers were somewhat disappointed not to have come across the huge camel spiders that inhabit Iraq - a disappointment not shared by the reporters.

And the mess halls deserve a special mention.  In the Baghdad base mess hall - which is also used as a meeting place for the hundreds of soldiers from different countries coming and going from Iraq - we had to take care not to trip over the dozens of soldiers' weapons tucked under their chairs while they ate.

Amid a no-alcohol policy at both the huge Baghdad hall and the slightly smaller one in Taji, there was food aplenty.

I ran with an American theme, tucking into collard greens, corn bread and Dr Pepper soda, followed by banana cream pie and strawberry shortcake.

There was a short-order stand, a salad bar, an international bar and a gyro (Greek style wrap) stand.

There is little else in the way of entertainment at Taji Camp.

One pleasant surprise was a funny little cafe - an oasis with a coffee machine and a guitar for the punters to play.

There is also a small selection of shops selling basic necessities along with Taji and Iraq-themed souvenirs; the Radio New Zealand office now has fetching blue Iraq lanyards.

There were a lot of questions about the security of the New Zealanders based at Taji, but it felt like the transport that flies in and out carries the most risk - on the approach to the camp in the Australian Hercules all of the lights were blacked out and the landing was fast and hard.

The Prime Minister and the delegation could not have got a true sense of the risk - they were surrounded at all times by elite SAS soldiers (As professional and pleasant as they were, at no time would they confirm they were special forces - but it hardly required massive powers of deduction to figure that one out.).

Building-high heavy concrete barriers

Blast protection barriers at Camp Taji Photo: Pool Photo

The camp itself, at 36 square kilometres, is vast and the New Zealanders live in a compound within the camp. During Richo's briefing we were shown the areas of Islamic State activity in the proximate area and given an explanation of how far into the camp mortars and rockets could reach, which we were assured was nowhere near the New Zealanders' compound.

On the ground for 26 hours, we got a mere taste of life at Taji Camp where as the novelty will have surely worn off for the New Zealander soldiers by the end of their six-month deployments.

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