Baghdad, Iraq | Arrival Resistance

April 1978

My cohort at the American Consulate Karachi, Al, had warned me. Regional Communications Officer Bob Roberson was adept at “expanding” our scheduled trips once we got out in the field. Bob’s well-crafted messages not only exonerated him but put the onus on us techs.

Robertson’s message referenced the Office of Communication’s “Request for TDY Personnel in Baghdad.” The crafty RCO used OC’s message as reason to request a third CEO-R radio tech position at RCO Karachi while at the same time to emphasize what a fine job Al and I were doing. His short final paragraph was an action item for me: “Obtain Iraqi visa Damascus and Proceed to Baghdad ASAP.”

What were the chances of an OC tech from SECSTATE connecting on my flight from Athens to Baghdad and being seated next to me? I thought maybe Washington, in concert with RCO Roberson, had arranged it intentionally.

Joe M. was a veteran Crypto tech who I later learned was being groomed for an RCO position. Bob Roberson, over sixty-five, drank excessively although he never let it effect his job performance. Bob didn’t have to worry about OC personnel. He should be concerned about his health. Even BJ said the drink would catch up with him.

“Did you bring your shot record?” Joe said.

“Yeah. I brought it with me.”

“The word from the guys in Baghdad was that airport officials were administering smallpox vaccinations upon arrival if shot record’s aren’t up to date.”

Why wasn’t I told about all this? I retrieved my shot records from my briefcase. After gazing at the ink-splattered notations in the small book I shook my head.

“Let me see it,” Joe said.

He perused through the booklet like he knew what he was looking for.

“Your small pox vaccination expired last December.”

“Are you sure?”

He pointed at it and said, “You don’t want them giving you a vaccination here. They’ve been known ro reuse needles. No telling what disease you could inherit.”

“What do I do?”

“I can change the date from 1977 to 1978. You’re lucky, seven is an easy number to modify.”

“Okay, go for it,” I said, thinking that this skillset, along with his tough repartee conversation and chiseled mature look definitely qualified Joe M. for an RCO position. Although I had only known the guy for a couple hours I had no doubt he had mastered the Norm Bates’ 60/40 Hypothesis (for an upper echelon RCO position he may have already pushed the envelope to 20/80). Norm Bates, after many years of Foreign Service experience traveling to five continents and over seventy countries had come to the conclusion that our tech jobs were 60% technical and 40% social/political in nature.

“What do you think?” Joe said.

The seven had been altered but not enough to argue over. “I think it will work.”

“Don’t let the medical people at the airport given you any shit about it.”

“If push comes to shove I’ll tell them that I’m a Foreign Service Officer,” I said, “and that I demand to talk to an embassy representative.”

“I wouldn’t do that. We don’t have an embassy here.”

Damn. “Yeah, that’s right.”

“It’ll be alright. Just bullshit your way through it. If you run up against any resistance I’ll jump in and help.”

The lights all illuminated. We were preparing to land.

Joe was right. They were giving vaccinations at Baghdad International Airport. He went ahead of me and flashed his diplomatic passport. They waved both of us through without looking at our shot records.

It was during baggage checks where we ran into resistance. This time I went first and had no problem at all as I only brought a single piece of luggage that contained my personal stuff. They waved me through when they saw the black passport.

With Joe it was a different story. He had brought four heavy aluminum OC cases full of technical gear. The immigration officials (that were dressed like military guards) looked on suspiciously.

“Diplomat,” Joe said and waved his black passport.

The immigration guards looked at each other. The one with the large mustache pointed at one of Joe’s silver cases and said, “Open.”

According to international law and the Geneva Convention diplomats are supposed to be free of inspections at international borders. However, since the United States did not have an official presence (an embassy) in Iraq then I wasn’t sure what how it worked here.

Joe shook his head. He stood strong with his hands latched to his hips. The guards conferred.

The mustache said, “Give me your passport.”

Joe seemed to deliberate. He reached inside his jacket and removed something and placed it in the passport. I couldn’t see it from where I stood.

The mustache took Joe’s black passport and discussed it with the other guard. I could see that the passengers behind Joe were getting impatient. Things were a little tense.

The mustached guard returned to Joe and gave him a heavy gaze before handing him his passport with an unsatisfied grunt. The guard swiped his hand toward the exit.

Joe immediately pushed the squeaky handcart piled with the cases toward the exit where I stood.

“Let’s go,” he said.

Out on the street Joe flagged a taxi, a 1950’s Chevy sedan, and we loaded the cases in the large trunk. Joe handed the driver a card that had Arab writing on it. The guy nodded and as we took off I wondered how I would have gotten to the Belgium embassy without speaking any Arabic.

I suspected what Joe had given the mustached guard but asked anyway.

Joe said, “that fifty bucks is going on my travel voucher.”

I laughed.

WELCOME TO BAGHDAD, the huge billboard sign read in English.

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