Getting to Saudi Arabia to cover the deployment of Utah Army National Guard troops was somewhat like the Wizard of Oz finding Dorothy a way back to Kansas.
Only instead of a tin man and friends, I was approaching the Wizard on behalf of the Deseret News and was accompanied by KSL executive producer Janice Evans and KTVX photographer Wayne Paige. We also were assigned a National Guard escort, which ended up being Capt. Tom Wharton, who is also an outdoor writer for the Salt Lake Tribune.It seemed the Wizard was hoping the pool of Salt Lake City journalists would fail in its attempt to win the necessary clearances and return with the proverbial witch's broom.
And the odds were in the Wizard's favor: Only several days were left before the Guard detachment's scheduled departure by the time the pool of journalists was assembled and told it might be able to accompany 14 Utah Army National Guard members to Saudi Arabia. That left little time to get visas from the Saudi Arabian embassy, which already was so overwhelmed with visa requests that applications were taking several weeks and even months to process. The other journalists and I also had to win permission from the National Guard Bureau at the Pentagon, the commanding officer at Fort Carson, Colo., where the Guard unit was getting pre-deployment training, and the field commander in Saudi Arabia that would ultimately be responsible for us when we got there.
Several things are certain: we wouldn't have been able to make the trip without the support of the Utah National Guard and hours of telephone calls to Washington by its public affairs office, which ultimately won approval for the trip from the National Guard Bureau. Getting the Saudi visas on such short notice required the hands-on work of Rep. Wayne Owens' office.
"Ah, the broom," I thought when I saw the Saudi visa, written almost entirely in Arabic, stamped in my passport. For all I knew the visa said I would be joining the foreign legion.
That was Friday, Sept. 7. The call to ship out came the next afternoon, and we left Salt Lake City Sunday morning.
The call turned out to be premature, which left us in Colorado Springs for almost a week - enough time to encounter plenty of "flying monkeys" who were less than enthusiastic about our following the guard unit. We were drilled on one sergeant's belief that all of the United States' problems with the Vietnam War were caused by the media. One officer questioned why we would go such a long way to cover the deployment of only 14 men and speculated that the 48-hour in-country time limit imposed by the Pentagon would give us too little time to accomplish anything.
More flying monkeys: typhoid shots in the arm, gamma shots in the hip, suggestions that having a woman in the press pool would cause problems, (keeping in mind repressive Saudi customs) and repeated warnings that we could be bumped off our military flight and left to find our own way home at any time.
Then there was bone-chilling training on the use of gas masks, protective suits and mustard gas antidote injections we'd have to administer on ourselves in the event of a chemical attack. Our gas masks were to remain on our person at all times while in Saudi Arabia.
But the yellow brick road ultimately led to the door of a C-141 Starlifter cargo jet that took us across the Atlantic and to the scene of the globe's most newsworthy event: Operation Desert Shield.
The delays in Colorado Springs helped us empathize with the difficulties the Guard members were experiencing after having to leave their families on short notice without knowing exactly when they would return. We grew more anxious each time a day passed without our knowing when we would leave. The delay meant I'd spend Sunday, my oldest daughter's 5th birthday, in a desert military encampment in Saudi Arabia - the third birthday of hers I'd missed because of an out-of-town work assignment. But that wasn't something to complain about to the Guard members, one of whom expected he would miss two weddings, his son's and stepson's, and the birth of his daughter's first child.
For all these men know, Thanksgiving and even Christmas may pass before they get to return home.
The sequence of events once we arrived in Saudi Arabia shrunk the amount of time we spent with the detachment from the 48 hours we were promised to 36 hours. But the cumulative effects of the heat and sand and nine-hour time difference made that 36 hours seem like a week and a half.
My red hair and fair complexion had me scurrying for shade at every opportunity where I used a roller to apply sunscreen from a gallon container. Even in enclosed cases, the blowing sand found its way into every opening in my lap-top computer and the camera gear I was carrying. I also came home with sand in my pockets, shoes, ears, wallet, watch and items in my luggage I haven't bothered to check yet.
I also noticed my Utah wardrobe had severe deficiencies when transplanted to the desert. The soles of my shoes were too thin for the hot, desert sand. My sleeping bag was designed to keep a person warm at temperatures 70 degrees below the conditions we slept in. And the 23-pound-bag of camera gear that usually is slung over one shoulder when I travel on assignment had to compete with the gun belt that carried my canteen and the gas mask.
Our presence with the unit surely was a burden. The group provided our transportation, field rations and even a space in their tent with a cot to sleep on. I helped pack and unpack duffle bags when I could, but I felt useless most of the time because my job was to document their work, so I usually was shooting pictures whenever there was any labor to be performed.
The media pool was accepted well by members of the detachment, who shared their frustrations about being away from home and explained their roles as a water-purification team. Getting to know these 14 men helped me put real faces on all of the troops I see in news broadcasts and in magazine and newspaper pictures. Hopefully the Deseret News' coverage of the detachment's first experiences in the Saudi Arabian desert has done the same for you.