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A Woman’s Military Embed Guide: What to Forget – And Not Forget

Photo by Larisa Epatko

BAGHDAD — First, accept the fact that you’re going to feel skuzzy from the moment you alight from the helicopter in a cloud of dust at some remote U.S. military base — windblown, sweaty, and gritty.

For supplies, just think camping trip without the camp fire (though you may see fire of another sort).

You’ll get a bare bones packing list like this from the U.S. military (personal tips in italics):

  • Body armor (with lots of pockets) and combat helmet
  • Ballistic glasses, long sleeved shirts, earplugs and fire resistant flight gloves for chopper and MRAP/Humvee rides
  • Well broken-in hiking boots
  • A neck-wearable credential pack with clear plastic front. (Handy for stashing cash and a credit card, too)
  • All necessary medications, sunscreen, toothbrush, etc. — and shower shoes (flip flops will do)
  • Sleeping bag, towel, soap and TP “if desired” when sleeping “outside the wire.” (For nights on base, the contractor-built communal bathrooms are stocked)
  • Flashlight with red light cover (go for Surefire – all the Army folks carry them)
  • A head lamp (for those late night latrine runs)

But what they won’t tell you is more important:

Forget the pocketbook. You don’t want anything in your hands when on patrol or moving on choppers. Ditto life on base. Soldiers carry their weapons into dinner at the DFAC (the affectionately acronymed dining facilities on bases).

But you can’t take in a bag of any sort — no satchel, fanny pack or backpack. The reason is deadly serious: the threat of suicide bombings. A large billboard greets diners at the DFAC on the Marez base near Mosul, where we stayed. It honors 22 — including 14 U.S. soldiers — who perished in a lunchtime suicide explosion there just before Christmas in 2004.

So you must carry everything essential on your body, day and evening.

You will need:

  • Pants with pockets, lots of them, for your reporter’s notebook, pens, U.S. cell phone/BlackBerry/e-mail device, local overseas cell phone, mini-camera, Flip mini videocamera, business cards, neck scarf and any item listed above that you’ll need during the day (sunscreen, earplugs, gloves, a compact, protective lip gloss). Yes, it will add 10 pounds to your silhouette, but get over it.
  • A body armor model (if you get to choose) with equally large pockets for same, plus loops from which to dangle small and large D-rings, so you can festoon yourself like a Christmas tree with the items you need at the ready.
  • A comb short enough to fit into a pocket for a quick hair repair when you take your helmet off your matted, sweating head.
  • Enough long-sleeve shirts, T-shirts and cargo pants to have a clean set every day — or shampoo to wash them in the basin at night. Trust me, there’s no Day 2 for clothing in this environment.
  • Mini Coleman lantern for bedside reading
  • A book (mine is “Churchill’s Folly: How Winston Churchill Created Modern Iraq,” but for escape bring a novel or poetry)
  • Your own squishable down pillow and pillow case
  • Finally, one nice outfit (pressed blue or black jeans, pressed shirt) in case the base commander invites you for dinner. Even if he doesn’t, for one night in the DFAC, you may just feel like treating yourself to appearing in something that isn’t the color of dust.

See all of the NewsHour team’s reports from Iraq.

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