Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Every day, Iraqis stood in line outside the north gate of the coalition’s sprawling headquarters in Baghdad, waiting to report to work inside the heavily fortified compound. Sometimes, the line was nearly a half-mile long, but there were no complaints.

The checkpoint was a routine adventure, except for the day in January when a bomb exploded near the gate, killing 24 Iraqi workers. For the first time, terrorists had struck close to the heart of the U.S. authority in Baghdad, hitting a checkpoint near the isolated buildings that housed the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

“There was fire and mangled wreckage everywhere,” said Kristi Clemens, then the newly named spokeswoman for CPA Administrator L. Paul Bremer. “The explosion could be heard for miles, and the smell of the smoke spread quickly across the Tigris River and into the center of Baghdad.

“But the very next day, the Iraqis were back in line, standing at the same checkpoint, ready to report for work,” she said. “I asked them why they had come and if they weren’t afraid. They were, but this was more important. They said now they can work, and this was their freedom.”

The early morning blast was caused by explosives in a vehicle near the gate where security guards checked the credentials of the Iraqi workers. The area was sealed off quickly by armored vehicles and U.S. troops in combat gear, but was reopened the next morning to a waiting throng of Iraqi workers.

Ms. Clemens, whose Iraqi assignment began in December and lasted through June, is now assistant commissioner for public affairs at U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in Washington.

But her experiences in Baghdad are never far from her mind and play an integral role in her new assignment of getting the message to the American public about what CBP is doing to protect the country from terrorists and their weapons of mass destruction, she said.

“The experiences in Iraq gave me a sense of urgency,” she said. “I saw firsthand what the terrorists can and will do, and I feel compelled to do what I can to use the talents I might have to better tell the story of how we are protecting this country.”

Ms. Clemens is one of only two recipients of the Joint Civilian Service Commendation Award, personally signed by Mr. Bremer for what he called her efforts at “opening and bridging the lines of communication with Iraqis, the media and the global community.”

With a large color photo of the World Trade Center towers on the wall just across from her desk to remind her of “what we do and why,” Ms. Clemens said several life-changing experiences in Iraq “come into play every day, reminding me that while terrorists need to be right only once, we have to be right 100 percent of the time” to protect against a new attack.

“But America is safer today than it was before September 11 because of what we have done to defend our borders and what we continue to do,” said Ms. Clemens, an Air Force brat whose father, Lynn Egbert, was a pilot and mission commander.

A graduate of Michigan State University with a degree in political science, she was an associate administrator at the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) at the Department of Transportation in Washington when she received a call last year from the White House asking whether she would be willing to go to Iraq to help explain the coalition’s mission.

“I didn’t hesitate for a second, even though there was no guarantee I would have a job when I returned,” she said. “It was something I wanted to do, and I just couldn’t turn it down.”

But telling her parents was a different story; she waited nearly a month before heading home to Michigan — on Halloween — to tell Dad and Mom.

“They were very concerned, although they tried to hide it. But, as always, they were very supportive,” she said.

Within days, she was off to London, where she watched the Dec. 13 capture of Saddam Hussein on television at Heathrow Airport — “I couldn’t believe I wasn’t there yet” — and then on to Kuwait, where she underwent three days of training and was issued her flak jacket, gas mask and combat boots.

A C-130 military transport took her first to Mosul and then to Baghdad, where the plane made a nighttime landing at Baghdad International Airport. She was taken, under heavy guard, to Saddam’s marble-floored Republican Palace, which had been turned into the headquarters of the U.S.-led coalition in central Baghdad’s heavily fortified green zone.

It was there that she was introduced to the “green room,” the press office inside coalition headquarters with its plastic chandeliers, floor-to-ceiling windows, small cubicles and rows of desks where as many as 100 people worked. She also was taken to the rows of trailers at the so-called “Riverside Villas,” where she was to live — surrounded by sandbags and concrete mazes and guarded by military personnel.

She and three roommates called one of the trailers, just three rows up from the Tigris, home for the next six months, sleeping on metal-frame beds “with wafer-thin mattresses” and living out of metal footlockers.

“Fortunately, we only spent about four hours a night sleeping there, so it really wasn’t that bad,” she said.

Every once in a while, a loudspeaker set up near the trailers — which became known as the “giant voice” — would sound an alarm, instructing everyone to take cover.

“We would grab our helmets, flak jackets and get under the bed,” Ms. Clemens said — except when jet fighters flew over the compound. “I love airplanes, so I would go outside to see them and find out what was going on.”

The workday began sharply at 7:30 a.m. As the director of public relations and senior liaison to the coalition, Ms. Clemens’ job was to work with various Iraqi ministers and members of the community to tell the story about how Iraq was being rebuilt.

At the FTA, she had been trained on crisis communications and trained others how to get information quickly to the public in an emergency about what was happening, why and what they could do in response. It was valuable preparation for her experiences in Baghdad.

At first, she and those who worked with her traveled unescorted looking for “human-interest stories,” grabbing available military press officers, vehicles and photographers. The unrestricted travel continued until February, when “the incident” occurred.

“We were in two vehicles when we got lost and had to backtrack to find our way,” she said, the smile that had dominated the interview slowly disappearing. “Suddenly, there was an explosion between the vehicles, blowing out the windows and sending black smoke everywhere. We sped out of the area as fast as we could, looking for coalition forces.”

U.S. soldiers in Baghdad had seen the blast and came to investigate. The two-vehicle convoy had been targeted by an improvised explosive device, known in Iraq as an IED. They also are known as booby traps.

“I was angry, knowing that we should never have backtracked. It gives the bad guys an opportunity to target us,” she said, noting that the explosion killed four Iraqis in a nearby car. “After that, we never went anywhere without a personal security detail and a third vehicle with a machine gun.”

Her tour of duty lasted four more months, during which she continued to work on stories about coalition efforts to rebuild the country. She became an ardent supporter of Iraqi’s Olympic soccer team — the team gave her a signed game ball, which she displays on a wall in her office — and she was among 200 Iraqi men, women and children, including members of the Iraqi Governing Council, at the opening concert this year of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra.

“There’s violence and chaos every day, but Iraqi kids are going to school, women are gaining their rights, markets are flourishing and the people are going about making new lives for themselves,” she said.

“It was difficult for me to leave, although I was happy about getting to see my family again. Yes, I would go back in a heartbeat,” she said. “I truly felt honored to have witnessed history and been in the presence of such inspirational human beings.”

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