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Orlando Sentinel

Soldiers Marvel At Palace, Lament War

By Hilda M. Perez | Sentinel Staff Writer

April 16, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

It is a hazy, still morning, an ideal day to go sightseeing.

"Rivera, start the Humvee. We are going for a ride," Command Sgt. Maj. Chuck Medley shouts to his driver.

For a month, the armored-vehicle known as Pistol 7 has been a home-away-from-home for Medley and Spc. Sandy Rivera.

They have eaten, slept, cursed, laughed, reflected and feared for their lives in the sand-caked Humvee since the Army's 3rd Military PoliceCompany crossed the berm from Kuwait into Iraq at the start of the war.

Now 500 miles and one flat tire later they are about to take a ride to Saddam Hussein's airport palace, one of 46 the dictator is reputed to have owned.

10:30 A.M.

The road to the palace winds around a hill, surrounded on both sides by lush landscaping and a dense screen of palms and other trees.

The grand, multistory edifice was a house of fun for Saddam and his cronies, a place where they could swim, play miniature golf and even explore a naturepreserve.

For Medley and Rivera the palace is like a wonderland.

"This looks like a resort, sergeant major," Rivera says. "It's amazing. That guard house alone is big enough to be my house."

At the entrance, two stone stairways, looking as if they just came from the set of Citizen Kane, sweep up to a balcony four-stories high. The granite is trimmed with gray-blue marble, and there are carvings of small birds on the corners where the heavy slabs meet.

From the palace's flat roof the two menmarvel at the spectacular view, the acres of green lawn, the Olympic-size swimming pool, cabanas and a weight room. Off to the side is an empty field, apparently in the process of being cleared, possibly for a runway.

A stone archway leads to some smaller guest villas, and beyond a security wall at the foot of the hill there are the crumbling, thatched adobe huts where ordinary Iraqis eke out an existence.

The dozens of wooden doors throughout the complex are decorated with hand-carved leaves and flowers. Stone carvings, two stories high, cover some of the walls. One of the carvings depicts soldiers carrying a flag beneath an Arabic verse that says "never surrender and fight to keep the flag up. Make the enemy raise the white flag."

"Sergeant major, this is the stuff you see in movies," Rivera gasps. "These walls are amazing."

"Son, I'd like to see what the kitchen is all about, since I like to cook," Medley replies.

The bemused soldiers pass through an archway framed by a giant marble and gold eagle -- the Iraqi military emblem -- that leads to an atrium and gold-plated elevators. Gold trim is everywhere -- in the Arabic script on the walls and the towering dome in the center of the building.

About 48 hours earlier, looters had swept through the palace like a horde of ants, removing much of the furniture and personal belongings. Now, the cavernous spaces echo with the sound of boots on marble as soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division move through the rooms, securing the area.

"Rivera, this all belongs to the Iraqi people," Medley says in his Southern accent, lighting a Cohiba cigar as he and his driver stand at the steps to a balcony. "Here they were all living like . . . and he had all this comfort. All those huts in the shadows of this palace."

11:30 A.M.

A quick tour through another wing yields one of several large kitchens with commercial-size stoves and other appliances. The palace, like the rest of Baghdad, has no electricity, but the steel appliances gleam through the gloom.

A seven-story building at the back of the palace overlooks a man-made lake with a wooden bridge leading to a nature preserve. Birds wade unconcerned in the murky waters. Nestled along the lake are four guest villas, each withits own pool.

"It makes me think about the Iraqi soldiers eating those rice and dates while el presidente is living in a damn nature preserve," Medley says, recalling the sacks of rice and dates the company found at an abandoned Iraqi military installation near Najaf.

A banner of green hangs from the roof, the remains of a miniature golf course. Bedrooms, each with their own indoor pool, are filled with Victorian-style furniture.

"I was too busy walking around with my mouth hanging open to say anything," Medley tells Rivera as they walk to the Humvee.

"I know what you mean, sergeant major," Rivera says. "In a place like this . . . to have seen so much falling infrastructure and then to see this, it's just amazing."

3 p.m.

"See, Rivera, being a driver for the sergeant major has its ups and downs," Medley says. "But every once in awhile, like today, it's good to be the sergeant major's driver, son. You got to go into one of Saddam's palaces."

Rivera drives back to the airport, singing in Spanish and whistling a Puerto Rican-style rhythm.

"Son, there's a reason you didn't make it in Menudo," jokes Medley, referring to the Puerto Rican singing group.

"Sergeant major, 18 years from now, I will become a sergeant major and I am going to get me an Alabaman to be my driver," Rivera says.

Medley laughs.

8 p.m.

The sergeant major is perched on a folding chair. The sound of a giant C-130 transport plane taking off from a nearby runway momentarily drowns out his voice.

"Best part about the palace was that I got to smoke my Cohiba that my sister Sandi from New Orleans sent me," he says. "Going to give her the photo. She sent me the cigar and told me to smoke iton Saddam's lawn. So I did,on his front porch instead."

Medley and Rivera have hardly stopped talking about the wonders of the palace since they returned to the company's temporary quarters at Baghdad International Airport.

"I just talked to my grandmother. She wasso happy," Rivera says. "She said, 'Remember flaco [skinny in Spanish] to be safe, and you're my hero.' "

Rivera beams as he thinks about his "Illa" as he likes to call Emilia Ortiz of Puerto Rico, whom he loves "like a second mother."

"Going to the palace was amazing, but talking to my grandmother -- there is no amount of money or palace that can pay for that call."

April 15

For the first time since the American takeover of the airport, cargo planes, mostly C-130 and C-141s, will be allowed to take off and land during daylight.

This is not welcome news for members of the 3rdMPs, whose quarters in an old, one-story building that was once a flight school are less than 500 yards from the main runway. The roar of arriving and departing planes has kept them awake for nights, but at least during the day they could count on a respite from the shaking and thundering.

4 P.M.

"We've heard media reports on BBC TV that a general has announced that the war is over -- that 'all hostilities have ended,' " Medley says.

Rivera doesn't reply. He is asleep in another folding chair, a beat-up metal coffee mug in one hand, the other hand supporting his head.

There is a sound of an explosion in the distance, followed by a second, much louder, blast.

"What the hell was that? " Medley shouts. "It was very close. So much for the war is over."

Rivera sleeps on. Sgt. 1st Class Terry Ford of Lakeland remarks that a fly had just flown into Rivera's mouth.

The explosions turn out to be controlled detonations by the Explosive Ordinance Detachment.

8:30 P.M.

The moon is bright, but a thick layer of dust filters its beams. According to Iraqis, this is the way to tell if tomorrow will bring a sandstorm.

From the vantage point of his folding chair, Medley reflects on their month of war.

"I aged about 10 years getting all those vehicles stuck on the sand that night crossing the berm" from Kuwait into Iraq, he says. "It was a deciding moment for the company as we kept it all together and left no one behind."

He grabs a wad ofsnuff and tucks itinside his bottom lip.

"You always hear about war being hell and all that . . . and the glory of war. The Hollywood version, he says. But I tell you what, somewhere in the middle of this thing I decided what a dirty, dirty filthy endeavor this is.

"To see the price that people pay,it is unimaginable. When I go home, I will have this overriding feeling of what a terrible thing war is."

For the next few weeks, the company will be providing VIP and convoy security, directing traffic and escorting missions in and around Baghdad.

11:30 P.M.

Medley peers out around the building to get a clear look at the moon.

"It looks like it's almost a full moon. Just like a month ago when we were about to cross the berm. It seems like an eternity."

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