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IRAQ: Trapped in Taqaddum with the Lioness

July 23, 2008 | 10:00 am

Doug_photo By Doug Smith, in western Iraq

If I was going to be trapped on a base with 4,000 U.S. service members, I ought to be able to find a story.

“Find the PAO,” I thought. The public affairs officer is the person in a military unit whose job is to get the good news out and to facilitate the work of embedded reporters. Facilitating can mean anything from vigorously assisting to artfully getting in the way, depending on the story and the reporter.

My search turned out to be something of an Arthurian quest. Suffice it to say after three hours of walking aimlessly and riding buses that seemed to be going nowhere I found 1st Lt. Lori Miller in an underground bunker inherited from Saddam Hussein’s air force. Taqaddum (an Arabic word meaning progress) was a giant air base built by the deposed Iraqi dictator.

A bright young woman from Indiana, Miller did a quick read on me and, despite my faux Iraqi facial hair, decided to open doors.

Her first offering was the Lioness. She was coming into the bunker’s makeshift sound studio to record a satellite interview with NBC. I could talk to her after the interview, Miller said.

Though feeling some qualms about poaching on a fellow reporter’s work, I thought it would do no harm to listen in.

The Lioness was Cpl. Nicole Estrada, a 22-year-old from Rancho Cucamonga. The sobriquet comes from the fact that she, along with a few dozen other women Marines on the base, volunteered to step into a combat role beside fighting men.

In Iraq the tradition of the male-only infantry has yielded slightly to the reality that every civilian, man or woman, is a potential suicide bomber. The Marines have set up highway checkpoints where they stop and physically search every person driving through.

A man, particularly an American in uniform, could sour these inherently tense encounters by just looking too directly at a woman, let alone patting her down.

So the word went out to the diverse branches that make up a base — administration, food services, motor transport and postal — that women were needed to team up with the infantry outside the wire.

Estrada_2 Estrada, a field wireman by training, stepped forward.

She received two weeks of training in search technique and the culture and language of Iraq. Then she joined an infantry unit.

In the interview, she told NBC’s Jay Blackman that she was not authorized to say where she was stationed.

I sympathized with Blackman’s efforts to elicit drama and emotion from a Marine over a satellite feed with a bad delay.

Asked why she chose to put her life at risk, Estrada said she wanted to interact with the Iraqi people, to see what their culture was like and how they lived. Nothing particularly scary or threatening had happened. She had done her job.

Estrada’s best line was an inadvertent double entendre, obviously unsuitable for broadcast. Asked whether Iraqis could see she was a woman in her military garb, Estrada said they could identify women by their hair, using the plural of the common three-letter word for the knot of hair many women Marines tie behind their heads. The whole office burst out laughing.

When my turn came, I decided to ask matter-of-fact questions.

Estrada said she joined the Marines because her father was a Marine.

“I really enjoy my time in the Marine Corps,” she said. “To be part of something my father was a part of is great.”

She told me her lioness assignment lasted two months. She worked at a checkpoint on the outskirts of a city searching  from 100 to 300 or more women a day.

The routine was to separate the women in a private area then stop them at a distance and ask them to lift their traditional flowing, black robes to expose arms and legs.

“If they had any wires on them, we would be able to see them,” Estrada said. “Then when we felt comfortable, go ahead and bring them over.

“We would start from the top of their heads, do their arms and work our way down. If they had any bags, we would pull everything out.”

Estrada said she was always aware that any woman approaching her could be a suicide bomber.

But in fact, she mostly had good experiences.

“These people here are very very nice,” she said. “You can tell that all they want is to live life, be happy and prosper.”

By performing a dangerous assignment, Estrada actually found her view of Iraq softening from the one that prevailed on the base.

“You hear about them, and everyone gets this mindset, ‘I hate Iraqis. I hate all Iraqis.’ But when I was actually out there, being able to talk to women and play with their children, it really changed the way I thought about the people and how I felt about this country.”

She hopes her presence had the same effect on Iraqis.

“I think by having the females out there, it shows that we’re not here to destroy everything, we’re not here to harm people.”

The Lioness had answered my need for a story, but I was still a captive of Taqaddum. It would take another day and another story before I finally caught a ride to Ramadi.

Top photo: 1st Lt. Lori Miller at work in her office bunker at Camp Taqaddum, western Iraq. Credit: Saif Rasheed, Los Angeles Times.