Action News in Iraq (2004)

March 17, 2008 11:26:56 AM PDT
I'll never forget the day the second war in Iraq broke out in 2003. All of the media was stationed in neighboring Kuwait and all day some of us had been hearing rumors that something was going to happen that night. There were rumors of a surprise attack before the set deadline for the war to begin. Well, it most certainly did.

In the media carousel above, watch various reports from Action News reporter Dann Cuellar in Iraq in 2004.

But our network, ABC was caught off guard.

They cut to local news not realizing what was about to unfold. Our editors were also unprepared for the networks sudden cut to local news since they had assumed they had pre-empted local news.

Anchorman Jim Gardner scrambled to get to the news set. I know this may sound difficult to understand but a news cast had not been prepared.

Jim's only option at that point was to cut to me live in Kuwait and have me explain what was going on.

I didn't realize what was happening back in Philadelphia but I began to put two and two together when Jim Gardner continued asking me questions for what seemed almost half the show.

And I will never forget the morning in Kuwait when Saddam Hussein decided to retaliate.

It was early on a Sunday morning and I was in the ABC News compound on the top floor of the Sheraton hotel in Kuwait City. There were large glass windows behind the editor's desk and there was a lot of busy chatter in the room. But then, I saw a flash of light in the sky - brighter than the light of day - followed by a boom.

I noticed that people hadn't noticed and continued what they were doing. But since I covered the first war in Iraq back in '91, I realized a patriot missile had just intercepted a scud above us.

I yelled - scud!! Scud!! And people scrambled for their gas masks. Some people ran for the bunker downstairs in the basement, other's including me, Photographer Bob McCune, and Producer Brian Smith ran for our camera position on the roof. We all had our gas masks and chemical suits on.

We contacted our office in Philadelphia where they as yet had no idea what was going on half a world away - that Kuwait - was under attack. We ended up being the only local station on the air from Kuwait giving a play by play of the attacks, scuds could be heard in the back ground, most of them intercepted successfully by the Patriot Missile System.

It would turn out to be a very long day for us with little sleep and no food because the locals had fled for safer terrain in Saudi Arabia.

We were living on candy bars and sodas from the vending machines. Despite all the training we had had over the years for being in a war zone in a potential chemical warfare environment, it was so strange to see everyone walking around wearing gas masks and chemical suits with their cameras. The entire scene was surreal.

Of course, we were there to focus on men and women from our area. It was a very rewarding experience telling their stories to their families and others back home.

On a visit to Saddam's hometown in Tikrit, we stayed in one of Saddam's palaces, but first I want to tell you about the adventure of flying into Iraq.

We flew in a Navy cargo prop plane. Believe me; it was interesting if not harrowing flying into Iraq.

Because of concerns that insurgents would attempt to shoot us out of the sky, the pilots would fly erratically at various altitudes. And without warning they would dive to the levels of the cliff's that served as cover. Although we understood why they were doing this, it was very un-nerving.


In Tikrit, we stayed in a compound surrounded by a highly re-enforced wall which encased 27 palaces. The palaces were for Saddam and his minion's and even his mistresses. When I went into the main palace, I commented that I don't think there's any marble left in the world because Saddam had used it all. I mean, even the walls were made of marble, it was incredible. I have never seen so much marble, it was just room after room. And yet just outside the compound, people were living in poverty.

One day, we decided to travel to the town Of Samara about 20 miles south of Tikrit. You may have heard of it. I would soon learn what people meant when they say, 'they were so unnerved, the hair on the back of their neck stood.'

When we walk through the streets of Samarra, people scurried to close their doors and windows as of they were expecting a skirmish to break out.

You could feel the tension.

The Kevlar helmet and bullet proof vests did little to ease the un-easiness. I actually felt the hair on the back of my neck stand. It is something that has never happen to me before. I finally realized the old saying was not just a metaphor.

And then I understood how our men and women over there dealt with such fear on a daily basis.

They would joke around to break the tension. Laughter and light revelry can be the best antidote for being in an environment like that.

Never mind that we were right in the middle of the Sunni Triangle, and yet, I couldn't think of anywhere else I'd rather be at the time.

Let me just say that I have been humbled by the courage of our brave men and women over there. Someone once said to me, "for our freedom and yours".

Well, there cause is ours and our prayers and hopes should go out to them no matter how one feels about the situation in Iraq.