A Treat for The Troops: California Guardsmen Tour Saddam’s Palaces

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VICTORY BASE COMPLEX, Iraq – Soldiers from the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade (CAB) stationed at Camp Taji, Iraq were rewarded for their hard work with a guided tour of historic sites on Victory Base Complex (VBC), the Baghdad headquarters of U.S. Forces-Iraq (USF-I).

“We were trying to find a way to recognize the Soldiers for all of their hard work,” said 2nd Lt. Sarah Cooley, 40th CAB adjutant and a resident of San Luis Obispo, Calif. “All too often, Soldiers who come to Iraq never get to see anything outside of their office, so we figured this would be a good way to reward them and let them see a little bit of the history of the war, too.”

Spc. Andrew Goodall, Spc. Ryan Stevens and Spc. Andrew Gaspar prior to starting their tour of some of the historic sites on Victory Base Complex, Iraq.
(Left to Right) Spc. Andrew Goodall, Spc. Ryan Stevens and Spc. Andrew Gaspar pose for a picture prior to starting their tour of some of the historic sites on Victory Base Complex, Iraq.

Once the plans were set and everything was good to go, the decision on who to send was left up to the Soldiers’ command, said Lt. Col. Raymond Watts, a native of San Jose, Calif. and the 40th CAB liaison officer to USF-I.

Eighteen Soldiers were selected for the trip. They woke up early the morning of May 4 and loaded up onto two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. For many, it was their first time leaving Camp Taji since arriving in February.

“I haven’t had the chance to leave the base and actually see what Iraq looks like because I arrived at Taji at night,” said Pfc. Rolando Zapata, an aviation operations specialist for the 40th CAB from Sacramento, Calif. “I enjoyed the flight a lot. We were lucky enough to fly with the doors open on a clear day. I could see for miles all around.”

Upon arriving at VBC, the Soldiers were bused to Saddam Hussein’s Victory over America Palace where they were given a guided tour by USF-I personnel. The palace was still under construction when it was hit by a bomb in the opening stages of the war.

“It was awesome to see were the bomb hit the building,” said Zapata. “The tour guide was very knowledgeable, and walked us all around the building explaining everything as we went along.”

They next toured the Ba’ath Party House where Saddam is known to have murdered people, sometimes allegedly for his amusement. Also on the tour was the largest palace on VBC, the Al-Faw Palace, which Saddam intended to use as a site for major meetings with foreign delegates after its completion in 2000. It was taken over by American forces in April 2003.

Soldiers from the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade take a tour of Saddam Hussein Victory Over America palace, bombed in the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Soldiers from the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade take a tour of Saddam Hussein’s Victory Over America palace, which was bombed in the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“When I walked into the Ba’ath Party House, I got shivers down my spine,” said Sgt. Maria Rosario Chua, brigade paralegal noncommissioned officer in charge for the 40th CAB, and a native of Hacienda Heights, Calif. “Just being in a place like that, where so many innocent people were killed by Saddam and his people… It just feels weird.”

“When we toured Saddam’s palace (Al-Faw Palace) I was in awe with all the attention to detail in the stone work,” said Spc. Alfonso Contreras, air mission request processor for the 40th CAB, and a native of Fresno, Calif. “There was marble everywhere.”

With the trial run of the 40th CAB reward program being a success, it is hoped that a trip like this will happen every quarter for those Soldiers who stand out due to their hard work and dedication, said Cooley.

“My favorite part of the whole experience was getting to spend the day with my fellow 40th CAB Soldiers,” said Watts. “Having them here and getting to share in this experience with them, it makes me happy to see them happy.”

The 40th CAB is an aviation brigade consisting of National Guard, Army Reserve and active-duty Army units from 22 states. With more than 3,000 personnel and 250 aircraft, the brigade is providing full-spectrum aviation operations in Iraq in support of Operation New Dawn.

Saddam Hussein Al Faw Palace, now HQ for USF I.
Saddam Hussein’s AlFaw Place, now the headquarters for USF-I (United States Forces – Iraq) located on Victory Base Complex, Iraq.
Spc. Andrew Goodall takes a picture of the impact site where a JDAM hit the Victory Over America palace
Spc. Andrew Goodall takes a picture of the impact site where a JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) hit Saddam Hussein’s Victory Over America palace in the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, accompanied by Pvt. Claudia Marquez during their tour of some of the historic sites located on Victory Base Complex, Iraq.
Pvt. Claudia Marquez stands in a room inside Saddam Hussein Victory Over America palace while on a tour of historic sites on Victory Base Complex, Iraq.
Pvt. Claudia Marquez stands in a room inside Saddam Hussein’s Victory Over America palace while on a tour of historic sites on Victory Base Complex, Iraq.
A view from the Baath Party House on Victory Base Complex, Iraq.
A view from atop the Ba’ath Party House located on Victory Base Complex, Iraq.

By Spc. Darriel Swatts