Three months after 9/11, New York Fire Department chief Larry Connors flew to Afghanistan with a humanitarian aid airlift sponsored by the Diageo beverage distributing company and the U.S. State Department. Another firefighter, two New York police officers, reporters, and aid workers were part of the group. This past June, the same contingent of 18 people went to Baghdad to bring food and school supplies to hospitals and orphanages.
Connors, who recently retired from the Fire Department, said the State Department wanted them to visit the troops. “That was the best part of the trip. They were so glad to see us. They wouldn’t let us carry our bags. They wanted to know what’s going on in the States.”
Connors had an additional mission — to bring the June-July issue of Irish America to the 7th Cavalry, the first unit into Baghdad when the war began. That issue included a history of the legendary unit with its Irish roots and Garryowen theme. Connors, who had served with the unit in Vietnam, had been part of the story.
“When I got there,” Connors said, “I learned the 7th Cavalry had been sent up north.” Neverthless, the 124th infantry assured him that the magazines would get to the 7th Cavalry.
Connors and the others stayed with the 124th Army Infantry in the basement of a government building furnished with cots and couches. Connors and one of the reporters had been outside — where it was 115 degrees — when there was a sudden power outage. “It was a real challenge,” he said, “to find our way back into the basement.” He said bandits were constantly raiding the electrical system to steal the copper insulation. Compared with the Afghanistan trip, they were in a combat zone.
“There was a killing right outside the hospital,” Connors said describing a firefight that occurred while he and the others were inside. A doctor at the hospital told them that “We’re glad your forces came to get rid of Saddam but I’m afraid to drive my car to work for fear someone will put a gun to my head for my car. There’s nobody to complain to.”
When it came time to leave, the group could not get a military flight out of Baghdad so they had to drive across the desert for 12 hours in a convoy of five Chevy suburbans rented from Jordanians.
“The gas stations were primitive with no rest rooms,” Connors said. He told of a man who had been robbed at a gas station by bandits who shot out the tires of his car. “There were no police to protect you,” Connors said. “And we were unarmed.” ♦