VICTORY BASE COMPLEX, Iraq – A San Jose citizen soldier witnessed the final days of America’s eight-year conflict in Iraq from within the ornate halls, offices and conference rooms of the Al-Faw Palace in Baghdad.
Over much of the past year, the California Army National Guard’s 40th Combat Aviation Brigade has commanded more than 259 rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft that have been performing full-spectrum aviation operations across the Iraq Joint Operations Area.
Lt. Col. Raymond Watts, a California Army National Guard CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopter pilot, worked out of an office on the third floor of the Al Faw Palace where he served as a liaison officer for most of 2011. Watts acted as the intermediary between the 40th CAB and its higher command, called United States Forces-Iraq.
“This has been the center of gravity for United States Forces-Iraq,” Watts said, shortly before his tenure at Al Faw Palace came to an end. “It has been interesting working here, to say the least.”
Al Faw is a massive structure that dominates an island set in a man-made lake on Victory Base Complex in Baghdad. The palace was built by Saddam Hussein, but was taken over by U.S. forces in 2003 and became a headquarters building for USF-I.
For the past eight years, the halls of Al Faw were walked by some of the highest ranking personnel in the American military and government. Full-bird colonels could seem as numerous as sergeants on the bridge that led to Al Faw’s arched entrance-way. Generals were a common sight under the huge chandelier that hangs above the palace’s expansive rotunda.
When units needed to move equipment and personnel across Iraq by air, Watts was the man in the middle who coordinated aviation missions with his brigade and the USF-I aviation staff at J33 Air.
“I act as a subject matter expert on the deployment and use of rotary-wing assets throughout the area of operation; and, I coordinate a lot of the lift and the movement of those assets with the J33 air director,” Watts explained.
Watts has been serving as a part-time soldier with the National Guard for the past 31 years. For 15 years, he worked as a technology sales group manager in Silicon Valley while flying Chinooks one weekend a month and two weeks a year with the Guard.
But in 2008, the technology company he worked for eliminated his sales group, and his 15-year career in the tech industry came to a halt. He then took a full-time position in Stockton, Calif., as a National Guard CH-47 helicopter facility commander, filling in after the previous commander deployed to Iraq.
In 2011, it was Watts’ turn. He said goodbye to his wife and three children and left his home in San Jose for Baghdad, arriving at the Al Faw Palace early this year.
Watts said his children are somewhat enamored by the idea of their dad working in a palace. “But being away is hard,” he said. “Granted, there are some luxuries and benefits working in the palace, but it’s the distance that’s been the challenge.”
Driving golf balls into the lake from palace balconies, rubbing elbows with America’s most influential and powerful people, and enjoying some of the Army’s best dining facilities were a few of the amenities. But incoming mortar rounds were not uncommon and served as a reminder that hostile forces were still out there.
Watts said one of the most memorable aspects of the deployment was participating in the air movements of distinguished visitors to Iraq. In 2011, the 40th CAB was responsible for transporting former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, his successor Leon Panetta, Vice President Joe Biden, Speaker of the House John Boehner, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, and others.
“Any time dignitaries come, it’s always great to spend time with them and show them what’s going on from an aviation perspective,” Watts said. “We worked closely with the rotary-wing assets to get them where they need to be.”
Watts said he and Panetta had a lot to talk about, both being from northern California. Another memorable moment was driving Katie Couric to a heliport when she was in theater to interview Gates for 60 Minutes. Couric reminisced to Watts about her previous trips to Iraq, he recalled.
American forces are nearing the final stages of the drawdown in Iraq after eight years here. Watts has left Al Faw for the more austere and isolated conditions at Al Asad Airbase in Iraq’s western desert where he will finish out his deployment with the 40th CAB.
“We’re leaving on our own accord,” Watts said, shortly before saying goodbye to his palace life. “I am truly blessed to have had this opportunity to work with such a fine group of professionals. The staff here was the best of the best.”