After spending time in Iraq in June of 2003 as a correspondent for Fox News Channel, there was a story I couldn't tell when I got back home. With our combat troops now out of the country, I'm sure it's safe to share now.
One afternoon, after a full day of reporting and sending stories back to New York, I was sitting out at the pool of the Baghdad Sheraton. This wasn't the kind of Sheraton you would find in New York or London -- in fact, Sheraton didn't own it at all. Saddam had taken control of it after the Gulf War in 1991, and it had become a rundown hotel living on its faded glory as a tourist destination in the 1980s. The electricity, already spotty in a city familiar with rolling blackouts, could be jury-rigged by the hotel staff to get power to certain rooms. But air conditioning was still a wishful thought.
The hotel was the tallest building in Baghdad, and since it provided housing for many journalists after the invasion, it became a popular target for Iraqis who wanted to send a message that Westerners were not welcome. It was hit so many times by various munitions that it eventually became nicknamed the "missile magnet."
Hanging out at the pool was a well earned respite from the pressure of turning work around for New York, and a perfect place to deal with 118 degree temperatures. The peaceful environment sat in an odd juxtaposition against the reality around us. If you got on your tiptoes and looked over the walls, you could see the tanks, troops, and concrete barricades that lined the street just outside our hotel.
A couple of photographers and a field producer traded stories during a well earned moment of relaxation, and they told me about an Iraqi man who was arrested by Coalition forces, only to end up working for them as an electrician. My ears perked up.
Here's what they told me. An Iraqi man was arrested by American soldiers for illegally selling generators on the black market in the days that followed Saddam's overthrow. Electricity was scarce, and the man was trying to provide for his family the best way he could. He wound up in the brig.
A couple days later he was released and told to stop the illegal activity or his next stay would be longer. But the morning after his release he showed up at the gates of the compound again.
"I need a job," he said. "I want to work for you."
The American soldiers looked at each other. "What can you do?" they asked him.
"I'm an electrician." They opened up the gates and welcomed him into their midst. They nicknamed their new electrician, "Sparky."
This was a story I had to do.
The next day we headed out to the former American military compound to do the story.
"We want to interview Sparky," we told the guard at the gate.
"He's not here," we were told.
"Can we talk to somebody about him?"
After waiting a tense twenty minutes, we were finally shown into the building. It was like a choir singing from above - I had hit the jackpot.
To my left were about a dozen American troops sitting on a couch watching television.
On the screen was Fox News Channel.
On the floor behind them, fixing a fan, was Sparky.
On the wall in front of me was a sign that read, "Employee of the Month: Sparky" Beneath it was his picture.
I had hit the Fort Knox of feel good stories. All I needed was a sound bite from Sparky -- interpreted from Arabic into English by my field producer -- a couple bites from the soldiers on what a great guy he was, some cover video of Sparky at work and the soldiers watching Fox and I would send back to our New York headquarters the Mother of All Positive War Stories.
After five minutes, a sergeant came out and said, "Sorry, can't do the story. It's a legal problem. The lawyers won't let us."
I thought to myself, how in the world would a sergeant in the middle of Iraq have lawyers?
"But we have lawyers too," I said. "I'm sure we could come to an agreement on what would work."
"Sorry. Can't do it," he said.
"And in the future," he continued, "you need to talk to Brigade headquarters to clear any stories you're going to do."
I quickly stopped my photographer, who had already started to shoot cover video. His quizzical look must have mirrored my own. After thinking for a moment, something struck me.
"Sergeant," I said. "The brigade doesn't know about Sparky, does it?"
He hemmed and hawed for a moment, then admitted, "No, they don't."
"And if they find out about him, they'll call you up and say, 'Who the hell is Sparky?'
"And," I pressed, "You'd have to get rid of him, wouldn't you?"
He nodded his head reluctantly, "Yeah."
That was the moment it became the story I couldn't do. I watched Sparky working on the fan, completely oblivious to what was going on ten feet away. He had risked everything to provide for his family, a good story -- even a very good story -- that would last two minutes on television half a world away sure wasn't worth ruining this guy's life.
As we were leaving, there was one nagging question left to complete the picture. I asked the sergeant: "If the higher ups don't even know about Sparky, how does he get paid?"
"We all pitch in a little something."
I've often thought about Sparky since then. Does he still show up at work every day, seven days a week? Did his unit pull out and move on to another assignment? I don't know. I don't want to know. Because for that moment, frozen in time, it was the best of Iraq, and the best of America. The way it could be; the way it should be. And I like to keep it pure in my mind.
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