STEVE ISNKEEP, host:
NPR producer Tom Bullock has spent much of the past four and a half years covering the war in Iraq. His first tour there began just after the U.S. invasion in 2003. This month he completed his final tour. It was his 21st time there, which is enough time to see the dramatic ways the country and the war have changed.
TOM BULLOCK: The first thing I saw in Iraq: an American soldier lounging in a plastic lawn chair. He was manning a checkpoint on the Iraqi/Jordanian border and I was speeding past in a Chevy Suburban, trying to get to Baghdad as soon as I could. It was just after the invasion, and this was the golden era - or at least that's how it seems now.
(Soundbite of music)
BULLOCK: We worked our butts off. But looking back now, what I remember most is how we spent our down time. I found time to swim safely across both the Tigris and Euphrates - though not on the same day. And when I needed a haircut, I just walked down the block to an Iraqi barbershop that looked like something out of "The Andy Griffith Show."
The reason for this Glenn Miller song? A pizza parlor not far from where we used to live. There was a piano and an Iraqi-Armenian who had an amazing ear for music. You'd walk in and he'd hand you this dog-eared copy of the songs he could play and demand you make a request. He spoke almost no English and the song titles showed it. "Fly Me to the Moon" became "Fling Me at the Moon." And this song, TD's "Boogie Woogie," morphed into "CD Buggle Woggle." Whatever the name, the guy could play and the pizza was great.
On a regular basis, American troops would show up there to buy dozens of pies to go, then throw them in the back of their armored vehicles and drive them back to their bases. Basically it was the world's most heavily protected pizza delivery service. That world was brilliant, brief, and is no more.
(Soundbite of music)
BULLOCK: As the violence increased, everything in Baghdad changed. The Americans became isolated behind barriers in the Green Zone and on U.S. bases. All of Baghdad turned into 12 foot high concrete blast walls and razor wire which spread through the city like kudzu.
Our reporting changed, too, dominated by stories of car bombs, insurgent attacks, and then civil war - millions of Iraqis fleeing and thousands dying as Shiites and Sunnis cleansed neighborhoods and bombed markets. Kidnappings became common. And I became a prisoner in our bureau.
To go out meant putting not only my own life at risk, but the lives of my translators and drivers as well. So we taught the Iraqis we work with our trade, and they became journalists. Our entire Iraqi staff is now made up of refugees; each one has been forced to flee his or her home and seek safety in another neighborhood, not because they work with us, but because they prayed slightly differently than the militias on their street.
They're some of the most amazing people I've known. And through all this, they come to work every day, and our bureau has kept running.
(Soundbite of music)
BULLOCK: Working in Baghdad is a strange thing. You get accustomed to long days and constant work. You learn to live with having nowhere to let off steam. The cycle is simple: wake up, work, repeat. You weed during press releases and sit through press conferences, which seem at odds with the reality we, living in the red zone, the real world, know all too well. Some of my favorites: a series of statements from the Iraqi government saying reconciliation is at hand. But you read the fine print and make some phone calls and you'd find out there's been a meeting to agree on a more important meeting on some unknown day in Iraq's very unknowable future; or the U.S. military saying Iraqi forces will be able to take over security in the country in 12 to 18 months. I've been told that regularly for the last three-plus years.
Some of the press releases are just plain strange, like U.S. troops diffuse an explosive device strapped to a donkey. I'm pleased to report that the donkey was unharmed, by the way.
Have I been harmed? I've come close. But after 21 tours, my body and my mind seem to have held up okay. And while the marriages of a number of journalists and soldiers I know have fallen apart, I managed to fall in love with and marry a beautiful bride.
(Soundbite of phone ringing)
CARRIE: Hi. How are you?
BULLOCK: I met Carrie just before I started coming to Iraq. She supported me through four-and-a-half years of this. And every time I was about to go back to Baggers, we'd listen to the same song.
(Soundbite of song, "Long As I Can See The Light")
Mr. JOHN FOGERTY (Creedence Clearwater Revival): Put a candle in the window 'cause I feel I've got to move.
BULLOCK: My last view of Baghdad will be of the city by air courtesy of a small royal Jordanian passenger jet. And I will leave here frustrated. I am frustrated at the death of that golden era of pizza parlors and barber shops. I'm frustrated with Iraqis I've talked to who proudly say we are all brothers, then take up arms against each other. And I'm frustrated with American military and civilian officials who stand up and say everything in Iraq is working; then when they leave they write books about how everything in Iraq has failed and it's not their fault. And I'm pained by the number of people that I've personally known who have been killed here: journalists, Iraqis, and American soldiers.
Now, for the last time, Tom Bullock, NPR News, Baghdad.