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. 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.
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. When I needed a haircut I'd walk down the block to an Iraqi barbershop that looked like something out of the Andy Griffith Show.
At a pizza parlor not far from where we use 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 a 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." 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 base — basically the world's most heavily protected pizza delivery service.
That world was brilliant, brief, and, is no more.
As the violence increased everything in Baghdad changed. The Americans became isolated behind barriers in the Green Zone and U.S. bases. All of Baghdad turned into 12-foot high concrete blast walls and razor wire that 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 commonplace.
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 militia on their street.
They're some of the most amazing people I've known. And through all of this they come to work everyday, and our bureau has kept running.
Working in Baghdad is a strange thing. You get accustomed to the long days and constant work. You learn to live with having no where to let off steam. The cycle is simple: wake up, work, repeat.
You weed through press releases and sit through press conferences, which seem at odds with the reality we — living 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. Read the fine print and make some phone calls, and you found 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 US 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 press releases are just plain strange: U.S. troops defuse an explosive device strapped to a donkey. I'm pleased to report the donkey was unharmed by the way.
Have I been harmed? I've come close. But after 21 tours my body and mind seem to have held up OK.
And while the marriages of a number of journalists and soldiers I know here have fallen apart, I managed to fall in love with and marry a beautiful bride.
I met Carrie just before I started coming to Iraq. She's supported me through four-and-a-half years of this.
My last view of Baghdad will be of the city by air. I will leave frustrated at that death of that golden era of pizza parlors and barber shops; frustrated with Iraqi's I've talked to who proudly say "we are all brothers," then take up arms against each other; frustrated with American military and civilian officials who stand up and say everything in Iraq is working, then when they leave write books about how everything in Iraq has failed and its not their fault.
And I'm pained by the number of people I've personally known who've been killed here: journalists, Iraqis and American soldiers.