Strange Bedfellows; War and Luxury Hotels
History is full of instances where luxury hotels have played an interesting and purposeful role during war and conflict, often taking on their own lore and legendary status. Some famous ones are The Commodore in Beirut, The Holiday Inn in Sarajevo, and The Al Rashid in Baghdad. During conflicts, these houses of hospitality become fortresses for journalists, staging bases for contractors, a refuge for those trapped in the battlespace, and a haven for spies and other agents. We even see movies and TV series that feature luxury hotels as the center point of a war story, like Hotel Rwanda and The Night Manager. My war hotel was a little different, but still had plenty of similarities. While not located in the classified war zones surrounding it, it was certainly in “the neighborhood”, as we often referred to Jordan’s vicinity to troubled areas. I think the trait that interests me the most about these special-circumstance hotels is that while the world outside crumbles, there’s an unusual air of tranquility inside. Much of this is perpetuated by the behavior of hotel staff, providing five-star service as if nothing outside its lobby entrance had any bearing. Not as strange as we might expect, two opposites occupying the same space, companions on a journey together. We see this weaved into life, tragedy and beauty, nightmares and dreams, all coexisting alongside one another, the strangest of bedfellows.
Dreams and Memories; The Boy and The Man
As a little boy, I enjoyed dreaming of what could be, casting myself into the future as I imagined it, rehearsing it over and over. Now as an older man, I do the opposite. I use memories as a time machine to revisit the past, to embrace the nostalgia, and replay experienced adventures in my mind. One such memorable adventure was tied to a hotel in Amman, Jordan, a set of circumstances that spanned a 12-year period between 2004-2016, while living in the Middle East during war and conflict. These circumstances placed me front and center, to watch and participate as conflicts unfolded in Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and finally Syria. While my professional role changed a few times during those 12 years, the hotel remained a permanent backdrop in my life. It became the nexus for so many experiences, even the most important, like those surrounding my wife and children. So, how did I come to find myself in a liaison with such a place? The answer begins with former members of a legendary special missions unit, known by many names but most commonly referred to as Delta Force. The unique circumstances and intriguing cast of characters weaved throughout this period of my life could’ve only been made possible through my employment with a company founded and operated by former members of this secret unit.
A Unique Situation Develops
It was late 2003, and I was a sergeant with the DeKalb County Police Department. For me, it had been an exceptionally chaotic year. Besides being disenchanted with some bureaucratic aspects of my current employment, a close friend was kidnapped and murdered (see story, “The French Connection“), and I had been mixed up in a deadly shootout with a bank robber. To top things off, it had been two years since 9/11 and a lingering feeling continued to visit me. One that ate at my gut, that I should be over there, contributing, involved somehow. Looking for options, I turned my attention to government contracting companies. Some in the media were calling these outfits, “Mercenaries”. However, the war had stretched the U.S. State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) thin, and they could not provide the necessary close protection for all the U.S. diplomats strewn around Iraq and other conflicts. With a larger protection mission than the U.S. Secret Service, DSS still needed to supplement its ranks with multiple private security contracts that would draw on the skills and expertise of mostly former special operations personnel. A new company stood out to me, but the information was very limited. One thing was clear, it was founded and managed by legendary commandos and I didn’t have the matching pedigree. This eventually drove me to reach out to an old friend I met while serving in the U.S. Marines many years ago. When I first met this guy, he was a police SWAT Team leader and I was a young Marine assigned as a Close Quarters Battle (CQB) Instructor. My fellow instructors and I were sent to Phoenix, AZ to provide training for local-area Police SWAT teams as part of Joint Task Force-6, a multi-service operation geared toward providing support and training for counterdrug operations. One of those SWAT officers would become a life-long friend, and through his past affiliations as a U.S. Army Special Forces officer, would go out on a limb for me 12-years later. It was through his personal recommendation that I got a shot to become a candidate for employment, and eventually join this mysterious new outfit.
After completing some tactical training and passing the required selection screening, I headed to Iraq with my company’s first wave of employees. We were en route to staff over a dozen U.S. State Department contracts, where we would be providing protection and security to U.S. Diplomats forward-deployed in all corners of the country. The adventure began even before setting foot in the hot sands of modern-day Babylon. We first had to stop and overnight in the neighboring country of Jordan. For years to come, most entering the battlefields of Iraq had to first connect in Amman, remain overnight, then catch one of the few flights destined for Iraq the next morning or afternoon. Once we landed at Queen Alia Airport, a well-organized team of the company’s facilitators greeted us. They loaded us, organized us, and shuttled us to a five-star hotel in the city center. It was very late at night, but a magnificent meal awaited us in one of the large ballrooms. I don’t think I had ever indulged such a spread before. The act was a major morale boost and the company’s executives were also there to welcome us. After the delicious meal, many of us met in one of the hotel bars to unwind. As I sat there nursing a drink, surrounded by legendary men, I never imagined I would be right back in Amman a year later, managing all the Jordan operations on behalf of my company.
An Unpredictable set of Circumstances
The next day the logistical train cranked up and we were off to board a charter aircraft bound for Baghdad. It was an unusual flight as I sat in the passenger compartment flanked by fellow employees, some of who were hired as canine handlers and had their large Belgian Malinois sitting in their laps. Once on the ground in Iraq, we would eventually split up into small teams (Projects) and journey to our new work spots around the country. As the months went by, I transitioned between a few different projects. I eventually ended up in southern Iraq working on the protection detail for Basra’s U.S. Coordinator, the man we called the “Regional U.S. Ambassador”. A family emergency curtailed my Basra tour, and I returned to the United States.
After my departure, I learned my team’s motorcade was ambushed during a movement around the city. The lead vehicle, an armored Toyota Land Cruiser was hit by an EFP (explosively formed penetrator), a sophisticated explosive device. As a result, four of my teammates were killed. The news was a hard pill to swallow, and soon I felt the familiar urge to return, to be involved. I thought my premature departure from the project might jeopardize the chance of returning to the company. Serendipitously, I received an email from the big boss in Iraq, the program manager. He asked me if I wanted the job in Jordan, managing all operations there. I accepted the offer without a second thought.
De Plane!…De Plane!
Once I settled into my new role, I soon realized it was going to be one of the most unusual and interesting jobs I’d ever had. Let’s just say that it would have been very difficult to have written that job description and accurately captured all that it entailed without sounding like someone with an overactive imagination. From 10,000 feet, my job was to manage the company’s intermediate support operations that ferried personnel in and out of Iraq, sourced materials and equipment to support our Iraq projects, and identified training facilities that could be used to ensure our employees received necessary tactical training, that was contractually required by the U.S. State Department. But in reality, I often felt like I was living the life of something between Mr. Clark from Clear and Present Danger (quasi-Government Fixer) and Mr. Rourke from Fantasy Island (Passenger-Side Greeter), minus Herve Villechaize yelling “De Plane!…De Plane!”. However, if I could go back in time, during every plane arrival, I would totally steal Ricardo Montalbán’s signature phrase and turn to my local staff of facilitators, and say, “Smiles, everyone! … Smiles!“
While I utilized a number of hotels throughout Jordan’s capital city to support our operations, my primary was Le Meridian. The 5-star hotel was centrally located in Amman and completely self-contained. It had several restaurants, a full-service fitness center, and a top-notch staff to boot. My relationship with this hotel and its crew would span 12-years. Even after I left that company, I remained in Jordan on other projects and still maintained the hotel relationship. So much of my time was spent visiting the hotel that many of the staff became friends, even though they insisted on calling me “Mister CK“.
French in name only, Le Meridian was staffed with an international team of extremely hospitable professionals. All led by the general manager, a distinguished and well-dressed Austrian man, who could always be found somewhere on the main floors of the hotel. The hotel’s vast spaces were constantly beaming with activity and its expansive lobby was the heartbeat. A Dubai company managed the hotel’s full-service fitness center, spa and pool. So, many locals had memberships at the hotel gym, which ensured a constant stream of people navigating the lobby to and from their workouts. The concierge and valets remained in a constant state of motion, tending to what seemed like a never-ending flow of arrivals and departures. Then to top it off, you could always find the hotel greeter, dressed in traditional Bedouin attire, who welcomed you with a complimentary Arabic coffee or tea.
The War Draws out an Interesting Cast of Characters
My years of loitering in the hotel lobby insured a well-balanced diet of elbow-rubbing with clandestine soldiers, middlemen, royal family, intelligence officers, embassy officials, correspondents, and an international ensemble of intriguing characters. I use to enjoy sitting in the lobby, nursing an Illy Italian coffee and watching the production play out, like a casting call for some sort of stylish spy film. The lobbies of Amman’s hotels were known to be the preferred location of business meetings and chance run-ins. It was a common meeting spot for much of my own work and I often ran into someone I knew by chance. It was also known that every luxury hotel lobby came with the bonus feature of its own dedicated Jordanian intelligence agent, lingering in the shadows.
As I bounced around the hotel lobby, getting our employees situated and briefed for follow-on movements into Iraq or their return home, I would inevitably run into the Austrian general manager. He became a good friend and we often joined each other for dinner in the hotel, usually consisting of a well-prepared steak and a cold Bavarian beer. Amman’s luxury hotels were also the choice spot for Jordan’s extravagant weddings. Every weekend, a parade of wedding attendees would flood the lobby in the anticipated arrival of an elated bride and groom. Once they stepped out of their vehicle, traditionally-dressed bedouin drummers would fill the entire lobby with deafening celebratory music while the attendees clapped and sang. I rather enjoyed these sights, and as a stranger simply observing, I couldn’t help but feel like I had been invited.
Lobbies of Blood
On November 9th, 2005, I was finishing up work and sitting in the Le Meridian lobby. A wedding group soon formed and the standard routine of events followed; the gathering of attendees, the arrival of the bride and groom, and of course the celebration. Unbeknownst to us, tragedy was striking similar scenes less than 2 miles away, a series of suicide bombings. Our lives were spared that night based on nothing more than random target selection by a group of Al Qaida bombers. The coordinated suicide-bombing attack simultaneously hit three of Amman’s Western-brand hotels. Most of the 57 casualties were members of wedding parties celebrating in the lobbies of the Grand Hyatt and Radisson SAS. The third target was the Days Inn, but the suicide bomber got nervous and prematurely detonated, killing two Chinese nationals just outside the front doors. The next day, the news spread around the world. I left my apartment only to find the streets packed with vehicles and people, all standing in solidarity over the coordinated terror attack. People were hanging out of their cars chanting and waving Jordanian flags. An example of terror having an opposite effect. It galvanized the people, and they would get their justice in the end. The dark date of November 9th would revisit me one more time during my stay in Jordan. On the 10-year anniversary, a lone attacker would target the State Department program that I managed, infiltrating our training base and killing 5 of our colleagues. Two days, 10 years apart, that will always remain near the surface of my memories.
Scheming Middlemen and Rowdy Fijians
While there were routine actions that occurred every week, like airport movements and visiting training venues, days were often filled with unusual tasks and their fair share of drama. The hotel had become my second office and was where a lot of my problem-solving occurred. We were expected to execute time-sensitive problem-solving running in both directions, and there were always a thousand troubles lurking in the shadows. Some of these dilemmas were caused by double-dealing middlemen and facilitators that were hired to address them. These players could often become cutthroat and subversive. When clamoring for your business, they were friendly and accommodating. But, when they suspected you were shopping for better service and prices, they could become downright nasty. Suddenly becoming hell-bent on making your stay in Jordan more difficult. It was behavior that could best be described as passive-aggressive on good days, and worst, straight-up sociopathic.
One of the more comedic incidents at the hotel involved a group of Fijian-nationals. We were facilitating them out of Iraq and back to their home following a long security tour. I had gotten them settled in their hotel rooms and prepared to fly them home the following day. However, that night, it seems they were anxious to let off some steam and over-indulged, to put it lightly. I receive a frantic call from the front desk around 2 am. I was advised that a few of the Fijians were rowdy and destroying furniture in their rooms. I rushed to the scene and found a couple of sober Fijians trying to subdue and calm the rambunctious ones. If you are familiar with Fijians, you know they come in one size; “hulkish”. As I tried to deescalate the situation, I soon found myself in a wrestling match with one of them, flipping over hotel furniture and causing more damage. In the end, we got the Fijians home, paid for the damages, and nursed my sore muscles and ego back to health.
Nostalgia; A Life-Long Friend
Of all the great memories that occupy my mind about this hotel, one stands out as my absolute favorite. It’s the day I met my wife. It was right there at the Le Meridian where I would work up the nerve to approach the beautiful Palestinian girl who frequented the hotel’s fitness center. Years later, our kids would grow up playing in the lobby and swimming in the hotel pool. As horrible as war is, I often think of how my family would’ve never become without the unfortunate circumstances that led me to Jordan. It’s one of the reasons why I believe that the world has a way of producing good from bad, how light is born from darkness, how strength develops from hardship, and how even beauty can grow from tragedy. I reflect often on the “War Hotel” and the people of Jordan. The hotel is a component of my life, a chapter in my story, a time bursting with rare experiences and intriguing moments. Just as the boy dreams of his future, the man revisits his past, moments recorded that he can play over and over again. Like that of an American man sitting in a lobby, sipping a coffee, as the song “La Mer” plays ever so lightly in the background. His attention, captured by a beautiful woman. As she passes, the exchange of smiles marks the beginning of another wonderful adventure.