BAGHDAD — Sgt. 1st Class Rene Gonzalez spent his last Iraq deployment driving mounted patrols in Humvees outside Kirkuk Air Base. In 2004 and 2005, he spent most days seeking out improvised explosive devices and rooting out insurgents.
This deployment, the Idaho Guardsmen is living the high life.
He helps oversee operations at the Joint Visitor’s Bureau Hotel in Baghdad, Iraq. Based inside of one of Saddam Hussein’s old palaces, the hotel is located across a man-made pond from the Al-Faw Palace where U.S. Forces – Iraq is headquartered.
Because of its location, the hotel hosts the Green International Zone’s highest-profile visitors. Gonzalez has met Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen, cyclist Lance Armstrong and comedian Robin Williams.
Hussein built Al-Faw and the surrounding palaces as an elaborate hunting lodge. Nearby, he stocked the fields with exotic game for his hunting parties. The JVB Hotel features some of these extravagances such as marble toilets, fresco ceilings and elaborate chandeliers.
Outside on the hotel’s patio is a driving range with golf clubs. There, soldiers, most often generals, can work on their swing driving balls into the pond. Occasionally, the more avid golfers will drive balls against Al-Faw, Gonzalez said.
In the lobby, the hotel features a humidor stocked with cigars to be enjoyed outside and freshly baked cookies. It’s really the only way to travel in Iraq.
“I’d rather do this than something else,” said the Twin Falls, Idaho native. “My family likes it, too, because they know I’m safer doing this job.”
Before the deployment, the Idaho Guardsmen that staff the hotel received the assignment to the Joint Visitor’s Bureau but had no idea they’d be managing a hotel.
“We did all the normal training every unit goes through before getting here, all the shooting qualifications, everything,” he said.
Not all the Guardsmen with 116th Brigade Support Troops Battalion are working solely in the hotel. The soldiers with the clear radio chords streaming out their ears pull security for the hotel’s D.V. clientele.
“We make sure they are safe whether it’s traveling around the Green Zone or coming from the airport,” said 2nd Lt. Laura Newell, a personal security officer with the 116th.
Not too many hotels back in Idaho provide a personal security detail. Sure beats getting crammed into the transient tent.