Wednesday, June 29, 2005


The 155 Artillery Howitzer Shell hidden in a tan burlap sack on the side of Main Supply Route “Cardinals” explodes, and blows jagged chunks of shattered molten steel thru the air at something close to the speed of sound. A heavy piece of twisted steel smacks into the armored HMMWV, leaving a thick crack in the front window. The gunner hunched down in his armored cupola behind the M240B Machine Gun receives the brunt of the blast. The concussive force knocks him briefly unconscious, and fragments of shrapnel and hot asphalt bounce off the inside of the blast shield, peppering the tan paint with smears of black tar and ash.

One vehicle and 100 meters ahead, the blast sounds like a high pitched whine followed by a low roar. It is a sound that I have never heard before and yet is somehow intimately familiar.

Inside the vehicle there is a stunned stillness and I unconsciously count three silent heartbeats before I key the Platoon Mike.

“IED! IED! IED! Give me an ACE Report!”

Surprisingly my voice is calm and belies the sudden flush of adrenaline that has flooded my body.

One by one my vehicles check in.

“White 1 is up!”

“This is White 3! IED! We are up!”

“This is White 4…. This is White 4…. We have been hit by an IED… I think we are okay.”

I can tell that White 4 is still a little shaken.

Above me, the machine gun begins to rock with a guttural roar, its 7.62mm rounds ripping thru a partially flooded field to the North, and tearing into a haystack.

Part of me records the comical scene of a herd of cows scattering at the shattering noise and site of bright red tracer fire tearing thru the field.

Thru a dusty windshield, I have a clear view of the lead vehicle opening up with its heavy .50 Caliber Machine Gun. The five inch shells tear out of the weapon with a series of low coughs that blend into a blur of sound and impact high up on the dirt berm bordering the road to the south. The berm appears to explode outward as the dense rounds impact and slice a line of steel into the dirt, a veritable explosion of dust and earth running from east to west.

“Alright stop in place! Anyone see the trigger man!?”

The HMMWVs come to a screeching halt and the smell of smoke and rubber filters in thru the air conditioner.

In response to my question, adrenaline pumped voices flood the net.

“Negative, no trigger man!”

Turning in my seat, I can see that the gunner in the trail vehicle, White 4, is firing his machine gun straight down the road.

“Sir! Our Gunner said that he saw someone jump up from the berm after the blast and get into a car! It has taken off west! He thinks the guy is wearing green pants!”


White 4 is engaging a vehicle down the road that is too far away for me to see.

Switching over to Battalion net, I send up a contact report.

“Thunder Oscar this is Warrior 2/6. We have just been hit by an IED! Grid Coordinates as follows: MR 3456 8235. No damage, no casualties. How Copy!?”

“That’s a good copy Warrior 2/6. Do you require assistance?”

Looking out the windshield I can see the other vehicles in my patrol. They appear intact, and the gunner in White 4 has ceased firing.

Looking up and down the road, there is not a car to be seen on a normally busy stretch of highway just outside of town.

“Negative Thunder Oscar, we do not need the QRF.”

“Roger, Warrior 2/6. No QRF. Be advised, Apaches are on the way, Call-sign Deathstalker 2/3.”
As the Battalion gives me the call-sign, an Apache streaks low over my vehicle, the thunder of its blades almost deafening at this close distance.

The Apache almost immediately calls me over the Battalion net.

“Warrior 2/6 this is Deathstalker 2/3. I have five fighting age males wearing OD green in a field to the North.”

For once, communication with the Apaches is not crystal clear, and I have a hard time hearing what Deathstalker 2/3 is saying.

“Roger Deathstalker 2/3, give me directions to the five males!”

To the north, Deathstalker 2/3 is doing some incredible aerial acrobatics. The sleek Apache flies in a circle so tight that it seems almost to be standing on its side as it maintains a ring around the individuals spotted in a field.

Thru a haze of static, Deathstalker 2/3 gives dense, quick, concise directions.

Adreneline pumping, my driver floors the gas and the six tons of armored vehicle lurches down the road. Shouting I begin relaying directions to my driver as they are fed to me by Deathstalker 2/3.

For a heart-stopping moment, the HMMWV crosses over a deep water filled canal on damaged dirt bridge that does not look wide enough to support the vehicle. A vision of the HMMWV sliding 15 feet into the water filled canal at high speed crosses my mind, and then with a bump we are thru, tearing down a dirt road and into a grassy field.

Across the field I can see five men walking nonchalantly away from the vehicle, not looking at the patrol and not looking at the Apaches circling overhead. I yell at my gunner to stop them, and he starts shouting. “Awgaf! Awgaf!”

The men, still walking, don’t even look up. With a sharp crack, the gunner fires a warning shot into the dirt in front of the men. A fiery red light lances out of his weapon as the tracer round impacts the earth and skips off at an angle, burning thru the sky until it winks out in the distance.

At the sound of the first 5.56 round being fired, all of the men stop and look up.

Opening the door to my HMMWV, I jump out and raise my M4 Carbine. Leaving the door to the HMMWV open and aiming the rifle at the man closest to me, I start shouting, “Awgaf!” and begin advancing thru the broken field, keeping the man in my sights.

I notice that he is, in fact, wearing, green pants and a green sweatshirt.

Vehicles come to a screeching halt in the field, and soldiers are hurtling out of the vehicles, dismounting with their weapons ready.

“Grab those motherfuckers!” My voice is starting to become hoarse from shouting over the roar of the Apaches overheard.

With determined expressions they begin advancing on the men, motioning them over and forcing them to their knees in front of my vehicle.

Taking a deep breath, I lower my weapon and finally get a good look at the men we have captured.

For the most part, they are kids.

Four of them look younger than 15. The fifth, however is an adult. Wearing a flowing white robe and dark leather sandals, he is about 40, with a salt and pepper beard and crows-feet etched into the corners of his eyes.

All five look at me dispassionately. Despite the Apaches and the warning shots, the kids and the man are calm, cool, and collected.

None of them say anything.

Turning to my squad leader, I nod toward the trunk of my vehicle. “Alright, get the X-Spray.”

The squad leader crosses to the vehicle, and returns with a plastic kit filled with contact papers and three different aerosol cans, each containing a different chemical.

One by one the kids raise their right hands and white contact paper is applied to their palms. Spraying the paper with the three cans, the paper is observed to see if there is a chemical reaction.

If the paper turns pink, then the man we swabbed with the paper has handled an explosive in the last few days.

One by one, the contact papers come up negative.

“Alright, do a sweep of the area.”

The soldiers’ criss-cross the field, looking for triggering devices, wires, or signaling equipment.
The search comes up negative.

Finally, I take a step back and look at the men kneeling on the ground. As a body, they gaze at the ground, and I realize the youngest one, kneeling in his blue t-shirt and black shorts, is starting to look upset. He is trembling and his eyes begin to glisten with the beginnings of tears.

With a sinking feeling, I realize that we have no real cause to hold them.

“Alright, take their pictures and let them go.” Despite the suspicious circumstances, despite all the effort, this man… these kids… are not the triggermen.

The triggerman is still out there.

As the patrol remounts their vehicles and heads back thru the dusty field to the main road, I realize with a start that the sun is beginning to set in the west. I look down at my watch.

It has been an hour since the blast.

It feels as if the entire experience took less than five minutes.

Taking a deep breath I close my eyes. The HMMWV lurches beneath me as it re-crosses the shoddy dirt bridge and head back to the scene of the blast.

Finally, I open my eyes and look back to the setting sun.

Time, which had stopped, begins to run again.

Friday, June 24, 2005

The Alamo

The yellowed, cracked concrete walls of the police station seem to sag under the weight of a single strand of rusting steel concertina wire. The walls of the station, patched and flaking, surround a wide broken plaza, filled with rubble, broken cinderblocks, and refuse. In the darkness, hundreds of shredded plastic bags are caught in the concertina wire, and they wave and snap like banners in a hot wind.

The police station’s empty windows are black against the night sky, sandbags piled high in the windows to provide protection from mortar rounds. Inside the building, soldiers sleep on dirty concrete floors, often using their hard body armor as a pillow. They sleep where they have collapsed, exhausted from a long day and night of continuous dismounted patrols and sandbag details.

On all sides of the police station stretches the decaying town. I am told that the towns population is 25,000... not all of them friendly.

My platoon has 38 men.

Soldiers are calling it “The Alamo.”

The stillness of the night is broken by shots to the north. I stop my pacing and look up. The shots continue to echo into the night, blending into one rapid blur of noise. From the roof of the police station, behind a sandbag bunker, I scan the outlines of the short, squat, yellow brick buildings for signs of life. Their crumbling facades are lit in the distance by naked fluorescent lights.

Unconsciously I begin to count shots. Ten single shots in rapid succession.

The Wahabi district of town is restless tonight.

I walk to the north wall on the roof of the Alamo and look out over no-mans land. No-mans land stretches before me in the darkness, a half kilometer of broken ground, trash, feral dogs, and half-grown, stunted weeds. When Saddam ordered the city built, he left an empty hole in its center. At night it looks like a black gash in the heart of the town, its long black void bisecting the town from east to west. I can’t help but reflect that if Hell had a central park, it would be a lot like this.

Turning and resuming my pacing back and forth across the rooftop brings me to the south wall. A gust of hot wind brings the promise of the coming day’s heat and a whiff of the foul odor of an open sewer from the Shia district.

On a patrol earlier in the day, I discovered the hard way where Iraqis dumped their waste.

Against the south wall, I check on the soldiers on guard duty. The soldiers are trying to stay awake, scanning the city below from gun positions mounted on the rooftops. The soldiers had built the gun positions earlier in the day, establishing a fortified presence in an Iraqi town that had not seen a regular U.S. presence for six months. The long, lethal barrels of the M2 .50 Caliber machine guns are silhouetted against the night sky, their tripods mounted on sandbag platforms. I stop myself from re-testing the sturdiness of the platform. I have already checked it half a dozen times today.

Checking my watch, the blue indigo backlight reflects the time back. 0315. Two hours until daybreak.

As I finish my inspection, I turn and catch a glimpse of an Iraqi flag flying from a pole on the west wall. Earlier in the morning, the Iraqi flag flying from the pole was a filthy rag, torn and frayed, its black, white, and red stripes barely discernable beneath the caked dirt.

The Iraqi police were similarly disheveled, disheartened after the murder of one of their own by insurgents earlier in the week. They wandered the police station with their blue police shirts un-tucked, and their checkpoints at the gate and their gun positions on the rooftops of the prison unmanned.

But this flag is different. It is beautiful.

Its stripes shimmering in the darkness, bordered by a fringe of gold tassels, the words “God is Great” are picked out in a dark green in Arabic. Sometime during the day, as my platoon dug in its fortifications, I noticed the Iraqi police beginning to man their guns and their checkpoints. They walked with their backs a little straighter…. and within a few hours of the arrival of my platoon, the Iraqi police remembered who they were and what they stood for.

As I lie down to sleep on the dusty concrete roof of the Alamo, I can not help but feel a burst of admiration for the Iraqi police. They have remembered their duty to their country, and with a little security, feel bold enough to change out their ruined flag for a new one.

Two hours later, I awake from a deep sleep to the insistent sound of an Imam issuing his call to the faithful. From a blue and green minaret glowing in the morning sun, the wailing prayer reverberates throughout the Alamo, and echoes throughout the stirring town bringing the promise of a new day.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

"A Righteous Catch"

The dirt road stretches off to the east, disappearing into a grove of dark palms lining the horizon. The road is bordered on either side by a deep canal, hedged with the long thin stalks of river reeds. Squinting into the sun as I cleaned my ballistic glasses, I could see the four door black Opal approaching, a trail of dust marking its passage.

Something is not right. Instead of approaching the snap check point, the black Opal slows almost to a stop, far short of where it needs to be. Stepping forward, I waive my hand over my head, trying to get the car to approach. It is apparent that the driver of the Opal is thinking about turning and running, and I want him to see that we are watching him, and that running would bring its own consequences.

The black surface of the Opal is coated with a light white film of dust, and thru the glare of the sun off the dirty windshield, I can see the two occupants of the car talking. After a few seconds, the Opal picks up speed and slowly approaches the checkpoint.

As the Opal grinds to a halt, its occupants enter into a frenzy of activity. The driver, a young man in his early 20s, wearing Real Madrid Futbol sweatpants, and a light blue button down shirt, jumps out and immediately opens the hood. The passenger, a darker, wiry man with a swarthy five o’clock shadow moves to the rear of the car and opens the trunk. A detached part of me notices that his right hand is missing three fingers, and that what was left of his hand is a scarred, misshapen, boneless mass.

Out of the corner of my eye, I notice the passenger pulling a white burlap sack out of the trunk and tucking it behind the rear passenger side tire.

“Sir! Sir! That motherfucker just put something behind the tire! I saw him fucking do it!”

One of the gunners in the turret of a HMMWV in over-watch is shouting his head off.

“Roger, I saw it too.”

The search team, fully alarmed, raise their weapons and approach the two occupants of the vehicle.

“Get the fuck down!”

“What’s in the fucking sack!?”

To my left, a soldier tells the driver to get on his knees. The driver begins to protest loudly in Arabic, waving his hands in the air attempting to explain his innocence.

The sudden, loud, metallic clacking of a shotgun racking a round into the chamber cuts him short. The soldier with the shotgun casually raises the blunt muzzle and points it at the driver. The driver, suddenly still, ceases his protests immediately and falls down on his knees.

The sergeant in charge of the search team gestures at the sack and shouts at the still standing passenger, “Open the fucking sack! Open it now!”

The passenger, his face gone a pale shade of brown, is standing over the sack, ignoring the shouted instructions and gestures. Despite all the shouting, he is attempting to pretend the sack does not exist.

I reach into my holster and pull out my 9mm Beretta. Pointing it at the passenger with one hand, I pull the translator over with the other, “Charlie, tell that motherfucker to open the god damned sack.”

Charlie complies, and the passenger tears his eyes away from the pistol and looks down at the sack. He looks up again at the pistol aimed steadily at his face, and then back down at the sack.

With sweat running down his forehead, he slowly reaches down and opens the sack.

For a few seconds everything is still as a three foot long metal cylinder rolls out of the sack, its end capped with a piece of black plastic. The passenger steps away from the cylinder, looking nervously at it. Then a soldier calls out, “What the fuck is that!”

I stand motionless for a second, looking at the metal cylinder and at the nervous passenger. I don’t know that the cylinder is, but whatever it is, it is not good.

“Alright, everyone get the fuck back!”

The search team backs away from the metal cylinder. One soldier runs up and grabs the passengers collar firmly, forcing him into the dirt and on his face. I can tell that despite having his face in the dirt, the passenger is still trying to keep his eyes on my pistol.

The sergeant in charge of the search team pulls everyone back away from the car, and has the two passengers blindfolded and zip-tied with their hands behind their backs. Charlie the interpreter is furiously questioning the two men, asking them what that cylinder is. The men, separated from each other, are at first refusing to answer the questions, and then they begin blaming each other.

I walk over to my HMMWV and get on the radio, “Cobra X-Ray, this is Warrior 2/6. We have an unidentified object that appears to be an explosive device of some sort. We have two men detained and we pulled it out of a Black Opal that they were driving. I need EOD here ASAP, Over.”

Instead of hearing from Cobra X-Ray, I get a response from Deathstalker 1/0, an Apache that has just begun circling overhead, flying low so that the pilots can make out what is happening on the ground.

“Warrior 2/6 this is Deathstalker 1/0, Cobra X-Ray is having some commo trouble this morning, but I will pass along your EOD request up to your X-Ray element.” The birds take up a holding pattern overhead, flying in slow steady circles around our position.

“Roger Deathstalker 1/0, that’s a good copy.”

One of the soldiers turns to me, his face flushed with excitement, “Sir, I think I saw them throw something from the window of the vehicle back there when they slowed down.”

I look up the road in the direction the Opal had approached. A quarter mile away, one of the patrol’s HMMWV is blocking access to the road, preventing anyone from approaching the Opal and the metal cylinder.

I notice that in front of the HMMWV a traffic jam of sorts is forming. On this back country road, pickup trucks loaded with produce begin to stack up as their access to the market place in town is blocked.

I turn to the squad leader, but he is already on it. “Alright,” he says into the handset, “send a team up both sides of the road. Search for any secondary devices or anything they might have tossed from the Opal.” It doesn’t take long.

“Sir, we found something… it appears to be some kind of warhead. They must have thrown it out of the window when they slowed down back here.”

“Roger, leave it in place till EOD arrives.”

The controlled explosion sends a cloud of smoke three stories into the sky. The sudden heat ignites the grassy field, leaving a 30 meter long swarth of blackened stubble, a small fire burning out around the edges. The detainees, blindfolded and ziptied, are secured in the back of two vehicles. The Opal, its license plates removed, is sitting on the side of the road, its trunk still open and its keys in my pocket.

The EOD Sergeant walks up, his face streaked with sweat and dirt, and an acrid smell fills the air as the smoke from the explosion and fire disperses.

“So what was that thing?” I ask as he stops and takes a pull from a bottle of “Abraaj” water, the sides of the bottle glistening with condensation.

“That, was what I call a righteous catch, Sir.” his Southern Californian accent immediately apparent.

He continues, slightly gasping for air, “What you had there was a 57mm Rocket with a high explosive warhead and a proximity fuse used for air burst.”

He takes another pull of water and nods his head with a smile, “That was definitely a righteous catch.”

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Ziggurat

The 3500 year old Ziggurat at Agargouf towered overhead, its yellow clay bricks baking in the heat. The Babylonian relic looked out of place, surrounded by a wasteland of desert strewn with the tents of Bedouins and flocks of sheep. From the top of the Ziggurat, the observation team had an unobstructed view of the desert plains and streets below.

Single shots rang out, somewhere to the south, and I received the radio call from the senior sergeant in the observation position.

“Sir, we can hear shots being fired to the south. Approximately 1,000 meters.”

“Roger, get down here, we are going to check it out.”

The team came hurtling down the narrow brick steps and piled into the four armored vehicles that made up the patrol. Thru the static of the radio, I notified Battalion that the observation team had heard shots fired.

The HMMWVs sped past the aging tourist signs in Arabic and down the dirty narrow streets to the south. A large stone building, with a rusting sheet metal roof came into view.

The patrol pulled to a screeching halt outside the building, and the dismount squad got out, weapons at the ready. The gunners checked their sectors of fire with their crew served weapons, swiveling the big guns to cover the most likely avenues of approach.

I dismounted and took a team around the right side of the building. It was a wrecked factory, rusty metal machines exposed to the sun and dirt. A confused, sleepy faced man in a white robe approached, straightening his clothing and rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. Behind him, lay a stone courtyard, the crumbling gray brick walls crooked and poorly made. An open window in the courtyard revealed the shadowy form of a woman lying on a small bed.

Shots rang out in the distance, to the north, closer to the Ziggurat.

Turning my back on the sleepy faced man, I made a decision. “Alright, we are going to do a dismounted patrol north along the road, the vehicles will stage here and act as reinforcements.”

The dismounted squad fanned out, their weapons at the ready, and their faces grim and serious beneath the sweat and dust. The soldiers tan suede boots kicked up small puffs of dirt as they moved cautiously, scanning both sides of the road for contact.

Overhead, two attack helicopters roared by from the south, the thin blades of their rotors screaming in the pale blue sky. Under the spotless glass of the cockpit, the pilots could be clearly seen, strapped into their seats.

A man’s deep scratchy voice broke the silence on the radio, “Warrior 2/6 this is Killer 6, do you need assistance?”

“Roger Killer 6, nice to see you, we are hearing gunfire but haven’t located the source. It is coming from the north of our position. Scan north up the road and notify me if you see anything.”

“No problem.”

The Apaches circled, casting long quick shadows on the ground as they scanned the road. The dirt road was bordered on either side by thick groves of palm trees, and ahead, the Ziggurat towered into the sky around a bend. The green of the palm trees looked faded, as if their vibrant colors had been dusted over and muted in the sun.

A sharp report sounded, just around the bend ahead, and the soldiers on point moved quickly forward to engage, their weapons held at eye level as they moved by twos down the road. I could feel sweat running down my forehead and into my eyes. Blinking rapidly did little to remove the sting. A single bead of sweat ran down my back between my shoulder blades, where the body armor prevented any itching.

Moving forward quickly toward the sound of the gunfire, I notified battalion of the situation. The Apaches, monitoring the net in the distance, turned their slim, lethal forms into the sun and moved back toward my position.

Suddenly, the point man's right hand thrust into the air, giving the signal to halt. The squad froze in place, giving the soldier time to assess the situation. Over the radio, the calm voice of a team leader broke the silence, “Sir, you have to get up here.”

“What is it?”

“Kids… with fireworks.”

Standing on the side of the road stood three children. Their faces delighted at all of the attention. On the ground lay yellow and red wrappers, some blown into tiny pieces, other wrappers still whole enough to reveal the Chinese lettering on their sides. Char marks dotted the road where they had been set off.

“Look Sir,” One of my team leaders held the small yellow and red firework in a gloved hand. He lit it with a disposable blue bic lighter, and tossed it into the road as the Apaches screamed overhead once again.

The report sounded just like a gunshot.

Monday, June 13, 2005

A Man from the Moon

Her feet were splayed, flat and bare on the hard cracked ground. Beneath her tattered blue dress, her dry brown skin was chalky with dust. Her face, partially covered by a frayed red scarf held no beauty but that of her eyes, hidden away beneath the dust and the grime.

Her three brothers stood staring at me in rags, their open, upturned faces shy and intensely curious. The girl hung back five feet behind, her hands clasped in front of her and her eyes on the ground.

I turned to Spider, who stood next to me in the heat in a black ski mask and body armor. It seemed not to effect him. “Where do they live? Why aren’t they wearing shoes?” The Iraqi interpreter turned to the boys, his quick Arabic a sharp staccato as he translated my question.

“They live near here.”

“What about shoes, why aren’t they wearing any?” Spider turned back to the boys.

“Their family is too poor to afford shoes. They have never worn them.”

“Well don’t they wash themselves? Wash their clothing?”

Spider shrugged. “Clean water is not what you think it is here. Besides, it is not important to these people. They are the poorest of the poor.” He makes a motion with his hand. “They are at the bottom.”

“Well how old are they?”

Spider questions the eldest, a stunted boy of about twelve, and the boy responds.

“He does not know. None of them know how old they are. They have never been told, and they can’t count.” Spider reflects for a second. “When I asked him how old he was, he said he was two.” Spider turns to me with a grimace evident even beneath the mask, “There are children like them all over Iraq.”

“Do they know who I am?” I asked quietly. “Have they heard of America?”

Spider smiles. “To them, you are from outer space. From Mars. They have never heard of America, and they don’t know what you are. They dont know why you are here. In your uniforms, and armor, and everything, you are truly a man from the moon.”

I look down at the children. They are still staring at me. Reaching into my pocket, I pull out a bag of M&Ms.

The boys faces brighten, and small hands come forward for the brightly colored candy. The girl still hangs back, gazing down thru dark brown lashes. I beckon her forward, and she moves slowly, unsure of herself. Reaching out I take her hand and place the remainder of the candy in her palm.

She puts them in her mouth one by one, but quickly, as if she would lose them. Then, for the first time, she looks at me, and thru a haze of dust and dirt, a slow, shy, beautiful, smile begins to form as the chocolate melts in her mouth.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

The Wedding

In the Mansoor district of Baghdad, in the middle of a crowded two lane street, one of our four armored vehicles breaks down. The battered old warhorse has finally given up after being driven 24 hours a day for months on end. It is leaking oil, and will not run. It is my first trip into downtown Baghdad. Past the burned out concrete palaces with the scorched gilt façade and faux marble. Around the blackened shell of “Saddams Space Needle” that once housed Baghdad's finest resteraunt. Skirting the edges of the Green Zone, which appears to be an endless sea of palm trees behind a dull brown concrete blast wall.

It’s a Thursday and we are in the middle of rush-hour traffic, on a dusty avenue of outdoor shops and small cafes, interspersed amid a forest of wilting, frayed power lines. The patrol takes up a defensive position around the broken down vehicle, and one vehicle repositions itself to hook up a faded green tow bar. I unlock the combat lock, take off my seatbelt, dismount, and step out into the hot afternoon sun. Over my right shoulder, I glance to the rear. The traffic has stopped 150 meters out, the rear .50 caliber machine gun's intimidating muzzle leveled at the street behind us. The machine gun and the Iraqi's intimate knowledge of our rules of engagement act as an effective deterrent, and the cars wait patiently for the Americans to finish their business.

To our front, cars drive past the intersection, slowing down to let passengers look at the American soldiers. One small, battered, rusty blue car passes with an old man behind the wheel, and a woman dressed in black from head to toe in the passenger seat. I stare… the entire car is missing from the front axle forward. It looks as if the entire front has been torn off.

Suddenly, the distinct rat-tat-tat of an automatic weapons fire comes from the street to our front. I move slowly to take up cover behind a concrete wall trying to pinpoint the sound. It is quiet for a second, and then the rat-tat of automatic fire continues. I reach the concrete wall and raise my rifle to the “low ready” position. As if in slow motion, a man shuffles by on my left, clutching a plastic bag of plums. I scan the road to my front, and the rooftops of the buildings ahead of me, still trying to locate the source of the gunfire… as it is getting closer, and then suddenly it becomes clear.

A red bus drives by packed to the gills with screaming people. It is heavily decorated with tinsel and aluminum strips. People hang out of the windows of the bus waving and shouting and yelling. I notice a trumpet coming from an open window in the back of the bus, the lone horn sounding over the yelling and engines and gunfire. The bus turns the corner and the people see us and yell louder. Then, there is another car and another… all packed with people screaming and yelling and waving. I catch a glimpse of a woman in white, with a veil over her face, and next to her, a dark, proud man. A wedding. In the final car, the source of the gunfire. Several Iraqi Police officers either clearing traffic for the convoy, or firing celebratory shots into the air. A wedding. I relax my grip on my weapon, and see the other soldiers in my convoy relax as they identify the source of the shots. I manage a weak wave for the departing wedding celebration, but can’t help closing my eyes and shaking my head at the sound of the automatic weapons firing into the air. Automatic weapon fire in downtown Baghdad. A wedding. Madness.

Abu Ghraib

They were clearly terrified. Blindfolded, with their hands bound in front of them, they stumbled from the holding facility into the heat. The military police, looking impossibly young behind their red, sweat slicked faces guided them firmly up the removable steps and into the waiting armored pickup truck. The detainees gratefully sank down and kneeled, when the MPs pressed firmly down on the back of their neck. Some, I noticed, began to pray.

They were generally fighting age men. However, there were exceptions. One was barely old enough to call the peach fuzz on his face a beard, and another was graying and bald. A few wore an assortment of western style clothes, but most wore the traditional robe and all wore open toe sandals.

All, without exception, were filthy. Their clothing was stained and rank. All of them stank, giving off a vile, putrid odor, as of something rotting. All had refused the showers and clean clothing offered to them.

Watching them weep into their blindfolds, and mumble thru their prayers almost made me feel sorry for them. “Sergeant,” I said to the supervising NCO, “can I see their files?” He handed me a stack of papers, several inches thick. The old man, with the gray thinning hair, was not simply just a truck driver and part time cab driver. The digital photos showed parts of radios and garage door openers and cellular phones taken apart and stacked in heaps on a worktable in his house. A bomb maker. The skinny young fellow with the brown skin and rough beard was not just a chicken farmer with his father and brother. Mixed in with a weapons cache, explosives, and $17,000 found in feed sacks in his barn, were 15 IDs identifying him variously as a member of the department of industry, a former member of the Baath Party, a member of Saddam's secret police, and an ID card that had his photo and “Iraqi Intelligence Service.” One of Saddam's cronies. Probably a murderer. Certainly a financier and arms supplier. What the politicians call “a former regime loyalist.” I stopped feeling sorry for them.

We convoyed from the holding facility to Abu Ghraib. At first sight, my breath was taken away. Abu Ghraib was huge. Its concrete walls and guard towers stretched out before me into the distance. The whole, a mass of dust, heat, barbed wire, and concrete barriers. Torn and shattered concrete. Rusting and bent sheet metal. The walls scorched and stained by insurgent attacks. As we pull into the gate, we find out that just this morning, Abu Ghraib had been attacked with mortars, small arms fire, and rockets. With the detainees housed in tents, the insurgents don’t even care if they kill their own. Here, the soldiers wear their body armor and helmets even when they are inside the buildings.

I take the detainees personal effects in to the clerk who bags them and logs them. When the detainees are released, they will get their personal items back. I hand him a plastic bag with $17,000 cash in it. He signs over the chain of custody documents. Even for the bag holding nothing but a lighter and pack of “Miami” cigarettes. I noticed the Iraqis smoke a lot of Miamis. They also smoke Gallouises.

They bring the detainees in, six at a time, and place a jumpsuit and towel at their feet. The military police light sticks of incense and stick them into the walls next to each detainee to mask the overpowering stench. They are given new sandals if they have none. One man sees the jumpsuit at his feet, leans his head against the wall, and begins to urinate all over himself. A puddle forms at his feet, and the military policeman jumps back swearing. Another, to the right, begins to swoon. He moans, leans over, and vomits. The sergeant in charge calls the medics, who give him water. He instantly recovers.

One I notice, has three tattooed dots on his left hand. He has something tattooed in Arabic on his right hand. On his skinny brown arm, is a tattoo of an "F", surrounded by a heart with wings. “What, is that?” I nudge the MP. He looks up from his paperwork and focuses on the tattoo. “One of Saddams, Fedayeen… that is their mark” I look at the dark face with bushy eyebrows and narrow eyes. Those sworn to die for Saddam. One of his legions of suicide bombers and brutal thugs and executioners. Then I notice his hands… he is missing the last third of each of his middle fingers. The scars closing the wounds are red and puckered and have not healed well. The MP sees it also. “Saddam would have done that to him. As a Fedayeen, he must have fucked up… its how they were punished.” He walks up to the Fedayeen and points to his arm. “Fedayeen?” “No”, the man replies, shaking his head emphatically, “No.” The sergeant turns to me and grimaces, “Bullshit, those are Fedayeen tattoos, on his arm and his hand… and losing his fingers is a Fedayeen punishment…. But he will never admit it.” He then looks back at the Fedayeen and shrugs, “No, you'll never own up to what you are and what you have done… will you?” The Fedayeen looks up for a second at the sergeant with his dull brown eyes and then drops his gaze to his sandaled feet before being marched further into the recesses of Abu Ghraib.

Monday, June 06, 2005


Hour 12 of a 20 hour patrol, and the patrol pulls off a main road and enters into a nature preserve. The armored vehicles stop in a field to the side of the road, and the soldiers dismount and stretch. It has already been a long day. The dust storm has subsided, but my uniform is caked with a fine white mush, from the dust mixing with sweat. My collar has turned brown, and beneath my body armor, I have been soaking wet for 12 hours. The heat continues to make my ballistic glasses fog, and I periodically take them off to wipe the plastic lense, and dry the rivers of sweat running off my face. We are to be here for a few hours…. Observing the countryside and acting as a quick reaction force if needed by any convoys in the area moving north along Route Tampa. The fields on either side are cultivated… long green rows of plants and foliage. Across the narrow street, rows of palms wave in the hot breeze, and further off there is a wet stretch of ground with rough brown reeds. It is the first peaceful place I have seen in Iraq.

Behind me, I hear a tinkle, and I turn to find three slender women passing by, mounted on the backs of donkeys. The donkeys are piled high with cut rushes and the women are perched upon the rushes. They are completely covered from head to toe, in clashing, undescribable patterns, colors, and designs. Except for their faces. Their weather-beaten, ageless faces look at me with unabashed interest as they pass quietly by. I notice that each is holding a small sickle, with a worn wooden handle. They had cut the rushes with a sickle… much as might have been done two thousand years ago. Not much, it seems, has changed for some people.

Some time later, a middle-aged man dressed in brown slacks and a collared, button down shirt boldly approaches. He claims to be a farmer and that he has found a “rocket” a little ways down the street. This was definitely worthy of investigation. Leaving the vehicles, five of us move with the farmer and translator several hundred meters down the street.

The farmer leads us straight down the road and gestures off to the side. “There,” he says, “the rocket.” Off to one side, lying on a matted bed of grass, is an artillery shell. Not a “rocket” as the farmer had explained, but a 155 South African Howitzer shell… and it looks new. At the Captains request, the translator asks the farmer… “how long has it been there?” The farmer looks blank for an instant and then says “two years.” He smiles, revealing dark black gaps in his teeth. I exchange glances with some of the others… the shell is in too good of a condition to have been lying there for two years.

Quickly we move to secure the site, and call EOD. It seems EOD, the busiest guys in theatre, have other calls to attend to, and it will be a few hours before they can reach us. The farmer departs... It gets hotter… The sun shifts in the sky... It gets hotter... and EOD arrives.

EOD pulls up in 5 vehicles, and the EOD sergeant saunters over with a friendly wave. He is wearing a shoulder patch with a bomb and blast symbol that vaguely reminds me of old black and white photos of the fat man and little boy.

EOD proceeds to examine the shell. He inspects it for wires, and detonating devices, blasting caps, and booby traps. I watch from a respectable distance, as do most of the infantrymen with me….no sense in tempting fate. Finally satisfied, the EOD sergeant nods his head and bends at the knees…. As he straightens, to my horror and amazement, I see that he has lifted the massive shell up off the ground and put it on his shoulder like a sack.

With no ceremony at all, he walks off to his vehicle with the shell on his shoulder… mission complete... to be stored and detonated at a later date.
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