The Least That I Can Do
Her black dress covers her from head to toe, with only her face showing under a black head scarf. Still, her open, expressive face is attractive in a motherly way, as she smiles and looks down at her curly haired baby, the child’s first crammed firmly into his mouth.
Sitting on the woven carpets in the bare room are her other children. A slender girl, with her back against the white plastered wall, perhaps 14 years of age, and wearing a red dress smiles shyly up at me. The third child, a young boy, sits quietly besides his mother, his dark eyebrows and pale skin forming a striking contrast. Children’s books and white note pads filled with the children’s drawings are scattered on the carpets that line the floor of the room.
We have come to raid their house.
Standing in the room with the mother and children, I feel slightly foolish as I post a young, serious soldier with a squad automatic weapon to guard them. He is to prevent them from getting up and moving around the house while my soldiers conduct their search.
For both their safety and ours, I can take no chances.
Turning to the boy, I have my interpreter ask him where the family’s weapon is. Throwing a quick glance at his mother, he gets up and walks into his parent’s bedroom.
There, behind a curtain covering an opening into a cupboard, is a well maintained AK-47 and a 40 round Banana Clip magazine.
Each household in Iraq is allowed to have a single AK-47 and one clip of ammunition.
Reaching into the cupboard I take out the weapon. It takes only a second to remove the magazine, clear the chamber, and place the weapon back on safe.
One less thing to worry about.
“Are there any more weapons in the house?”
“No” he says, and shakes his head.
“Alright, go back in the room with your mother.”
Walking into the hallway, I stop next to my squad leader and give him the go ahead to begin searching the house. He moves up to the top floor and out onto the balcony with his search team.
Turning, I survey the house. As houses in Iraq go, this is a relatively nice one. The small refrigerator and freezer in the hallway appear to be new, and the house is neat and well kept.
As in all Iraqi houses, almost all of the rooms have no furniture, just mats and rugs on the floor for family members to sit on.
In the kitchen, what is left of the afternoon meal is sitting on a large metal platter. Cut cucumbers, white rice, and what looks like curried beans are each sitting separately in small metal bowls on the platter. When the family eats, they place the platter on the ground between them, and scoop the food out of the communal dishes with their hands.
My stomach gives a little flutter. The food is covered in a crawling mass of flies.
Walking up the staircase to the roof, I come across a growing pile of electric cables and copper wires. The squad leader and one of his men are collecting the spools of cable from a corner of the rooftop, and placing them into a pile for removal.
These are exactly the kind of materials used to manufacture and detonate an IED.
This is exactly the kind of thing we are looking for.
From the rooftop I can see my soldiers securing the perimeter of the house. To the north and east, armored HUMMWV’s are staged giving the gunners good sectors of fire. In the event that we are fired upon while conducting our search, the gunners will be able to return fire and suppress the enemy.
In the distance, to the west, looking out over no-mans land and past the Mosque, I can see the rooftop and gun positions of the Alamo.
We are just a stones throw from home.
Walking back down the stairs and out of the intense heat, I re-enter the room with the mother and her children. Behind her, a color television set sits on top of a large cupboard, an Arabic soap opera loudly and emotionally playing out on the screen.
I can’t help but noticing that the outfits and hairstyles in the soap opera look like something straight out of the 1960’s.
The woman is looking at me expectantly. Her dark eyes smiling as she plays with her child. She asks me something in Arabic and the girl behind her giggles.
“What did she say?”
“She wants to know if you want to take a picture with the baby.”
Caught off guard, I smile briefly down at her pleasant face, but then my smile begins to fade.
The woman does not know that we have arrested her husband on suspicion of being an insurgent.
He is currently out in one of the vehicles awaiting transport to a holding facility.
With a sinking feeling, I try to shut out my emotions. I know that what we are doing is going to be bringing a lot of pain and suffering to this friendly, motherly woman and her delightful children.
I tell myself that it is part of the job.
Still, I don’t have to like it.
My squad leader appears behind me and beckons me back into the hallway.
“We have completed the search. We found a mess of wires and cables, and a couple of boxes of documents.”
“Alright, good work. Go ahead and move everything into the back of my HUMMWV. I will go talk with the CO and let him know the search is complete.”
Turning, I walk outside into the heat. In one of the vehicles, my commander sits talking on the radio. He is coordinating events with another platoon searching a different house just down the road.
“Alright Sir, the search is complete. We found a couple of boxes of documents and some cables and wiring, and we are going to bring it all with us.”
The Captain looks at me thru a sheen of sweat on his bright red face.
"Okay, good work. Bring him inside and let him get some toiletries and a change of clothing.”
I walk back to a second HUMMWV and open the back door. There, in the back passenger seat, is the woman’s husband. His hands bound behind his back, and a pair of dark goggles covering his eyes.
Surprisingly, he is an older man, his salt and pepper hair and moustache accenting a strong, stern face.
The soldier guarding him is sitting beside him in the other passenger seat.
“Take him out of those cuffs and remove the blindfold. She doesn't need to see him like that. Oh, and when you guard him inside the house, try not to look like that is what you are doing.”
The soldier nods.
This is going to be emotional enough.
The man rubs his wrists as he steps out of the vehicle, briefly stretching his legs. On his face, I can see that he is steeling himself to face his family under these circumstances. It is a struggle for him to keep his face emotionless while he walks towards his home.
Following behind him, I can see him square his shoulders and muster his dignity. As I let him lead me into the house, I can see his wife on the floor, no longer smiling, as she looks at her husband with shock and concern all over her face.
Trembling she turns to me and starts asking me questions in Arabic.
“What has he done? Where are you taking him?”
Clasping her hands together she is almost pleading with me.
“Ma’am, we are just taking him over to our base to ask him some questions about a few matters that need clearing up.”
“How long will he be gone? Can he be back tonight?”
The pain in her voice is obvious. She is terrified for her family and for her husband.
The soldiers have come to take him away, and for all she knows, she may never see him again.
My heart is in my mouth.
“Ma’am, I am afraid that this is not possible. You should expect him to be gone for a few days at least.”
She glances down at her children and then looks at her husband. He speaks to her in Arabic and she moves into the bedroom to pack some belongings for him.
With a nod, I send a soldier in after her to keep watch.
The man asks permission to gather a few papers that he wants to take with him. He walks over to the cupboard and under the watchful eyes of his guard gathers what he needs.
Within a few minutes, his wife enters the room clutching a plastic bag filled with clothing and a towel.
She looks at her husband as if she wants to say something, and then she turns back to me as he is getting ready to leave the room.
“She wants to know if she can keep the AK-47.”
“Tell her that she can. Each household can keep a weapon for their own protection.”
She looks relieved, and then she continues hesitantly. Her hands clasped together as if in prayer.
“What will I do? How long will he be gone? I cannot stay here alone. It is dangerous here. Please bring him back tonight. If you do not, where will I go? Who will protect us?”
Behind her, I can see that her daughter has tears in her eyes.
I turn away from their stricken faces. Glancing at the soldier behind me, I can tell that this is as difficult for him as it is for me.
In a quiet voice, I give instructions to the private standing behind her husband.
“Alright, take him back out to the vehicle, and lets get ready to go. Let the CO know that we are done here.”
Accompanied by the subdued young soldier, the man leaves the room and walks outside without so much as glancing at his wife or his children.
“Ma’am, do you have family you can go and stay with? Is there someone you can live with until all of this is resolved?”
She thinks a moment, and then replies:
“Yes, my husband’s family lives in Baghdad. I could take the children and go there.”
I nod my head and attempt to look encouraging. “I recommend you do that. I honestly don’t know how long your husband will be gone.”
She looks at my face as if trying to read something, and then she glances down at her children and clutches at her infant’s chubby little hand.
Turning away, I address the other soldiers still left in the room.
“Alright, let’s get moving. Go ahead outside and mount up. Let’s get out of here.”
As the soldiers file out, I turn and place her AK-47 on the ground, and ask her not to pick it up until we have left. Then after all of the soldiers have left the room, I stop in the doorway and turn back.
“Steve, tell her that if she chooses to stay here, I will patrol near the house and check in on her from time to time to see if she and the children are okay. Also tell her that if she leaves and goes to Baghdad, I will try to stop by and make sure the house is okay.”
She listens and then nods her head quietly.
It is the least that I can do.