Friday, August 26, 2005


I can not believe what I am hearing.

The screaming over the radio is horrifying.

Something, somewhere, is seriously wrong.

At the first sound of the scream, all movement in the Alamo CP stops. My eyes are riveted on the green radios sitting on the top of the old wooden desk. A quick glance around the room tells me that every other soldier is frozen in place.

The radio static is heavy, the voice making the transmission frantic.

I can barely make out a few words.

“This is Titan 5 . . . an RPG . . . Ambush . . . Casualties . . . Grid Coordinate . . . UX 2468 7531 . . .”

It is enough.

Jumping to my feet I run over to the map against the wall. I quickly pinpoint the grid coordinates that I have just heard thru the static and the gunshots.

For some reason they are seared into my memory.

The grid coordinates are a straight shot west for about 6 Kilometers.

We are not far.

Turning around, I see that the other soldiers in the Alamo CP are all still frozen, waiting for the next transmission. I exchange glances with the other Platoon Leader, and announce to no one in particular.

“I’m going out there.”

Without a second glance back, I turn and grab my gear. Shrugging on my body armor, I run into the Hallway shouting.

“Let’s go! Get to the vehicles! There is a unit in contact that needs help! Move!”

The soldiers in my patrol tumble out of their cots where they had been lying, exhausted, and taking up their gear they take up the shout.

“Come on, get your shit on!”

“Fucking move!”

The soldiers are not yet sure what is going on, but they know they need to get to the vehicles.

Unfortunately, I don’t know much more than they do.
The heat hits me like a blast furnace as I run out of the building, still pulling my body armor on. Behind me, the soldiers are flying down the steps and running to their positions in the vehicles. Climbing into my seat and fastening my helmet chinstrap, I can hear the guttural roar of the engines of the other vehicles in the patrol.

We are in the vehicles and out of the gate within 4 minutes.

The HUMMWVs speed out of the concrete and concertina wire obstacles erected in front of the Alamo. My driver takes the turn around the concrete barrier so sharply, that for an instant I am certain that we are going to hit the barrier.

The front bumper clears by an inch, and we are thru.

As we begin to speed down the broad paved main street I pick up the handset for the Platoon net and gather my thoughts.

“Alright, this is what is going on. A unit was hit about six klicks west of here on ASR ‘Robins.’ From what I could tell, it sounds like they have been hit with RPGs and small arms fire, and have several casualties.”

There is silence in my vehicle as my crew listens in on the conversation.

“One more thing, we may be targeted as we respond. Be on the lookout for an ambush, especially a VBIED.”

Insurgents have been known to hit units that have moved to assist a unit in contact.

Overhead, I hear the metallic clacking of my gunner charging the M2 .50 Caliber Machine Gun. He has racked a five inch round into the chamber of the long barreled, lethal weapon system.

The M2 has a rate of fire of more than 10 rounds per second, and the rounds can easily punch thru concrete walls.

It is a reassuring sound.

Turning west onto route “Robins” and we begin to pick up speed.

“Thunderbold X-Ray this is Warrior 2/6, we are headed west on route “Robins,” moving to Titan 5’s position. We should be there in about 5 Mikes. Do you have an update on Titan 5?”

In front of us, civilian traffic is hastily pulling out of the way as the patrol runs screaming down the road.

I can tell that my driver has his foot clamped all the way down on the accelerator. The clear, paved road stretches west into the distance, empty and desolate except for scrub brush and trash lining the sand berms on both sides of the road.

It is a stretch of empty desert between two towns, and out here, traffic is thin.

Over the Battalion net, I can hear Titan 5 calling for a Medivac to pickup his casualties.

Someone has been seriously wounded.

Above me, I hear my gunner swear an oath under his breath.

Looking up, I can see a plume of thick black smoke in the sky.

It can only mean one thing.

Something is burning.

Adrenaline floods my system and my heart starts pounding rapidly as we round a bend in the road.

A HUMMWV is completely engulfed in flames.

Flames billow from the windows, and black, choking plumes of smoke rise high into the air. The smoke is thick and acrid from the burning tires.

A chill runs down my back, and I realize that there are no soldiers anywhere to be seen.

Nothing moves.

It is terrifying.

Like something out of a nightmare.

Where are all of the soldiers?

100 meters past the burning armored vehicle, I can see the charred, torn and twisted remains of a pickup truck. What used to be a gray Mazda is now scattered all over the road.

I key the Battalion handset.

“Thunderbolt X-Ray this is Warrior 2/6! We have arrived onsite. There is a burning HUMMWV and what it looks like the remains of a VBIED. There are no soldiers anywhere! What is the current location of the Titan element?! Where are the wounded soldiers?!”

My only thought is to get to the troops that need help, and secure their position.

The only problem is, I can’t find them.

“Alright, stop here! Secure this location! White 1, move out about 300 meters and block off the west end. White 3, set up a blocking position 300 meters away on the east side. Tell your gunners to watch for follow on VBIEDs, and do a good dismounted sweep for IEDs!”

My vehicle comes to a screeching halt, 75 meters from the burning armored vehicle.

Dismounting, I hear a loud staccato popping sound.

The ammunition stored in the vehicle is cooking off, the bullets stored in the vehicle exploding in the heat of the fire.

I key the handset again.

“Thunderbolt X-Ray this is Warrior 2/6, I need the location of the Titan element! Where are they?”

There is a moment of silence, and then Thunder X-Ray replies:

“Wait one.”

Surveying the scene, I can see that the ground is littered with spent brass and links. There has been a major firefight here, and it looks like hundreds, if not thousands of rounds have been fired.

The berm to the north is separated from the road by a 20 meter stretch of empty ground, and rises 15 feet in the air.

It is the most likely place to set up an ambush.

Lying on the road, I notice a half-filled, 30 round magazine amidst the scattered brass and shell casings.

Reaching down, I pick up the battered magazine and place it in my cargo pocket.

With a flash of sunlight off of a canopy, the Apaches fly out of the sun. They are so quiet I do not even hear them until they are circling in a tight formation above my location. The circle is so tight that the Apache looks like it is standing on its side. I can see the pilot looking down over his right shoulder at the carnage below.

“Apache flight, this is Warrior 2/6, what is your call-sign?”

“Warrior 2/6 this is Blue Max 2.”

“Blue Max 2, this is Warrior 2/6, I need you to sweep the area to the north and west! Look for insurgents and also check for American troops, I know that Titan is here somewhere and is set up for a Medivac, but I can’t find him.”

The Apache pilot immediately banks north, and I get his crisp and clean “Roger” over the net.

Looking east and west down the road, I can see that the other vehicles in my patrol have moved into position. To the east, another three vehicle patrol has arrived, responding to the urgent calls over the radio.

With a tremendous explosion the burning armored HUMMWV explodes from the inside out and shreds itself into pieces of shattered and twisted steel.

The armored glass explodes outwards, and large heavy chunks of armor go catapulting thru the air, landing 20 or 30 meters away.

The sound of the explosion is almost deafening, and it takes me a second to realize that something inside the vehicle . . . likely a claymore or several grenades, have exploded due to the heat of the fire.

My driver comes running up to me, his rifle held at the ready.

“Sir, I don’t know how to say this. I think I saw a body in the back passenger seat, before the vehicle exploded.”

My heart stops.

Looking up, I can see that the HUMMWV is just a mass of charred steel, flames and smoke.

I force myself to speak.

“Are you sure? Are you sure that is what you saw?”

My driver falters.

“Sir, I . . . I don’t know. It could have been the headrest or something else. I just thought I saw a body slumped over.”

I clear my throat and key the handmike.

“Thunder X-Ray, this is Warrior 2/6, the HUMMWV has just been destroyed by secondaries. Do we have a location for Titan 5 yet?”

This time Thunder X-Ray responds quickly.

“Warrior 2/6, this is Thunder X-Ray, roger. Titan 5 has headed south along route “Maples” and has linked up with an element from Avalanche. They are secure and are conducting air-evac of wounded personnel right now. Continue to secure the site, more units are enroute.”

“Roger Thunder X-Ray, are all Titan 5 personnel accounted for?”

“Warrior 2/6 this is Thunder X-Ray, that’s affirmative, all Titan 5 personnel are accounted for.”

Closing my eyes, I breathe a sigh of relief.

My driver must have seen something else.

The hollow knot in my chest eases and a weight lifts off of my shoulders.

Titan 5 is secure.

I hear my gunner calling out to me from the other side of the vehicle.

“Sir, Sir! There is an IED over here. I think that there are two of them!”

He has done a sweep around my vehicle to check for IEDs, and in doing so, seems to have found some.

“Roger, show me.”

Walking around the vehicle, I can see a burned and blackened 155mm artillery round lying out on the dirt, amidst the wreckage of the charred Mazda pickup truck. From this distance, I can easily see a long string of white cord running from the nose of the round, which has been packed with some type of plastic explosive.

Lying as it is on the dirt, it seems less an IED than a kickout from a VBIED. When the vehicle bomb exploded and tore itself into shreds, some of the artillery rounds from the bomb were kicked out by the explosion, and failed to explode.

This does not, however, make them any less lethal.

I can see at least four, possibly five of these kickout rounds lying scattered on the pavement and on the dirt. Four or five battered and primed artillery rounds less than 100 meters from my position.


“Alright, stay back. Conduct another sweep up to the northern berm and I will call EOD.”

“Thunder X-Ray this is Warrior 2/6, we need EOD at this location. We have either secondary IEDs or kick-out rounds from a VBIED scattered all over the place.”

“Warrior 2/6, Thunderbolt X-Ray, that’s a good copy. EOD will be enroute.”

In the distance I can see the Apaches circling something to the southwest. To the east, I see a plume of dust rise as two M1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks arrive on scene.

“Warrior 2/6 this is Reaper 3, where do you want us?”

“Reaper 3, this is Warrior 2/6, it is good to see you, I want one of your tanks to take up a blocking position on the eastern side, and one of your tanks to circle south around the HUMMWV and take up a blocking position on the western side of the road. Watch out for follow on VBIED attacks.”


One of the 60 ton monsters drives past my position. The Tanks are slung low and squat, with surprisingly sleek lines. The turbine engines grumble and the steel padded treads squeal as the Abrams drives past, sending up a hot cloud of dust and dirt high into the sky.

Now I feel that the site is finally secured.

An hour later, EOD has detonated five 155mm shells in a controlled explosion, and so many units have arrived that the place is swarming with troops. The senior man on the ground far outranks me, and some of the soldiers have found bloodstained fighting positions dug into the berm in the north.

With the amount of blood found in the positions, it is likely that at least some of the insurgents never made it out alive.

Another HUMMWV pulls up, and three soldiers dismount. I can see that their uniforms are stained with blood. One of the soldiers, a sergeant, has his hand and arm swathed in white bandages.

They are soldiers from the Titan 5 patrol, escorted back to brief the Battalion command on what had happened during the ambush.

They look around, as if reliving a dream. I can’t help but notice that they seem to be in good spirits, as if relieved at being back at the scene of the ambush, and still in one piece.

One of the sergeants is standing quietly to the side, watching the flames continue to consume what is left of the HUMMWV.

I walk up to the Sergeant.

“How are you doing Sergeant?”

He turns and smiles.

“Hey Sir, we’re okay. My Lieutenant is hurt pretty bad. He took some shrapnel in the leg, and we had to apply a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. A couple of the other guys were hit. My arm got scraped up pretty good, but all in all, everyone is still alive.”

I turn my eyes back to the still smoldering HUMMWV.

“What happened?”

“Well, we were traveling east along Robins when our vehicles were hit by RPGs. This pickup truck was rigged as a VCIED, but for some reason it did not explode, so the insurgents hit it with an RPG to try to set it off. After it exploded we took some pretty heavy small arms fire. They must have had at least one RPK there up on the berm.”

He points to the berm on the northwest, and then continues.

“We returned fire over here, and then some of our guys were hit by shrapnel. Basically, we fought until the ammunition ran out, and then we withdrew to evacuate the wounded. My SAW gunner opened up on a couple of them on the bridge, and I saw at least two bodies fall into the water. They took a pretty good beating . . . I think we killed 5 or 6 of them.”

In my head I can picture the entire sequence of events as he describes it.

I glance at my watch. It all occurred about two hours ago.

“When did you leave? We got here about 15 minutes after your call went out, and we couldn’t find you guys. I didn’t know if you had all taken off, or if you were all lying somewhere in a ditch.”

He shakes his head.

“It was my LT that made that call before he was hit. We disengaged once our ammunition starting running low and headed out to evacuate the wounded. We probably left no more than a few minutes before you guys showed up.”

Turning away from me he stares again at the burning vehicle, and then glances at the berm to the north, now crawling with soldiers.

Reaching into my cargo pocket, I pull out the battered half-full 30 round magazine and hand it to him.

“Here, you guys dropped this.”

He reaches out and takes the magazine, weighing it in his palm.

Then he smiles as he looks back up at me.

“Shit, Sir, if we had known you were coming so quickly, we would have just stayed here.”

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Beckham's Song

With no wind, the dust has settled, and the sky is a washed-out blue. On either side of the road stretches long rows of shabby market stalls. A rusting heap of mufflers advertises a shop selling auto parts and petrol out of worn plastic jugs. Several dirty white sheep stand contently tethered to a wooden stump, while a skinless haunch hangs directly over their heads from the rafters in a slaughterhouse. A rough wooden bench is stacked high with cushions and blankets for sale.

The district we are driving thru is not a friendly one.

Groups of men standing outside the roadside market stalls stop and stare at the patrol with dark expressionless faces. Black veiled women move from stall to stall with worn, frayed plastic bags filled with produce. Children stand quietly on the side of the road.

There is no waving or begging for chocolates.

No cries of "Mister, Mister!"

No cheerful "thumbs up."

Not pleasant.

Fingering the handset for my loudspeaker, a thought occurs to me.

Twisting in my seat, I turn and face my interpreter. Beckham is sitting in the back seat, sweating despite the air conditioning. He is looking thru the window at the grim faces outside.

“Beckham, what is a popular song?”

“A song?”

He looks perplexed.

“Yes, what is a popular, traditional song?”

Beckham thinks for a moment, and then he smiles.

“I have one for you.”

His voice is strong and clear, and the Arabic song has an insistent rhythm. I can feel my foot unconsciously tapping in time with the music. The song is incredibly catchy, and his deep voice holds the tune.

I trade glances with my driver and he smiles.

Beckham is a great singer.

Passing the handset for the loudspeaker over my head, Beckham takes it in the back seat.

“Beckham, I want you to sing that song into the loudspeaker.”

Beckham stares at the handset for a second in thought, and then keying the button with his thumb, he begins to sing his song.

Thru the loudspeaker mounted on the front of my vehicle, comes the insistent, catchy Arabic tune.

The music has an amazing effect on the marketplace.

In astonishment, a black veiled woman stops her inspection of a stack of pale green melons, and turns to face the vehicle.

One mans glare turns to amazement, his cigarette dangling at his side, forgotten.

All movement in the marketplace stops.

Beckham, looking out of the window, sees the effect his music has had. His voice falters for an instant, and then he catches himself and he begins to sing even louder.

A small dark boy, no older than ten years old, stands on the north side of the road. He smiles, white teeth flashing in his dark face, and his thin body begins to sway in time with the music. His hands raise up above his head, almost of their own volition, and he begins to dance in time with the music.

As we roll down the marketplace street, I see smiles break out on normally dour faces.

A group of young men sway and clap in time with the music.

An old man, sitting in a blue plastic chair by a produce stand, is snapping his fingers and wagging his toothless head in time with the song.

Two little girls, one dressed in a black burkha, smile and point their fingers in delight at the American vehicle playing the unexpected music.

For an instant, the mood in the marketplace has changed completely.

A small bridge has been built by Beckham's song.

As we turn at an intersection and head north, we leave the marketplace behind. The long rows of stalls and people give way to arid desert and a murky canal running north and south along the roadside.

Beckham stops singing.

As his voice fades from the air, the air suddenly feels empty.

Turning in my seat, I give Beckham a reassuring smile.

“Beckham, keep singing. It sounds great.”

Beckham keys the handset again, and the patrol continues north thru arid, deserted fields, accompanied by the cheerful sound of Beckham's Song.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

The Crew of White Two

Sitting in my HUMMWV, I look at the thick armored glass windshield in front of me.

My gunner, an aspiring artist, has drawn the crew of my vehicle on the windshield in cartoon characters.

The driver of “White Two” is depicted as an armored Knight, plume on helm, and “Death by Steel” hand lettered on his breastplate.

My Interpreter is drawn in a ski mask and Kevlar helmet, “The Interpretator,” purpously mispelled, and hand lettered beneath a toothy smiling face.

The drawing of my RTO is actually an incredibly good likeness of the soldier. He has tears leaking out of his eyes, and two radio hand-mikes held to his ears. Beneath his tragic face is his nickname, “Bottom.”

Being the lowest ranking soldier in the Company, he ranks at the very “Bottom.”

Desperate to clarify the nickname, my RTO has modified the artists drawing, scrawling in a careful parenthesis: “(not the gay kind).”

As if we needed the clarification.

The Gunner of “White Two” has a fanciful impression of himself. He has drawn a roughly bearded Rambo, grinning maniacally with a knife clenched between his teeth.

And finally, my gunner has drawn his impression of me.

A masked Darth Vader glares back at me, clutching a light saber.


Wednesday, August 10, 2005

You Really Don't Want to Know

An older man, but perhaps younger than he looks. He is dressed in a white boater hat, a crème scarf folded neatly under his neck, linen crème trousers, and an collared, open necked shirt.

I can tell that he has taken time to dress himself today.

He is dressed to impress.

He comes off as slightly greasy.

In the heat of mid-day, while most residents of the town are dozing under shade, he approaches the Alamo on foot. Walking thru the maze of razor wire and concrete obstacles, he walks up to the front gate and asks for the “Captain.”

He has information for sale.

My I-Com warbles, and I miss the beginning of the transmission.

“….. is asking to see the Captain at the front gate. Can you send someone down here?”

Putting on my 35 lbs of body armor and helmet, I step out of the Alamo into the heat of the full August sun. Instantly, I break out into a sweat beneath the armor, and within a few seconds my shirt is soaking wet.

Walking up to the front gate with my interpreter, I find the man standing quietly, smoking a cigarette.

When he sees me, he instantly jumps up.


“No, I am a Mulazem. There is no Captain here.”

For a brief instant, a look of disappointment flashes over his face, and then his face reverts to an ingratiating smile.

“Lieutenant, I have information for you. Information about ammunition.”

This is interesting.

“What ammunition? Where is it?”

The man smiles again, pleased that I am interested.

“The ammunition is buried next to my house. Before the war, Saddam’s army came and buried boxes. Many boxes of ammunition are buried there.”

He takes out a handkerchief and mops the sweat on his forehead.

The hankerchief is yellow with sweat stains.

“How do you know this?”

“I saw them bury it myself. It is buried right next to my house.”

“What kind of ammunition is it?”

The man thinks for a second. His flush gives him an unhealthy looking pallor. He notices that his cigarette has gone out, and he fishes around in his breast pocket for a pack.

Pulling out a soft pack of “Pine” cigarettes, he lights one and offers me the pack.

I wave it away.

“They are large bullets, about the size of your hand. There are many boxes of these bullets and the bullets are all linked together.”

It sounds like a large caliber round. Perhaps an anti-aircraft round.

“How long have they been buried?”

“Since the war.”

The Iraqis always refer to the Gulf War as “The War.”

“Alright, I want you to come back tonight when it is dark. Come back at 9:00 pm. You come back here, and you can take us directly to where the ammunition is buried.”

He nods, but his face is hesitant.

He came here for a reason.

He is clearly expecting something more.

I throw him a bone.

“If you come back tonight, and we find some ammunition, there will be a reward for you.”

At this he beams.

I don't like this guy.

So I throw a little water on his enthusiasm.

“The ammunition has to be there, and we have to recover it, for any reward to be given. Do you understand that?”

“Yes, Lieutenant, yes. I will be back tonight. I know that it is there. I am 100% certain. However, I must not be seen. I must look like one of you.”

In this at least, he appears earnest.

He is watching out for his own skin.

“That won’t be a problem, we will put you in a uniform, give you body armor, and a helmet. It will be dark, and no one will see you. We do it all the time.”

“Thank you Lieutenant.”

The sun has set and the heat has not yet subsided when the man returns. He is still dressed in his rather incongruous outfit, this time, with the addition of sunglasses.

In the Command Post at the Alamo, I gather my platoon leadership and ask for a volunteer.

“Alright, I need one of you guys to give up your uniform and body armor, we need it to disguise this guy.”

“Sir, he can have my shit.”

Amid snickers and nudges between the soldiers, one of my team leaders smiles and strips down to his black spandex underwear, a brown t-shirt, and combat boots.

“Nice outfit Sergeant. Thanks.”

Stopping in the doorway with the bundle of clothing, I turn back to address the Sergeant.

“Oh, and by the way, you are not allowed to leave the Alamo dressed like that.”

He flashes me a wry grin.

“Sir, it is a good thing I didn’t go Commando this time like I normally do.”

Walking down the staircase I walk up to the informant. He is standing in the main entrance of the Alamo with an escort. When he sees me, he instantly reaches forward, and grabbing my shoulders, kisses the sides of my cheek.

The man smells like garlic.

In fact he is chewing on it.

Watching him pop raw cloves of garlic, skin and all into his mouth makes me feel slightly ill.

Turning to the private who is escorting him in the Alamo, I whisper under my breath.

“Hey, if he tries to kiss me again, I give you my permission to shoot him.”

The soldier tries to hide his grin but fails. He smiles back at me, still trying to stifle his amusement.

The man puts the uniform on over his clothing we head out into the night.

Loading him into the back of my HUMMWV, the three vehicle patrol leaves the Alamo under blackout drive. Driving with the use of Night Vision Devices, the vehicles move thru town in utter darkness, confidently reaching speeds of 40 and 50 miles an hour in the pitch black.

The man, without the aid of night vision, is tense, staring out of the windows and gripping the back of my seat with his two hands.

Finally pulling into the street where he lives, my driver switches on white headlights.

Looking out of the passenger side window, the man finally indicates a patch of overgrown weeded ground on the south side of a ramshackle two story building. The ground is immediately off of the main street, and there are curious onlookers out in the street.

Dismounting, I get on the I-Com with my team leader. “Get out the shovels and the metal detector and let’s check this out.”

The vehicles form a perimeter around the open patch of ground, and soldiers dismount and pull security. I can hear my driver yelling “Imshee!” to a particularly insistent boy that wants chocolate…a football…anything.

The ground is strewn with trash, and overgrown with weeds. The earth is broken and cracked and right in the center there is a stagnant pool of foul green waste water, fed from some of the toilets in the surrounding houses.

The smell is incredible.

“Where is it?”

The man walks directly up to the stagnant pool of foul mud and water, and points into it.

“The ammunition is buried right here.”

I have a sinking feeling that he means it is beneath the muck.

The man, so close to his prize, is incredibly eager.

“It is here. Not far under the ground. We need to dig here.”

Picking up a shovel from one of the soldiers standing by, I dig into the ground and begin to shovel loads of muck to the side. The further down I get, the more foul the mud and water seems.

Digging down only releases more sewer water into the hole.

Dripping with sweat under my armor, I look up and exchange a glance with my squad leader, who is leaning into the other shovel and pulling shovelfuls of earth from the ground.

They don’t pay us enough for this shit.

Finally looking into a green pool of stagnant water only slightly disturbed by the digging, I stop and ground my shovel.

The man looks up expectantly. I turn away from the water and leave the shovel in the earth.

“Look, any ammunition under this muck is going to have been destroyed by the water. It is worthless. Besides, no one is going to be crazy enough to dig for it beneath this sewer, this close to the main road. As far as I am concerned, it can stay there.”

Immediately his hopeful grin turns into a concerned frown. Beneath the ill fitting helmet and sunglasses, he looks angry. Then a pathetic expression dawns on his face as he realizes that I do not intend to dig any further in the sewer.

The prospect of a reward is slipping away.

“No, no, it is here. I swear it is here. It is not far down!”

Dropping to his knees, he reaches into the green waste water, and begins to scoop at the ground with his hands. Lifting out handfuls of the foul muck and trying to dig his way to the boxes with his bare hands is almost more than I can bear to watch.

“Holy Shit!”

“Stop him!”

“What is he doing?”

The soldiers exclaim in astonishment as the man mutters to himself in broken English like a madman.

“Here, it is here.”

My interpreter has taken a step back with a look of disgust on his face. His sharp Arabic conveys his feelings on no uncertain terms, and the man looks up from his digging, muck dripping from his hands and the sleeves of his borrowed uniform.

Reaching forward I grab the back of his uniform blouse and haul him to his feet. The man is still trying to dig out a hole in an Iraqi sewer with his bare hands.

He is out of his mind.

Pulling him back from the hole, I turn to one of my disgusted soldiers.

“Alright, get him cleaned up and let’s head back to the Alamo. We are thru here.”

Back at the Alamo, the man takes off the wet uniforms and hands them back to me.

Reaching into my pocket, I pull out $19 in small bills. Trying not to touch him, I hand the man the cash. He reaches his hand out for me to shake. Suppressing a shudder, I take it.

“Thank you Lieutenant.”

He pockets the money like a reward is the last thing in the world he cares about.


Turning around I walk upstairs to the Alamo CP where I find the Sergeant still wearing his skivvies and a T-shirt.

He reaches out to take the uniforms from me. I hand the uniforms to him gingerly, trying not to touch the wet spots on the sleeves.

Behind him, my squad leader grimaces.

“Sergeant, I wouldn’t put those back on.”

“Why not, sir?”

He looks at me questioningly, his hands feeling the wet thru the uniform.

I have to suppress a smile.

“Sergeant, you really don’t want to know.”

Thursday, August 04, 2005


The lonely strip of paved road is surrounded on both sides by tall garbage strewn berms running north to south. The hard packed sand berms diver the flow of water from the grand-canal into the arid fields and dry, cracked land in the south.

Stepping out of my vehicle, I see a group of soldiers clustered around a dark shape lying huddled on the ground. Behind me, two Iraqi Police vehicles come to a stop, and the Iraqi Police begin to dismount from their blue and white Ford Explorers.

Motioning to the Iraqi Policemen to stay back, I walk over to the soldiers that have been securing the site.

“Who is in charge here?”

“I am Sir, thanks for coming.”

The Sergeant in charge walks over with a tired smile. There are dark rings under his eyes, and his face is strained with fatigue. I can tell that his men have had a long night.

Glancing at my watch, the blue indigo glow tells me that it is only 5:45 in the morning.

He and his men have been here for hours.

“No problem, Sergeant, what do we have?”

The Sergeant waves his right hand towards the body.

“Well Sir, the body was found a few hours ago. He was probably killed last night or yesterday afternoon. We have been pulling security since he was found.”

Turning, I look at the body.

He has obviously been tortured.

Clad only in dark blue sweatpants with a thin vertical white line running along the seams, I can see that his dark skin is badly scored, the chest a mass of blue bruises and black marks.

Lying on the side of the road, with his hands tied and twisted beneath him, his face is still covered by a bright red bandana.

For a second I close my eyes.

I can imagine his last moments.

He was alive, if barely, when the insurgents brought him here to this place to die. In pain and terror, he was thrown from a moving vehicle by his kidnappers. With his hands bound painfully behind his back, he was unable to break his fall. After the vehicle stopped, a man wearing a headscarf wrapped around his face placed a pistol to his head and fired a single shot into his right temple.

His body lies where he fell.

Opening my eyes I walk over to the body lying on the ground. He is surprisingly young. Not more than 20 or 25.

A handwritten note is tied to his body by a black plastic bag. A government ID card is displayed prominently on his chest.

“Have you checked him for traps?”

Insurgents have been known to rig their victims with grenades.

The Sergeant runs a tired hand across his face.

“Roger Sir, we checked and it’s clean.”

“Alright, let’s get the note and the ID card.”

The Sergeant reaches down with a gloved hand and pulls the ID card off of the plastic bag. He holds the card up in the morning light, and reveals a photograph of a serious young man in a blue collared shirt.

Glancing down at the body, the man is recognizable as the man in the photo, even from beneath the blindfold.

The Sergeant grimaces and gingerly drops the ID card into a clear plastic ziplock bag.

Pulling out a matte black gerber he picks up the frayed white note using the pliers. A soldier behind him hands him another gerber, and he unfolds the note with a deft twist of his wrists.

Both sides of the note are scrawled with a ragged Arabic in a light blue ink.

“What does it say?” A masked interpreter standing to one side walks over and reads the note.

He is quiet for a second.

“Whoever wrote the note is badly educated. Almost illiterate. Most of the words are misspelled, and it is hard to read, but it says the man’s name, and that he is from Baghdad. It also says that he is a Ministry employee. They want to be sure that we can identify him.”

The insurgents are trying to make a point.

To work with the new Iraqi government is to invite the worst kind of death.

Looking over at the Iraqi Police, I can tell that they are upset. For them, this hits very close to home.

“Alright, let’s get the blindfold off and take some photos.”

The Sergeant walks over and unties the red blindfold. The young man’s face is oddly at peace, his eyes closed and his features calm. The only sign of violence is the dark red mark on his right temple where the bullet entered his skull. I cannot see an exit wound.

The Iraqi police captain and his officers turn away.

They believe that to look at the executed man’s face is to offend god and invite the same death on themselves.

I can’t say that I blame them.

Finally, I turn and motion to the Iraqi Police Captain. My patrol has escorted his men here so that the police can take possession of the body and return it to its family.

The Captain walks over, surprisingly reluctant. His men hang back by their vehicle.

“Sir, this area is not our responsibility. This area is the responsibility of another Police Precinct. They need to come take possession of the body. This is not our job.”

It takes me a second to realize that he is refusing to pick up the body.

“So you are saying that even though we escorted you out here, you want another Police Precinct to come pick up the body? That you will not do it?”

“That is correct, Sir.”

I stand quietly gazing at the man. I can’t believe what I am hearing. Suppressing a sudden flash of frustration, I address the Captain calmly.

“Captain, this man has been murdered by insurgents. His body is lying on the side of the road. It is disrespectful to the man, and it is disrespectful before god to not do everything we can to send him back to his family, where he may be laid to rest in peace.”

The Captain returns my gaze, and then his eyes fall on the body at his feet.

Straightening, he gives a short nod of his head.

“You have the right of it. I was not thinking clearly. It would be disrespectful. I must not forget my duty to the man.”

He is quiet for a second, and then he looks back up.

“Also, I must not forget my duty to god.”

Turning, he speaks quietly to his men. They look at one another, and then they look at the Captain.

Finally, one of them reaches into his vehicle and picks up a body bag.

Moving quietly in the early morning light, the six Iraqi Policemen reverently pick up the body of the young man, and prepare to bring him home.

Monday, August 01, 2005

The Calm Before the Storm

The roof of the Alamo spreads out before me in the darkness, with only the silhouette of the machine gun positions outlined against the night sky. The sandbags building up the positions form part of the wall in the darkness, leaving me feeling like I am looking out over the crenulated battlements of an old castle.

To the east, the moon is low in the sky, its pale crescent face floating prophetically above the outline of the tall minaret of the mosque. Above, only the stars high up above the horizon are visible. The rest of the sky is washed out, with the lights of the city glaring off of the perpetual mist of dust in the air.

Walking to the south wall, I look out over the Shia district. I can hear them celebrating. Down the road a few hundred meters, to the west, is a large crowd. A band is playing Arabic music, and the crowd thrusts their hands above their heads and moves and sways in time with the beat. A few gunshots ring out, and the crowd cheers the gunmen on.

I glance at my watch.


It must be a wedding.

Standing behind a gun emplacement, I allow the sounds of the celebration to wash over me. The revelers are in full swing. Just off the main road, they sit around their tables and watch the crowd dancing. I can hear the men laughing and shouting. The women are grouped in clusters, many wearing all black, except for the bride, who is adorned in white.

These are the sights and sounds of life. Here, in the midst of all of the darkness and decay, it is wonderful to see.

Suddenly, without warning, the entire northern section of the city plunges into darkness.

Turning, I look to the north, and can make out the bare shadowed outline of the buildings marking the start of the Sunni district. From here, the shadowy buildings and the even darker window holes take on a sinister look.

Then like a final curtain falling, all lights disappear to the south. The entire town washes out in darkness as the electricity fails. The electricity cutting out shuts off the music from the wedding, and the sudden failing of light and sound is profound. In the silence, the Alamo is surrounded by a sea of shadows, with nothing brighter than the moon and the now vivid stars in the sky.

The wedding party cheers in the darkness.

To the south, a few homes light up as the wealthier occupants of the town power up their generators. To the east, the mosque flashes into brilliance, its tall minaret glowing as its power comes online, a beacon of light in a sea of darkness.

I can hear the guests at the wedding begining to sing, making up for the loss of music from the band.


One of the soldiers on guard walks over and flips the night vision mounted on his helmet up and out of his face. The night vision mounted on his helmet gives his profile a slightly alien shape.

He beckons me over to the east wall, towards the mosque.

“Sir, you need to see this.”

The concern in his voice is apparent.

Walking over to the east wall I can see why. In the distance, beyond the town, a huge orange glow lights up the sky. On the horizon, the flames reach the sky and billow with a pulsing life.

Something is on fire.

Something big.

It is quite possibly the eeriest thing I have ever seen in my life.

I turn to the soldier next to me.

“When did that start?”

“Sir, it started just a few minutes ago.”

After watching for another minute, I turn away and walk over to the door leading down into the Alamo. The inside of the Alamo is not lit when the power in the city is out, and stepping down the uneven concrete steps in the darkness is hazardous at best.

Moving thru the shadowed corridors, I pass sleeping soldiers, some resting on flimsy metal cots, and some sprawled out on the ground.

All are sweltering in the summer heat.

The CP of the Alamo is small room, filled with maps and communication equipment. The soldier on radio-watch is listening to the radio intently, but he is trying to look out of the sandbagged windows at the glowing orange flames in the darkness.

Reaching for the Battalion net, I trigger the handset.

“Thunder X-Ray this is Warrior Alamo. We can see a fire to the east, possibly two to three kilometers away. It started a few minutes ago. The fire is huge, a bright ball of flame in the air.”

Thunder X-Ray seems to be digesting that information, because it takes a minute for them to respond.

“Warrior Alamo, this is Thunder X-Ray, Roger, keep us updated.”

As I put down the handset, other calls start flooding the Battalion net. Units from all over the area are calling in the massive ball of fire in the east.

As the successive calls come in, I can hear the radio-watch at Battalion getting more and more frustrated with his lack of information.

That there is a massive ball of fire in the sky is all that anyone seems to be able to say.

Finally, someone at Battalion makes a decision, and the call comes out over the radio net.

“All units, go to Redcon 1.”

Handing back the handset, I pick up my personal radio. It links me to the rest of the Platoon scattered all over the Alamo.

“All units go to Redcon 1. I want 3rd Squad on the roof, and 1st Squad manning the perimeter and the gate.”

One by one my Squad Leaders check in and acknowledge the order. Outside the CP, I can hear the soldiers scrambling to their feet to don their body armor and get their weapons.

As I walk back down the dark hallway and up the steps to the rooftop, I pass soldiers heading in the other direction, moving to man the front gate and the perimeter of the Alamo.

Other soldiers are passing me on their way up the steps, moving to their positions on the rooftop. There is little noise in the darkness. No shouting and no fuss. The soldiers know their job, and they do it well.

As I step out onto the roof, I am greeted by a relatively cool breeze that I barely notice.

The dark silhouettes of soldiers outline the wall, and I can tell from their positions that everyone has moved to the perimeter. There is now a formidable force on the rooftop. Everyone is tense, the soldiers talking quietly as they scan their sectors. Team leaders move from man to man, checking on their positions and double-checking their equipment.

We can take no chances.

The fire in the distance could be a decoy, a false alarm to draw attention away from the Alamo.

The city power going out could be the prelude to an attack.

Walking back to the west wall, I pick up a pair of binoculars, and scan the rooftops around the Alamo for signs of movement.


Putting the binoculars down, I can see the massive orange glow, still lighting up the night sky in the distance.

It is spectacular.

It is awful.

And there is something else.

The city is strangely quiet. It takes me a minute to realize what is missing.

Looking out over the street to the southwest, I realize that in the few short minutes I had been inside the Alamo, the entire wedding party has disbursed.

All of the signs of life and happiness are gone.

Gone is the singing and dancing.

Gone too are the sounds of laughter and the long rows of food laden tables.

It leaves me strangely empty inside.

In just a few short minutes, the street has gone from one of reveling, to that of tense, anxious moments in the dark.

It is as if the people here sense it too.

There is a sense of waiting.

Like the calm before the storm.

We could be attacked at any time, and still there is that massive orange glow to the east.

As I begin to walk the perimeter of the roof to check on the battle positions, I suddenly feel very tired.

It is going to be a long night.
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