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.

“Captain?”

“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.

Bullshit.

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.”

2 Comments:

Blogger Irishfyrgirl said...

Thank you for sharing this story-- it is the details like these that all of us at home need to hear as a reminder of the sacrifices that you are making for us. Thank you.

12:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The mental picture of you diging up whatsit sent me reeling off my chair flinging a sleepy calico aloft. I feel as if I am reading excerpts of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, with bits of Lewis Carrol's Alice In Wonderland, thrown in for good measure. He was certainly an interesting white rabbit, but nuttier than a March hare.

Mom

7:54 PM  

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