This far out in the countryside, the stench of the cities has faded, and the fresh, fragrant breeze blowing from the north brings with it the slight scent of citrus. The morning breeze is cool and the countryside looks peaceful in the warm, yellow glow of the sun.
It is the first beautiful morning that I can remember.
It actually feels like spring.
The canal path stretches east to west, an elevated platform just large enough for a HMMWV. For 500 meters up and down the path, the gunners in the turrets of the six armored vehicles of my platoon provide cover for my two dismounted squads. All told, I have brought 33 soldiers of my platoon into this morning’s search operation.
This is our fourth straight day of combat operations, and the second day in a row that I have not had the time for sleep.
To the north and south of the canal path, a grassy field leads down to well kept houses and lawns shaded by pale green groves of trees. Walking down the embankment and into the field, I can see the soldiers spreading out and beginning to search the houses for weapons or other signs of the insurgency.
To the north, Apaches circle around a target, providing air cover for the operation, which began at 2:00 am this morning. The operation involves hundreds of troops, both US and Iraqi, and my platoon plays only a small part in the overall picture.
The radio warbles for a second, and then a crystal clear transmission comes thru.
“Warrior 2/6, this is Warrior 2/1, where is our medic at?”
I key the small black I-Com radio I carry on my body armor.
“Warrior 2/1, this is Warrior 2/6, Doc is over at White 7 with Warrior 2/7.”
“Roger, there is a woman here that appears to need some medical assistance, can you send him over here?
At this my Platoon Sergeant, who has been monitoring the traffic breaks in.
“Warrior 2/1, this is 2/7, I see you over by that group of people. I have Doc with me and I will bring him right over.”
Looking further south, past the field filled with farm animals and livestock, I can see a small crowd gathering by a two story house in a grassy lot to the south. It appears to be a family, and they are clustered around a little old woman in a black burkha, sitting on a colorful blanket on the grassy ground.
Surrounding the matriarch throng young children with dirty bare feet, their toothy smiles unmarred by their poverty. The unmarried girls wear purple and blue burkhas, a relief from the stark black of the older women.
Gathered in a small cluster, bearded old men with nicotine stained fingers stand and watch, their heads lowered in quiet conversation.
Turning, I gesture to Max, my interpreter, and he follows me down the embankment and across the field towards the small crowd.
As I arrive, I see our Platoon Medic, or “Doc” as he is affectionately known by the troops, beginning to kneel down by the elderly lady on the blanket. Behind him, stands my Platoon Sergeant, talking with one of the older men. They are surrounded by a dozen family members watching Doc intently as he and Max talk to the Matriarch.
Looking down at the Matriarch of the family, I am startled by hold old she appears.
Her face is shrunken, toothless and lined with age. A headscarf covers her hair, and her tiny, shriveled form huddles on the blanket, wrapped in black.
Taking off my dark sunglasses, I stand quietly in the shade watching Doc talk to the Matriarch.
She stops talking to Doc and looks up at me.
I find myself riveted.
Her eyes are amazing.
Startling blue eyes gaze up at me. In her small, shrunken face, her blue eyes appear larger than life. Her eyes widen briefly as she looks into mine, and then she smiles, a toothless, mirthful grin.
Reaching a wrinkled, shrunken hand up, she points at her eyes and then points at mine.
Behind her, two careworn women, kneeling on a small red rug look up into my face. They whisper and smile, pointing at my eyes, and then pointing at the Matriarch. The family begins talking excitedly, and some of them begin to laugh in delight.
A small girl, shy in her pink dress giggles and whispers behind her hand to her father as she points at my eyes.
I too have blue eyes.
All of the other members of the family have brown eyes.
For these simple people, blue eyes, eyes that are the same color as that of the family Matriarch, are a rare and special thing.
I can’t help but to smile back.
Hearing some talking behind me, I turn and see my Company First Sergeant speaking with a group of women about his family. To these rural farm women, the family is everything. None of the women can read or write, and from marriage at the age of 14, they have as many children as they can to help work the farms.
From childhood, the family is all that they know.
The Company First Sergeant, or “Top” as he is known to the soldiers, is a grizzled former Marine, looking fiercely stern beneath his dark goggles and helmet.
Today, his usually stern expression is softened as he takes out a photo of his youngest daughter, a blond haired, blue eyed, four year old named Katie.
The women are enthralled.
They giggle and laugh at the photo of the little blond girl. Talking excitedly, they discuss the color of her hair, and they pass the photograph around to one another, exclaiming in Arabic in delight.
The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly, despite the soldiers searching the houses around us. It is almost as if we are in a small pocket of calm, in an otherwise tense and stressful world.
This family has accepted us, delightedly comparing their families with our own.
It is a common bond that we all can share.
Turning to the First Sergeant, I catch his eye as he watches the women look at the photo of his daughter.
“Hey Top, how about I fetch my RTO over here.”
He looks at me quietly for a second, and then nods his head with a smile.
Pulling out my radio, I request the presence of my RTO, a young, freckle-faced, 18 year-old soldier. He is the lowest ranking soldier in the Company, and is only 8 months out of basic training.
He is also the First Sergeant’s son.
To the north, along the canal road, I can see my RTO approach, a look of confusion on his face. On his body armor, he has slung dozens of shotgun shells for the pump-action shotgun he is carrying. On his back, he has slung his M4 Carbine, for engaging more distant targets. Beneath his helmet and dark glasses, he looks every bit like an infantryman, well equipped and ready for action.
I can tell that he is wondering why he was pulled from a search team and told to come here.
The First Sergeant walks up to his son and whispers something to him. Then he puts his arm around his son’s shoulder, and turns to address the crowd of curious family members.
Without looking at the interpreter, he tells him.
“Max, tell them that this is my oldest son.”
Max, who has served with our unit for months, is momentarily speechless.
Although their two names are the same, he had never made the connection that the highest ranking, and the lowest ranking soldiers in the Company were even related.
Let alone father and son.
Max translates in a quiet Arabic, and the people fall silent, staring at the First Sergeant and my RTO.
They are stunned.
It has never occurred to them that such a thing was possible.
In the quiet, I can hear a slight, quavering voice call out. Behind the clustered crowd of people, the Matriarch of the family is asking that the First Sergeant and his son be brought forward thru the crowd of people to where she can see them.
The crowd respectfully parts, providing a clear path from the First Sergeant to the Matriarch.
The First Sergeant walks forward, and his son, standing several inches taller than him, trails a step behind. They stop in front of the elderly lady, and the First Sergeant puts his left hand on his son’s shoulder again.
With his right hand, he respectfully touches his breast as he quietly addresses the Matriarch and her attendees.
“Ma’am, this is my oldest son. We made the decision together, to come to this country and help the people of Iraq.”
Her piercing blue eyes gaze up at the First Sergeant and his son.
For a moment, all is quiet.
Then I notice.
Tears are coursing down her cheeks.
The sight of the First Sergeant and his son is too much for this gentle woman.
Thru her tears, she speaks quietly in Arabic in her wavering voice.
“I am crying for your mother. May she be blessed by Allah. For you to be here with your father, and for your poor mother to be at home without you. Without her son.”
Then she looks up, her finger pointing towards heaven.
“May Allah watch over you. May Allah watch over your mother, as she misses you. As she misses both of you.”
For an instant I am chilled.
The blessing has power behind it.
I can feel it.
Turning away from the Matriarch’s tear stained face, I walk out of the crowd and take a deep breath of the cool, scented air.
Walking up to the canal path, I stop and do a quick survey of the area, checking on my Platoon’s progress.
Then I quietly say a prayer, one that I have heard my mother say countless times.
“May it be from her mouth to God’s ears.”