Baghdad, Iraq/ February 24, 2005
I’m on my first convoy today, where riding shotgun once again means exactly that. I wear a ballistic helmet, ballistic eye-protection, fire-proof gloves, and a flak vest designed to defeat the exact size round the enemy fires. The vest comes with a snap on groin-protector, but I’ve already decided I’m going to sit on that thing; it seems to me that I should be more concerned about a blast coming from the bottom than one from the top. I carry a Baretta 9mm pistol, with one magazine in the well and two hooked to my vest. I also carry an M16 rifle, with one magazine in the well, but with six extra magazines. In total, I have 255 rounds of ammunition. I feel equally empowered and apprehensive at the prospect of possessing so much ability to destroy. I have a client at an outlying Forward Operating Base, or FOB, and I’ve asked the unit to come pick me up at my base, about a 40-minute round trip in light traffic. It will take them three vehicles, and they’ll have to be on the road four times, but I need to see where my guy lives, and what he does, and where his misconduct supposedly took place. Each of the three vehicles coming to get me has a three-man crew: A driver, a vehicle commander, and a gunner. I don’t like them having to take extra risks just for one man, but the alternative is to bring all the witnesses to me, which would turn it into about 10-vehicle convoy. I meet the First Sergeant and his men outside my building. I’ve been in Iraq for about a week, and all my equipment is new and clean, my glasses unscratched, my weapons unfired, all in stark contrast to the men I now look upon. To most, I suspect, they would look dirty and used. To me they do look worn, but also intense, experienced, professional. They look like guys I’d want strapped to roof-top guns when I take my first ride into a hostile city. Another obvious difference between them and me is our age. Aside from the First Sergeant, a career soldier, they all appear to be in their early twenties or late teens. The young man sticking out of the turret of my ride and manning the .50 cal machine gun – as intimidating a weapon as any in our inventory – is surely outweighed by the gun he operates. I decide he must rarely need to shave. The First Sergeant salutes me, hands me another magazine of 5.56 mm, and asks if I’m ready to go. I say I am, get into the vehicle, and we’re on our way. Using his radio, he calls his home base to let them know we’re leaving through Emerald Gate, and then says to me, over his shoulder, “sir, go red.” I lock and load around into the chambers of both my rifle and my pistol, and we’re onto the streets of Baghdad.I’m on the road today because I need to interview my client and several witnesses, all of whom are located at an outlying FOB, named Camp Headhunter, or Camp Independence, or Al Istiqlal, depending on how politically correct we’re being, or whom you’re talking to.Independence (I’m going with the most optimistic) is near the volatile Al Khark district, home of Saddam’s youth and a significant number of incredibly poor Sunni Muslims, who comprise the brunt of the Insurgency. It’s also home to Haifa Street, the most dangerous road in Baghdad, and one of the most dangerous places in all of Iraq (I find out later the soldiers have taken to calling it Grenade Alley).
Camp Independence is home to two companies of 1-9 Cavalry, a mechanized infantry unit from Ft. Hood, Texas. Their greater mission is to attain stability in the area by defeating the Insurgency. They act on intelligence from sympathetic locals, intelligence gathered on previous missions or from higher headquarters, or intelligence given to them from other units. Once they get information, which usually identifies locations of a weapons stash or a particular person the unit might be looking for – also called a High Value Target, or “HVT” – the unit commander gives an operations order to one of his subordinate units to go out and conduct a patrol of the area. It could be a show of force, a recon, a raid, or a movement to contact. In its execution, it involves anywhere from 10 – 200 men loaded for bear, getting into up-armored HMMWVs and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, driving to a pre-designated area, getting out of their vehicles, and conducting their mission on foot. In a nutshell, these men walk down the streets of a dangerous and densely populated neighborhood and try to get people to shoot at them.
I’m visiting Charlie Company, or “Crazywolf,” and they’ve had a particularly rough go of the Haifa Street area. Of the 130 men in the company, more than 80 have received Purple Hearts. All but 16 returned to duty after receiving their injuries. Of those, 13 had injuries too serious to stay in country, and 3 were killed in action. My client saw one of the thirteen lose his legs when an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) went off next to him; he saw one of the 3, a soldier who was also his roommate, take a Rocket Propelled Grenade first through the front windshield of his HMMWV, then through his head. He tells me that in the past year he’s been shot at, has had grenades thrown at him, has gone door-to-door, at night, in a huge city apartment building in search of armed men meaning to hurt him, has been near IEDs and car bombs as they exploded, and felt the collapse of air around his head that follows an RPG as it flies by. He talks the language of a soldier, acronyms in abundance – RPG, IED, VBED, CO, PL, ATL, ING, FISTER – the form so familiar and easy to me, even if some of the words are new. It’s also peppered with so many variances of “fuck” that I can’t help but smile.
We sit outside, about 150 yards from the front gate, the Bad Guys purportedly just on the other side of the wall. As I ask questions, and he answers, I hear the familiar “pop pop” of rifles, though with a rhythm and cadence I’m not used to.
“So it was about midnight when this happened?,” I ask.
“I think so,” he answers. Pop, pa-pop, I hear. The sounds are close.
“Uh hum. And you were supposed to be on guard duty?” “Roger,” he says, “me and Smith were up in the nest, when we heard the argument.” Pop pop pop pop pop.
I say, as coolly as I can muster, “Is that a gunfight?” “Roger, sir,” he says. Brrp. Pa-pop pop. Yelling. “Um hum.” I continue.
“So what did you and Smith do after you heard the arguing?” Pop pop. Brrrrrpp. Lots of yelling.
“I sent Smith down the stairs to the SOG, to see if he could find out what the fuck was going on.” Pop pa-pop. Pop pop pop. I too would like to find out what the fuck is going on. “Is that right outside the front gate?” I ask.
“Roger sir,” he says. Another soldier walks by, my client knows him, and he calls out to him. “Hey Gonzalez, you slut!” Gonzalez smiles, they exchange a touch of their closed fists, and Gonzalez continues on his way. Neither Gonzalez nor my client seem particularly concerned by the potentiality of men dying yards from where we sit, and I learn that this is, in fact, perfectly normal for the men of 1-9 Cav. Also normal are stray rounds (the camp doc was hit in the calf by a stray AK 47 round), mortars, and rockets. Less common is the occasional gate crasher-cum-suicide bomber in the form of a “VBIED”, or “Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device.” This, I realize, is a way of life for these men, and has been for the past year. They deal with it individually, but clearly share something through the commonality of their constant danger.
I spend the day conducting interviews, visiting the scene, learning what life is like for my client and his fellow soldiers. I eat in his dining facility, where lunch is a self-serve buffet of white bread, mayonnaise and mustard packets, roast beef or turkey, cheese, fruit, and bags of potato chips. I ask a soldier sitting next to me if this is what he eats everyday. “No sir,” he answers, “we get hamburgers on Tuesday and Thursday.” Shortly after lunch I’m told that a platoon of soldiers, acting on a tip that an insurgent has moved into a neighborhood friendly to American soldiers, will conduct a recon to check the veracity of the information. I want to see them when they come back, so I wait outside their living quarters. Around 1500 they return, dismounting from their vehicles once they enter the gate. I meet the NCO in charge of the patrol – the same one who told me they were going out on the mission – and I ask him about the tip.
“Roger,” he says, “the guy wasn’t there, but we talked to some neighbors. They said that there was a terrorist living there, that he wasn’t home right now, but that they were going to kill him when he got back.”
As I talk to the NCO, I watch the other soldiers as they file by. They all wear protective helmets and vests adorned with ammo pouches, flash lights, snap-links, first-aid packs – collectively known as “full battle rattle” – and dark sunglasses. Despite the relatively cool day, I can see most are sweaty as they walk by me, on their way to unwind however it is they unwind when they come back from a combat mission. Almost all are quiet, some patting my client on the shoulder as they walk by, some softly saying his name, some touching knuckles with him. Many have told me that my client, in some way or another, has saved their lives in the past year.
Time slips by quickly, and dusk is on the way. The unit is supposed to drive me back home, but they still have to turn around and come back to their own base. I remember being briefed that the roads are most dangerous early in the morning and late in the day, when insurgents have had the opportunity to emplace IEDs. I tell the First Sergeant that I’m ready to head back; he quickly and concisely gives orders to get the convoy ready. I get back into my gear and climb in the back seat of the HMMWV, but we’re momentarily held up while the First Sergeant and Platoon Leader check for a new route – two suicide bombers, both within the past 2 hours, have temporarily closed our primary and alternate routes back to my base. I get out, take off my helmet, and lean against the front hood of my HMMWV, listening to the remaining four soldiers talk as we all wait for the route check. All four of them have been here 11 months, three are from Texas, and three have had their twenty-frist birthday since they’ve been here in Iraq. The fourth is nineteen.
“Dude, I’m lead vehicle on the way back!” the rear gunner calls out to the front. “Fine,” says the front gunner, “but I get your Play Station if you die on the way home.” They all laugh. The front gunner asks me if BIAP (Baghdad International Airport) is “that way;” I say no and point the correct direction. The rear gunner, now out of his turret and sitting cross-legged on the hood of the HMMWV, asks me if I have a Leatherman. I do, and pull the utility tool from my belt and hand it to him. He proceeds to dig a piece of shrapnel out of the grill. The front gunner watches, still asking about BIAP. I live at a base near there, with a Burger King and a pizza shop, a big Post Exchange, and many other amenities in relative comfort and safety in comparison to these kids’ surroundings.
As the sun falls behind a grove of date palms, the First Sergeant returns from the Operations Center with a third route planned. He seems to be a bit more nervous than when he went in the building. I want to offer to stay the night, so they can bring me back in the morning, but the soldiers seem excited to go to the Burger King, and I don’t want to seem like I’m questioning the First Sergeant’s judgment. I remain silent and tentative.
We leave the base, going through the same ritual of “going red,” the soldiers now wearing clear-lens ballistic eyeglasses. All cars make an extra effort to give us the right of way. I ask the First Sergeant about this, and he says most of the people are used to us being here, and have learned to always give us the right of way. I suspect it’s also partly due to the placard attached to the back of the rear vehicle, proclaiming, in Iraqi-Arabic, “STAY BACK. I HAVE AUTHORITY TO KILL YOU.” From the backseat, I strain my eyes around each corner, down each alley, on each overpass, and into every vehicle we pass, looking for anything suspicious, whatever that may be.
We make it to my base without incident, though the rear gunner tells me that someone took a pot-shot at him about ten minutes after we left his FOB. For my part, I am internally frantic the entire ride home, and remain so after the convoy drops me off at my own operations center. I scramble to find them phone numbers to check the original routes, a better map, water – anything to somehow make up for getting them home so late. Despite my twelve years in the Army, I’ve made a rookie move, and I feel sick for doing so. These young men have put their lives in danger – twice – simply to get me from one base to another. I have contributed nothing except to place them at greater risk. I resolve to never do so again, and when I get back to my office I practically yell at my own attorneys to ensure they never make the same mistake.
The next morning I will email the First Sergeant and Platoon Leader my sincerest apologies, and ensure them that though it is unlikely they will need to drive me again, I will never make the same mistake with other units. I get an immediate response from both. They tell me not to worry about it, that they made it home safely, and that they are happy to do anything they can to make it easier for me to do my job, to help one of their soldiers, one of their men, one of their brothers. Despite their circumstances – away from their family and loved ones, austere living conditions, Spartan lunches, and the constant possibility of killing or being killed – despite this, it boils down to this one thing for these men: I will do my job.
For many of them, especially the young soldiers far closer to my little sister’s age than mine – kids, really – they know no politics, or global strategy, or hyper-power, or at least pretend they don’t know and don’t care. Inconsequential is the difference between Sunni and Shiite, Allawi and al Sistani, contemporary Rumsfeld and Rumsfeld circa-1983. All they know is I will do my job, and then I will go home back to Texas and so will my buddy on the .50 cal on the rear vehicle and then he can keep his own Play Station. They will do their job, and so, I promise myself, I will do mine.