There are only two days in Iraq; the day you get here and the day you leave…
March 16, 2005 was the single best day thus far of my time in Iraq. The day started off as any other. I got out of bed, and donned cammie top, bottom, boots, threw a cap on my head, made sure I had a 30 round magazine on my weapon stock. Op checked the “mistress”, grabbed my back pack and headed out the door, total time from eyes open to departure, 4 minutes. I looked bad, and felt worse. Sleep is the only escape here, and that has come with such randomness as of late when I get it I have to trick myself into accepting that I can actually do it. As per the norm when I got into the TOC I was bombarded with the SITREP, and all the things that intel is supposed to know ad naseum and verbatim. For those of you old enough to remember the TV show “Taxi” at the end when the credits had rolled. We hear a female voice saying “Goodnight Mr. Walters.” Mr. Walters replies, inaudibly; Mr. Walters: “Mumble mumble…” That is my usual response until I get to my desk and get the SITREP (Situation Report, a snapshot of what has happened in a given time). The day itself was shaping up to be more if the same a real snoozer.
MAJ K, was scheduled to go out on a patrol with the Battalion CDR, LTC F, but MAJ K, wanted to stay back and get caught up on the massive amounts of information we receive. We have been behind since we took over our Area of Operations, so we needed to climb a little farther up on the heap. Yet every time we think we see the top, it just keeps getting steeper and higher. I am beginning to think that it would take the light from caught up a million years to get to how far behind we always seem to be. So, as I mentioned it appeared to be just another day, in B’dad. I went and knocked on LTC F’s door and asked him if he had any specific intel requirements on the day. He looked up at me and asked if I wanted to roll along with him on his patrol. In the span of 3 seconds before I said yes, my mind raced about a million miles to find a compelling reason why I shouldn’t go. For the life of me I could not, saying I don’t want to is not really something one tells one’s commanding officer. So, as I was saying yes, my mind was already racing as to what kit I’d need. You see, when going on a patrol you have to choose the best kit for the type of mission you’d be going on. For example, on a linear patrol along a highway, the M-14 would be ideal, in the Designated Marksman role. The ability to reach out to targets at 1000 yards, and say goodbye adds to one’s feeling of security. For the urban arena, a variety weapons is needed, shotguns with an assortment of ammunition; the lessons learned in Fallujah, and An Najaf are simple. The Muja’s respect the shotgun, and by that I mean they absolutely dread the sound of the racking of and discharge of the street sweeper. It has been known to remove limbs with one shot. For the environment we would be in we went with standard kit; Kevlar helmet, body armour, ammo, M-4 carbine, and water.
Before we “rolled” LTC F, conducted a pre-combat inspection checking us for proper wear of our kit. He checked our weapons for cleanliness, and made sure we had enough grenades. Satisfied we mounted up, and our convoy rolled into the food chain (again). LTC F’s intent was to conduct a patrol along the Tigris, and check the shores for weapons caches. His preferred method is dismounted. Meaning getting out of the up-armoured Hummers, and putting boot to dirt. Now, keeping in mind that we are on the same hemisphere as you, it is still a desert environment so with the armour on and the fact that we were surrounded on all sides by single and double canopy jungle, and flanked on both sides of the roads, by houses. As we began to walk I felt very exposed, but watching LTC F, move about with such confidence, and command presence was inspiring. I drew strength from his very presence. Despite blistering pain in my back from the armour, and from crouching to look into every drainage ditch, in every car window, stopping to listen to every sound when the birds stopped chirping, despite sweat dripping from my head and the stinging in my eyes from it. My legs ached from the slow deliberate walking one must do to avoid tripping an IED, or stepping on a mine. I felt fairly confident we were safe as there were a few locals milling about and again there were children present occasionally. As I mentioned before the Mujas don’t typically murder children. I think I’d have collapsed from exhaustion if this was a movement to contact patrol (one where we knew we’d find as…Ok, digression here; I talked to our BN Chaplain Father Bob, he mentioned that he liked MAJ K’s mine and Thunder6’s blogs, but that I used to much profanity, so I will make yet another attempt to not use my favorite 4 letter adjectives.) On with the show, so progressing along Thunder6, and I found ourselves on point. This being the place where a man is the first in the formation, the first to move out, and for those of you who watch the old Star Trek, he was the dude in the red shirt that in the script was written as guy who gets killed in scene 1. When LTC F said I was to take point, I looked at him and said; “Sir, you can’t put the black guy on point! Don’t you watch TV?!?!” Let me tell you about LTC F, he is an educator, a scholar, and a gentle and kind man. But in his chest beats the heart of a warrior. He served in Vietnam as a Marine, and again in Rhodesia, in the famed Selous Scouts. He has a way about him that calms and inspires without having to say a word, but his sense of humor is as large as his sense of purpose. His laughter was deep and sincere; shaking his head he slapped me on the back as I ran past him to take my position “on point”. Thunder 6 was to my left, and we again moved ahead, Siempre Adelante “Always Forward”. I couldn’t help but look across the river at the jungle, it reminded me so much of the introduction to my all time favorite movie “Apocalypse Now”, I was lost in the serenity of it, and my mind was wandering far far away from the immediate necessity to focus on my environment. I heard the little voice in the back of my mind calling me back to reality.
“Excuse me Russ, this is LT Currie, can I be in charge for a while? Thanks, that’d be super! You might want to pay attention so as not to get blown the hell up on this lovely little trail.” So, snapping back to reality I shook off my need to vacate my mind from the moment, and back to the painstaking process of looking three dimensionally around me, for anything out of the ordinary, some split second notice of something wrong, listening for anything that would give me “on point” a jump on a bad guy. As we swept from side to side, looking, listening, waiting, and hoping that God was watching over us with a ready sword, we moved forward. When we came to about the ¾ mark of houses that were on our patrol, we came up to a gate that was slightly ajar, so we decided to look inside. Slowly peaking through is not very accurate. Firstly when on a patrol wherever your eyes look your weapon is pointed there. For the obvious reason, that you can send bullets should you need to. This response is nearly automatic, but the weapon gets very heavy especially when your muscles are screaming to rest. As I entered what I thought to be a courtyard turned out to be the front yard of a family dwelling. I saw movement to my right and swung around to face 2 young boys. Who came running out to meet the “Mister Mister” w/chocolate. Almost as fast as I pointed my weapon at the movement, the Mother came rushing out to pull her sons back in, she was screaming; “La la la!!!” This is Arabic for No, no, no. She was genuinely afraid that I was going to shoot her children, I was so shocked I literally dropped my weapon, (it was attached to my armour so it fell to my side) as I let it go, I dropped to one knee and smiled at the children. They came up to me and shook my hand and were all smiles. The children in this country just love us. As I backed out me and Thunder6 repeatedly said thank you in Arabic, the mother reached out for and smothered her boys with hugs. The love a mother has for her children never ceases to amaze me, the look of fear and then relief in her eyes was amazing. Hell, I’m one of the good guys (at least I hope so), and I was scared for her children. What is of interest is exactly how little time you have to decide to shoot or not. Yet in a relatively small amount of time I think I aged a few weeks.
During the course of our dismount we probably moved 1 ½ kilometers, and when we finally climbed back into our HUMMWVs, I was totally spent, it was as if I’d run a marathon in waist deep mud. I probably lost about 3 lbs of water weight, and my eyes were red from strain. THANK GOD for the new HMMWVs. They have AC!!! When I say this to the American taxpayer THANK YOU I do so with all sincerity! After we got back into the vehicles and drove off, LTC (by the way this is a rank for Lieutenant Colonel, our Battalion Commander.) Anyway we were headed back to the road and LTC F drove up to a house that was by the highway. He dismounted again, and again he did so faster than his Personal Security Detachment (PSD) could get out with him, he motioned me over and we went from Combat Patrol to interviewing a local in the blink of an eye. This is called change of mission. It goes with the Army’s new flexibility program. More things we have to learn in the blink of an eye. We trained for this kind of thing back at Ft Polk (Joint Readiness Training Center, or JRTC) however it is very different in the reality of things away from the safety of the training environment. Here mistakes end up on CNN (Constantly Negative News), or FOX (Fueling Our Xenophobia) (Piss off MSNBC!!!!) So, as our BDE commander calls it, this fight is “intellectual combat” a gambit of chess with a determined and ruthless enemy; an enemy who is not nearly as bound by conventional morality as us, and who isn’t afraid of a little bad press. So as I approached LTC F said handle this 2 (2 is the staff section designator that I fall under S2, or Staff 2 Intelligence).
So as he marched off to look at something else here I was now changing mission again, this time from Soldier to diplomat. I learned a lesson from the former Battalion Civil Affairs officer, who I’ll call Tex. Tex was as smooth as silk, and had a voice like good Kentucky sour mash, it was just pure cool. He had a way about him that was just as friendly as a purring kitten. Tex could sell a used car with no wheels, engine or seats, to you and convince you it was a bargain. He taught me to always smile, and shake everyone’s hand. Not that he was being friendly, no that perception was there but, more importantly he was checking for weapons, and looking into the eyes of everyone he’d met. There is something to be said for the eyes being the window to the soul. They eyes tell much. I’d took this lesson to heart, and applied it here. My training was over, school was out, and I was for the first time on my own conducting an honest to God field interview in a country that was as foreign to me as I was in it. With a man whose language was as old possibly as civilization itself. This man was so proud of the fact we, the all mighty American Army had come to his humble (Very) humble home. He offered me a cigarette, and we talked about my home, the Chevy Nova he’d inherited from his Father. His wife and his daughter who were the same ages I don’t think that they were sisters, but they were definitely friends. So we continued our talk of life the universe and everything. In this country, and culture you must discuss the simple things before you discuss business, the American way of cutting to the chase is viewed as rude. Again I did not want to be the Ugly American nor did I wish to end up on CNN, FOX, (Piss off MSNBC), so I listened attentively as my interpreter translated his stories, I laughed when he laughed, and then it was down to business. He said he wanted an AK-47 to guard his stretch of land near the highway. Ok, now we are in business. I said that I’d have to check with the “Boss” to get permission but that I think looking into it would be fruitful. He was appreciative. At this point I began to eat a power bar (I usually carry about 10 per patrol), his daughter and wife came floating over like Dracula’s bride. They looked very interested in what I was eating. They lowered their veils, and began smiling at me. I motioned for my driver to bring my pack over and I gave girls 2 power bars each, and a bag of corn nuts, and 2 cans of Coke. The Daughter spoke to the “mother” and she then spoke to the interpreter. Who looked rather surprised and asked me; “Mr Russ, the daughter wants to know if you have wife?” Holy mother of God! I am sure to the good country folk of Southern B’dad’s rural region she was a beauty. However as I am from Los Angeles, and not a pedophile (she was not a day over 16) as was her stepmother), and am happily (most all of the time) married, so I told him to tell her father that I already had my legal limit of wives, and we were forbidden by international law from Marrying while in a combat deployment. The BS was flowing from my mouth so fast I was like, please God someone shoot at me please! We then shook hands and then the “mom” went” over to a tree and hit it with a stick until some berries fell out, she scooped up about two dozen and handed them to me, she said through my interpreter that they’d ripen in about 30 days. I thanked them all profusely and told him I’d return with food, and hopefully an AK-47, so he could guard the highway for the new Iraqi Government. The simple things in life family, food, guns… We waived goodbye and headed further down the road, where we were greeted by about 8 children and their parents. The children were just an absolute joy. They made my month. The little girl in the pics is named Adele, she was the most beautiful little girl in the world to me. Her smile just melted me, and the little guy in the pics with me was just so adorable, he walked up to me and said “Pleased to meet you mister.” He offered me his hand, and well he got the other half of my heart. A picture is worth much more than a thousand words, they are moments in time, real time. Forever captured, in an instant. I will never have my face plastered on Time, or Newsweek. I may never make it into congress, but if there was ever a reason to risk my life on a daily basis, I’d do it to help these children. Not to sound clichéd but these children represent the hope of this new nation. I spent only 30 minutes with them, giving them shoes, backpacks, and candy. But their smiles to me were worth far more than what we gave them, their smiles gave me hope, and once again showed me that life is truly a beautiful and wonderful thing. The smile of a child lifted my spirits to heights I have not felt in months. The hug from a little Iraqi girl, and boy gave me such a rush of energy, and pride for being here so much love I now have for these children that I ask you to go to whatever church groups you have and beg borrow and take what you have and send them to me so I can give these children what they do not have. Clothes, shoes, book bags, toys, stuffed animals. Wining here takes not only bullets, and tanks, it will be the smiles of the wonderful little people that must inherit what we do in this nation. Little Adele what a gorgeous child, 10, 000 miles from home and in a war zone I found perfection in the smile of a child I may never see again. I found genius in a well mannered little man named Abed, who spoke perfect English and offered me his hand in friendship. We gave Abed a lion king puppet to keep, he’d never seen a puppet and when we showed him how it worked, by putting a hand in it the look of awe and wonder brought a great smile to his face. And again to mine, this may not be the meaning of life, but it is part of the answer.
Protect the future at all costs. What is worth living for must be worth dying for. I found another reason to live yesterday, and I found something else I’d fight to the death for. Pictures often say what our words cannot, so I shall end with the pictures from yesterday that won my heart. They are also in a new photo album. Thanks for putting up with my rants, and sour moods. If anyone knows how I can send these pics to CNN & FOX (Piss off MSNBC) please tell me, because the fair and balanced news is starting to make the brain baby kick (bad headache). If the onlything that is newsworthy is suffering and death, then we have already lost ourselves. Because watching Adele, get a pair of shoes yesterday was the most news wothy thing in the world to me, if the world could see that… Enough for one day.
Honor Ante Omnia