About a month ago I went outside the wire with the Boss, my battalion commander. If you check out Victory Base Camp on Google Earth, you'll see that to the East is Baghdad, and to the West is farm land. Our unit is responsible for some of that farm land, as it butts up against the wall that separates VBC from Iraq proper. We send out patrols to check the wall, meet and greet with locals and Iraqi Army, and generally have a look around. The Boss wanted to go out and take a look for himself.
Before we got here, when I was training my boys back at McGregor Range, we expected to be rolling out with the Boss as a full PSD, our own gun trucks, an independent element, all that. It's what I wanted, but it was not to be. The war is winding down, and as such, the BC's role isn't one that takes him outside the wire often. When he does go out, he jumps in with one of the line companies and one of us PSD guys tags along. It's not ideal, in fact it fucking sucks from my point of view because it puts me and my boys out of a job, but what can you do.
Outside the wire used to be a whole other animal than what it is these days. It's still not like going into Wisconsin, but it ain't 2007, either. I was reminded of this while siting in on the operations order and patrol brief before we went out.
"Okay, this is where the cache of RPG's were found, what was it, sergeant? Twenty four warheads?"
"Remember, we need to be looking for the white Mercedes from the tower shooting last week."
"Okay, and down here, just outside our AO, they set off two IEDs last week, one was a crush wire, and the second was command detonated."
I noticed a slight dog and pony aspect to the fact that in addition to the platoon leader (PL) going out, the company commander (CO) was also tagging along. Bet that wouldn't happen if Big 6 wasn't going. Nonetheless, I had a very warm and fuzzy feeling based on what I had heard. Everybody knew their job and knew the plan.
Our interpreter showed up. I have seen him before, when the BC and I went to a place on the other side of Baghdad. He was working for one of our other rifle companies then. He is a short, white haired older man, stooped and slow moving. He was wearing ACUs and a helmet that looked too big for him. He looked too old and frail for all the walking we would be doing, and the PL and CO trade incredulous looks. After he left the briefing room, the jokes and comments started.
"Are you fucking kidding me? He's gonna break a hip. I ain't carrying him."
"Hey, you need to make some room for his Hoveround in your Humvee."
"And a case of Ensure."
"Hey, Eltee, how'd you get clearance for your grandad to come over here?"
"Yeah, somebody go tell the arms room we need a musket for that guy."
I've been on the receiving end of the musket jokes before, myself. I just smile and say I'm not old, just older.
We went over the route, the dismount points, actions on contacts, the usual. It was a very detailed patrol brief and op order, in fact, it was probably the most thorough one I have ever been a party to, and I had to wonder how much of that extra effort was for the BC's benefit. If it was, they wasted their time, because he didn't show up until an hour to SP time.
We geared up, checked comms, loaded up, and rolled out. We went out an heavily guarded Entry Control Point (ECP) and headed down a couple of dirt roads to our dismount point. The land is green and heavily vegetated, canals running here and there around the fields. Houses sit in clusters in the distance. It's not a barren desert, not at all.
After dismounting, a small group of us walked down the road and then along the edge of a field. It was hot and sunny, but still a bit muddy from recent rains. The gun trucks moved off to an overwatch position as the BC, the PL and the rest of us made our way along a canal. We negotiated a deep and mud slick ditch. The terp moved slowly, wobbled a bit, but managed to keep his feet. The PL made a "Can you believe this shit?" face. I listened to the PL and the gun trucks talk through my earpiece, watched my step, watched the buildings, the treeline.
Our patrol route parallels the wall, and we can hear the Iraqi Special Forces shooting on the other side. They have a weapons range on their compound, and are shooting into the berm on the other side of the double wall. The PL is perhaps a little nervous with the BC along, and plays tour guide, quietly pointing out this and that.
We walk a little bit more. We do a little security halt and the BC, CO and PL talk about the wall. I move opposite them, along the border of a field. There's some houses, buildings and trees off to my left front along another dirt road, little more than a raised path, really. Another road runs across my front.
Crackziiinnnggg past my head and I flinch and crouch, not sure whether to hit the deck or what. I look over my shoulder back at the command group who all look blandly back at me, and the PL says, "That was from inside," hooking a thumb back at the wall.
"Oh, yeah, I know," I say, and try to hide my embarrassment with a chuckle, but at the same time I'm thinking, "Bullshit, that was from out here."
Still, nobody else is hitting the dirt, and the PL says, "Hey, happens to everybody," so I think, yeah, okay, maybe it was a ricochet, which is just what the BC is talking about, and the PL says one probably hit a rock or something from inside.
Half a minute later, crackziiinnnggg, but this time I don't flinch. Won't make me look stupid twice. "Okay, I know that was from out here," I tell myself, but I continue to stand, determined not to look foolish again.
"Uh, Victor Element, this is Dismount 6," I hear the PL radio to the vehicles. "Yeah, we just took some fire over here, why don't you bring the trucks back over this way."
I look around, and I'm the only guy still standing. The command group has taken a knee, the SAW gunner is proned out behind his M249. I take a knee too, and listen to the BC and the CO and the PL debate whether the rounds that zipped over our heads came from inside the compound or outside it.
"I think we would have heard impacts in the wall behind us," the BC says, and that kinda makes sense, unless they were just shooting high. The wall isn't that tall from this side, so. Plus it depends on the angle. They could be more to the side than front, and in that case, the rounds wouldn't really hit the wall behind us.
"Maybe, sir, unless they were just a little high, or went past us," the PL says. Fucking exactly, I think. He is a SWAT cop from a large department and looks like Vic Mackey.
"I wonder if the guys in the towers might be shooting," the BC says, thinking out loud, maybe a Ugandan got trigger happy, saw us out there and forgot or somehow didn't get the word we would be patrolling today. Pretty tough to mistake us for anything other than GI's, though.
"Staff Sergeant, what's your assessment?" the BC asks me, and without speaking I motion towards the tree line to my left front, where it seemed like they came from.
"Yeah, that's what I thought, too," someone says, so I feel validated for my flinching-crouching moment earlier. See?
We scan the buildings and tree line, looking for our sniper, anything, but we don't see anything. In the far distance, some people walk casually. There is more quiet debate as to whether or not we were shot at. The gun trucks are headed back in our direction, coming back along the road beside the buildings to our left front.
Popopop three round burst off in the direction of the trucks, and somebody goes, "That from inside?"
At the same time: "This is Victor 2, we just had somebody shoot at us right over here. Local populace reacted to the shots and is running, not our shooter though. Anybody see anything?" and then the guys in the truck talk about where they think the fire came from.
The PL talks with the trucks via radio, and yes, they are sure that it came from right where they are, somebody fired off a quick three round burst. It didn't sound muffled like the fire from inside the compound behind us.
The trucks move up and stop to our left, and I move the BC inside a vehicle while we assess. Nobody got eyes on anyone shooting, or even saw a muzzle flash. We decide to push on, so we continue our dismount with the vehicles paralleling us in the distance to provide overwatch.
Nothing else happens. We walk and look around, squish through the mud. The terp says he is fine, no problem, and he seems to be keeping up okay. We work our way down some more dirt paths and turn a corner, following the VBC wall. After a bit, we meet with the gun trucks and mount back up.
We roll down a series of dirt lanes, bordered by brush, trees, ditches, canals. Small green fields are being tended by farmers. I see more women than men bending and cutting whatever is growing. Children run up from dirt yards and wave, flash the peace sign, shout for us to give them something free. We wave back and keep driving.
Houses are here and there, built in clusters. Cinder block or tan bricks, mostly, some little more than mud huts, some with walls and metal gates and new looking sedans sitting outside. I see skinny dogs and dirty kids and boys on bicycles. Fathers stand with waving children. It's good to be outside and see people living their lives, even if it is through a few inches of bullet resistant glass.
The lead vehicle advises us of people walking on or standing near the roadway, and everyone acknowledges as we pass checkpoints and phase lines. I picture where we would be on a map, remembering our route from the power point presentation. My warm and fuzzy grows. These guys are squared away.
After a bit, we stop at an Iraqi Army checkpoint. When we arrive, there is one jundi on duty, lounging lazily against a Jersey barrier. By the time we leave twenty minutes later, three of his comrades have hurried to join him from a nearby barracks, pulling on armor and web gear. As we roll out, they have assumed their posts, very serious and earnest, looking quite smart as they busily stand around.
We drive through a small village area, and men stand in doorways as we drive by, smoking, their faces impassive or dismissive. No one is openly hostile, but nobody is high fiving, either. It's a little different vibe from the waving farm families just a couple of miles back.
"Hey, sir, we just saw that car we were looking for."
"Where'd you see it, Victor 3?"
"It's back by the tan building to the left, with the red gate."
"Okay, when we come back through here, get some pictures. Have your camera guy get the plate, and see if he can't get some face shots on those guys to the left mean mugging us."
"Victor 3, good copy."
We go up to our turn around point, laboriously turn around in a muddy field, then come back through the village. The men stand and stare sullenly. My waves are ignored. We take pictures and keep going.
After awhile we stop near a farm. We cross a muddy ditch and make our way towards the three or four houses and outbuildings. Some children poke their heads out from around a building. They smile and wave excitedly. The houses are cinder block with large open windows. One is unfinished and empty inside. A young woman looks out a window and is startled as we walk by. She wears a head scarf and smiles and waves shyly. "What is your name?" she calls out in careful English to my BC.
"My name is Scott," he says, and she waves and smiles again.
I stand around for a bit while the BC visits with the farmer. He owns a lot of the land in the area, and is a wealthy man. There are three or four barefoot little girls who chase each other and play in the dirt yard, showing off, and some boys wave to the soldiers and whisper to each other. A cow and two calves are tethered near the houses, and they shy and buck as we walk near.
The BC and the farmer talk about a small cowpen that is built against the wall. It's a mud brick affair, low and dark, looks like one good shove and it would fall over. It's not good that it's up against the wall, though, which is the purpose of our visit.
Our terp goes back and forth, interpreting; the pen should come down, we can't let is stay up. The farmer supports us, but he needs the cow pen. He was promised a bridge over the muddy ditch by the previous unit. We have no way of knowing if this is true.
It's getting late, cooling off. Clothes wave in the wind on a clothes line. An older woman brings a big armload of grasses to the cattle. A younger woman watches us from a doorway across the yard. The atmosphere is relaxed and peaceful.
It's time to go, and as we walk back towards were the gun trucks wait, the children run around the houses to wave goodbye to us. A dog comes around a corner and stands in my way, barking furiously, giving way as I continue to walk towards it. The BC points out the three new vehicles in the yard, and says farming must be good here.
We cross the ditch, the terp moving gingerly but again not falling. We mount back up and continue on, making our way by dirt roads around canals and fields. The light is going. The sunlight flickers through the trees as we head to an ECP, where we clear our weapons and roll back inside the wire.