Saturday, March 27, 2010

K-Max and Rusafa

Big part of the Boss's job involves the prisons and detention facilities in Iraq. Most, almost all either have been or are being turned over to the Iraqi government, like we did in Taji last week. The U.S. is working it's way out of the detainee business, but it's not an overnight process.

We spent a couple of days earlier this week visiting two Iraqi prisons. They both predate the invasion, so I can only imagine the horrific things that have gone on there.I don't like jails or prisons. Depressing places. 

The first one we went to is called K-Max. It's a maximum security facility in the northern Baghdad suburb called Khadimiya. It's a prison for death penalty convicts and prisoners with life sentences. In fact, it's where they executed Saddam a few years back, and more recently, Chemical Ali and other former regime guys. The second is in a suburb called al Rasufa. It's a prison for both convicted and pretrial detainees. 

We toured the both facilities, including the gallows at K-Max. Both are dirty, greasy places. Crowded, poorly lighted, poorly constructed, like most Iraqi places. Just nasty, filthy places, although I have no doubt that they are much better now than when it was under Ba'athist rule. Still, there's no mistaking them for anything other than third world prisons.

Prisoners are kept in cell blocks with a couple of dozen or so inmates to each cell. They had bunk beds, and were packed in pretty tight. Most of the cell blocks had a TV mounted on the wall. Lots of cigarette smoke in the air, along with all the other unlovely odors of a prison. There were isolation cells, and little caged exercise yards. At K-Max we saw a wing where older inmates are housed. We had seen some of them outside earlier, old men tending little gardens. Their wing, in marked contrast to the rest of the cell blocks, was pretty clean and orderly. The Boss even commented on how clean it smelled.

Rusafa was pretty bad, even compared to K-Max. Filthy, trash everywhere. A lot of the population are housed in tents, which U.S. forces built as temporary holding facilities. Temporary six years ago. The prisoners are crammed in these tents, which have cages or cells running along the outer walls and the tent fabric over it. It was bad. It's hard to feel sorry for these guys, but those were pretty rotten living conditions. However, they were well fed, had cigarettes, and a TV in each tent, and nobody was being tortured, so that right there is a big step up from the Saddam days. 

Security concerns were pretty high for me. There were lots of people at both prisons who were just...walking around. In the administrative areas, there were a lot of men and a few women in civilian clothes. It was tough to tell who was staff, who was some sort of official, who belonged and who didn't. Guys would walk into offices where the Boss and other people were to have a look around. I had some line MPs acting as a sort of PSD, but it was still not a controlled area, and I never really felt comfortable as far as the Boss's safety was concerned anywhere we went.

Inside the prisoner areas proper, there was less of an issue of miscellaneous rubberneckers, but the concern there was some of the inmates acting out, making an attack, throwing something (a urine-feces cocktail, anyone?) or otherwise endangering the Boss. We attracted a lot of attention, and inmates would gather at the bars of their cells to see what all the fuss was about. Nothing happened of any note, thankfully. 

We were toured around by the wardens of each prison, a State department guy, and some U.S. trainers. I didn't get their whole title, but basically these guys are former cops and prison workers, and are under contract for the Department of Justice, training and assisting the Iraqis. There were also assorted staff, associate and junior wardens, terps, and the dozen or so strap hangers we brought with us, so we had a pretty big tail. One of the terps was a MIG pilot in the Iraqi Air Force.

There are a lot of issues in dealing with these facilities, obviously. Some of, or more accurately, most of these issues, seem to arise from trying to treat the insurgents, terrorists, enemy combatants, pick a name, like criminals as opposed to war prisoners. At the al Rusafa prison, some of the prisoners there have been awaiting trial for up to seven years. A lot of these are guys either we or the Iraqis captured during the course of the war, and the paperwork either has been lost or never existed. With no real idea about the circumstances of their capture, no witnesses or evidence, it would seem like the only recourse would be to release them. However, no one is too eager to do that. These guys weren't picked up for jaywalking, so potentially very dangerous people could be back out there making mischief if released, and no one is too eager to accept responsibility for making that call. The Boss summed it up pretty well when he said, "Looks like we have left these guys a soup sandwich."

At one point, I was standing outside an office. Everybody else had gone inside to have a sit down meeting. One of the Justice Department guys walked past me and said, "That lady behind you? History."

I looked behind me, into a glass fronted office where I saw an attractive Iraqi lady at a desk, talking with a guy seated before her. She wore a headscarf and business clothes, and was maybe a little older than me. I wondered what she had done. Did he mean history, like she was getting fired, or what?

The Justice guy continued: "You're looking at the first female associate warden in Iraq. History. And, not only is she the first woman to have that job, she's twice as sharp as her boss." I had earlier noted to someone that the warden looked liked an oily scumbag used car dealer. The guy went on to say that he hoped someday she would be running the prison. 

The Boss met with as many people as he could. He spoke with a doctor at K-Max, a judge at Rusafa, the wardens, assorted officials, hearing everyone's complaints and problems. Some of them had legitimate issues, some seemed to have their hand out for money. There are a lot of issues to be dealt with. Some of them are pretty complex. Some are as simple as conducting a police call and picking up all the damn trash. Some will take our continued assistance. Most of them it will be up to the Iraqis to solve themselves. Are they up to it? I reckon time will tell.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Garden Party

I'm standing under the portico, by the cannon, with the rest of the security guys. We all have little curlicue ear pieces coming out of our collars and tucked into an ear. Official Cool-Guy Secret Service style. I'm the only one wearing a uniform. Three of them are wearing dark suits and ties, one wears the typical 5.11 tactical pants and vest over his light dress shirt. His vest is bulky and heavy on him, and I wonder what he is carrying under there. Some sort of subgun, I'm sure. I'm the smallest security guy there. Oldest, too. I have pulled my ACU top down to cover my pistol. I'm not authorized to do this, but nobody else is openly carrying, and well, it just seems more polite somehow. The band plays and a KBR waiter offers me a tall skinny can of Coke.

We were greeted at the gate by a British general in dress uniform. He has a bright green beret and red lapels on his tropical khaki uniform. In his hand he clutches a dark carved walking stick. He could have stepped out of a WWI movie. The Boss and he exchanged handshakes and hearty backslaps. "BGs are over there," a suited guy with a clipboard said, pointing. His hair is sort of long, feathered and gray at the temples. He looks very preppy, very country club. His tone was polite enough, but did I pick up a little hint of riff raff over there? The English are so good at the subtle slight. It took me a second to realize he meant "bodyguards"  when he said BGs. We, the U.S. Army, tend to call guys like me PSOs, Personal Security Officers or Protective Services Officers, take your pick. The Boss and his aide, a Marine First Lieutenant, headed over to the party on the grass with the British general. I went up the walk to stand with the other BGs, out of the way.

The grass is green and freshly cut. A little breeze is blowing, and it's not too hot. The air smells clean and nice. Trees shade the people mingling on the grass, drinks in hand. Waiters in white shirts and black bow ties circulate with silver trays, bearing hors d' oeuvres. A U.S. Army band is set up across the lawn. One of the soldiers is singing, but I can't see which one. They don't sound bad. They are doing 'Tunnel of Love' by the Boss. There's a bar with a bar man, and more waiters hustle back and forth, taking away empty glasses, bringing back clean sparkling ones. General Order Number One does not apply at the British Embassy.

The cannon, a plaque mounted on the carriage informs me, was cast at a British foundry in 1848. The plaque lists the cannon's vital statistics; caliber, weight, range and so on. There is a cannon ball there, too, about as big as a good sized grapefruit. I wonder how much it weighs but do not try and lift it. I wonder how many battles this cannon has been in, how many times it has roared and belched fire and hot metal at onrushing masses of enemy troops, how many campaigns and victories and defeats, fighting for the Empire in Mesopotamia. So much history. The band goes into 'Layla.' I do not like Clapton.

One of the BGs come over to me and says hello. His name is Blake, and he is with the Australian embassy. He is polite and friendly. He calls me 'mate.' "What unit are you with, mate?" We tell each other how long we have been in Iraq. After that, we don't have anything much to say to each other, and he wanders back over with the other BGs.  I wish I was more social. It would have been nice to chat with that guy, find out a little about him, what he does, pass the time. I'm too shy, which is often mistaken for aloofness. I can't talk to people very well and I don't make friends easily. Usually it doesn't bother me, but as I watch the other BGs chat and laugh, I wish I knew how to walk over, introduce myself and hang out.

The band works its way through 'Hotel California.' I smile inwardly. I remember when this song was the devil, the devil! and now the U.S. Army is playing it at a posh embassy party. Surreal. 

I see the Lieutenant, who the Boss keeps calling "Aideman", or, maybe "Aide Man" chatting with a female British officer. The Boss chats with some suits. There's maybe fifty, sixty people on the little lawn. Mostly people in nice suits and ties, the ladies in summer type dresses. They are pretty well outnumbered by the males. There's one big guy wearing a blue blazer, tan slacks, and a wide brimmed safari type hat. Across his big belly is a loud and colorful tie, alive with reds and blues and yellows. A couple of helicopters fly by. The band is playing 'Learning to Fly' by Pink Floyd. Occasionally I slip around a big carved column and take a sip of my Coke, which I've set out of sight. The KBR waiters offer me some of the little treats on trays. I don't recognize what anything is, some sort of spread on crackers with garnishes and stuff. After I decline three or four times, they stop offering. The other BGs take a little snack here and there. I stand off by myself and watch people.

It is amazing to me that I should be here, in this place, at this moment. I come from No Place Special, Texas. I did not finish high school. I am neither very smart nor very educated. What small talents I have don't seem to be particularly useful in my life. There is no reason why I should not be living in a single wide trailer with a bad drinking habit. Yet here I stand, in the British Embassy in Baghdad, Two thousand and ten, ten! watching diplomats and generals and assorted political fancy people drink and mingle and visit. Hired help, yes, but I'm here.

One time Connie and I went to Key West.Our first night there we ate dinner overlooking the water. The food was great, the service even better. I drank a beer out of one of those aluminum bottles. It was so cold and delicious. We sat on the patio, enjoying the cool of the evening and we held hands. I had driven a boat of a Cadillac to Key West with a beautiful, amazing woman I was (and am) crazy in love with. We had just finished a fine meal and pretty soon we would be going up to our nice room and have some private fun. It was a special spectacular moment and I wanted it to last forever.

There have been many moments like that with her. I wanted to pinch myself, and that's how I feel now, standing in a war zone at a fancy party. The two experiences don't compare, not even close, but the wonder of the experience, the disbelief, the feeling that I have no business being this lucky is the same.

If I believed in luck...

And is luck even the right word? Am I lucky to be in Iraq? Maybe that's not how I mean it. It's the...un-ordinariness of it. I mean, say what you will, this is not an ordinary situation. How did I come to be here? How is it I am not sitting dully in front of a TV someplace, vacant eyes and slack jawed, instead of living this amazing wonderful crazy life?

Aide Man gives me the high sign. I get on the radio and tell SSG M we will be coming out in a couple of minutes. He acknowledges in my little ear piece. I walk up the sidewalk a bit. The other security guys nod as I leave. "Cheers, mate," says Blake. I nod back and wait on the Boss. The band plays 'Careless Whisper' by George Micheal. They played a lot of songs by English guys, I can only suppose in honor of our hosts. The British general escorts the Boss up the sidewalk. The two generals walk me, and I fall in behind with LT Aide Man. We walk out the gate, past Mister Country Club, towards the main entrance, which is guarded by bad ass former Gurkha's with their bad ass Kukri knives.

"You get her number?" I ask the Lieutenant, and he smiles and shows me a business card.

Beats filling sandbags, I think to myself as we get back in the trucks and head for Route Irish.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Monday, March 15, 2010

Hitting the Ground Running

I've been outside the wire six times in the last four days. That really isn't a big deal, except for the fact that prior to Friday, I had only been outside the wire twice in three months.

Friday morning I was picked up by SSG Rod, a big New Yorker stationed in Hawaii. His six man PSD has been protecting the outgoing major general (two star) for the past year, and he and his guys were a wealth of information. The last four days have been a blur of introductions, briefings, and missions. It's been like trying to drink from a fire hose, but I feel like I've been set up for success.

I'm living in a CHU now, which stands for Containerized Housing Unit. Not too bad, a little small, but I have to walk about a million miles to the latrine. Also, there's an enormous generator right outside the T-wall, so it sounds like a damn eighteen wheeler is running just outside the window. Other than that, hey, it's Iraq.

So, the new job. Obviously, there's a lot I can't talk about as far as security goes, but this is gonna be a fun job. Busy as hell, but fun. I wish it would be longer, but I'm guessing this will just be for a few weeks, maybe a month, until the General's personal PSO get's in-country. Then I will take him around and get him acquainted with what he needs to know, and I'll be back at my old camp.

In the meantime, I am the man. My main job is to provide personal security to the Boss. This mainly entails setting up travel whenever he needs to go outside the wire, be it by ground convoy or air. Our ground transportation is provided by a platoon from my battalion, which is great, because I know those guys. The platoon leader, LT Hal, is not only a good buddy of mine, but we both work for the same police department and were on the SWAT team together. His guys are super squared away and we should work together well. The platoon refers to themselves as PSD, which they are, in one sense, and are not, in another. Mainly, they are armed transportation.

There's a ton or coordination that goes into every trip. Planning and preparation start days in advance. Multiple emails, spread sheets, rosters, trip tickets, air movement requests, mission support forms, on and on. A recon if we are taking the Boss to an unfamiliar location. A convoy standing by in case the air is a no-go. Contingency plans and alternate routes and points of contact.

Friday afternoon we took a did a recon to the IZ, aka the Green Zone, to scout out a location we were taking the Boss to the next night. Then, that evening, we took the Boss back to the IZ for a meeting. This was at a pretty plush place. There was a beautiful swimming pool and outdoor patio area, marble columns, stone work, landscaping, the works.

After we got the Boss settled, the entire PSD, including LT Hal's guys, the General's aide and SGT Graywarz, the General's driver and former member of my PSD, all ate a very nice dinner. There were several other PSD's there, as well. Sushi, shrimp, and lobster were a big hit, but I had a salad and pork chops.

SGT Graywarz told me top make sure I brought an assault pack to this place, because there were goodies to be had. "They force it on you," he said, "Bring a bag with lots of room." I failed to heed this sage advice, and so, when I saw the shelves stacked high with candy bars, jerky, mixed nuts, chips and other snack foods of every description, I felt sad and empty inside, thinking I would have to leave empty handed. The I realized that SGT Graywarz had plenty of room in his assault pack, so I acted like a looter at a Katrina Walmart and loaded up.

Afterwards, SSG Rod and I waited by the pool for the Boss to come out of his meeting. I would have loved to kick back on a deck chair, puff a nice cigar and sip a cold beer while looking at the stars. Instead, SSG Rod and I talked tactics, routes, and protection protocols.

Saturday evening was another trip to the IZ, where the Boss met with an Iraqi government official. I was kinda surprised to see this minister was a female. SSG Rod and I waited outside the office, with some Iraqi PSD guys. They had no English and I have no Arabic. In fact, I speak more Swahili than I do Arabic, so we all just stood there not speaking until the meeting was over. Then it was back down Route Irish to VBC, and straight to another place where the Boss needed an escort. That took a few more hours, so it was a very late night.

Sunday was another two-fer. We went back to the IZ so I could get an embassy badge, which took forever and was preceded by an overly long and overly boring briefing on crap I didn't need or care to know. Then, that evening went back to the Embassy for another meeting. SSG Rod, the aides and I sat in the lobby and people watched. It was very odd to me, seeing so many civilians, considering the environment. Men in business suits and women in dresses and heels, and of course, there were a ton of feds from the FBI and State walking around in the ubiquitous 5.11s and polos. The Embassy is a beautiful building in a nice complex and I suppose the people who work there have a very good life, compared to the military. It sort of reminded me of a college campus. SSG Rod seemed to know about half the people who worked there, from civilian terps to other generals.

Today was a busy day. We flew to Taji for a ceremony, turning the prison there over to the Iraqis. It was a nice flight up and back. I haven't flew in a helicopter since probably 1992. The entire trip was a lot of work to coordinate, but it went really well. We had a ton of people flying up there, two two-star generals, five or six full bird colonels, a couple lieutenant colonels, majors and captains, three command sergeants major, two sergeants major, a first sergeant, and assorted underlings and minions, which would include me, I suppose. It required two separate flights of two helicopters each, and logistically is was a pain in the ass and could have been a recipe for disaster, but luckily, I had SSG Rod and his right hand man, SGT H to walk me through it, so it all went off without a hitch. I took lots of pictures from the air, and I will post them as soon as I can make my camera obey me and upload them to the computer.

I hate cramming so much stuff into one post. I know I'm forgetting a ton of stuff I meant to write about, leaving things out and skipping details, but it's late, I'm tired, and I want to talk with my sweetie pie before I hit the sack, so here you go.

Oh, one thing:

During the ceremony today, I stood there watching the crowd while the speakers made speeches. There were a lot of U.S. military there, Iraqi officials, media, although none that I recognized as U.S. It was a good ceremony, and pretty good speeches. If you clicked on those links, you read how this is the second of three major detention facilities we are turning over to the GOI (Government of Iraq.) We are building the facilities, training the staff, and then handing them the reins. Like SSG Rod and his guys did for me, we are equipping the Iraqis with the tools they need to be successful.

If you read the CBS story, the first link, you also saw how they started off reporting the transfer of the prison, finished up talking about a bombing and election strife. Which would be somewhat in keeping with my expectation of the majority of media coverage about Iraq: never end on a positive note.

But when I was listening to the Minister of Justice, Dara Noureddin, give his speech, standing there all serious business with my M9, M4, and Official Cool-GuySecret Service ear-piece, I was struck the hopefulness of his words. I expected to hear some things, of course; thank you and this marks a turning point for Iraq. All true, but pretty standard fare. One thing he said stuck with me, though. He urged the new owners of that prison, the warden, the guards, the staff, all the people we have trained and mentored, to keep the place up. To keep it clean. To immediately repair anything needing fixing. To take pride in it and take care of it.

In contrast with his other words, it wasn't especially flowery or fancy. It was just practical and down to earth, and the message was clear.

From here on out, it's up to them. 

As it should be, as it should be.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Meet the New Boss

"Hey, just a warno, you're gonna be going over to be PSO for the incoming two-star, until his own guy gets here."

Translation: I've got a temporary gig guarding a Major General for a couple of weeks. We sent one of my E-5s, SGT Graywarz, over to be this general's driver last month, so I'll be seeing him again. I'll probably be moving across post for the duration. I'll find out more today when I start my right seat-left seat with the outgoing PSO.

Okay. Gotta pack.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Night Run

We start off from the gate, just a quick warm up, moving the joints, trying to ease some stiffness out of my old bones, then a short run over to the big tower, high stepping through the ruts. The mud dries hard like baked clay and there are deep grooves and holes from the trucks. We jog through the palm grove, then hit the tower; ten, twelve flights up. Feet clanging on metal. "Hit every step," Stroud says, and we do.

Quads burning at the top, we turn, tapping our way down, careful in the dark, then at the bottom, back up again, pushing harder the second time, legs heavy and thighs burning, until at the top we are barely running anymore, just one foot in front of the other, step by step, and we reach the last landing and lean over, breathing hard.

Then back through the grove to the road, and off we go, a loose pack. Rock wants to sprint the light poles, and I say show me how. Off he goes into the dark, charging, unstoppable. If you told him to attack a tank with a tent peg he would bring you the treads as a war trophy.

James and I run together, Stroud and Will somewhere behind us, Rock somewhere ahead. No traffic, almost cool, nice night for it. Footfalls on the rutted crumbling pavement slap slap slapping and breathing sounds, my love hate, the pain and effort, the endorphins and accomplishment.

How many years now. Of running like this, roadwork, getting in the mileage. 1986. Harmony Church, so fucking cold even in those dark blue sweats, those long runs, Charlie 4-2, hating it with my shaved head, screaming drill sergeants, wanting to run into the woods and hide and run away, run away. Months pass and jump school, all those feet slapping so loud in formation, like a living thing, part of something more then yourself. Could run forever like that. Sweating even early in the day, the Black Hats yelling, calling cadence, fall out and you're finished.

Now it's me and Rock, James is back behind us, Rock and I side by side, through the dark. I'm keeping a fast pace. Fast for me. I know I can't hold it, won't be able to keep it coming back, but it feels good, stretching it out, legs pumping. More.

Gunfire to our right, other side of the wall. It's 5.56, seven or eight rounds fast popping. Rock flinches and swerves. "Test fire pit," I say, someone is going out, testing those weapons. We run on.

James is with us again, and we turn around, sweating despite the coolness of the night, a little breeze so good on the face, breathing still okay, starting back. We pass Will and Stroud after a moment, materializing out of the darkness. We pass without speaking, just heavy breathing and a little head nod.

James and Rock and me, James moving a little ahead. Harder now, breathing heavier, but still good. Rock wants to know the distance, and I twist and turn my wrist, trying to see the readout of the Garmin in the yellow streetlamp. "One. Point. Five. Six." I try not to gasp. Maybe a mile to go, mile and a quarter.

Rock gone now, just behind but invisible in the dark, might as well be a mile, James and I side by side. He is a former Marine, fast, maybe the second fastest in the former PSD, third or forth fastest in the company. He moves like a machine. He is speeding up and now my legs are heavy, I feel myself slowing down. Bit by bit. Rock passes me, joins James, they speed away, and now it's just me.

It's just me. Running in the dark. It hurts. It feels good.

To my left is the wall and outside it, Iraq. I run and run, willing my legs to go faster. Heavy and slow and man it was so easy twenty something years ago. Helicopters passing overhead, a pair, no lights, just over the wall, outside the wire, low and loud. Rotors beat the air. I look for them, see them, ghostly, light shapes against the ink. Loud clattering ghosts.

Pushing more. Almost there, got to be. Sweat on my lips, stinging my eyes. Feet sound hollow as they beat the ground. Slow, slow old man. I push and my legs are made of wood.

I see them just ahead, slow jogging in circles, waiting on me, Stroud, Will. Maybe 300 meters to the gate, waiting at the curve in the road. I ease to a stop, stop the GPS on my wrist, hands on my hips, behind my head, turning my face trying to catch the breeze. Not jogging, let the kids do that, I'm done, man, walking in circles, slow deep steady breaths. Cool down.

Rock and James banter, James talking about his fast run time on the last PT test, making a point to mention he was sick. "What was your time, Rock," I say, and Rock says that I wouldn't let him run it, remember. Resentment just there underneath. I had forgotten. He rolled his ankle ten days before the PT test and I told him he couldn't run even though he swore he was fine. He would run with a sucking chest wound. You can't stop Rock.

"You were on profile, Rock. Why are you making me the bad guy?"

"The world needs a villain, Staff Sergeant." Wisdom from the Rock.

They go back for Will and Stroud. I walk in circles, waiting. Where is the breeze?

They come out of the dark, see them before I hear them, sprinting the light poles. Four abreast, sprinting, arms and legs pumping. They are young and strong. They look like warriors. They look like champions.

They sprint past me. I turn the Garmin back on, run to catch up. Smiling.

Yeah. Good run.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Wire, and Going Outside It

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.

Echo

Followers