Saturday, July 29, 2006

Juggling with Balls July 29, 2006

Juggling with Balls
July 29, 2006

The 101st Airborne Division’s 2-320 Field Artillery Battalion, also known as “Balls,” may not get to go on cool missions, but they cover a lot of territory in and around Kirkuk. The soldiers of Balls are responsible for crucial elements of Northern Iraq’s infrastructure, from the Northern Oil Company to power plants all over the region. They work with Iraqi security forces to protect and restore production of these energy resources. Forty percent of Iraq’s oil comes from this region and when production is down, the impact is felt all over the world. We must not discount the importance of Balls.
Much of what the soldiers of 2-320 do is routine, as much as anything in Iraq can be considered routine. We paid a visit to the Mulla Abdullah Power Plant, where Lieutenant Adam Reuter met with the chief of the Electrical Power Systems Security (EPSS), and they discussed the issues of the day. In the Kirkuk region, citizens have electricity for 8-10 hours a day. Supply cannot keep up with demand, and the battle to restore lines and towers is ongoing. As with most organizations involved in the rebuilding of Iraq, EPSS officers are reluctant to act without American assistance, to make decisions without our guidance. This reluctance to embrace and assert their independence delays progress.
The chief of the power plant’s security team was obviously hard-working and dedicated. He had taken it upon himself to devise security plans for all of the area power plants, which sat in a stack on his desk. But this level of commitment is unusual, and it is difficult for one reasonable man to motivate the less industrious, especially when they are tasting freedom for the first time. It is understandable that he would look to his American friends for support.
Also on the agenda at the power plant was a first aid class led by Medic Vernon Prewitt. As the light faded outside, Prewitt instructed a group of security officers in the treatment of wounds. These officers are not targeted by insurgents in the way Iraqi Police and Army forces are, but anyone working to improve conditions in Iraq is somewhat vulnerable.
A second trip off the base, this time with Captain Adam Cmerek and other members of the battalion, revealed another set of power-related issues. Our convoy was headed for Riyadh, a problematic area near Hawijah, when we took a side trip to investigate a fire on the oil pipeline running through the area. The fire was visible from miles away, dark billowing smoke drifting across the horizon. Iraqi soldiers on guard duty had no theories about how the fire had started.
The Iraqi Army (IA) presents its own set of challenges. In some regions, the Iraqi soldiers share our goals. In other areas, sometimes just down the road, there is little common ground. Many of the Iraqi soldiers serving Riyadh wear the uniform and collect a paycheck, but have no sense of duty to the people of Iraq. For the American soldiers who work day after day to improve living conditions in Iraq, this is extremely frustrating. It is frustrating as a bystander to see our soldiers, who radiate a sense of duty and who represent us so well, dismissed by members of the IA who have no clear goals of their own except to undermine our efforts.
We visited an IA battalion headquarters where an IED had gone off. That it had been planted within the boundaries of IA property, presumably guarded by Iraqi soldiers, was an indication that this had been an inside job. Why? Iraq is a country that raises more questions than it answers.
On day three with Balls, the power struggles continued. Sergeant Franklin Taylor led a convoy to Dubiz, a town north of Kirkuk, to meet with members of the Oil Security Forces, who guard the country’s most important resource. As we approached our destination, a group of Iraqi police officers flagged us down. Obviously distraught, they explained through our interpreter that an officer had been killed. They were guarding a gas station when a large group of Iraqi soldiers tried to force their way to the front of the line. Shots were fired, and an Iraqi police officer was killed. His body lay in the bed of their truck, covered with a blanket.
The gas situation is baffling. Production is down, partly because since the war began oil refineries have been forced to close and have not re-opened; meanwhile, demand has increased. Still, it is hard to understand how a region frequently referred to as “oil-rich” could be suffering from a fuel shortage.
The soldiers of 2-320 work with several groups to protect Iraq’s resources. Our goal is to distribute power democratically. The EPSS and OSF officers support our mission, but hesitate to take charge. The Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police are unpredictable and, as a result, unreliable. In theory, they are on the same side, and in theory they are on our side. They want power but not the responsibility that comes with it. They want us to leave, but they appear incapable of cooperating with each other, thereby forcing us to stay.
The future of Iraq is not in our hands. It is not in the hands of insurgents, or corrupt officers or soldiers. The future of Iraq is in the hands of the Iraqi people who have yet to take responsibility for their part in the rebuilding of their country. The soldiers of the 2-320 Field Artillery Battalion are helping to show them the way. Our soldiers provide an excellent example of democracy in action, but it is up to the Iraqis to become more active themselves. The ball is in their court.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Herding Cats in Hawijah July 22, 2006

Herding Cats in Hawijah
July 22, 2006

The problem of Hawijah has not gone away. There are quiet days where nothing explodes, but a quiet day always seem to be a preamble to a more typical day, which usually includes an IED discovery or a blast of rock and roll on the base followed by a few rounds fired into the night. I spent another week at FOB (Forward Operating Base) McHenry to get e better sense of what the problem was and how it might be solved. As luck would have it, the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade had studied the problem and come up with a possible solution. They called it Operation Gaugamela. For two days Hawijah was cordoned off, the flow of traffic stopped, and every house and shop was searched.
Three days before the Operation was launched, villages on the outskirts of Hawijah were cordoned and searched. These missions got underway before sunrise. Monday, we got started at 4:15 AM. Tuesday’s mission began at 3:00 AM. The good news is these missions were finished by midday. The bad news is they finished me for the rest of the day.
Though they met with little resistance, the soldiers’ efforts were not often rewarded. Remote villages contain remote hiding places and tight-knit groups of people. The highlight came on Tuesday, when three men on a list of suspects were found together in a house. There had been a death in the family, so in addition to these three, there were seven other male relatives present who were also detained. Their wrists were secured with heavy-duty plastic ties, and they were led to a vehicle while the cows and chickens watched.
On Thursday, Operation Gaugamela commenced. Additional support had been brought down from Kirkuk and included American soldiers, Iraqi soldiers and police, dogs and their handlers, and equipment. The roads running into and out of Hawijah were secured. Helicopters circled overhead, providing security and eyes in the sky. My Humvee was driven by Sergeant Bobby Brooks, co-piloted by Sergeant Jamey Stolp, and Specialist Kyle Tripp was the gunner. With two very long days ahead of us, I was lucky to be in the company of these thoughtful gentlemen. My convoy included the commander of the 1st Battalion, Colonel Marc Hutson, who communicated over the radio with company leaders throughout the Operation.
Individuals who were somehow suspect, either because they did not have proper identification, or because they were not where they were supposed to be, or just because they behaved in a suspicious manner, were brought to collection points. We watched one group of detainees gathered beside a cinder block wall. They sat under the sun awaiting their fate. Nearby, a donkey poked through the garbage that was scattered among the grass. We passed by the collection point again later in the day, and the group of detainees had grown. The donkey had been replaced by five cows.
Convoys rolled through every neighborhood. Soldiers, both American and Iraqi, walked the streets and entered each house. The sun burned very brightly, and both soldiers and search dogs struggled to combat the heat. There were soldiers on standby in the event of attacks on Coalition Forces, but for the most part, the searches proceeded without incident.
Any protests were conducted silently, or when we were not there to listen. One of the main streets was lined with carts of produce: tomatoes, watermelon, eggplants. With the town in lockdown, there was no business, and in frustration carts had been emptied onto the street. Local merchants stared expressionless at the passing Humvees. In residential areas, citizens waited stoically for the search teams to come and go. Weapons are permitted in the households of Hawijah, but for the purposes of this mission, guns were confiscated. In the middle of the second day, an Iraqi Police truck drove by our convoy, its bed loaded down with AK-47s.
Day Two also brought two discoveries. A weapons cache was found in the courtyard of a home in an otherwise peaceful-looking neighborhood. Another cache was uncovered in a shop on a street lined with many shops. The first cache included explosives, ammunition and many other devices used by insurgents. The EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) team was brought in to inspect the materials, and because some were deemed unsafe to move, they were detonated on the scene. Area residents were notified over a loudspeaker that an explosion was impending, and they were advised to stay in their homes. We moved our vehicles a safe distance from the site and minutes later heard a loud boom, followed by a billowing cloud of smoke.
The second cache included materials used in the assembly of car bombs, and these were also detonated where they were found, resulting in another very loud explosion and a sky filled with smoke. These explosions send a message to insurgents and to those who live in their company. As with many other towns and cities in Iraq, Hawijah has its share of law-abiding citizens. But for years now Hawijah has been home to networks of insurgents and terrorists, and the source of people and weapons used against citizens and Coalition Forces in neighboring areas, like Kirkuk.
Over time, each phase of the Operation became routine, even mundane. Detainees were herded into trucks. Long lines of cars were stopped at checkpoints where they waited for hours until they were told to move forward or turn around. Soldiers patrolled the streets on foot or in vehicles for hours. Soldiers sat in idling Humvees. For hours. Over the radio, progress and delays were reported. At one point, thirty people who had been gathered for further screening suddenly took off over a foot bridge and were in the process of being recaptured. From the air, this was described as, “Pretty much like herding cats,” to which Colonel Hutson replied, “Understand herding cats.” If there was ever an apt description for all of this, that was it.
Iraqi Police also required herding. Tired from the long days, their numbers began to shrink. Everybody was tired. A Humvee is not as comfortable as even the cheapest car, and spending twelve hours in one is a kind of torture. The second day was longer than the first. Kyle, the gunner, had been on his feet, his head and shoulders poking out of the turret, throughout, except for a few short periods where Bobby and Jamey gave him a break. They all made sure I was okay, and I tried to pretend I was, even though I could not wait to get out of the truck and into a shower.
In the end, it is hard to say if the Hawijah problem was solved. Perhaps it was reduced. In the coming days, it will be interesting to see if there is a backlash. The nature of the opposition is such that it does not retain a particular shape. It shifts and changes. Even if weapons are discovered, bad guys sometimes get away. Or new bad guys are sent in as replacements with new weapons. The operation did meet with some success, but our soldiers will continue to watch and wait. The soldiers at FOB McHenry know all about watching and waiting, and they are better than most at herding cats.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Let's Hear It for Bravo Company! July 15, 2006

Let’s Hear It for Bravo Company!
July 15, 2006

Lean, muscular, ruggedly handsome, sculpted. These are just some of the words the soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division’s Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Brigade, use to describe themselves. But these guys are more than just a collection of pretty faces (“pretty” was also on their list). They know their way around Kirkuk, and they know how to show a girl a good time. Sergeant Jeremy Stearns, a nice Southern gentleman from Alabama, introduced me as Miss Shelby, and for the five days I spent with them, the Bravo boys called me Miss Shelby.
I had spent a day with Bravo Company’s 1st Platoon a few weeks ago. An IED had exploded behind our convoy, and we were very lucky. The explosives were powerful enough to do serious damage even to our heavily armored Humvees, but we had escaped unharmed. The triggerman was caught with the cell phone he used to set off the explosives, and his arrest led to others. What could have been a tragedy turned into a victory. Nevertheless, the guys thought somehow my presence attracted IEDs, so when I showed up to go out on patrol with them again, they called me an IED magnet and pretended they were scared to ride with me. I think they were pretending.
The soldiers of the 101st have been here in Kirkuk for ten months now. The soldiers of Bravo Company lived in the city for five months before moving to the base, so they are very familiar with the neighborhoods and streets of their sector. Much of what they do now is routine. Each of Bravo Company’s three platoons conducts patrols, both mounted and dismounted, and many patrols are conducted with the Iraqi Police (IP), so they usually begin with a trip to one of the local police stations.
The Iraqi Police are not driven by a sense of urgency. Often, a stop at a police station involves more than the exchange of information about events and issues. There is plenty of time for that. But when an officer enters the room with a tray full of small clear glasses, everyone knows it is chai time. There is no fighting it. Chai is fairly strong tea served with about a half inch of sugar at the bottom of each glass. Some of the soldiers have learned to embrace the chai ritual. Others will be happy if they never see another glass of chai. Either way, it is fun to watch a man in uniform and full body armor, weapon at his side, balancing a dainty cup and saucer on his knee. With luck, by the time the chai is cleared away, the IP are ready to accompany our soldiers on patrol.
The soldiers work closely with the Iraqi Police for several reasons. The IP are responsible for the city, for the citizens of Kirkuk. How well they handle this responsibility affects the degree to which our soldiers’ involvement is required. The IP are funny, exasperating, and dangerous. In spite of our efforts to break them of old habits, to teach them new methods, there is still a limit to how much one person can control another’s behavior. Our soldiers can remind the IP not to beat up detainees, but when left to their own devices, the IP sometimes get a few punches in anyway. There are some dedicated officers, but generally the IP do not inspire confidence.
Lieutenant Erik Wright sat down with the police chief at a newly formed police station, the Emergency Response Unit (ERU), who tried to shift the burden to us, implying the soldiers were not doing enough. LT Wright tried to explain that the IP needed to take the lead, that our goal and theirs should be to minimize the necessity of an American military presence. It is difficult to persuade the Iraqis to take responsibility for themselves and each other. They have not had this level of control over their lives before.
At another ERU meeting, Captain Jon Simrak was forced to ask why they had conducted a raid without involving more highly trained members of Iraqi law enforcement, and without notifying us. The chief explained that they had received a tip that had to be acted on immediately, and the raid resulted in the arrest of three men who were in possession of materials used to make IEDs. It was hard to argue with success, and it would seem the IP had shown the sort of initiative we were looking for. But there are proper procedures, and if they are not observed in every situation, it will not be long before they are forgotten altogether. Once this point was made, it was possible to appreciate the results of the raid.
Sergeants Mike Jones and Jeremy Stearns inventoried the items taken during the raid, each of which served some function in an IED. When they had organized the wires, the timing devices, the explosive material, the batteries, I said, “It doesn’t look like much.” Jeremy replied, “It doesn’t take much.” It doesn’t take much to commit a random act of brutal violence, but just as it doesn’t take much to do the wrong thing, it doesn’t take much to do the right thing either. While Captain Simrak and Sergeants Jones and Stearns interrogated the three men who had been captured during the raid, I sat in another room with the man who had provided the police with the tip. It was nice to sit beside someone who had probably saved lives by doing the right thing. The soldiers thanked him before they left the room, and I thanked him too. Then we watched Iraqi television.
Many patrols involve getting out and talking to people. With the help of interpreters, the soldiers try to get a sense of how the Iraqis are feeling about life in Kirkuk right now. The reactions are mixed. Some see only new difficulties. Others see great opportunities. A muktar who had been forced to leave his home, only to have it and the rest of his village destroyed by order of Saddam Hussein, is building a new home, creating a new village, and he is eager to embrace democracy. He offered Sergeant Timothy Malmin a piece of land. He offered me a piece of land too, and I thought about moving in, but I didn’t see any plans for a pool.
Spending five days with Bravo Company, going out on one morning patrol and one night patrol each day, opened up the city to me and gave me a better understanding of a day in the life of a soldier. We walked through neighborhoods where people were running their shops, working on their homes. Children followed us, and the soldiers joked around with them. The soldiers are good at shifting gears. Sergeant Mike Bartlett was put in charge of my safety on one patrol, and I asked him if he had any kids. He told me he had four sons. At one point he had a group of boys gathered around him, and I wondered how it felt to be so far away from his own kids and so hemmed in by these Iraqi children. We stopped at a shop and Mike bought sodas for our group. Further down the road, PFC Regalado, the Medic, tried to pet a sheep.
On a night patrol with Sergeant Brian Blake and other members of the 2nd Platoon, once again the city seemed like a friendly place. The soldiers helped the IP enforce the 11:00 PM curfew, and then our convoy continued to patrol the streets, Sergeant Blake hoping to find some action. A Kurdish wedding party materialized in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. It was after midnight and the women wore sequined dresses and danced to music played over speakers set up outside. They welcomed us, and as soon as the ladies realized there was a female with the soldiers they grabbed my arm and began to pull me into the dancing circle. I tried to hide behind Sergeant Darren McQueen, but a soldier will always enjoy watching a reporter humiliate herself, and he let the ladies take me. We probably could have stayed the night and been served breakfast the next morning, but it was time to return to the base.
There is never a day without drama in Kirkuk. There are IEDs being put together or blown apart every day. It turned out I was not an IED magnet, but one did go off in Bravo Company’s sector, injuring one Iraqi police officer. Later in the week a car bomb went off in the same area, this time killing two Iraqi police officers. In spite of the differences that exist between the IP and our soldiers, these incidents are sobering because these were probably good cops, and we are on the same side.
There is never a day without comedy in Kirkuk, often provided by the IP, who, perhaps knowing they are targets, decide to make the best of a bad situation. There are good cops and there are bad cops. There are insurgents, and there are people who turn in insurgents. The soldiers in Bravo Company move among all of these people, and they maintain their sense of humor and their sense of professionalism with all of them. Iraq is a complicated country, and Kirkuk is a complicated city.
With their movie star good looks (their words), Bravo Company can handle comedy and drama, not to mention adventure. They have been here a long time, and they have seen a lot of all three. They show up every day ready to perform, and they have many fans among the Iraqi people as well as their fans at home who miss them. They will be going home soon, and they deserve a standing ovation for the job they have done here. Miss Shelby will lead the applause.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Hawijah? July 8, 2006

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Hawijah?
July 8, 2006

Not far from Kirkuk is the town of Hawijah. Hawijah gives the appearance of a more peaceful existence. It is an area of farmland, full of greenery in spite of months without rain. Rows of sunflowers border plots of land. The sheep have fields to graze in, unlike the sheep in Kirkuk that have to settle for whatever food can be found in the garbage that litters the streets. It is possible to imagine a life of tranquil simplicity among the irrigated fields and flowers, but nothing is simple in Iraq. Though more soldiers serve in Kirkuk, more soldiers have died in Hawijah.
Kirkuk contains a large Kurdish population, whose goals generally do not run counter to ours. The Arab population of Hawijah is another story. Having thrived under Saddam Hussein’s regime, they have not welcomed their changed circumstances. Major Victor Vasquez describes Kirkuk as similar to the Chicago of the 1920s, and Hawijah is the Wild West. Ultimately it is about power in both places—who has it, who wants it, and how will it be used. According to Major Kelly Kendrick, the majority of attacks against our soldiers in Hawijah are perpetrated by people who are resistant to our presence, but who are not part of an organized terrorist network. We are trying to take away power from those who abuse it, and they do not want to go down without a fight.
To the soldier on patrol, an IED is an IED, and whether or not the people who target us consider themselves members of an organized effort or not, they are all capable of brutal acts. When a convoy drives through downtown Hawijah, thoughts turn to grenades. The slow pace of the traffic through the narrow streets becomes nerve-wracking. Although the local population conducts business as usual, it would be unwise for the soldiers to stop and talk, making it difficult to change perceptions, let alone build relationships.
The soldiers who serve the Hawijah area live on FOB (Forward Operating Base) McHenry. Much smaller than FOB Warrior in Kirkuk, McHenry is also short on niceties. But even without the fast food restaurants, the pool, and all of the distractions available to soldiers at Warrior, the guys at McHenry make do. One morning I came across Captain Henry Bell, who was manning a beverage station for a ten kilometer run. I said I hadn’t realized such an event was taking place, and he pointed to three young soldiers vanishing on the horizon--the participants. On a base where there is less separating the soldiers from the drama of war, where they have attended more memorial services in a year than some of us will in a lifetime, any attempt at innocent fun must be appreciated.
Just as the base in Kirkuk has a warning system, so does McHenry, which was explained to me by Sergeant Major David Allard. When the base is being fired upon, country music is played over the loudspeaker system. When there is outgoing fire, rock and roll is played. Controlled blasts are introduced by classical music. I thought this was a nice way to handle the unpleasantness, and I thought Sergeant Major Allard was exceptionally friendly. I learned he was injured in an attack on a patrol just a few hours after our conversation. Thankfully, his injuries were minor, but seeing how quickly a life can be altered was unsettling. Later that night, I was almost bounced out of my cot by some unbelievably loud rock and roll, followed by a series of equally loud booms that vibrated through the floor of the tent. But at least it wasn’t country.
Even the flies are meaner in Hawijah. So why not leave? Or why not bomb the place then leave? Our soldiers are the kind of people who, given lemons, will make lemonade. By working to improve the infrastructure of Hawijah and the surrounding villages, the hope is that people will be moved to live more constructively and peacefully. A top priority is the establishment of water treatment plants throughout the area, which will, for the first time, supply residents with safe drinking water.
We visited a water treatment plant in the village of Zab. The facility seemed to be unmanned except for a young boy who opened the gate for us. There was supposed to be an engineer waiting for Captain Eric Canaday and his team from Bravo Company, 1-327 Battalion, 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, but, as often happens here in Iraq, some people take a more relaxed approach to work. This leisurely attitude can be frustrating to the soldiers, for whom these trips require more than just hopping in a car. And they have lived up to their end by initiating the project and helping to get the necessary equipment, so it is not unreasonable for them to expect the Iraqis to step in and do their part. But the team simply made plans to return another day. The Army has taught them a lot about waiting and patience.
Captain Canaday and his team also made a stop in Shmayt, a nearby village where a clean-up program had been implemented. The mayor of the village supervised payment of the participants in the program, who ranged from young boys to older men. The purpose of the program is not only to rid the area of garbage, which is often dumped on the streets and sidewalks, but to provide the residents with a productive way to pass the time, so they do not head down a more destructive path.
After the payments were dispersed, some of us sampled the local falafel. Having struggled with DFAC (dining facility) food for weeks now, I was looking forward to a freshly prepared sandwich. I took my first bite, and, before I had a chance to enjoy it, the Medic with our convoy rushed over and said he would give me a broad spectrum antibiotic as soon as we got back to the base. I appreciated his concern, but for the next few hours I worried that I might turn into an IED in the Humvee. I am happy to report the day was IED-free.
Team C, 402nd Civil Affairs Battalion, 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, led by Captain Henry Bell and a team of Reservists, including Specialists Joseph Slisz and Eric Clark, is also involved in much of the development taking place in and around Hawijah. They helped establish a Project Coordination Center (PCC) in the village of Moltaka, where local engineers will be available to guide the construction of roads, buildings and other elements essential to the region’s continued growth and prosperity.
Mayor Abu Seif hosted a lunch in celebration of the grand opening of the PCC. The lunch was attended by those instrumental in getting the PCC off the ground, and key members of the community. Americans sat with Iraqis on the carpeted floor and waited patiently for the meal to be served. People reveal something of their true nature during a meal which, in Iraq, is a shared experience. Dishes are placed at regular intervals and it is best just to dive in. The Iraqi policeman sitting to my right made sure all of the dishes were within my reach, and, had I been braver, I could have feasted that day, but I did not want to push my luck. At one point the friendly officer produced his gun, thinking I might like to hold it. I was flattered, and it did have a nice heft to it, but I carefully returned the gun to him. I did not want to be the reporter who ruined a lovely celebration by accidentally shooting someone. When the dishes were cleared away, the host presented the 1st Brigade’s Commander, Colonel Gray, and several officers, including Captain Bell, with traditional headdresses, which they were urged to try on.
As always, it is nearly impossible to reduce a week in Iraq to one thousand words or less (maybe more). There are some recurring themes, though. Our soldiers will always meet a challenge head-on, and Hawijah is a challenge. They are often put in the position of having to overcome resistance on some level, but they persevere. There are Iraqi citizens who understand the value of what is being offered them, and those with an eye to the future of their country welcome our help and appreciate our soldiers.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Charles in Charge June 30, 2006

Charles in Charge
by Shelby Monroe
June 30, 2006
I recently spent several days with Charlie Company, from the 1st Brigade, 2nd Battalion, of the 101st Airborne Division. Made up of three platoons, Charlie Company stays very busy. Busy can mean exciting, and busy can mean boring. I got a little of both.
There are missions taking place throughout the day and night. Sergeant Todd Landen, who looked after me, and who assembled some extra heavy body armor for me, asked if I would be interested in going along on a late night Cordon and Search mission, which is a targeted search based on intelligence received about specific individuals. The Company had information about a man who appeared to be the leader of a terrorist cell, and it was time to pick him up. First, the suspect’s house was put under surveillance. When it was determined that he was at home, we were notified, and our convoy, together with Iraqi forces, secured the area and approached the house.
It was after midnight, and the neighborhood seemed calm. The suspect’s house was quiet. The Iraqi forces went in first, and our soldiers followed. The suspect was quickly removed from the house, which was then searched while the remaining family members were questioned. The suspect was taken out of sight of his family for questioning, partly because to be arrested in front of one’s family brings great shame upon a man in the Iraqi culture. Measures are taken whenever possible to accomplish the mission, but otherwise minimize the impact of the work the soldier has to do. The house was searched thoroughly, but care was taken not to cause any damage.
A picture the soldiers had of the suspect made it possible to positively identify him; there was also a very similar picture on display in his living room. He did not look like a man responsible for orchestrating acts of terrorism. His family did not look any different from any other Iraqi family. It is hard to know how much they knew of his violent business. There were young children who were obviously as distraught as the adults in the house, but who probably did not understand any of what was going on.
After it was clear that the suspect was not going to confess to anything, and after any potentially revealing material or equipment was collected from the house, it was time to transport him to the detention center back at the base. He rode in the back of the Humvee with me. With the language barrier, there was no point trying to speak to him, and because he was blindfolded, there was no point trying to give him a dirty look, but it was strange to sit beside someone who was probably responsible for killing or wounding innocent people, including our soldiers. I looked at the soldiers in the Humvee--SFC Landen, SPC Eric Shaw, and SGT Iain Bean-- and wondered how it must feel to be so close to the enemy. They treated him decently, humanely, but he did not think of them as human beings, only targets. For them and for the rest of us, including the many Iraqis who would like to live peacefully, it was a victory to get him off the street.
Much of what the soldiers in Charlie Company do is routine. Every day there are patrols of the city. Some of these patrols begin by driving convoys around neighborhoods throughout the city and end with a dismounted foot patrol, where some of the soldiers walk the streets as the convoy trails slowly behinds. These patrols usually include Iraqi forces. The more they are given the chance to lead, the better it is for everyone.
No matter who is leading, these patrols grow old quickly. There is no avoiding the heat. On foot or in the Humvee, it is always over one hundred degrees, and the body armor only makes it hotter and therefore harder. The soldiers are used to working in these conditions, and they sweat more quietly than I do. During one foot patrol that seemed to stretch into days, I walked with Sergeant Chad Kuck, who actually enjoys these walks. A resident in one neighborhood said she thought there was a bomb concealed in the garbage, which was strewn everywhere. Chad made a point of examining the area with the hope, he said, that she would remember she had been taken seriously and not hesitate to approach future teams on patrol.
There was no bomb in the garbage that day, but there is always the possibility of an enemy attack. The soldiers know they are targets and they do not like the feeling. They must always be poised to respond. On another patrol, a boy kicked his soccer ball to one of the soldiers, who kicked it back. It probably would have done both of them some good if they could have kicked the ball around longer, but a sniper could take advantage of a situation like that.
One of the Humvees was hit by a sniper on yet another patrol. We had stopped to check out a suspicious looking vehicle, and the sniper saw his opportunity. A soldier had predicted this would happen, so it was hard to be surprised when it did. The bullet bounced off the metal of the turret, and the soldiers immediately tried to pinpoint the direction the shot had come from. A few buildings were clustered in the general area, so the convoy moved in and searched for the gunman. He was not found, but the soldiers will continue to try to draw him out. It may be business for him, but it is personal for them.
I wanted to walk a mile in a soldier’s shoes, and I did not do exactly that. I did not carry the twenty or so extra pounds of gear and a weapon, and I did not try to hide my dismay at the grimness of the task. But I have walked more than a few miles alongside these guys, and I know I could not do what they do, day after day. A good day on patrol is a day when nothing happens, or when a bad guy gets caught. A bad day is when our soldiers are punished for their good deeds. The best day will be the day the bad guys realize they cannot beat the good guys. I hope the good guys do not have to walk too many more miles before that day arrives.