It was a week into February of 2007 and a little over a month into the surge, which began with a unit from the 82nd Airborne coming into Baghdad. Since November we had no clear goal in the capital. We were the scoundrels and tramps of the city: we went from slum to slum, clearing and securing it from Sadr's Mahdi Army and handing it over to American and Iraqi forces. We had no area of our own.
Petraeus' main focus of the surge was to get us out of the big bases and into the neighborhoods of Baghdad, rubbing elbows with the locals and giving them enough confidence to assist us in rooting out the bad guys. Given that, we had to find a building big enough for a company of both Americans and Iraqis, a parking lot able to hold many vehicles, and enough standoff from major roads to prevent someone from driving a bomb right through the gate. It was decided that an abandoned shopping mall would do.
When we arrived, all there was to prevent a full on attack was a couple strands of wire around the building. The cement walls would be going up during the night but it would take a few days. We were scheduled to be out there for nearly a week. Luckily, outhouses were being constructed outside. Unluckily, they were in plain view of passing cars and high buildings. Anyone could toss a grenade or shoot an AK out the window as they drove past. I decided to hold it in.
The outpost being built up was called Callahan, hopefully named after my favorite hard-boiled cop.
The clearing missions were routine for the most part. We walked into houses and searched them, dug through courtyards and trash piles and looked into sewage drains for any signs of weapons and bombs.
And we looked on top of houses, too.
For a few days it was going well. We were going into neighborhoods that held dangerous reputations, wondering what all the commotion was about. Patrolling through the streets and not a peep from the enemy!
One evening we were freezing our asses off inside the outpost, getting by with no heat or electricity. I had just returned to my cot after taking out the garbage when I heard a commotion coming from third platoon's area. My former squad leader was rousing everyone awake. I gathered from his hurried speech that he was walking through the parking lot when a round struck by his feet. We were under attack!
Immediately, several men threw on their gear and took positions in the windows, hoping to catch a muzzle flash or RPG streak. The 82nd guys were particularly excited, this being among their first chances of action. Machine guns opened up on a house, starting a fire. Following the tracers, everyone fired in that direction, assuming it was an enemy position. Grenades were dropping in front and in back of the house. In the parking lot, guns were firing toward the same house. All of a sudden, a fuel tanker inside the wire started to burn.
My best Robert Capa imitation
Making a mad dash for the Strykers, I find mine in a huddle of vehicles. It's too dangerous to lower the ramp, so I open the door in the back and climb in. I caught a glimpse of David, the AFP photographer with us for the duration of our Callahan adventure, snapping shots of people running to and from cover. Our vehicle is a little close to the burning fuel tanker, making me a bit uneasy.
Later we would learn that it wasn't ignited by enemy fire, but from a grenade thrown by one of our lieutenants. He didn't make it over the wire to hit the imaginary bad guy.
After everyone made it back to the Strykers, we tore off for the buildings being ravaged by flames. We dismounted and started up the street, nearing the flames and feeling the heat of the fire in the February night. Across the street was a man carrying furniture from the building. He was shouting in very good English, "Thank you for your security! Thank you for your security! This is what you call security?" We had fired on this man's house as he was taking a bath.
Pressing on, we looked all around for enemy shell casings, weapons, anything. We left with a smoldering building to our backs.
Later that night we received a mission to raid a few suspected insurgent houses. Crawling through the grass, we heard the rumblings of tanks out in the distance. We got down low in the weeds so they wouldn't open fire on a group of strange men hiding in the bushes holding guns. We held our breath until they passed.
We stood up and moved toward the small collection of buildings surrounded by palm trees and knocked the door down to find...an old man with information. About mortars that fell. A month prior. Waiting for this valuable information to filter down to the appropriate level, I leaned up against a desk in the house and dozed off. Standing in the moonlight shining through the open door, I didn't care if a tank shot me in the face. I just wanted a nap.
"The white building that's on fire right there"
The view of Callahan - from one of the buildings we shot up the day prior. We pulled .50 cal rounds out of the walls with pliers