Sometime in mid November 2006, we started to hear rumors about moving to Baghdad from Mosul, to relieve the 172nd Stryker Brigade, the same brigade we had already relieved when we got to Iraq in July before they were extended four months. Quickly the brass called a meeting with everyone about the subject to stop the ever present rumor mill from spitting out those little nuggets of gossip. Standing before the battalion, our commander told us there were no plans to move to Baghdad, but if there were any in the future, we'd get a notice of a few weeks prior at the very least.
A few days later, we were Baghdad bound. Or rumored to be, I can't be sure.
A Kiowa flew with our convoy, watching out for IEDs ahead of us
Before daybreak we took a straight shot down Tampa, the main road running through Mosul down to Baghdad and beyond. We had already been given our first mission: looking for the pilot of a crashed F-16 in the Anbar desert, and recovering the wreckage. He crashed after losing control while setting up for a gun run.
The convoy never went faster than 45 miles an hour, which made the approximately 200 mile drive a little long. We switched off in the back hatch, watching the huts and houses go by in the crisp winter wind. We had a megaphone in the back for warning cars that got too close, but we found a more practical application: hooking it up to our MP3 players. Nothing was more fitting at the time than Pink Floyd.
Before we would begin our search, we made it to our new home: Taji, twelve miles away from Baghdad. There we stripped down non-essential stuff for the mission (which happened to be a lot, imagine that) and got briefed on the time and location. We would spend about a week in the desert, going from house to house asking if the Iraqi civilians had seen or heard anything about pilots, planes or if they had considered switching to the Mormon faith. After a night in Taji, we headed for that big, empty splotch on the map.
We quickly found that the desert was a sprawling, open, arid piece of land with few inhabitants and scattered houses. We'd load up on Strykers and drive until we saw a cluster of houses, then get out and look through them. These people seemed to be the poorest we'd seen until we patrolled the slums of Baghdad. As always, my life became secondary to the possibility of stepping into a shit stream, so I watched the ground closely as we approached a farm. Speaking to the farmers, we found that there were several mortars that fell in his field. Not knowing the difference between a mortar crater and a hole in the ground, we decided to check them out, spread out far from the farmhouse. Circling back around, we came to a small pond with about two dozen oxen drinking and waddling in the water. They were startled and began to rush toward me. I spelled out my own obituary in my head. "Alex Horton, killed in a shit hole by a stampeding ox." Luckily they ran right past me. We stood around, talking about how much it would take for someone to jump in the hole. After a thousand dollar dare, no one jumped in.
The beautiful scenery of the Anbar desert
After we stalked around the deserts for a day, we found a suitable house to sleep in. Coming into it, we heard gunfire erupt from somewhere near us. We made it back inside to figure out the commotion and to make sure everyone was still there. It quieted down a bit, and we began to sleep in shifts, two guys up at a time. I'd have two shifts before the night was over, starting the day at sunrise.
Out of nowhere, the Snack Master™ manages to conjure a Mountain Dew in the house we stayed in
Another day of trekking through the desert sands, up and down hills and across tilled farm land. No sign of wreckage. He could be anywhere. Occasionally, we came upon tracks from a truck and spent heavy machine gun casings along the path. Finishing up, we took shelter in a big house owned by one of the local big shots. He quickly put on tea for us and later brought out huge trays of flat bread, rice and tomatoes for us to eat. The kids were making us paper airplanes and they soon were zipping across the room as everyone talked, laughed and took pictures.
Apparently I was the only cold one
After three or four days, the mission was called complete. The wreckage was found and remains were identified as the pilot. As a result of our visit in the open deserts, one man in our battalion, Billy Farris, was killed by an IED. A man from our company lost a leg the night before we left, also from an IED. Pulling into Taji for the second time, we got the complete story. This wasn't like Mosul, they're playing for keeps down south. We all took a deep breath and prepared to take on Baghdad.