It was just past the new year - in 2007. President Bush outlined Iraqi government benchmarks, and the newfangled "surge" was being rolled out in Baghdad. The units weren't going to be arriving for another month, but in preparation we had much larger areas to clear so the units coming in wouldn't be stuck with tangled messes of sectors. When they'd arrive, we'd show them everything we learned, from the hot spots to tips on the back roads to avoid traffic and VBIED threats.
One of the things I remember most vividly about Baghdad in the winter was the weather. It seemed to always be raining, and in the few moments it wasn't, there were standing puddles everywhere we went. Big lots, trash piles, city streets. You couldn't walk anywhere without tracking several pounds of mud, shit and trash on your boots. You can imagine the modern drainage and sewage system a third world country has.
One of my assigned tasks was the collection of sensitive information on our missions. I'd help to interrogate detainees and later would biometrically log the 1920s guys into our system. I would also take pictures of detainees, caches, local sheiks, anything of value that we could use. The upside to this was being able to take pictures of just about anything and having an excuse for keeping it.
On a very wet and cold January dawn, we began our house to house search for caches and boogeymen. Shortly after we started, we came to a house that was largely empty except for scattered trash in the corners and scrap metal in the living room. What was interesting was the graffiti adorning the wall closest to the door. The human intelligence guy with us suggested it was insurgent-related and had me take a picture. Eager to get the day over with, my squad was moving out of the house and down the street to another block. I stood in the room as they left, cursing that the flash button was left on, drowning out the images on the wall. I retook the picture and hastily shoved the camera into the pocket on my upper arm. Running out of the room and into the street, I looked both ways for my squad. Nothing.
Yes, those are devil horns coming out of 'USA'
With Americans on either side of me, it wasn't clear which way they went. I decided to go right, and after several steps, saw members of another platoon standing in a window. Well, fuck. I'm in trouble now. I turned around and headed back the other way, my boots plop-plop-plopping in the mud. Past the graffiti house, I spotted some Iraqi Army guys standing around a humvee outside of a mosque. As I grew nearer, I looked to my left up a staircase to a house that was more or less destroyed. At the top I saw Payday, from my squad. Saved.
"What's up dude?" I asked, hoping not to have caused a scene with my absence.
"Shit," he replied, with his helmet by his side, massaging his scalp.
Matt and my squad leader were on the roof to provide security for the IA downstairs as they prepared to go into the mosque. We were barred from going into them unless we received fire directly from them, because upsetting people in a war is at the top of the list of things to be concerned about. Word came over the radio that there was a lock and chain around the gate of the mosque, and of course the IA didn't bring their own bolt cutters or crowbars. Matt yelled down to me to bring them our bolt cutters, which I was carrying.
What a beautiful view! It's almost worth it
I walked down the flight of stairs with the cutters in tow, ready to hand them off. What I saw when I turned the corner made my heart stop: an Iraqi soldier was holding his AK-47 point-blank to the lock on the door. As soon as I covered my face and turned away, he pulled the trigger. As the lock fell to the ground and the other IA looked at me, I held the bolt cutters above my head and shouted, "WHAT THE FUCK! WHAT THE FUCK!"
The next morning we gathered around a cluster of apartments. Intelligence suggested that there was a cache buried somewhere in the area, and that we'd be using a metal detector to try and find it. Being the lowest ranking person with a rifle in the squad, guess who got to wield it?
GPS units can now fit in the palm of your hand, but metal detection seems to have been untouched by the progress of technology. It was still the bulky piece of shit you'd imagine and didn't fit into its bag. After detecting a bunch of...metal, we decided to can the idea and continue clearing. One of the first doors we encountered became one of the most challenging of the whole tour:
We got word (we're always getting that, it seems) that bad guys were using a nicer looking SUV to ride around in. My squad was dropped off on a highway in the pouring rain to take a building to watch the road for any suspicious looking Escalades. What we ran into was a bread shop. For more than an hour we sat and awkwardly communicated with the two guys and boy as they rolled bread. We offered to pay for a bag full of rolls, but in true Iraqi fashion, they gave it to us with a blessing.
Day after day, it's not too easy to remember something that happened a year ago when everything ran together. Later in the week on the same clearing operation, everything was still drenched. Walking from one neighborhood to the next became a challenge, as the standing ponds of septic water grew with the rain. We did our best to skirt buildings but some puddles were too deep and long. Iraqis have adapted to this by laying bricks in the water to form stepping stones. To keep our feet from contracting hepatitis, we followed in the wise footsteps of the locals.
Trip across Poop River 1 of 3
Candid photo, or subtle metaphor? You decide.