Trudging. Walking. Strolling. No other thing was more common for our tour than the good ol' fashioned patrol. In Mosul we did it from our armored Strykers to show the world we could keep it under control without setting foot on the ground. We'd only get out if something happened (a sniper taking shots, IED, etc). In Baghdad it changed because the mission changed. We were constantly on the ground to clear houses and snoop out caches.
When we got to Baqubah and once found fifty IEDs on a stretch of road less than a mile long, we figured it might be a good idea to walk even more often.
Missions became longer and started earlier so we could walk in from miles away. It was the tail end of May and we had begun to feel the summer heat creeping in from a mild winter. Everyone had a distinct memory of the Mosul summer, and we were preparing for another one further south.
In the darkness of May 18 we began to clear and search scattered houses and lots. Without electricity and the sun to help, we covered the walls, ditches and trunks of cars with the beams of our flashlights. You could see us coming from a mile away.
We chanced upon a big hulk of machinery in an otherwise empty house. With a single flashlight on it, it was difficult to take in exactly what it was. Several dudes gathered around with beams dancing around it. We quickly recognized the importance of our find. It was a Dishka anti-aircraft gun, the same type used by the insurgent-turned concerned local citizen group 1920 Revolution Brigade to shoot at us from a rise in Baghdad after downing a Blackwater helicopter. It was bad news to see it in those parts, even if it was a little unkempt and rusty. We sat on the floor waiting for a decision to be made about what to do with it. We left without it being resolved, and another platoon came in to take care of it. I'm not sure what the fate of the disheveled weapon was...
Soon it was daylight and we had already been clearing for hours. Crossing a small stream, we walked into a huge field with isolated houses a hundred feet or more apart. The first stretch of open area was the worst. It looked to be more than a quarter of a mile away until we reached cover and concealment from enemy fire. In between, it was tilled, flat land with not even long grass to hide ourselves. A suicide run.
I was nearly at the end of my platoon in the long chain of men cutting across the field. The three line squads would hold two houses while our machine gun teams came up behind us. To our distant left was a road running parallel with our movement, clustered with houses stretching endlessly out of view, reaching an area where we'd find a mass grave in a little more than a week. I was alert and my eyes open, but not in the direction of the road. I was watching for huge dirt clots that would bring a man tumbling down if he wasn't careful. I was about fifty yards from the guy in front of me, and he was nearing the gate to our house.
Suddenly, shots rang out. Being a common noise to hear, no one changed their speed and kept walking along. Then some more crackled. Shit, they were close. We began to pick up a light jog. Crack-crack-crack. Fuck! As one of the last guys, I sprinted all the way into the gate. I ran cross country when I was younger and learned long ago how to control my breathing. Running was never a problem for me, and I was glad as hell to be able to use that when my own two legs meant the safety of a concrete wall or a bullet to the brain. I slid into the courtyard, where everyone was panting and trying to figure out what the hell. It was determined the shooting was coming from the other side of the road. The insurgents weren't original, but they were smart.
My squad leader quickly closed the gate as firing from our side started over the wall. No one knew exactly where the machine guns were, but we were determined to show them we'd fire back anyway. We were trying to buy time for our weapons squad as they labored with their own machine guns across the field. Our forward observer was trying to figure out coordinates to the road when a heavy amount of firing was coming from across the road. Loud cracking noises that tell you the bullets were close, closer than usual. This guy wasn't bad. Then we heard voices.
"Open the fucking gate!"
The gate! It was locked and our guys were naked out there. The closest guy grabbed the switch to the gate and swung it open as the squad scrambled into safety. Bryan was last and still running for his life when the firing became even more intense. Pieces of concrete were flying off the edge of the wall right above his head as he came flying in, his head hunched down low screaming "fuck fuck fuck!"
At this point, we were kind of screwed.
We put a machine gun down in between the gate's doors to provide some sort of response. Some guys hauled a dresser from inside the house to stand on to shoot over the wall. There was no cover on the roof. Guns were firing at all the rooftops in hopes of drawing out the machine gunner. He soon quieted down.
Bill quickly earned the nickname Snack Master from me. No matter where we were, he'd always have candy, Pop Tarts or a soda handy. This was the part of war no movie will ever show: sitting around after the action, waiting for someone to tell us the next step. In these moments, Bill would kick back and enjoy a Sugar Daddy or two.
How he carried so many Jolly Ranchers, we'll never know
After a near death experience, it's always good to have a laugh. I suggested that we hold a helmet up on a stick to see if they were still paying attention. It didn't draw any fire, much to our dismay.
After communicating our difficult situation, we were told to get out of there. There no was no back door, so we could either jump over the wall or go through the gate and make a break for the next house, where another platoon was at. With urgency in our step, we filtered out and made our way to the back of the house for another suicide run.
Bill, always up front, poked his head out to scan the area. In response a volley of rounds passed by his head close enough to damage his ear and kick up dirt right next to him. He fell back screaming a line of obscenities, and we all thought, well, Bill's dead.
Bill was convinced he was in a movie, so he was one for theatrics. When he got up and we all realized he wasn't dead, he stuck his M-4 around the corner and began shooting wildly. Unshaken, the persistent machine gunner kept up his fire. The next house was about a hundred yards from us. So we tried the way we came. The guy at the other end of the house peeked and also got an earful of rounds. It was another machine gunner. We were trapped.
100 yards to death
We called in to ask for helicopter support so they could make quick work of the dueling machine guns that kept our whole platoon at bay. The request was rejected: helicopters would scare them off, and we wanted to get them dead or alive. We were to turn the corner and charge toward the road, which was several hundred yards away. I thought of the final scene from Gallipoli, where the dude charges across no man's land only to get gunned down after a few steps. Christ. I turned to look at the other building one of our squads took, which couldn't pinpoint the fire but was receiving it from somewhere else. The squad leader was standing in the window when I saw dust and concrete falling from just above him.
"They're firing at you!" I yelled. He held his hand up to his ear, the universal sight of "what?"
"They're fucking firing at you!" I screamed as loud as I could, pointing above him. He poked his head out, looked up, and quickly hid himself behind the wall.
Cooler heads prevailed on the decision to charge and we decided to go back the way we came and flank around to the neighborhood from the left. The first run was the most dangerous, so a few smoke grenades were tossed to hide our movement. Like mad we ran to the next house, going as fast as we could under our equipment. We sprinted through hues of yellow and green to reach momentary safety. I looked back to see action star Bill, running with one hand on his rifle shooting through the smoke. He tripped up and came crashing down onto his face, in between the houses. Fuck, now he's really dead this time. He got up and finished the stretch.
We had a few stretches to go before being out of sight. Once we all gathered up, we'd start another run. In between breaths, Josh shouted in a southern accent, "These colors don't run!"
Exhausted under the May sun, we were almost at a walking pace by the time we reached a defilade from the guns half a mile away. Swinging into the neighborhood, we found one machine gun position. They abandoned the gun and fled. That day, he would make it home.
For the rest of the day we'd walk the neighborhoods looking for any more trouble, but with a more serious step. Those shots could start at any time and end you just as quick. And you wouldn't die bravely on a French battlefield or on the Rhine. You'd pass away spent, covered in sweat among the dirt and the trash of a forgotten Iraqi street, wondering where all the glory from war went.