Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Last Patrol

It had to end, someday.

We had been at Combat Outpost Battle II for a few weeks, trying to leave it in the best shape possible for our beautiful, wonderful relief unit, our sister brigade from the other side of Ft. Lewis.

Operation Arrowhead Ripper was the cherry on top of a grueling five month adventure in Baqubah, a place we didn't know of in 2006 but one we'd get to know all-too well toward the end of 2007. After that big offensive, there was one last hurrah: the clearing and holding of the neighborhood of Old Baqubah.

It proved to be the most dangerous of neighborhoods, one left relatively untouched during the massive clearing operation in June and July. While elements from our brigade held ground on the west side of town, we began clearing operations in Old Baq' in the hopes of setting up a new outpost. For my twenty-second birthday, I read a book cover to cover inside a Stryker in between guard shifts. It was a gift from my platoon to not go on patrol.

We quickly found a suitable outpost, an abandoned two story whiskey distillery. To make enough room for a motor pool, we blew up a man's house that had been in his family for decades. For days, he came by our front door to collect the bricks, sprinkled over dozens of yards. He wanted to rebuild.

The days felt longer than any other point in the deployment. It had a lot to do with the heat; the building had no electricity and poor ventilation. The high ceilings gave way to several windows that let in plenty of sunlight. The concrete building and floor held the heat during the day and released it during the night. Most of us slept outside on the roof to escape the dreadful, choking air that filled the building. Half the time was spent stealing and re-stealing cots the Iraqi Army took upon themselves to grab when we were on patrol.

It was three days at the outpost, three days off. "Off" was a relative term. We spent that time on the FOB rearming and regrouping in between supply runs to the outpost. Time evaporated during our off periods, but came back with a vengeance back at COP Battle II.

Day in, day out. Going through the motions of scheduled patrols like the good ol' days of Mosul. It was all building to the inevitable. Our replacements were ready to show up near the end of August to effectively relieve our positions. Soon, we'd be going home.

By the luck of the draw, my squad was the last from my platoon to conduct a foot patrol during the day.

Right out the door, we came upon a group of sheep rummaging through one of the trash piles next to the outpost. One in particular was gnawing on a sheet of plastic. As we walked past, they momentarily stopped to watch us. The one with the plastic kept on gnawing.

Rounding around the block, we came upon a huge gathering in the street. Evidently there was a wedding going on, as throngs of people were singing, clapping and chanting down the street. We were bookended by kids riding bicycles and shouting slogans to us.

The most boring video of Iraq you'll find on the internets

Before heading out, we got the ubiquitous word that our BFFs, the 1920s, was possibly going to ambush us for old times sake. We were told to keep an eye on them, to not turn our backs to them even once.

We passed a couple of their checkpoints along the way, stopping to remind them to wear their reflective belts so they don't get shot in the face with a Hellfire missile. Walking in between us - a group of women under black head dresses, paying no heed to the American squad on either side of the street.

Matt gives Last Patrol 2: Insurgent Boogaloo two thumbs up!

You'd think that simple, vital things like smoke grenades would be in endless supply to the most senior unit in Iraq at the time. You'd be wrong. When our white screening smoke ran out, we were forced to use colored smoke (usually reserved for signaling). When our colored smoke ran out, we used training smoke grenades. The biggest concern wasn't that we were using smoke that barely lasted ten seconds, it was that we had training smoke in fucking combat. After the training smokes were gone, smoke grenades shot from grenade launchers were used. Imagine shielding yourself from machine gun fire with what amounts to fine colored chalk floating in the air. It'll definitely put some pep in your step.

On this patrol, we had managed to scrounge up enough smoke grenades. They were casually tossed to get rid of them, as they would be useless to us in ten minutes. Our platoon leader tried to play kick the can with an Iraqi kid, but he wasn't sure what to do with it.

Sure, NOW we get them...

The patrol didn't last longer than 45 minutes, but I had a tremendous sense of finality walking back to the outpost. As I looked around, I realized it would be the last time I'd have my feet down on hostile territory, the last time I peered habitually to rooftops and doorways, looking for anything out of the ordinary. It'd be the last time my sense of smell would be subdued by the intertwined smell of human waste and garbage (and the last time I'd have the privilege of stepping in both). But it was the first time I realized that our deployment was finite, that the end was drawing near toward an uncertain future of civilian life, with all its beautiful complexities we weren't afforded for fifteen months. We were going home.