AFTER FIVE YEARS AS A STUDENT AT THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN, I JOINED THE ARMY BECAUSE I WANTED A CHALLENGE. I WANTED ADVENTURE. THEN I STARTED BASIC TRAINING ON SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, AND GOT MORE THAN I EXPECTED. AFTER SERVING MULTIPLE TOURS IN IRAQ—PATROLLING CITY STREETS IN THE DEAD OF NIGHT, HUNTING DOWN INSURGENTS, SHOOTING AT THE ENEMY AND BEING SHOT AT—I WILL NEVER BE THE SAME.
SEPTEMBER 11, 2001
I sit in the formation area packed with two hundred other cherry recruits. Here it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. We are all equally worthless. We are all named Joe.
I had enlisted in the Army one month earlier. I’d marched into the recruiter’s office, and before the first lie could fly from his mouth, I’d assured him that I was in. There was nothing revealingly patriotic about my decision; I’ve always considered myself to be a Texan first and an American second. Enlisting was my rite of passage, but I was in need of some external motivation to muster up the courage to part ways with the creature comforts of my life as an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin. I had a naive desire to make my life more adventurous, Hemingway-ish even, and in my diseased imagination, there was a war hero inside of me. Furthermore, I was madly in love with my ex-girlfriend and determined to show her that a man was hiding behind my indolent shortcomings. She did not want me back. So I’d decided to become a soldier.
Now I hurry up and wait for the drill sergeants to pick us up for our first day of basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia. I grow nervous when they arrive. They circle us quietly, like sharks sensing blood. I make eye contact with Drill Sergeant Jones. He is tall, husky, and black. I have never seen a more unpleasant scowl.
“Did you just eye-fuck me, white boy?”
“No, Drill Serg—”
“Shut your cock-holster, Private!”
“Roger, Drill Serg—”
“Oh, I see. You a funny motherfucka, huh? I gonna remember you, Private!”
A dozen more drill sergeants enter the formation area. I pull my patrol cap low and watch their reflections pass in the spit shine of my boot. I want to be Drill Sergeant Jones. For the next fourteen weeks he will be my mentor and my adversary, and he represents everything I hope to become. His job is to make me forget who I was and remind me every day of what I really am: “I am a fucking killer. What makes the green grass grow? Blood! Blood! Bright-red blood!”
We are divided into four platoons and begin our march downrange, calling out cadence, “I used to date a beauty queen; now I hump my M16.” We step all over one another’s heels; they have not taught us how to walk yet. It is a beautiful morning. The sky is cloudless and blue, the air clean and cool. We reach our barracks and form up in our platoon areas quickly and quietly. We are introduced to our company’s first sergeant. He is tall and thin and has a fatherly face.
“Listen up,” he says. “Does anyone here have parents who work at the World Trade Center, in New York City?”
No one responds.
“Good. Does anyone here have parents who work at the Pentagon, in D.C.?”
“Even better. Welcome. Drill sergeants, they’re yours.” He turns and walks back into his office as they awake like a disturbed anthill.
“Grab your duffel bags, privates. Hold ’em out to your sides.”
Less than a minute later, I’m struggling to keep the bags off my hips. My arms and shoulders are on fire, and I am trying my best to fight the laws of physics—and to stay invisible. Too late.
“Holy hoppin’ Hebrew, Private! We’re going to war, and you can’t hold up a bag? Ho-lee shit! I can already tell YOU ARE GONNA DIE!” He removes the brim of his hat from the bridge of my nose and moves on to the next Joe.
The rest of the day continues in the following manner. Push-ups. Flutter kicks. Up-down-goes. Mountain climbers. Drink water. Cherry pickers. Pull-ups. Dips. Drink water. At night we are herded ten at a time into the latrine for a thirty-second shower, then we dress for the next morning’s physical training and stand at attention in the middle of the room. I stare at the man across from me as we repeat the Infantryman’s Creed. We are under total control.
Senior Drill Sergeant White’s hoarse voice breaks through the room as he turns out the light. “Today, the United States was attacked,” he says. “Two planes destroyed the World Trade Center towers, killing twenty thousand people, and another crashed into the Pentagon, killing five thousand. Congratulations. You are the first basic training class of the new American war.” He walks into his office and shuts the door.
My eyes are heavy, and my body aches with pain and joy. I laugh to myself as I mount my bunk. I see right through his mind game, but I bet some of these guys believe him.
The rest of basic training is a joke. And so is airborne school, which I complete directly after. The drill sergeants and airborne instructors are more than capable of pushing us, but they are limited by Army bureaucracy and the politically correct way of doing things. Standards get lowered, training becomes easier, and I feel no real satisfaction from graduating. There is a looming sense of things to come post-9/11, and I want to be a part of it. I’m feeling patriotic, but I will have to wait.
My first duty assignment lands me in Korea in late February 2002. I train near the demilitarized zone and am so close to the North Korean army that I hear propaganda being played over the loudspeakers. A year passes, and new orders send me to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where I am assigned to 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. Known as the Rakkasans—a nickname given by the Japanese during World War II that loosely means “falling umbrellas”—we are the most elite brigade in the regular Army. (Just ask a Rakkasan.) The war in Iraq is a month old, and my unit has already been deployed to the desert. I spend two weeks in-processing and refitting before I hop a plane to Kuwait. A few days later I find myself in Tal Afar, a northern Iraqi city near the Syrian border, introducing myself to my new platoon.
Our home for the majority of that year is a bombed-out military compound of the former regime. It is constructed of thick walls stained black from smoke; the floors were lined with human and animal excrement and trash when we arrived. The living conditions are less than stellar, but we love them. They bring us close. For months we have no showers. We clean our clothes with homemade washboards, we eat T-Rations and MREs with dirty hands, we celebrate solid bowel movements, we post pictures of Jessica Lynch on our range targets and become mean shots. The gloves are off, we are the sons of Ares, and we are invincible. We patrol regularly, attempt to bait out potential ambushes reported by informants, manage checkpoints, and swim in Saddam Lake to escape the scorching heat. We are feared and loved by most Iraqis. But I do not trust them.
By the time we return home in February 2004, we have lost three of our own in an ambush. We were on our way back to the compound when we were attacked by a rocket-propelled grenade and small-arms fire. Of the six of us in the fight, two die and one is wounded and sent home. One of the casualties is my friend Justin Garvey, who had been stop-lossed and shouldn’t have been in Iraq in the first place.
We spend the next year at Fort Campbell training and training and training some more. Our new brigade commander, Colonel Steele, made both famous and infamous by his portrayal in Black Hawk Down, challenges, pushes, and inspires us. We find a new mentor in our battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel George, a leader we would follow down the barrel of a cannon. I discover what I had hoped I would find when I enlisted. My body and mind are transformed. I am promoted to staff sergeant and take over as the section sergeant of my platoon. We run and ruck-march hundreds of miles. We grapple one another to submission daily. We spend hours on the range, firing until our fingers are sore. We spend days in shoot houses, returning home with welts on our bodies from the punctures of clay simulation rounds. We spend our paychecks chasing girls around Nashville, and we spend our downtime nursing hangovers.
But the time grows near. We say our goodbyes yet again and load the plane to Kuwait. I have faith in my commanders and the most reliable platoon in the battalion. I do not believe that the war in Iraq is justified, and though I cannot speak for everyone, I think that the majority of us would rather sweat and bleed in Afghanistan. But that is not important. We leave with a hoplite morality and a belief in one another and the Rakkasans that have come before us. This is reason enough.
The Kuwaiti sun pounds our white nylon tent. I nest on my cot and hide the anticipation that has been building as I peer at the ammunition we have received. It’s a sign that we will soon be heading north. I stare at the 5.56-caliber ball-and-tracer rounds I will load inside my thirty-round magazines. I meditate on the order I should place them in. Will I fire any of them? Will they find their way into the flesh of my enemy? Which vital organs will they decimate before they exit his body? Will an IED take my head off? Or worse? We all share the same macabre premonitions. The sound of rounds clicking snugly into magazines fills the tent as the war drum beats steadily in my temple.
The second my feet touch Iraqi earth, I feel as I did when I’d return home to Castroville for an overdue visit during college. A comforting sense of the familiar, only without the reassurance that the visit would be short-lived. We talk to members of the National Guard unit we are to “relieve in place.” Most are bone-tired, homesick, and ready to scrub their brains clean. I can tell that our energy and conceit disgust them. Their battalion has suffered numerous casualties and hundreds of wounded—the result of IEDs, indirect mortar and rocket fire, and snipers.
The operations order finally trickles out, and I learn that my platoon has been hand-selected by Lieutenant Colonel George to take over the mission of training the Iraqi army (IA) company stationed on the forward operating base (FOB). It’s night, and I go to the roof of the bunker and look into a sea of city lights, more than a kilometer away. Bayji is home to tens of thousands of unfriendly Sunnis and the largest oil refinery in Iraq. The night is incandescent, and a luminous moon casts shadows onto the ground, turning it into a still gray lake. Then a mosque breaks the quiet: “Allahu Akbar.” God is great.
I link up with the Guard boys after breakfast. We receive our mission brief from their platoon leader. With a monotone voice, he speaks frequently about his absolute hatred of Iraqis and the complete hopelessness of our mission. I climb into the rear Humvee and sit behind Sergeant Tanner, who is my guide for the day. His Midwestern accent splinters through a dirty microphone and crackles loudly in my headset.
“Most of the holes on the side of the road are from IEDs,” he says. “The ones in the middle of the road are from land mines.” He compares the effects of being hit by an IED versus a land mine and tells me about the dozens of ways the enemy emplaces them.
Outside the cities, nomads’ tents and mud huts surface like desert hallucinations. This is the cradle of civilization, yet it has evolved so little. Sheepherders graze their flocks near the roads and wave as we drive by.
“They’re taunting us, Sergeant Cook,” he says. “I guaran-fuckin’-tee you they’re calling mujah”—our slang for mujahid or “holy warrior”—“right now to let ’em know we’re coming down the road.”
We reach the boundary to our area of operations in the late afternoon and make our way back toward the FOB. I stop by the IA compound to see what sort of progress the platoon is making with our new partners. It hasn’t taken us long to realize that they are in bad shape. The Iraqi officers have absolutely no control over their men. They have no support system, no count over supplies, weapons, or ammo. They rely on us for everything. The IA soldiers are not bound to service by any sort of contract, and many of them quit on a whim. Their leadership complains constantly, is rarely motivated, and has an excuse for everything: Inshallah. If God wills it.
We are without the IA tonight, so we search for things to do with targets on our backs. Many of the local anti-Iraqi forces (AIF) are related to the IA, so they are more likely to attack when we are alone. Curfew is at nine; after that, Lieutenant Brown will want to chase down every car on the road. We stop in the parking lot of a notorious restaurant and watch the crowd disperse. I sit and quietly implore him to keep off the radio. But he won’t listen.
“Five, this is Six. Did you see that white truck?”
“It just threw something out of the window and parked at the shop across the highway. Wait, it’s moving back on the road. Let’s go!”
We jump back on Route Tampa, one of the most dangerous highways in the country, and Brown rams the truck with his Humvee. His personnel dismount. The other vehicles assume blocking positions, halting traffic. The lights on our trucks flash warnings; our gunners shoot pin lasers into windshields with daring precision. This is our space now. I get out just as another vehicle jumps onto the median.
“Sergeant, I think that car is trying to get by traffic.”
“I see him, Tran,” I say to one of my most reliable Joes, whose family is from Vietnam. I glance up to find him flashing his laser and spotlight into a black sedan. His eyes are focused, his body growing tense under his armor.
“Do not fire until I do,” I say. I quickly flash my tactical light, adding to the warnings that I pray the driver will heed. The vehicle continues along the median until it has passed the traffic, then it gains speed. My senses are clear and crisp, and everything is defined in the moment. The recoil of my weapon pushes into my shoulder. And again. The shots fill the air like snare drums. Tracers disappear into the black sedan. I turn away from the car and brace for an explosion that does not come.
I gather three members from my unit, Soules, Garcia, and Edwards, and we approach the sedan quickly and deliberately, praying it doesn’t explode. The windows are shattered but intact, a small cloud of white smoke rises through several holes in the hood, and all the tires are blown. Through the splintered windshield, I see a bearded man staring blankly into space. In the passenger seat, a woman sits motionless, her arms wrapped around a child enveloped by a blanket.
“Fuck! We killed a baby,” Garcia moans as he lowers his weapon.
I tell the man to get out of the car, but he sits still, looking lifeless. I open his door, and the glass falls apart. I drag him over the pieces and onto his belly in the middle of the road.
“No, the kid’s alive!”
I look over at Garcia, who is examining the woman and her child. A new calm comes over me. I pat the man down and look for blood. I find nothing but some scratches. He slowly awakes to mumble something.
“Kurdish. I am Kurdish.”
“I don’t care,” I say. I pull him up and rest his limp body against the car. He is in shock. Laith, our interpreter for the day, asks him why he came at us like he did, but he just shakes his head. Laith explains to his wife why we nearly killed them, and amazingly, she understands. How can she understand? I don’t even understand.
Her husband’s gaze bounces from Laith to his wife until he finally looks at me. He asks politely if he can change his tire. I laugh because all of them are flat. “Go ahead,” I say.
I have just witnessed a miracle.
“Laith, tell them Allah is watching over them tonight.” He relays the message. The wife smiles in agreement and holds her baby to the sky.
“Von Almen, keep your eyes on those back rooms,” I say. “Munson, watch the waiters and kitchen.”
A fat man with a cheap gray suit and onion breath pleads with me. Fouad, our new interpreter, informs me that the man is the manager of the restaurant and that we are scaring the guests.
“Tell him I don’t care. Tell him he’s got two minutes to bring me the driver of that black BMW parked outside, or I’m going to search every single one of these motherfuckers and tear the restaurant to shit.”
We are searching for a sniper based on a tip from an informant. The manager indignantly raises his arms and storms into the kitchen. The invisible layer of sand that floats in the air has settled onto the white tile floor, leaving light footprints. The concrete walls are painted dark brown and are decorated with tacky maritime souvenirs with Chinese phrases. Lieutenant Brown waits outside with Gino, another interpreter, who is talking on a cell phone to an informant.
“Tell the manager his time is up,” I say.
Fouad gives me the look he often does when he thinks I’m acting hastily. Nonetheless, he tells the diners to stand and empty their pockets. Half a second later, the manager returns, followed by a scraggly-looking fellow in a purple soccer suit and big pilot sunglasses.
“Is he the owner of the BMW, Fouad?”
I grab him by the back of the neck and push him through the front door.
“Got ’em, Six.”
“Great. Gino, is this him?”
Gino speaks into the phone, his eyes sliding around the city, looking suspiciously for his informant’s location. He shakes his head and says, “No, he’s the driver.” Gino interrogates him while I cross his arms and cuff his wrists. Many of his informants are former insurgents. Gino himself has a contract out on his life by our battalion’s number one high-value target (HVT), Qadir Mokhul, whom my platoon refers to as the Scotsman because of his red hair and beard and the pronunciation of his name: “MacKool.”
“The driver says he’s hiding at a house across the street. He will identify him when we get there,” Gino says.
We cross the highway and raid a white-rock house one hundred meters off the highway. We place the men against the outside wall, and the women and children are moved into the yard under a tree. A laundry line runs from the roof to a rusty pole holding up a shed. IA uniforms sway in the breeze. The men harbor notions that they are noncommissioned officers in the IA battalion from Samarra, a status they think gives them some sort of bond with us. They look dubiously at the driver when we move him into the house.
“Is he out there, Gino?”
“He says to look inside the room around the corner of the house.”
We find the suspect hiding under a massive pile of blankets. Gino and I throw the driver into the yard at his request. He does not want to appear as though he’s given up the sniper to the others, who we learn are his own brothers.
The man doesn’t look like much of a sniper. He possesses few of the accoutrements one expects to find in a skilled killer. Regardless, he is reported to be responsible for shooting U.S. soldiers in Tikrit and Kirkuk and many Iraqi police (IP) and IA in surrounding areas. We cuff his wrists and feet and set him down on his knees in the middle of the yard in a nice sunny spot. We shove his face into his lap and pull his shirt over his head. We cuff all the brothers for lying to us and cover their sanctimonious heads with their own IA uniforms. We bombard them with translated insults about their manhood and their worthiness to the IA.
I am so worked up. It feels good to capture them, and I want to kill the sniper. But now it would be murder. I walk over, bury the barrel of my weapon into the back of his head, and pretend to shoot him. I pull his shirt back and grab him by the hair and turn his head toward his family.
“Say goodbye. It’s the last time you’re ever going to see them.”
We head back to the FOB and commence the arduous task of processing them all into the detainee cell. If the sniper and the driver don’t get out on a bribe first, they will eventually appear in front of an Iraqi judge. He will give them a light sentence—if any at all. In prison they’ll meet more snipers and more AIF, and they’ll swap tactical recipes like old church ladies and return to use what they learned on whoever replaces us. Their brothers will be released. If they’re truly in the IA, they will return to their unit. And we will continue to pretend to have faith in them.
I stand on top of a bunker, laughing along with the beat of the platoon banter, staring up at two F-16’s circling thousands of feet above us. It is a moonless night, and the Milky Way hovers just beyond the blinking lights of the jets.
“Ten seconds!” Private First Class Allen yells as he runs out of the bunker. He’s been monitoring the radio to let us know when the show would begin. A battalion informant had notified the tactical operations center (TOC) that fifteen men armed with AK-47’s and RPGs were setting up an ambush in eastern Bayji, and the decision was finally made to bomb them.
We watch as the planes maneuver directly above us and turn toward the city. There are twenty of us on the roof, shirtless, with weapons slung across our chests.
“I hope they don’t mistake us for mujah,” I say.
I look intently into the center of the lights glowing like a dim bulb above the city, ready for the boom to erupt under our feet. I can smell the napalm in the morning. Heat. Cauterize. Penetrate. Disintegrate. Victory.
A tiny flash of light disappears into the city’s belly, and almost immediately, the report comes that the bomb destroyed the wrong homes. I wonder what reaction this will bring from the city. More important, what will our reaction be? Apologetic? What I just saw is a tragedy, so why don’t I feel remorse? Most of the time it feels as though we’re simply fighting to find our way out of a war we shouldn’t have started to begin with, without looking like we’re giving up.
I am convinced that it is not getting better here, and I am struggling to keep my guys believing in our missions. Kids cover sniper fire with fireworks. Our battalion averages between thirty and fifty IEDs a month, many of which have hit my platoon. Several have hit my Humvee. I’ve already lost one of my own soldiers and a few friends. The IP, the IA, and all the other Iraqi security forces are full of incompetence and corruption. We are repeatedly reminded, “Iraqi failures in our eyes are nothing compared to our failures in their eyes.” This does not motivate.
Days earlier I had asked a prominent sheikh why the refinery had been running so poorly, and he told me Jews were to blame. I asked him where the Jews were, but it didn’t matter. I came with humanitarian ideals and a desire to make a difference, but I gradually learned it was a dubious notion. Now it takes all of my effort not to lose my moral values. All we have are small victories when we bring in an HVT, find a cache, or survive an IED or a small-arms attack. All that matters is each other.
BLOODSHOT FOR SURE
It is one o’clock in the morning, and I rub the night from my red eyes. Lieutenant Brown hurries through the door in our briefing room and darts toward the map boards hanging on the walls. His intensity energizes us.
“The Scotsman and the number one HVT from Mosul are meeting in a compound over in eastern Bayji,” he says. “Gino is on the phone with one of his informants, who knows exactly where they are.”
He unfolds copies of enhanced imagery of the compound and passes them around.
“You know the drill. Both of these guys have security. I’m thinking ten to fifteen personnel. If we take fire through the gate, put everything you have into the house. We’ll have close air support on station the entire time to clean up any runners. Sergeant Cook will lead the assault.”
I stare at the imagery. I feel my leg shaking slightly, and I struggle to keep the excitement out of my voice.
“Remember, once we reach the house dismounted, we’re committed,” I say. “Keep in mind, these guys brag about wearing suicide vests. Do not take chances. You see him reaching, shoot the motherfucker quickly.”
In minutes we gear up, pick up Gino, and head out. Fear fills me with a vitality that only war can give. I realize that nothing else I live to experience back home will compare with here and now, these fleeting, addicting moments when everything is clear and uncomplicated, purposeful.
I tighten my grip on my M4 and pray they want to fight. The lieutenant’s truck comes to a slow roll before a sudden burst pushes it through the metal gate, tearing it from the hinges. Seconds later we are all through the gate, accelerating down a narrow driveway. At the end sits the target house, lit brightly, with no traces of muzzle flash. The trucks slow into position, and we sprint to the front door. We are committed.
We stack on the front porch. Sergeant Lawson pulls the breaching tool from his hip and thrusts it into the door just above the knob. It bursts open and springs back into my shoulder as I push inside. It takes only a few minutes to detain one man and clear the entire compound. In the kitchen dozens of dirty dishes—leftover plates of fish, flatbread, and vegetables—lie on the floor. The detainee exclaims that he and his wife had no guests that night, that he is a fish farmer and the brother of a prominent Bayji sheikh. As Gino explains the mathematics of feeding two people as opposed to twenty, Fouad and I speak to his wife to see if their stories match. She refuses to say a word. That’s when the pillow she is sitting on rings. I laugh. Her face does not change, and she pretends I cannot hear the generic Arabic ringtone.
“Fouad, tell her that her ass is ringing.”
He loves it. Fouad stands her up and moves her to a corner of the room. I cut the pillow open and find a cell phone. I give her another chance, but she will not explain. Iraqis know we use equipment to track their phones.
I walk into a bedroom and find Weiss and Matthews carefully lifting up a mattress.
“I found this sewn inside a pillow in the sitting room,” I say.
“Good score. How thorough do you want us to get, Sergeant?”
They smile and call for reinforcements. The furniture and contents of the house are either turned upside down or broken. Everything. The woman sits on a ripped pillow watching as her house and belongings and life are dismantled. We stare at each other coldly. The guys have gathered a Kalashnikov, a pistol, numerous magazines, material that could be used to make IEDs, multiple identifications, a stack of dinars, and American cash amounting to nearly $2,000.
I hand Fouad a pillowcase, and he follows me outside to the detainee. Fouad, the good-natured soul that he is, dusts his face off before covering it with the pillowcase.
“We don’t have enough to hold him, sir.”
“Yeah, I know. He’s definitely going in for questioning, though. He’s a liar like everyone else in this country. They were all here. He keeps changing his story.”
“His house is fucked, regardless. Who knows, though, maybe the informant has it out for him?”
“Speaking of which, do you want to go capture a prince?”
“Right now?” A resplendent smile forms on his face.
“We’re going to follow up on another tip from this informant, so this night isn’t a total failure.”
We had learned from an informant that another HVT, known as the prince of Anbar, was in town. The informant knew where the man’s family lived and what he drove, and the TOC wanted us to detain or kill him if necessary.
After we arrive and spot his vehicle, we creep through the walled yard quietly and rally by the front door. We burst in, clearing the main room, the kitchen, the hallway, and the first two bedrooms, filled with women and children. One room remains. I stand in front of a thin wooden door that separates me from life and death, success and failure. He’s in there, standing across from me, his AK-47 pointed at my head. I must be quick. I kick the door harder than I had intended, knocking it completely off the frame. We fly into the room and secure our points of domination. Four M4 carbines point at his head. He falls limply back into his pillow cursing, his wife peeking at us through her fingers. Gino comes in and says, “That’s him.” But I already know.
I walk into the living room and look at his family. They are the unhealthiest-looking people I’ve seen in a long time. He has three wives, with a handful of kids from each. Their skin looks as though they bathe in yellow dye; their eyes sink deep into dark sockets.
An hour later we load him into my truck and drop a thermite grenade into his car. The flames bounce in the eyes of his children, who watch us through the window. My head is clear, and I am unrepentant. We return to the FOB as the cold night turns into a beautifully pink dawn. The prince’s pants are sopping wet, and steam rises from his crotch as we process him in the detainee cell. This is not unusual. The words “Al Qaeda” and “terrorist” spark so much fear, but most of the people we’ve arrested have cried and pissed themselves. They beg us not to turn them over to the IA or the IP. I finally return to my hooch, take off my boots, and crawl euphorically into my bed.
I am not sleeping well. When I finally drift off, I dream of Annah, an attractive Iraqi doctor who offered me tea and comfort after a sniper attack. Except in my dream, I see her bloody face through a cracked windshield. Her head is split open, her brains planted on the backseat. I dream I have killed her.
My bed becomes an airport escalator taking me through terminals filled with demolished Humvees and mutilated soldiers. In one, a little girl with rotten legs infected from grease burns cries next to a baby with his intestines sticking out. In another, an imprudent IP whose head we split open with a 7.62mm round is trying to put his brain back in his skull. In the next one, a beautiful blonde so important to me speaks her wedding vows in an elegant white dress, but to someone else. I just want to hop on a plane and leave this place. But then again, I don’t.
I am awoken by the sounds of explosions ripping through the desert. I no longer care if I live or die. I have become so sick of staying one step ahead of the hangman, worrying if the next patrol will be the last, that I have bled myself dry. I am not depressed, and I am not suicidal: I’m functioning better as a soldier.
The fractious buzz of mosquitoes shortens my temper more than if I were being bitten. They are absolutely terrible in the spring. We’ve been observing a location often used to fire rockets at the FOB. A little more than a kilometer to the north, the sky flashes bright yellow and red. Tracers flying in two directions decorate the concussions that follow. A calm form of hysteria fills the radio speakers, and an honest battle is brewing downtown. A platoon from Bravo Company has been hit by two IEDs and is taking small-arms fire from numerous locations.
We arrive and dismount our trucks after we’ve established blocking positions. Lieutenant Brown points to three large buildings Bravo has asked us to clear. We move across the highway into an alley on the side of the building just as rounds begin to explode above. We immediately return fire and take cover. The echo of gunfire increases in all directions as Bravo moves toward the other buildings.
“I can’t tell who’s firing at who!” Dellerba shouts as rounds hit the corner of the building, spraying dust and debris into our faces.
More rounds come from a bakery directly in front of us. The muzzle flashes light up the dark windows, making it easy to acquire mujah’s location. We unload dozens of rounds into the two-story shanty as a truck from Bravo Company maneuvers behind us. The .50-cal mounted in the turret thumps away blocks of the store’s cement walls. We cease fire and watch the gunner lay waste with a joyful fury that shakes him like a madman in an electric chair. Whatever was in the building no longer exists. Fire continues to pour on us from the first location, and we narrow it down to a large building fifty meters around the corner. We are soaked to the bone with sweat, and my skin smells of vinegar.
Two Bravo trucks turn the corner and alternate fire on the building. We open fire as well, putting rounds into windows, rooftops, and doors until the trucks pass. We fall in behind the second one and move slowly toward the target. We get close to the building and sprint from the truck to the wall by the front door. Bravo breaches the door and follows it with a flash-bang grenade. Seconds later we follow them in. We climb the stairs and clear ten to twelve rooms on the second floor. It is empty. We move to the third floor. Dirty foam mattresses lie on the ground next to pots and pans full of rotten potatoes. Thin aluminum kettles rest on kerosene stoves, and small tea glasses coated in undissolved sugar are scattered around the rooms.
We ascend the last set of stairs. We send word to the trucks outside that there will be friendlies on the roof. I kick in the door and burst through. The roof is flat, and two dark figures rest in the center of it. One moves, the other does not. We approach them with caution, staying as low as we can. Sporadic fire moves farther into the city.
Both figures are black men, most likely Sudanese. The large one is wearing a white dishdasha, lying facedown in a pool of blood. The smaller one is in black pants and a gray sweater. He is moaning and rolling back and forth on his side. Von Almen grabs him by the leg and drags him a few meters away.
“Weiss, you and Von Almen search him. Dellerba, help me with this big fucker.”
Dellerba pulls the man’s legs apart and kicks him forcefully in the crotch. He does not budge.
I crawl on top of him and bury my face into his back. Dellerba kneels a few feet away and points the barrel of his weapon at the man’s head.
I grab mujah’s shoulders, keeping my face in his back, and roll to my side. I move him so that Dellerba can look underneath him for booby traps. I keep myself planted firmly against his stiff body.
I roll back on top of him and feel my hand sink into a crimson lagoon underneath. I wipe my hand off on his clothes.
“Weiss, what’s up with that other guy?”
“Goddam, Sergeant. He’s alive, but he’s bleeding and shitting out of his ass and a couple of other holes. I don’t want to touch him.”
“Go get Doc. What’s the word, Six?”
“The TOC wants us to get them back to the FOB right now. What’s their status?”
“This one is dead.”
“The other one is in pretty bad shape.”
“Let’s get them downstairs. Carry the wounded one first, then come get the second.”
“We’ll just throw the dead one over the roof.”
“Are you serious? It will break every bone in his body.”
“He’s dead, sir. He’ll be hard as hell to carry. He’s huge.”
“We can’t just throw him off.”
“Sir, no one will care, and we don’t have any litters.”
“It’s just not right.”
“I know it’s not, but it’s the sensible thing. The area is not exactly secure at the moment. We have nothing to carry him with.”
“Jesus. All right, sir.”
Diaz runs downstairs and returns with one of the foam mattresses. Dellerba and I roll the wounded man inside of it and grab it by the ends. He moans loudly. We repeatedly lose our grip and drop him as we move down the stairs. By the time we get to the street, we are exhausted.
Doc arrives and hands me some gloves. I help him shove gauze into the dying man’s rectum and other wounds. Weiss, Diaz, and Von Almen arrive ten minutes later with the other man. Dellerba and I battle to get the body into the backseat of the truck, leaving him twisted and upside down with barely enough room to latch the door closed. There will be a lot of blood to clean out.
Doc and the rest load the wounded man into my truck. We return to the FOB and head straight to the aid station. The company physician and battalion surgeon and a handful of medics work frantically on him, but he is fading. They give him morphine, and he slips out of pain. His face relaxes, and I look at his features. He looks kind. Fouad walks up to him and tells him to pray.
I look over to Von Almen, who is laughing and pointing to mujah’s manhood.
“Mine’s bigger than that! I’ve been telling my girlfriend that myth ain’t true.”
I laugh, but I am mildly disgusted at myself for doing so.
“You’re going to hell. You know that, right?” I ask.
“I think we all are.”
CONCUSSIONS AND CRATERS
We no longer patrol merely for presence. The platoon’s mission is to kill or capture HVTs. That is all we do. We infil at night in small teams. We slip through the dark streets and alleys and stay as invisible as we can. We sneak into people’s homes, which we use as observation posts or hide-sites, and sometimes we are able to leave without waking them. We tiptoe into empty houses and disappear without a trace. We sit in the shadows of dark rooms and black windows and monitor the sound of the borough. We are a few alone in the middle of a hostile city. Quick-response forces sit kilometers away, and time barely moves. We change our patterns and techniques daily. We watch and we listen and we wait for luck to put a target in our sights. We hunt humans for a few hours, get picked up, then have breakfast.
I move around my seat to get more comfortable as we approach the FOB after spending hours hiding in an observation post. A ball of fire suddenly explodes over the hood, and a wave of heat fills the truck. An explosion a few feet from my door lifts me from my seat and throws me into the radio tray. My face feels wet, but I cannot lift my hands to check. The truck sits on the median, and white smoke pours through the vents. I stretch my jaw and try to pop my ears. I focus on the blue flashing lights of an IP car that speeds out of sight. I slowly come to.
I look over at Tando, my driver, and he is laughing. Smoke is filling our lungs, and I can barely see the red lights of the truck in front of me. My radios have shut off. The back doors have been nearly blown off, and I pray we do not take fire. All the tires are blown, and the windshields and windows are cracked and will not sustain another blast. I check the others for blood. We are fine, yet again. How is this possible?
“I thought you guys were goners,” Lieutenant Brown says later as he shakes my hand. Four African 155mm artillery rounds plus a propane tank have made a five-foot crater in the road and ruined my night. We return to the FOB and get checked for concussions. After seven and a half months, I decide that it may be time for a break.
I spend my entire leave in Italy. I walk through the Colosseum and the Forum, have dinner in front of the Pantheon, and stand in awe of St. Peter’s Basilica. I have drinks at Harry’s Bar, made famous by Hemingway, and down Bel-linis in Piazza San Marco, in Venice. I spend a week in Cinque Terra lounging on the beach, eating the best seafood, and getting crazy into the World Cup with the local Italians. But the best part of the entire trip is when I board the plane in Rome and return to the desert.
I catch up with the guys and listen to stories describing the last three weeks. They had been hit by a couple more IEDs, but nothing too exciting. A few hours later I’m ordered back onto a Black Hawk that eventually drops me off in the Green Zone, where I testify against an Al Qaeda operative we’d apprehended months earlier.
It is a full moon, and the Black Hawk casts shadows across Baghdad rooftops on my way home. Sensors detecting heat eject flares from the sides of the bird and give me a good startle. The Black Hawk returns me safely to the FOB. I swear I will not leave here again unless I’m with my platoon.
We are nearing the eleven-month mark, and we will be leaving soon. Our replacements are in Kuwait, and we can taste home. Every mission is analyzed, and risks are weighed heavily against rewards. We move down Route Tampa, just on the southern tip of Bayji, as the sun begins to set. There is a large, suspicious gathering just off the highway that is obviously disturbed by our presence. We pass the crowd, turn around on the access road, and form a cordon to investigate. I am not surprised when I see one of the bodyguards for Sheikh Ahmad, a onetime community leader reported to have embezzled thousands of dollars. We have arrested the bodyguard three times now for various reasons, and I’m sure this will be the fourth. He is tall and fat, with gimpy legs, and always smells of whiskey and ashtrays.
We stop traffic moving toward us in the northbound lane. We lay all of the men facedown and search their pockets. Every single one has an IP or some security identification that states that he is a major or a colonel or has some connection to Sheikh Ahmad. We search their vehicles and find dozens of assault rifles, pistols, and IA uniforms that they are not supposed to have.
Then the M-240B machine gun opens fire from a truck and sends orange tracers into the street. Allen feeds the heavy belt through the chamber, keeping a tight squeeze on the trigger as a car races toward our position. The car does not slow and is almost directly on top of us. Allen feeds the automobile with more rounds, but it rolls past him and into my line of sight, twenty meters away. I squeeze off round after round and watch as they penetrate the flesh of the driver. This is it. This one will blow. I lower my weapon and wait for the explosion to rip apart my body. But it does not happen.
I open the driver’s side door, and an old man falls out limply onto my leg, smearing dark-red blood along my thigh. I drag him away from the car as Doc falls to his knees and checks his pulse. He looks peaceful. He has a neatly trimmed silver mustache that matches his hair, and a vague smile rests on his face. His eyes are open, and his pupils are opaque. They are nearly completely covered by cataracts.
I check his glove box as we wait for more IP to arrive. I find a wallet and rummage for his ID. Instead, I find a student ID for Tikrit University and a photo of a young man with his arm around the waist of the driver, who is leaking from holes I’ve just drilled into his chest and neck.
We take pictures of the location of the car in relation to the truck. We photograph our cones and chemical lights and every measure we took to get the vehicle to stop. We photograph the mass of traffic that we have backed up.
The IP arrive and do not recognize the man. They wrap him in dirty blankets stained from oil recovered from the back of their truck and toss his body into the bed. They crush his head as they repeatedly slam the tailgate until it closes.
A platoon from Bravo arrives to help us load the others. I put a sandbag over Gimpy’s head and choke him tightly around the neck as I walk him to my truck. He is getting enough air to cry. I shove him into the backseat, closing the door into his legs, and ignore his bellowing. Perhaps if he’d have just been sent to prison somewhere, this would never have happened. We return to the FOB. I spend hours filling out sworn statements. We turn in the weapons, uniforms, and evidence we gathered. I sign more sworn statements and detail the incident, which will be investigated. They are always investigated. I sit through an escalation-of-force class, mandatory retraining that follows every incident, usually given by a captain who rarely leaves the wire. I have sat through many.
I lie on top of the bunker in my shorts and sandals and wait for a mortar or a rocket to spit into the FOB, daring it to hit me. They are becoming very predictable. The sun sets beside me, the roof still warm from absorbing the late summer day’s heat. I see the old man’s face in my head clearly, and I am regretful but not sorry. What if it had been a car bomb? It has become them or us. How could I have known?
Then I wonder if there are any traces left of the old me. Someone who was compassionate and caring and felt connected to the world. I wonder if I will ever get that back. I wonder if the old man spoke to his son before he left today. I should call my father and tell him that I love him. But I don’t.
A STRANGE LAND
I am home. Or, to be more precise, I am back in the United States. It is November 2006, and it is freezing at Fort Campbell. I do not want to be here. My mind is not home; it is not where it should be. I appear to be all right, but I often fake it. I spend much of my time staring into space, waiting for something to happen.
I will be honorably discharged in a couple of weeks. My best friend, David Broyles, also served in Iraq, and he and I often compare ourselves to an abused spouse who lacks the conviction to leave her lover. I am only 28 years old, but I fear I will never be better at anything else than I was as a soldier. I am unorganized and cluttered and have never been more insecure.
It’s five in the morning, and I’m patiently watching a sergeant first class organize his office. Somewhere buried in his drawer is a stamp that he must put on my clearing papers so that I can get out of the Army. But to get the stamp, I must sit through a briefing about why I should join the National Guard or Reserve component. He is a lifer, and misery loves company.
“You know, Sergeant, you seem very busy, and I do not want to waste any more of your time,” I tell him. “I have absolutely no desire to join the Guard. So if you just want to go ahead and give me that stamp, I’ll be on my way.”
“Why are you getting out, Sergeant Cook?”
“Let’s call it an exodus from an undesirable place.” I laugh. He looks at me as he takes a swig from his Mountain Dew, which leaves little bubbles in his mustache.
“Let me just give you a quick rundown about what the Guard can offer you.”
“Really, Sergeant, I appreciate it, and I know you have a job to do, but you’re wasting your breath.”
“You know, I can put you into a Guard unit with the promise that you will not go back to Iraq.”
“Going back is not the problem. I’m not getting out because of Iraq. The problem is I don’t want to be in the Army.”
“No? Okay. Then this is what will happen. You’re going to get out and be placed into the Individual Ready Reserve, and I would say there is about a 99.95 percent chance that you’re going to be back in Iraq within a year.”
“What if I get called back in and don’t report?”
“You’ll be AWOL and prosecuted as a deserter.”
“You know, when I enlisted, the recruiter called it the Inactive Ready Reserve. The key word there is ‘inactive.’”
“It’s a draft for us so there doesn’t have to be one for civilians. There are just too many people getting out and not enough coming in. Give me your clearing papers.” He painfully pushes the dark ink over the appropriate line and shakes his head. He has officially destroyed my morning coffee buzz.
I choke up when I speak to my platoon for the last time. I can’t get out much of what I am feeling or what I want to say. I didn’t think it would be so hard. I hope they know that the greatest honor of my life was serving as their section sergeant. But I did not seek out anyone else to say goodbye. The rest of the battalion has already forgotten me. That is the way of the Army. I am leaving and they are going back. It’s that simple.
My heart pumps faster as I drive closer to Austin. I exit Sixth Street and drive through downtown, looking through windows into buildings, looking at people working in those buildings as if I am watching them on television. Austin normally feels so comfortable, but I do not feel at home. I do not think I can fit back in with the people working in the windows of the buildings downtown. I already miss the easy pose of a soldier being among soldiers.
I wear a face that does not match my emotions. Friends and family tell me to take time and relax. I do not want to take time or relax. There is an urgency in me they do not share. I’m drowning in inexplicable guilt, and I am uneasy about dealing with life’s old irritations.
A year later I have escaped the recall trap that I worried would befall me. I’m taking classes at UT again. I’ve grown my beard out a couple of times. I’ve put on and lost a few easy pounds. I have managed to hide my insecurities better than I did a year ago, but that unshakable guilt has never left me. My platoon is now back in Iraq, and when I wake, I often wish I was with them.
Most of the time I feel as though I’m lost between the beautiful and tragic remnants left in me from my varicolored war and this naive world of American normalcy. But I am getting by. I am certainly not without my flaws, but my shortcomings have been replaced by miles of stories that I would match against Hemingway’s any day. I never found the war hero inside of me, but in my rite of passage I found a worldliness and particular understanding of life that has made me a better man. And I never won my ex-girlfriend back, but I do not regret a day I spent in uniform—I’m immensely proud of my service. If I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned what a truly remarkable thing it is to be a combat veteran. Now I want to live an exceptional life for those who never left the desert.