Saturday, December 20, 2003

Encounter with the Man Who Tried to Kill Me; A Sobering Conversation With Iraqi Friends; Thoughts About Death

December 20, 2003 2003

I just finished exercising. I’ll continue with my memory of the attack now. Well, the prisoner escaped for sure. Sergeant Siegel and I cleared some abandoned buildings to see if he was hiding, but nothing came of it. So after an amazing twist of luck, the detainee escaped without a trace – well, he did leave a hole in the window where he tore out a bar. This was the same method used by the last escapee. He got caught though. Support
[1] guys in the Army just sit around and collect their combat pay – some lazy ass people. Oh well. I just hope the guy was innocent, but and Iraqi friend told me, “If he was innocent, he wouldn’t have tried to escape.” I don’t know if that is true or not, but he was already beaten, and probably didn’t want to get round II. If he wasn’t guilty, no worries. If he was, then he knows our facility and the faces of the IP men who handled him.
Going back a bit, I remember that night of the attack when we were sitting outside of the New Baghdad police station when Sergeant Siegel was bringing out the blindfolded man. Some men were sitting and standing at the end of their driveways. One little boy was standing amongst them and he saw the man blindfolded and being handled by the soldiers. He looked frightened, so I walked over to him and knelt down to him. Then men smiled nervously. I stretched my hand out and he hid behind one of the men’s legs. One of them said something in Arabic and the boy came around and shook my hand like a little urchin. I stood up and said goodbye to the men and placed my hand over my heart. I strode over to my truck and got in before Sergeant Siegel could say anything to me about me talking to the Iraqis. He hates them. “They’re fucking animals,” he always says.
‘I didn’t go see Robin Williams at BIAP on the 16th so Nora wouldn’t get worried. I ended up getting bombed anyways that night.’ ― Me to my mom.

Well, I need to follow up on some stories. “So we’re down at the market,” Foley said to me smiling while peering through his thick issue glasses, “it’s nighttime and we’re burning the market stands that are up on the wall we built up. All of a sudden this drunk Iraqi starts talking to us. Well, all of a sudden, his hand falls off!”
“No shit,” we said shaking our heads.
“Yo, it fell right off and made a clanking sound when it fell. We just laughed at him. He was wasted.” It was just another night in the city. It’s true that something strange happens every night.
Now there is an increasing interest in golf here at the TOC. “Let him know if he can arrange that for us, he’ll get a free bucket full of balls to drive at the Knight golf course,” Knight 6 said to LT Guerin about the regimental commander. Well, he was joking, but they’ve built a driving range on the roof of our headquarters (with a net to catch the balls). So there is still some sense of country club living here.
Well, the day after we caught Saddam, I talked to one of my Iraqi worker friends. ‘What did you think about Saddam on TV?’
“Thompson,” he motioned toward the sky, “I thank God! Thank you Thompson, thank you for coming here!” I was not expecting this reaction. He’s a squatter, living poorly, and he was so happy about Saddam being caught. He stood there holding his broom (he was sweeping a muddy road) and then grabbed my arm. He went towards the American flag patch on my shoulder and kissed it. His buddies were grinning ear to ear. I’ll never forget that.
Later in the night, I went to go see Tariq. He was with Geedee (another translator) in the translator room. He had a gift for you from his mother (to thank you for supporting me and because I always make sure Tariq takes my bullet proof vest out with him on night patrol). They had him wearing some old flack vest, but that wouldn’t stop an AK-47 bullet. Most of the time, I don’t use mine at night, so why not give it to him?
Well, he gave me a watch and a necklace for you. That is really amazing too, because they don’t have that much money to give out. It means a lot. We started talking about when I leave Iraq. I told them I want to come back one day, because I’ll miss them. When you meet other people who speak the language of the world, you find it hard to say goodbye. I miss you though, and I need you Nora. We talked about how long it will be before Iraq is safe. They say 3 years or so.
We got into a long discussion about policy flaws and the long (extremely long – about 5 miles) lines for gas. Sometimes they got frustrated, “You have to wait for 6, 8, 10 hours just to get some gas! This does not help security – because under Saddam we had power, we had gas. It doesn’t help the U.S. when we have no power, no gas.” I heard him confirm all I had been thinking already. “We’ve got so much oil, but we are waiting all day for gas!” Some people wait for 10 hours, and your only other choice is to buy black market. I’ve never seen lines so long in my life. It has to hurt the economy, because people are missing work and goods aren’t being hauled. It’s not a good situation. About the only good thing is the cars along the side of the road prevent the IEDs from going off. “We need more police, and better pay – $300 a month for police. I promise that would stop most of the attacks. I can’t let my wife or daughter go shopping because it’s too dangerous. You see, Iraqis know Iraqis. They can tell who is lying and who isn’t, they can tell who is Iraqi and who isn’t. The U.S. Army can’t do that – they don’t know this place. We don’t even have electricity! It’s worse now than right after the war. What is changing?” He started to get upset and Tariq stared into a point on the floor, uncomfortable with where our conversation turned.
‘Well,’ I said trying to get back on track, ‘it will get better, I pray. I feel a bond with Iraq now, I feel like you are my brother. Hopefully our government will learn quickly from its mistakes. A lot needs to be done here.’
“Yes,” Geedee responded hopefully, “I hope so too, it will be good. You and Nora can come back as tourists.”
‘God, I would love that. I just wish I could do something more for you all. I love helping you all out – I think it is important. I just wish I had more influence to fix these problems,’ I said in deep in thought.
“Yes, one day you have to do that!”
How can I do that though, I feel passionately about fixing this place or helping people in similar situations. We could have saved Iraq from all this chaos months ago with less wishful thinking and more tough decisions. Again, you see so many opportunities for real change that get passed up.
A few weeks ago, an entire ICDC platoon quit at the MOO because they were pulling 24 hours at a time and had run down billets and no beds at all. We give them the bare minimum. Same with the Iraqi Army. Many of them have left too. So some big U.S. general puts his hands on his hips and says, “Well go away, we don’t need you anyways! You should be tripping over each other to join – it’s your patriotic duty!” But reality hits you and you realize they can’t feed their family on the pay. Well, the ICDC got their beds.
In Iraq, you see the importance of having a trade – as an electrician, a welder, a plumber. They are well employed. Ali our electrician was in rags when he first started working for us – now he has several people working for him. He’s got his own truck too. His son is about 15 and comes to work with the builders. He won’t go to school because he can make some money and he’s afraid to go.
[2] When Ali told Sergeant Albert this, Sergeant Albert said, “Well, I didn’t like going to school either – but I went anyways.” Is everyone oblivious to what has been going on here? Ol’ Sergeant Albert. Going back to trade, it’s good to have because it’s always in demand. These jobs should be encouraged for our kids who don’t want or can’t go to college. It’s completely acceptable as a job and we should tell younger people that. It’s not a sink or swim world – every person has a role to play.
Nora, I miss you. I miss having you by my side. You feel dead when away for this long – but you know it will be over, and you have to believe in love. It’s scary being gone sometimes, but now we’re just focusing on getting home. Being gone like this is like being in a desert – away from you, distant from God, and feeling almost heartbroken. The only thing that makes you take another breath is knowing that you are coming home. You can’t be scared to die, you stop thinking about it and just wait for the next explosion – you expect it every time you go out. That way, when I come back alive, I’ll be thankful. I just trust God. You have to always trust God and keep your guard up. That doesn’t just go for Baghdad – it goes for life in general. You learn about death here, about how life can just vanish, how man can be so brutal, like animals. Then you learn that God has given us the secret to peaceful living – especially through Jesus, but here all you find are the rules of man. God is there to heal the wounded and bring the dead into that other world. Dying can’t be the end, it’s just an end to a stage in being. Your chance on stage – that is life. God is there to greet you once the curtain closes. I can’t believe I haven’t been killed yet with all of this activity going on. I trust God, and I know I’m coming home. Shadow of the valley of death, but bombs go off, and not a single scratch. God is real. Nora, I live for you. Your love amazes me. I WILL ALWAYS DANCE WITH YOU AS LONG AS I LIVE.

The battalion did a great thing during the Christmas season, something it didn’t have to do at all. It held a Christmas party for the families of ICDC members and our Iraqi staff. Many of the ICDC lived right next to us, and some of us were familiar with them and their children. They were like family. The battalion had a soldier dress up as Santa Claus and entertain the little Iraqi children. They also played a piñata game. The setting was very nice, and the event was catered. You could see the gratitude on the faces of the families there, and especially on the faces of the children. Whoever planned that party did a great thing. We were treating the Iraqis with dignity and respect.
During this stage in the conflict emerged the use of surface to air missiles. Several aircraft had been hit, including a C-17 transport plane. IED attacks were also on the rise. Understanding the growing ground threat (IEDs, RPG attacks, etc.), many units had affixed steel plates to their Hummers. Some soldiers paid out of their own pockets for Iraqis to attach steel plates and gun turrets to their vehicles. You have to remember that our Hummers had been driving through the Baghdad mine field for months with absolutely no protection at all. They were facing the daily threat of direct 155 millimeter artillery explosions. Such a hit (caused by a 155mm round rigged for roadside explosion) would send hundreds of heavy, razor sharp shards in all directions. Our aluminum alloy, 2 millimeter thick Hummer skin was no match for such devastating weapons. Most of the time, doors were taken off of vehicles to allow soldiers to better protect the flank of the vehicles and allow the ballistic protection vest to better face the side impact threat (soldiers sat facing directly to the side). Many times, the automatic, belt fed machine guns on top of the vehicles were held there by a cloth strap wrapped around a bipod. It was not unusual to see a machine gunner sitting in the back of a Hummer in a folding metal office chair that had been tension strapped to the truck bed. This was the dawn of the so called “Mad Max” era.
Sergeant Major Walker and I agreed that we should get some armor of our own. It was better to be safe than sorry. It had gotten so bad on Canal Road alone, that it was only a matter of time until you would be hit, or so it felt. It was possible to hear of two people dying within two days on a 5 mile stretch of road. Now imagine you have to drive that road everyday, as did Apache Troop soldiers and scouts, for instance. There were some days where you had been at a location 20 minutes earlier, only to come back to the TOC and hear that an IED just exploded at that location and killed a soldier. Why wasn’t it me? Well, we decided it wasn’t going to be us, not without armor anyways. We went to Assad the welder, and began cutting diamond plate steel for the doors. Assad went ahead and cut thick steel floorboards simply out of his concern for us. He was worried about me, and told me always that he was praying for me. When the truck’s armor was complete, we drove around with a little more confidence than before, but inside I knew it would not stop much. Knight 6 was one of the last people to employ armor, and did so only after his enlisted men pestered him about the dangers of not having the protection. I don’t know if he believed God was protecting him, or if he was practicing good leadership in not protecting his ass when not all of his soldiers could have armored vehicles – perhaps it was both.

[1] Support is the term used to describe those supporting combat operations. That could be chow hall workers or truck drivers. Not all were lazy, but many did predictably mediocre work. Many congregated at BIAP and were rarely in danger, with the exception of drivers.
[2] Some schools became battlefields in the public relations games between rival local factions. Some militias would guard schools without authorization in an attempt to rally public support for their group. Some said the schools weren’t protected enough by the U.S. and had to be guarded by someone. In response, the U.S. increased their presence at the schools and escorted children to school.


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