In mid-August 2005 we were in the throes of conducting counterinsurgency operations in Rawah, all the while continuing to scrape out more room on the combat outpost we were operating at, called COP Rawah (Duh) that I have written about earlier. The Squadron was starting to get in more convoys (which I also have written about) and the priority went to facilities needed to maintain combat operations. Housing was the last thing on our minds.
It was balls-hot and in the middle of the shade-les s desert and we were living under cammo netting, on cots, and on the backs of our Strykers. Truly nomadic-style. It takes some getting used to living in the field – when there is a field to live in. The open expanse of desert where dust and rocks are your only friends makes you long for the time you spent on patrol in the forests and days spent out in the training areas stateside.
One day I was lounging in the back of my Stryker between patrols, trying to stay out of the sun, when a runner came down from Squadron and told our Troop CP that ‘Lieutenant Bocian needs to report to the Squadron TOC.’ Fan-fucking-tabulous. Being summoned to the crystal-palace [a plywood building that at least had shitty air-conditioning to keep all the radios and equipment cool] for God only knows what reason. You could get ‘hey you’ taskings all the time. And the last thing I wanted was some assignment thought up by the SCO.
When I reported to the TOC and found the battle captain, I explained that I had been sent for. The Squadron XO came over and I smartly found a lazy-position of attention and said “Yes, Sir?”
‘Lieutenant. Do you remember Abu Jahaba-baba?’ [not his real name because I have no idea what it really was]. I replied that no, I did not remember Abu –whoever.
‘Well, he remembers you. At least he should. He’s in jail in Baghdad because you detained him in a raid back in April as part of an AIF financier cell. He is going on trial and you one of your men who remembers that raid have to be present to argue for the prosecution. Find a soldier, pack a bag for three days and report back here at 1700 to catch a helo to Baghdad.’
I was sort of stunned. Out of all of the people we’d detained one actually was going to a trial of some sort. I guess the Iraqi justice system was…working? I really didn’t know. And I thought that over as I walked back down the dusty hardscrabble that was the path from the elevated dune the Squadron TOC was on towards the Troop areas. I went to my Troop CP and told our CO and XO, and then with a little guidance from them I went to the platoon.
“Ok men – listen up. Anyone remember a raid back in April? In Hassan Quoi where we grabbed a dude for being a financier? He had a big box of Iraqi, Syrian and Iranian currency?” A couple of guys nodded, and one of my better guys, Ted B. said ‘Yeah – Yeah I remember that.’
“You remember it well enough to write another sworn statement about it? In detail?”
‘Yeah, I think so. I was on the ground with you, remember? I remember it pretty well.’
“Ok – pack a bag for three days; we’re going to Baghdad.”
Convenient how people suddenly remember things better once you tell them the lucky winner is headed to civilization…
We reported to the Squadron TOC at 1700 with our kit, and all in all there were five total soldiers from the Squadron who were going out on that Blackhawk to testify against individuals who had been captured in different missions back when we were in Tal’Afar. Two from Charger Troop, Two from Blackjack, and one from Squadron who had been on a mission with the SCO as a dismount for a raid in which Syrian truck drivers hauling suspect-sacks of flour were arrested; that NCO subsequently became one of my Soldiers when I went to work at Squadron and we are very good friends).
The helicopter ride out was interesting; we flew along the Euphrates down past Lake Haditha and the different hues of blue that radiated from it. I am sure some of that was the various pollution and chemicals that seep into the water from this inherently dirty country, as well as some of the salt from dry lake beds. But eventually the empty brown and tan wastelands turned into browner ridges with more topography, which gave way to speckles of green here and there. And before we knew it we were back in what looked like normal life – normal being a subjective term – normal for Iraq.
The flight lasted about an hour and finally we began to bank and rock as the pilots took us over the prescribed flight routes over the city. Baghdad was huge! And everywhere I looked as we weaved and banked I could see people – people in streets, alleys, markets – and all I could think of was Blackhawk Down, and someone was going to pop us any minute now and if I survive this crash, I have no fucking idea where I am.
We began to slow and take up a light hover, as I saw concrete T-walls and razor wire and all the various layers of security you associated with coalition forces installations. We touched down on a helipad that was literally looked like an old tennis court, all surrounded by high fifteen foot concrete T-walls, with one opening in the corner to enter/exit. The crew chief swung his 240-C door gun over and locked it in place, then dismounted. We got out of the aircraft and were guided over to the exit point where some person said that the reception desk was just down the sidewalk to the left, in the first tent. We were still clad in our vests and helmets and carrying our weapons, which we were not allowed to load while in the Blackhawk so there was no need to clear them.
The sidewalk was a maze of well, sidewalk but lined on each side with dirt, and some plants here and there, all nestled in-between the same fifteen foot T-walls that protected the helo pad. There were break-outs every so often that seemed to lead to the rest of the base we were on – motor pools, tons of buildings here and there, and of course in my immediate view, the transient tents. I pushed the big plywood door open and we walked into the tent. We were immediately met by some Private E-3 standing behind a large segmented area. ‘ Your weapons, gentlemen, place them here on the table and fill out this tag.’
“What do you mean? I don’t understand.” I said suspiciously.
‘Sir there are no weapons allowed on the Embassy complex for non-residents. You’re here for trial, right?’ I nodded. ‘Yeah, then you guys just give me your weapons and we store them locked up here until you depart. You won’t need them and you won’t get in trouble. Just fill out this tag and I’ll tear off the bottom, and you’ll return that to whoever is at this desk when you go to trial, or leave and they’ll give it back to you.’ It all seemed very weird, but hey – when in Rome, right? I felt completely and utterly wrong in doing so but this seemed to be the accepted practice here. We began filling out the toe-tags supplied to us, and reluctantly handing over what amounted to not only our life partners, but our lives themselves.
‘You guys can store your vests and helmets under your bunks.’ He pointed out into the midst of the large tent which was full of ramshackle rows of the old familiar transient beds, complete with thin mattresses and the same colorful ‘Haji’ blankets that must be on contract to provide. There was a section near the front door that seemed to have a lot of empty beds, and I turned to Ted, and he seemed to nod in agreement.
‘You guys don’t have any like, grenades or a lot of ammo or other explosives on you, do you?’ We all sort of just looked at each other. Some Specialist E-4 who had been sitting at a desk back by the weapons racks stood up and wandered over.
‘Because if you do, we need to have EOD come pick that stuff up and take it. And no other weapons or knives or anything. We can’t have that here, and you won’t get it back either.’ Now, I had two M67 frag grenades in pouches on my vest right then and there, along with a full complement of magazines for my M-4. And I am sure the same thing that I was thinking, the rest of the guys with me were thinking – which was Ain’t no way in HELL I am giving over to you all my shit so that I am left high-and dry…
“Nope” was all that I said, as I took my portion of the toe-tag from the kid and walked over to the area of empty bunks.
I took off my vest and helmet, folded it back up and I placed it under the bunk and then took the Haji blanket and covered my kit with it, under the bed. I put my assault pack on the bed and decided I would use it as a pillow. We were told eventually someone would come for us from legal and give us more info. The transient tent people literally just handle the transient tent.
It wasn’t long before someone actually did come; we got a quick briefing on which cardinal direction the chow hall and shower/shitter trailers were. Where the “pool” was – and I put it that way because that was a foreign concept to us. We would have a meeting with our legal counsel tomorrow morning at 0900 to go over trial procedures and to review the paperwork on all of our cases and more would be revealed to us then, we were assured. In the meantime, relax…
Relax. This was a weird-fucking-place. We went for a walk around the area in our very dirty, very dusty DCU uniforms. The embassy complex was an old palace with water fountains and shrubbery and tall marble pillars and opulence. There were a lot of SUV’s and trucks and not a whole lot of military vehicles here. And it was easy to get lost, with the embassy building being the tallest thing around with three stories, and all the palm trees everywhere obscured anything else that might stick out over the fifteen feet of T-Wall that seemed to block off sectors of things here and there. There were also people of all types here – U.S. Army and Marines, but also DOD civilians, State Department workers, butt-tons of contractors – and Britts. There were a lot of British Army folk who apparently are allowed to wear civilian clothing when not in uniform, and somewhere were getting beer. Like, legit, real beer.
And women. Real women. In bathing suits. And bikinis…
Stay tuned for Sniper-Check Part II: the conclusion
Photo by Ted Bradley