The entire place was weird for us. We were not used to anything like this whatsoever. We started wearing our PT uniforms and tennis shoes around [I had to dig those out of duffle bags that I had stashed away on the Stryker somewhere before I flew out]. We did spend a lot of time at the pool – either in it or laying around it. It was like a frickin’ hotel – beach chairs, a big blue pool, flowers and palm trees, and the occasional klaxon that sounded as people scrambled to find an air-raid shelter. I tried not to stare at the women too much. We all did. Thank God our eye-pro hid our eyes.
We met with our defense counsel – a female Navy JAG officer who was pretty laid back and ‘chill’ to go along with the entire atmosphere that apparently was the Embassy (boys – she was what we’d call Field-Hot and we did get to see her in a bikini]. We spent a few hours in the morning and afternoon going over the packets and paperwork for the different cases we were each there for. It was all very different for us, sitting in air-conditioned offices with furniture and desks and couches and reams of paperwork and overlooking the pool – But we got it down-pat and we were told the docket shifts and we were expected to be heading to the Ministry of Justice in two days. So we had time.
We lounged around a lot, we ate like pigs to put weight back on our frames. And we relaxed. We would hear occasional muffled explosions that came from somewhere out in the city, and we heard the occasional rocket or mortar hit somewhere inside some part of the Green Zone. Green Zone – we had absolutely no understanding of what that was, what it comprised of, or where it was situated. Finally trial day came. We grabbed our gear from under our bunks, and drew our weapons from the racks in the transient tents. We were broken down into groups of two; Ted and I went together in one black armored-Suburban that felt like a tin can to me. Our JAG lawyer went in another Suburban in the convoy. We were in our kit and were wide-eyed on the route to the Ministry of Justice. There was traffic, but not like local-traffic; Green Zone traffic, whatever that was. And we were driving like bats out of hell which lent to the fear that we were on any other type of patrol we’d have experienced. Half of the time I was looking for threats, the other time just looking at what was around.
We got to the MoJ and the Suburban driver (an Army Specialist and his buddy riding shotgun) did some evasive maneuvering and backed us into a little Concrete T-wall partition off of the highway. ‘Just head straight from the truck into the compound there – we still get sporadic sniper fire on this end of town so limit your exposure.’ We departed and went straight into the opening in the T-Walls. The MoJ was a huge clock-tower looking thing that had been pretty picked-over during the invasion. The inside looked like it would’ve been opulent had it not been ransacked and looted, covered with broken glass and smashed tile – still, two years later. Ted and I got shuffled around here and there. We waited in an area that we were told had been one of Uday Hussein’s famous rape and torture rooms back in their hay-day. There were some cell-looking partitions on the backside of this room with hooks and eyelets hanging from the ceiling. The entire room was all just concrete stained with rust and calcium and other shit you see when old concrete structures that crack and stain. We waited about an hour and a half before our JAG officer returned and told us the trial had been pushed back until tomorrow. So we waited until the rest of the trials finished and we mounted back up and returned to the embassy.
The next day we repeated the same routine; I had a different Specialist driver, who was pretty chubby, who’s personal weapon was the M-249 SAW. It basically just laid in the middle of the driver and passenger’s seat while his other buddy, an E-5 Sergeant, threw his M-16 on top of it. Same routine heading to the complex, same routine unloading and getting into the MoJ. But this time we did het to go to trial, and it was the weirdest thing I have ever encountered. All those years of watching Night Court for nothing – we met in a small office, Abu Jahaba-baba sitting in a chair across a coffee table, three feet from me, an interpreter to my left, and next to Jahaba-baba, his lawyer. The Judge was behind his desk stacked with papers.
A lot of Arabic was spoken, and I sat there and like a tennis match, looked back and forth at the different parties speaking. Then the interpreter turned to me and said ‘Ok Seer, Now Pleas, you tell about the day. Why you went to arrest this man, and events, for the Judge.’
We had been coached by the JAG on the specifics of what we needed to say and how we needed to frame it for the Iraqi system in order to establish preponderance of guilt. I explained we received intelligence that the gentleman was a locally-known financier for the Anti-Iraqi Forces, and in addition to the large quantities of foreign currency in his home were electronics we knew to be indicative of IED-production [they were wires and odds and ends you’d find in my Grandmothers junk drawer, but in Iraq that meant you made IEDs].
We talked and I answered questions for about fifteen minutes. It was weird for me not only because I was involved in a foreign country’s legal system, but I also was now again face to face with one of the men whom I detained on the battlefield. Never before had I really seen someone we detained after they were shipped off to wherever it was that they went to. But I did remember his face. I well and truly did.
All in all, my part was done; Ted went in and said his piece, and then it was back downstairs for the waiting game. We sat with some Marines and a few other JAG-types. We talked for a while, not really having any of the usual Army-Marine Corps animosity because we all knew we were here for one reason – and that was because we were grunts, we caught bad guys for a living, and we were all currently a fish out of water in terms of being in our element. Eventually word came through that the convoy had arrived and we put on our kit and walked out to the spot in the T-walls that was where we came and went. I was near the rear of the line and when we got to the entry way, we saw there was clearly not enough SUV’s to take all of us. The kids driving them seemed to not know that they were supposed to return folks. We crammed as many guys as we could into the two SUV’s and that left me, and a USMC Staff-Sergeant infantryman standing there. ‘We’ll send someone back for ya!’ the driver said as they sped off.
The Staff-Sergeant and I looked around, perplexed, and then we both slowly receded back into behind the T-walls into the MoJ courtyard. I think I went back inside to look for some of the JAG staff to tell them there were two more needing a ride. Until then the Staff Sergeant and I stood around, or sat on our helmets beneath the palm trees and talked about what AO we were in. After what seemed like eternity, an armored-Suburban arrived with the chubby Specialist and buddy, with their machine gun and musket. We got in the back seats and off we went.
At some point in the travel, we encountered a traffic jam. Like – literal bumper to bumper traffic. Which to guys like me and the Staff Sergeant, made our spidey-senses tingle.
“Hey, is this normal?” I asked. Chubs spoke up.
‘Yeah. I mean, sometimes. Sometimes it’s something, sometimes it’s nothing.’ Real helpful, chubs. I looked out my window, and we were slowly creeping in the line of cars, right past the “Iraqi-Zone Liquor Store” as the sign read. And there were plenty of actual honest-to-God bottles of liquor on display.
“The Fuck?” I said.
‘Yeah Americans aren’t allowed to shop in there. In uniform, anyways. Contractors go in there all the time though.’ This Baghdad place is fucking-strange. Slowly, the IZ-Liquor Store crept out of sight. It was getting close to the end of the lunch hours. I hear chubs whispering to his buddy over the sound of the AC running at full-blast. ‘Hey, we can probably still make chow at Union III.’ They sort of looked at each then then nodded. We still weren’t moving in the traffic at all.
‘So, hey uh, guys? This traffic is pretty bad so, I think we’re going to flip around and go another way. It’ll take way longer, so you will miss lunch. But the base is like, literally just right up the road.’
The E-5 piped in. ‘Like, literally. No more than an eighth of a mile; quarter mile at most. Probably not even a half-mile.’
“Are you saying you want us to walk, Sergeant?” I glanced over at the Marine next to me.
‘Well, I mean if you want to, like you’ll still make lunch. And the gate is just up there to your left. You’ll see it they’ll let you walk right in.’
Right about then I had had about enough of Baghdad, the Iraqi justice system, this traffic jam and these two POG’s. The Staff Sergeant looked at me; “I have mags and frag’s” I said.
‘Let’s go. Cover you while you move.’
We opened the doors of the Suburban and I pulled the charging handle on my M4, chambering a round and I heard the Staff Sergeant doing the same. We had our rifles not quite raised at the ready, but sort of at the half-ready; like, I am on patrol but this is so way weird to me that I am pretty much ready to shoot anything I see and I want you to know it-type of ready. As we slowly walked up the middle of the road between all of the cars, I glanced back to check our six and I saw the POG’s pull to the median, hop the curb and head in the opposite direction. The Staff Sergeant just shook his head.
We continued our walk at a relatively brisk pace, looking at each car suspectingly and staying in the part of the road that was just off of the sidewalk. We walked by shops and vendors and a lot of local nationals looking at us weird. Every ten steps or so, one of us would turn around and give the six-o’clock a good sweep to make sure there was no one behind us up to no good. As we were walking down the highway and still among the traffic crawling by us, I noticed a very rotund US Army Colonel with what an obscure random National Guard unit patch. He was wearing just his plain DCU uniform, with a 9mm holstered in a shoulder rig, and his soft patrol cap (with a flat and stiff brim, mind you, for the folks who’ll get what that means.) All I saw aside from his round, bulbous belly and thick moustache, was the eagle (O-6 rank) on his patrol cap.
I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone or something. As the Colonel waddled down the sidewalk towards us, I just sort of looked at him. When he got within about ten paces of the two of us, he looked over, and raised right arm in a very rigid and poorly-formed salute. [So for the non-military types, I was a First Lieutenant, O-2 and he was a Colonel, O-6: I should be saluting him – but no one should be saluting anybody right here, right now!] He kept walking with his salute up, so feeling like this is crazy-town, population us, I took my right hand off of my weapon, and I gave him a quick hand salute. He dropped his salute, and kept on be-bopping down the sidewalk.
‘Did he just sniper-check YOU?’ Asked the Staff Sergeant, in sheer disbelief and amazement. I looked back at the circular figure still bobbing down the sidewalk, turned around to walk backwards while looking back down the way we came, and then glanced over at the Staff Sergeant.
“I think so.”
‘This place is fucking weird.’
Oorah, Staff Sergeant. Oorah.
Eventually we came to the front gate of the embassy complex and got some strange looks from the guys at the gate. “Don’t ask” was all I could say as we waltzed past them, and cleared our weapons.
“Good working with you“, I said to the Staff Sergeant. “Take care.”
‘You too, Sir.’ We went our separate ways and I got back to the transient tent to find the rest of the guys napping or off by the pool. We left Baghdad the next day by Blackhawk, and as we did it was the exact opposite view of when we came in. The urban jungle of nameless streets and alleys that was Baghdad poured by our feet; green palm and date trees became more frequent as open land and wadis were visible, slowly fading into the background as the green and brown turned to brown and tan. And then just all tan. We flew farther out on the way back so we never saw Lake Haditha again, and came on approach to COP Rawah from the North. I could see it as we got close, the oasis of OD-green, antennae’s and boxes and shipping containers – all nestled behind dirt berms that had been scraped out of the desert to be our perimeter walls. And though there were no women in bikinis, no pools, no karaoke contests, no decent-chow, and no liquor stores – I was happier to be back there among my men and with the unit than I ever could have been at the embassy.
Staff Sergeant, if you’re out there still and you ever get to read this – give me a shout. Let me know you made it out.
And watch out for the sniper-check!
Photo by Ted Bradley