In the fall of 2007 we conducted a large cordon and search of a Sunni slum where a lot of sectarian violence had occurred in the early days before the Surge. School-house Road (pictured, which I have written about) used to be a bad place and the home of a lot of hatred still. We had word that AQI was still transiting through the area and caching weapons.
I was in sector with my Civil Affairs teams following the mechanized infantry company and our own reconnaissance troops street by street. I was there to calm the local waters, to make spot payments if we broke something, and to also conduct atmospherics. I was good at engaging with the locals as well as with our own Troopers.
We were in a nest of back alleys, the search having started at dawn and slowly working its way up the alleyways and streets – house to house. We were talking with a local when I heard a female shriek, followed by a lot of Arabic frantic screams. We immediately spun around and got our weapons at the ready, peering down the alley from where we heard the noise. We began to approach at a decent pace but cautious. My interpreter – Jason – grabbed my shoulder and said “Hey – someone is dead. They keep saying someone is dead. I think there is a dead body.” He was very good at things like this, was a local and could interact with the locals as well as instinctively translate your sentences as you meant them – word for word – to folks, without being told.
We instantly went into race-mode as we closed the distance between the alley and a house that now had its front door open. A woman was peering out, and when she saw us approach began to plead for our help. Still aware this could be a ploy, we approached cautiously but with open hearts.
“She says there is someone dead inside.”
I lowered my weapon and I along with Jason and a few of my guys entered the house. It was a simple place, and as it wasn’t too long after sunup, many folks had still be asleep or were now waking up. There was a gaggle of women standing in the corner, their hands at their mouths, upset, crying and in shock. They ranged probably from twelve to mid fifties. Lying on a sleeping mat opposite of their gaggle against the wall was an older, elderly woman.
I made a direct move to her; I took off my helmet and my gloves. I leaned in over her mouth with my right ear and I listened for breathing. There was none. I felt her neck for a pulse – we might have an opportunity here to perform CPR – we could still be in the golden hour, I thought.
Sadly, I felt no pulse and in fact felt her skin to be cool. Not cold, but certainly not warm. The women had started to gather around me, looking over my shoulder – but from a pace or two away. Just to be sure, I put my hand on the far side of her neck, then grabbed her wrist from under the blanket, feeling for a pulse with my left hand while I again leaned in to put my cheek close to her lips.
There was nothing. I replaced her arm back to her side, and pulled her blanket up by her chest and face. I leaned back and made the sign of the cross. At least she went peacefully in the night. I stood up and turned around to see the gaggle in anticipation;the woman up front I took to be the lead lady of the house and this woman’s daughter. There were frozen tears; they were waiting on baited-breath to see what would happen. She was in a long red nightgown, well-covered and still dutiful to her faith.
‘Im sorry.’ I said. Jason translated for me, in the same low whisper-like voice I used.
The tears welled up broke from her eyes, as the cries from the group returned, albeit now more muted. ‘I’m so sorry.’ I reached out, and put my hand on her shoulder. Something I nor any soldier should really ever do to a stranger – let alone an Arabic woman home alone with a house full of women.
‘May Allah be merciful on her soul’ I said as I looked her in the eye with a very sincere and true look. At least I imagine that is what look I had, because that was what I felt in my core. She hugged me, as she cried some more, her poor head buried in the gear on my vest. I patted her gently on the back.
We made leave of their house to let them grieve. We radioed this in higher, and had some of other elements on scene shortly thereafter. The Civil Affairs Major with me made arrangements for a funeral procession to make it through the blockade that encircled the neighborhood, escorted by Troopers so the a casket could be brought in, and the woman’s body taken out, followed by her family.
As they carried her out and began to make their way down the street the six blocks to the cemetery, I felt sad that we couldn’t do anything. The Major spoke up.
“We did something good here today, men. This family will have a positive view on Americans; they’ll remember this, that we helped them in their time of grievance. We did something good.”
‘I sure hope so, Sir.’ I sure hope so; no one ever sees this stuff. But if the neighborhood here does, its better than any CNN airtime any day.