Everybody had a moment when they lose their cool. Everybody.
I probably lost it a few times, but I have been thinking recently about one time. This was in Tal’Afar. We were on a route sweep / screening mission of Route Sante Fe (the main east-west route that took you around the northern edge of the city). Route Sante Fe was affectionately called ‘IED Alley’. When we would make runs to various parts of the city that required going in and out via Sante Fe, we referred to it as ‘running the gauntlet.’
These missions essentially called for us to run the length of the route to clear it of IED’s – we’d either see suspicious things and find them, or they’d blow up on us and we’d find them the hard way. Afterwards, we would turn around and set our Stryker’s off of the route on the northern part of the city in a position that would allow us to perform route overwatch. This way the Hajj couldn’t put more IED’s in.
We would do this and watch the route for hours. There was a point in time when a platoon was in overwatch of Sante Fe twenty-four hours a day. Yet there always still seemed to be IEDs.
So one day we were on the overwatch and had been there for a few hours. It was probably early in the afternoon and it wasn’t too hot out so it must have been in the fall or just before spring. Anyways, the sector before my Stryker was a section of homes and alley ways that allowed us to see a good bit of the route – and anyone who wanted to bury something on that stretch would have to do it right in front of us.
On this particular day, the alley about seventy yards or so in front of us and across the street was full of kids playing. Two stuck out to me. There was one boy who was probably eleven or twelve, and one who was smaller who was probably eight or so. The older kid seemed to have the alpha on the group, and he was carrying a stick. Just an ordinary tree branch piece that was probably two feet long and less than an inch in diameter.
So as the other kids ran around and kicked a soccer ball, and laughed and talked to each other and taunted each other, this bigger kid would push and kick at the kid who was smaller. And the other kids seemed to laugh at him doing so; there seemed to be no rhyme or reason for this, no slight or offense – just picking on a kid who for whatever reason still hung around these kids. He’d mouth off back to them in defense once in a while, rubbing an achy arm from a slap or punch, but would then usually get chased around by the kid with the stick, and hit.
This was going on for like half an hour or more. And all we were doing was sitting there and watching the route. I couldn’t help but feel pissed-off that this kid was just picking on this one kid, hitting him with a stick (and I am not talking about a love tap here) and just bullying him. Maybe he was a younger brother, maybe he was the neighborhood outcast – who knows.
And after a while once the bigger kid was feeling the pride swell within him as the top-dog, taking dares and taunts from his fellow mates to pull the little kids hair or hit him with the stick for good measure, I had had about enough. I think on the crew there was an occasional comment made like ‘Man that’s fucked up.’ or ‘Fuckin’ little prick he should pick on someone who’s his own size if he wants to be a dick.’
So as the smile beamed across this kids face with each new blow, and as the anger swelled within me, I made my decision. I lost it (albeit fairly calmly, I think).
“Gordo – Forward!” I said, as the Stryker shifted into hear. ‘Sir…’ my gunner said, in a cautionary way but saying nothing more. We rolled out of the little high ground spot we had occupied to keep us away from passing cars on Route Sante Fe, and traffic wasn’t heavy so we had a clean shot across the road and over to the alley.
‘One, where are you going?’ the radio called as my section mate an senior scout attempted to figure out what the deal was. I remained silent; we got to within about ten feet of the kids playing – who now all stopped and looked at us sort of quizzically because sometimes the Stryker soldiers would hand out candy or soccer balls and were overall fairly friendly with the local kids.
I dropped the ramp and walked off of the truck without my rifle. As I walked over to the kid in question, the group all sort of starred at me waiting to see what I might give to them; the look on his face – his stupid smile and cocky air of confidence frozen, but still there – and I grabbed him by the scruff on the collar of his t-shirt.
“You think you’re a big man now, huh?!?” I spoke loudly. The smiles disappeared as the gang quickly disbursed and kids ran back into the alleys and doors of this neighborhood. The little kid stayed a few paces away by the door of the house I assume was his (or theirs). “You’re a tough guy, huh?” I asked as I gave him a good shaking, snatching the stick from his hand. He looked stunned and scared.
“Real fuckin tough guy now mother fucker” I said as I took the stick and slammed it down hard on my right knee, shattering it into two pieces. My grasp released, he took a step back. I took the two pieces in my right hand, raised up and then threw them down at the kid, them hitting him in his upper thigh as they rocketed their way to the ground, bouncing a bit and making a sound sort of like dropped drum sticks.
Little heads were poking out of different parts of the doors and alleys, nooks and crannies. “You like it when you’re the big man in charge huh?” I screamed. “You wanna try some shit with me motherfucker?” I took an exaggerated step towards him puffing out my chest, and he backed off quickly. I turned to the little kid still standing at the red doorway of the house we were next to.
I nodded to him, pointing to the bigger kid who looked literally dejected and offended; “Don’t let that little Fuck push you around anymore man. Fuck him.”
The alley was quiet now. I stood there for a second, looking at the shithead kid who was sulking away, looking lowly with his tanned-skin flustered red in the face. I turned around and saw my dismount standing behind me, back at the ramp of the Stryker. He had got off to back me up – tactically. He had no idea what I was doing but knew that if I was on the ground he should be on the ground – especially if I didn’t take a rifle or a helmet.
“Thanks man” I said as I walked back to the ramp, and we mounted up.
‘Feel better now, Sir?’ my gunner said.
“Fuckin kid had it coming.’
“I know, I know.”
‘Gordo – back us up. We’ll stop traffic.’ And so as it came, our Stryker backed out of the alleyway as the kids emerged from their hiding spots – laughing and pointing at the big kid who was now shamed and embarrassed. He tried to tell them to shut up but they did not relent. He lashed out at one with his hand, but the kid dodged it and then another kid punched him in the shoulder and they kept laughing at him.
The little kid by the red door just smiled. Eventually an older woman came out of a house and shooed all of the kids away and ordered the ones who were hers inside. Playtime in the alley was over for now.
I went back to scanning my sector looking for enemy activity. Looking back – I have no feeling or emotions about this encounter to the positive or negative. None whatsoever. It just was; and I like to think I’d do it again. That might make me a terrible person – I don’t know.