The Iraq-Sryia border was a maze of concrete walls and barbed wire, but as soon as the town of Rabiah ends, the border pretty much becomes just one large earthen berm, with the occasional strand of barbed wire here or there. There is a gap of about fifty meters, and then a similar earthen structure on the Syrian side, if anything at all. The nights at the border were boring because the border is closed at night. At least, the crossing is closed to legitimate activity; elsewhere along the line in the sand that essentially was the border, people were free to come and go (as had been doing so for centuries, more aligned with ethnic ties between villages and caring less about nationality). There was an endless sea of vast, flat farmer’s fields that stretched on in every direction. And being just one Scout platoon, any night operations we wanted to run were a calculation in assumed risk. That is, with four Stryker’s and twenty-one Scouts strong, what was the level of risk I was willing to assume to either leave a small contingent at the base to go troll for bad guys? That can be a tough question and as a leader, I consulted with my platoon sergeant and section sergeants on what we felt was in the realm of the possible, and what we could do to mitigate the risks involved.
Rabiah was a four hour drive from our FOB in Tal’Afar. It was also a one hour flight by Blackhawk, which meant that if shit hit the fan and really went south, the quickest we could get a MEDIVAC bird up there would be an hour fifteen, maybe an hour twenty minutes. There was a restriction in place where aircraft were not supposed to come within five kilometers of the Syrian border, and even for a MEDIVAC we probably would have needed to get any casualties as far from the border as we could for a bird to land. But we really wanted to go do some serious smuggling-interdiction at night and that was our prerogative. Any way you sliced it, there were two major threats involved; the threat of my displaced element coming under attack and taking casualties; and the threat to the outpost for the soldiers and equipment left behind.
We never operate in anything less than a section, so we always preferred to split the platoon in two for these scenarios. Two Strykers, a delicate balance of personnel, impeccable communications equipment – and a plan. That was all we needed. We needed to leave two vehicles behind at the outpost – bare minimum. It was a fortified structure, and we felt safe leaving folks there because it had an established security perimeter. It was easily defendable, yet the worst-case scenario was a frontal assault on the building by an overwhelming insurgent force. Conversely, for the section dispatched to do the interdiction runs, the threat they faced was having a vehicle hit by an IED or suicide car bomb, disabling the vehicle and taking mass-casualties. The chances of either scenario occurring were low (the IED was more likely than anything) but we still would put risk mitigation plans in place.
So this was how we ran it – we took a section out with a few extra dismounts, ensured we had good radio communications with the outpost as well as with our higher headquarters tactical operations center back in Tal’Afar, and we limited our operations to no more than twenty-five kilometers from the outpost. That way if we needed to expedite a return back to the outpost, we could close that ground in probably twenty minutes or less. Everyone was on their best behavior and remained on-point for these operations, be they out running interdiction or back at the outpost. We had run these interdiction operations a few times, so we had gotten pretty good at perfecting our own processes.
My platoon sergeant and I always went with the displaced section; it generally was my section and he and a few of his dismounts came along. Given that there was usually one long, straight, narrow road that ran through the endless and open farming fields (with an occasional small clump of buildings every now and again) we would conduct random vehicle checks on this road. It stretched between the different towns along the border and was always the first main avenue that would take you anywhere if you had just come through the fields from the border. We ran what we called a button-hook; we parked one Stryker just off the road by about twenty meters. Down the road about fifty or sixty meters away, we parked the other Stryker on the opposite side of the road. This Stryker was parked only ten meters or so off the road, perpendicular towards it. Alongside that Stryker we stacked a team of dismounts. The Strykers always idled, headlights and marker lights off, and we waited. When a vehicle came down the road [traffic almost always came in from the southwest by the way] the car would drive right past the Stryker parked farther off in the road. After the car passed the first Stryker, it would start to pull out; simultaneously the Strkyer now ahead of the car, just parked to the side of the road, would turn on its headlights and pull out into the road to block the road. The dismounts would then begin to rush up to the car as it stopped, illuminating the passengers with their tactical weapon lights. And then in comes the first Stryker the car passed, closing the button-hook and preventing any would-be runners from reversing away.
This worked really well, because night out in the middle of nowhere was practically pitch-black. We always saw vehicles coming a long way off because of their headlights; they almost never saw us because we tended to blend in with the night. That was where we hid and where we thrived. Even in starry nights when illumination was good, we could still be well hidden because most Iraqi drivers don’t pay attention to shit, and drive around blaring music and talking on the phone (sort of like in America!) These interdiction runs were pretty successful but almost never resulted in what I would call ‘substantial’ busts. The majority of people were just out booze-cruising (this is apparently a popular pastime in Iraq if you like out in the sticks). We confiscated a lot of “Syrian White-Banana Gin” which we poured out in the street. A lot of people out booze-cruising carried their AK-47 with them because Iraq is dangerous, but so is drink-driving with loaded weapons so, we confiscated those, too. Sometimes it was just a family coming from a relative’s home where they had dinner. Sometimes it was someone looking questionable, but the car was clean and we could find no contraband or evidence of illicit, nefarious activity.
Other times we stayed off the road and didn’t run a button-hook. We would find a nice field to space ourselves out in that had a wide view of the border, and we’d look for people crossing at night. This was where we believed the real activity was occurring. We tended to need to push the extreme boundary of our twenty-five kilometer radius from the outpost, and on a night or two, we may have violated our own rule and gone out to thirty or forty. We always were looking for weapons shipments but a large percentage of the smuggling was in petrol. Gasoline at the time was fifty Dinar a liter (in 2005 that was roughly fifty cents, it wasn’t quite a 1:1 ratio of penny to Dinar). And Iraq was an oil-rich country with a lot of gas. On the other hand, in Syria you could fetch five-hundred Syrian pounds per liter of petrol. I have no idea what the Dinar to Syrian pound exchange rate was, but it five hundred was a hell of a lot more than fifty, and petrol smuggling was a big problem. It was a way for the average Joe to make a quick buck (more like the average Jasim, I suppose). And with quick money came quick power; and with quick power came AIF and Al Qaeda to appropriate said power, and insert themselves. Everyone was on the take in Iraq, and if you weren’t an insurgent and just an “opportunist”, you were paying a cut to an insurgent’s extortion tax. So every smuggled gasoline turned dollar was most certainly supporting the AIF.
And we dislike that. Which is why we would run these interdiction operations because in the streets, every weapon seized and dollar lost is one less AIF has. And they had the most ingenious ways of making things happen. I feel like I could work for Customs and Border Protection now (or work for a cartel) because I saw some very crafty smuggling set-ups. There were enlarged gas tanks on cars; there were built-in extra fuel tanks in center consoles; there were built-in extra fuel tanks in the driver’s seat, the passenger seat – any and every seat! I did not witness, but our First Platoon witnessed a nighttime train of donkeys crossing the border back from Syria. The donkeys had been trained to trek a specific route with 35 liter plastic jugs slung across their backs. When they arrived in Syria, they were most likely fed and watered while the petrol jugs were unstrapped and replaced with fresh, empty ones. The donkeys were sent on their merry way where they returned back into Iraq, all under the cover of night. One donkey would have a bundle of cash strapped to his back as payment. I guess that was AIF’s risk mitigation; you don’t endanger your people, but you are trusting your contact on the far end not to rip you off (or someone else ripping you off in transit).
Late one evening while screening the Syrian border for smugglers, we picked up a heat source far off on the Syrian side coming through the fields. The naked eye could barely make out the faint glow of the headlights because it was kicking up some dust from the dry fields. But on our LRAS3 (long range advance scout surveillance system) we say the heat signature from miles away. It was a bongo truck, and it was making its way into Iraq. I think we all got a little antsy because we hadn’t really interdicted anyone actually crossing the border; we only caught people at the checkpoint in Rabiah or snared them in our button-hook snaps. The word went out, all of the men inside the Stryker stirred from their naps, and we put in a radio call to those back at the outpost.
We waited for the truck to get about half a kilometer inside Iraq before we pounced. He tried to make a run for it, but he was in a bongo truck and our Strykers had more wheels and better suspension to travers the many rows of plowed dirt and crops. He bounced up and down, the headlights almost a strobe light as it illuminated the ground, then the sky, then the ground, then the sky as the front end of the bongo truck hopped mercilessly over the rows of planted crops. We slowed down to lower the ramp and dismount; I had to lower it not quite all the way so that it wouldn’t get dragged into the dirt because we were still moving, albeit slowly. We shot out of the back of the truck and began a good sprint through the ankle-high crops of whatever they were. I remember getting my foot caught up in loose dirt, or in the roots of one of the plants and twisting my left ankle a little bit, hoping that wouldn’t be an issue later. The bongo truck was illuminated in the headlights of the Stryker, but was still trying to get away even as he was being flanked. With a Stryker cutting in to block his path and angry cavalry scouts screaming and point the business end of their rifles at him, he capitulated.
The sole occupant was thrown to the ground, searched and zip-cuffed and led away. The flatbed of the bongo truck was full of empty white and blue 55 gallon plastic barrels. They were crudely secured in place with a few bungee straps. Some had fallen over sideways and I was pretty sure I had seen two bounce free and land somewhere in the field during the melee of a chase. I joined in the search of the cab with some of my soldiers while my platoon sergeant questioned the guy with our interpreter. I forget who we had ‘terp wise that night, but I remember it wasn’t one of the better ones. He was lazy and slept a lot. His translation wasn’t the best, either.
The cab was clean – random papers, receipts, some crushed cola cans, pens, nuts and bolts, some cassette tapes (one was Michael Jackson) – but nothing of value or illegal. I remember giving it a pretty thorough look-over; under the seat, behind the seat, feeling all over the dashboard and the door linings – there wasn’t much room in the cab of the bongo truck, so we even popped the hood and looked in the engine area and under the hood’s cowling for any contraband. With no cash, the guy must be a low-level delivery driver, probably part of a large network. He had delivered a lot of gas, so we were questioning him pretty hard about who he worked for, who the leader of his smuggling ring was, where had he gone in Syria, who had he met with – you name it. We wanted as much information as we could gather to try and let the S2 Intel guys build a target package around it, maybe flesh out the smuggling network some more. But the driver was adamant that he was a one-man operation, and was just selling gas for money. Everyone wanted to do so “to support my family”. Makes sense, but, meh…
With not much info coming from the guy, and nowhere back at the outpost to store him as a detainee, we decided we’d drop him at an Iraqi Police border post that we’d passed on the outskirts of Rabiah.
“What should we do with the bongo truck?” one of my guys asked.
Platoon sergeant always had a way with words. But, he was right. We had no capacity to do anything with the bongo truck. And we didn’t want to leave a perfectly good bongo truck sitting here in this farmers field for use by AIF or someone else; it’d make a hell of a car bomb if they packed the back with explosives instead of gas cans. A thermite grenade was procured from my truck (I kept plenty) and one of the men pulled the pin and tossed it into the cab. With a loud pop the thermite went to work, and before long thick smoke began to fill the cab and roll out of it. Flames appeared next and as the entirety of the cab began to erupt, the guy began to sob. The fire lit up the surrounding area with its orange glow, ruining our night vision we’d acclimated to in the dark. But it was fun to watch. It was sometime before two A.M. and we all were tried, despite being pumped-up on the adrenaline of the chase.
The guy was openly crying now and fell to his knees, his hands zip-cuffed behind his back where they could not wipe his tears. He was throwing a tantrum, belting out a litany in Arabic.
“Ya ‘illahi! Naqwduy! La! La! <sob sob sob – boo hoo hoo>” We wondered why the guy was previously an unwavering stalwart when it came to our questions, but now a blubbering mass of toddler.
” ‘Awwah, limadha ya alllah? Kan hunak situn ‘alf dular fi lawhat alqiada! Laaa! <boo hoo hoo>”
“The fuck is this guy’s problem?” my section sergeant asked to our shitty ‘terp, who, frankly, I was surprised was awake and out of the warmth of the truck and in the cold night air.
“Ah, oh, sheet. Oh, I see. Sheeet!”
‘What?’ I said, wishing the damn ‘terp would be out with it.
“Laaa!!! <boo hoo hoo sob sob>” And then he dropped it.
“He say $60,000 in the dashboard.”
There were about four of us in a semi-circle standing around him in the firelight; we all looked at the bongo truck, and lunged forward a step or two. Some men gasped in awe, other raised their hands and fists, grasping at air in futility. One of my guys said “Oh Fucking Hell…” as he smacked both of his hands on his helmet, turning away.
‘Wait, wait’ I said, ‘Sixty Thousand in Dinar, or U.S. dollars??’ I didn’t hear the ‘terp ask because the sound of the flames biting at the frame of the truck began to intensify. The prisoner spoke.
“Amerikey…” We all looked at the bongo truck once more.
“Sixty-three, LT. $63,000. Under dashboard.”
“May… maybe we can use a fire extinguisher?” one of the men asked. Desperate plans make sense in desperate times. But, there was no use.
I won’t lie, I thought about it for a few seconds, but as I watched dripping molten bits fall from the hole the thermite had cut in the bongo truck, lighting the ground and crops underneath it on fire, I knew it was useless. What a fucking waste. I was honestly sullen. I think everyone was sullen right then. The Hajji guy was certainly more than sullen as he snot ran down the front of his face, the flames licking at the truck reflected in his eyes while he knelt there in the dirt, trying to blink away the tears streaming from his eyes, watching what must’ve been a fortune of a lifetime for him go up in flames. $63,000 was a fortune to all of us, too. We really weren’t allowed to take war souvenirs and General Order No. 1 put strict limits on any fun or meaningful experience a soldier could gain from being deployed for the war – so I can honestly say that had we discovered that bundle of cash… we might’ve had a serious talk about keeping it.
Sure, with a third of the platoon still at the outpost, they couldn’t be kept in the dark, so we’d have to cut them in. But how can you be sure no one is going to talk? And how can you be sure no one is going to be dumb, and get caught trying to mail stacks of one hundred dollar bills home? Explain that one… Sure, it’d only be about three-grand per soldier in the platoon, but that’s a LOT of black market DVDs, cheap Iraqi cigarettes, fake Rolex watches, and other garbage knock-off junk they sold at the little “Hajji-mall” on FOB Sykes.
We walked back to the Strykers, mounting back up as the heat from the fire was at our backs. We drove away, back into the darkness as the roaring inferno that had been the bongo truck grew higher into the night sky. In the morning some farmer would see tons of ripped-up field, and a huge burnt hulk among a pile of ashes and wonder ‘what the fuck happened?’
We stopped at the Iraqi Police Border Outpost on the way back to Rabiah. Only myself and two of my NCO’s went to the door with the prisoner. The ‘terp was asleep in the other Stryker and so were most of the dismounts not pulling guard in a hatch. We knocked on the door and eventually weary Iraqi Police opened it up, and we motioned to them that we had a prisoner. They let us into the compound and we led him to a cell. There were three cops there; one took him to a cell and tossed him in. The cop was asking the guy what the hell was going on (I assume) and the cop was probably saying something like “yeah, yeah, we’ll let you go in the morning just shut up so they go away…”
The other two cops were trying to figure out what was going on. We didn’t have an interpreter and they didn’t speak English – so I pointed to the guy, flattened my left hand, pointed to one side of my hand (with my right index finger) and said ‘Syria’. I pointed to the other side and said ‘Iraq’ and then used my two fingers to walk across the flattened hand, from the Syrian side across. ‘Bad man. Bad man.’ The cops got the gist of it. Then they said the word that I dreaded to hear.
“Chai? Chai, mister?”
Normally I never turned down an offer for chai tea, but it was very early in the morning and we all wanted to go home. But, despite a ‘La, Shukran’ they insisted, the Iraqis being a hospitable people and never turning away a visitor without giving them food or drink, and we were ushered into one of the small rooms of the outpost. We all sat down, took our helmets off, and got semi-comfortable while one of the cops went to boil a kettle. And then we stared at each other. Two cops on one side, us three on the other. On the floor, propped up against some dusty throw pillows – the stuffy little room smelling like B.O. and feet. The one cop yawned. The other smiled some and said something.
“Buddy I have no fuckin idea what you’re saying” one of my NCO’s said. And the cops had no idea what we were saying either. It felt like an eternity. Eventually the third cop appeared with a tray of teacups and distributed them. We smiled, said ‘shukran’ and raised our glasses. I remember it was hot and it burnt my tongue. But I kept drinking because I wanted to finish it and get out of there. And so we all just sat, the six of us, in awkward silence. The cops began to talk a little, somewhat at us, but I think mostly to themselves.
“Where is that lazy ‘terp when you need him?”
‘I know. This is awkward.’
“Yeah. They’re probably sitting here saying the same thing. What the hell are these damn Americans doing waking us up at three in the morning, bringing some guy to our door, and now we’ve got to offer them tea.”
We talked among ourselves, chucking at the situation, and despite the absolute language barrier, I think we were all saying the same thing. I finished my not-as scalding tea and after the shukran’ing and hand shaking, we made our leave. As we drove the remainder of the way back to the outpost in Rabiah, we decided that we wouldn’t even bring up the fact that we burnt up $63,000 to the rest of the platoon. We’d leave it at ‘we caught a gas smuggler, but NSTR.” The entire fact that we ran platoon-level night interdiction’s we never called to higher headquarters, either. I sent daily field reports to them via FIPR [Stryker-email, essentially] but nothing much was ever noteworthy. When we were relieved and returned to Tal’Afar from border duty I always provided close-out debriefing, but I never mentioned anything about button-hooks or border ops unless we had something of value.
And we certainly never told anyone we accidentally torched that guy’s “finally I can buy my way out of Iraq” fund…