Friday, March 14, 2008

Out All Night With Delta Company

March 12, 2008

It is a sad fact that some of the hardest working people in Iraq are the insurgents. But the American soldiers wrote the book on hard work. During a deployment there are no days off. And when a convoy rolls out at 8:00 pm, it isn’t to go clubbing.
Led by Lieutenant Eric King, the soldiers of the 2nd Battalion’s Delta Company left JSS (Joint Support Station) Love to see what the farmland south of Samarra might produce at night. We would be visiting four houses--one, the home of a good guy, and three that had been identified as locations where bad guys were staying.
In some cases it is easier to sneak up on a target at night, but when you are talking about moving three huge diesel-powered MRAPs through country that might see only the occasional pickup truck or car in the course of a day, the element of surprise is probably lost as soon as the rumble of the engines grows louder than the sound of sheep breathing.
There is always an awkwardness that accompanies a surprise visit to a house. This is compounded after dark, when everyone has settled in for the night. While Lieutenant King talked to one member of the first household privately, the rest of the family was gathered in the living room and watched over by the soldiers, and no one knew what to say or do.
In the dim light provided by a lantern, the stark living conditions were impossible to ignore. There was no furniture in the living room. Blankets and padded mats were all that separated the residents of the house from the cold ground.
To ease the tension in the room, a baby was produced from the shadows and presented as some kind of proof that life was not so bad here. A cell phone rang, out of harmony with the simplicity of the setting. The phone belonged to an older man who ignored the ringing and showed the phone to the sleepy baby in an attempt to extract a smile.
Two other houses produced no obvious bad guys. The inhabitants were questioned while dogs barked outside, angry at having to work harder at guarding the sheep due to the arrival of the late night guests.
The fourth home appeared to be empty. The soldiers gathered at the metal door, but no one responded to the loud knocking and then kicking. The door was jammed shut so a second door was tried. This one opened, revealing a woman and several children gathered together under several blankets, huddled together for warmth, and probably out of fear. A kitten poked through some dishes at the edge of the room, then snuck past the soldiers and out the door.
The soldiers reassured the woman she would not be hurt. They explained that they only wanted to ask her some questions. Where was her husband? She said he was in jail. How did she support her family? She gestured to the land around her, but how much food could be produced in packed dust? And her children did not look capable of helping, both because they were too young and clearly not thriving.
The soldiers were saddened by the situation. They had not wanted to scare innocent people or add to their suffering. One soldier, Sergeant Joey Schuett, dug into his wallet and gave the woman what he could. The interpreter followed his example. Who knew what she thought of this strange turn of events. She seemed to believe the soldiers were only trying to help. It was impossible to tell how the children felt about the late night disturbance; their expressions ranged from vacant to listless.
The night out had been revealing, not because it exposed any insurgents but because it exposed the vulnerability of the people who lived out in the farmland. Anyone passing through could take advantage of their isolation. How easy it would be for someone to force his way into the last house, where the woman was alone with her children, and take cover until he was ready to move on. And the cell phone in the first house. Why was it ringing at that late hour?
The MRAPs made deep tracks in the soil as the convoy slowly distanced itself from the huts that were claimed again by the darkness. The heavy trucks fought against the uneven terrain. After what seemed like hours, I glanced out the rear window and saw a flash of light which was followed by a deep and convincing boom. The second truck in the convoy had run over an IED (Improvised Explosive Device).
The soldiers quickly assessed the damage to the vehicle and themselves. The MRAP had done its job; no one was hurt. A wave of relief swept through the trucks. It appeared the IED had been triggered by the weight of the MRAP when it rolled over the device. A tire was destroyed, and there was some internal damage, but overall the truck had done well. The explosion had created a crater that was about 4’ x 7’ wide, and, had the soldiers been in a humvee, the results would have been devastating.
The IED had halted the convoy just after midnight. When the dust settled there was nothing to do but wait for another convoy to arrive with a wrecker that would tow the disabled MRAP back to the base. How long could that take?
At 2:00 am the thrill of witnessing an explosion that had not hurt anyone was gone. And though the MRAP gets high marks for withstanding such attacks, it fails miserably in the passenger comfort department. The rear seats were not designed to accommodate adults wearing body armor. At best, they might comfortably hold young soccer players wearing shin guards. A soldier named Brian Castro, who had told me all about his little boy at home, gave up trying to get comfortable in his seat and slid to the floor.
Hours passed and still we waited. The road was not easily accessible, running between two canals. But still. At some point the waiting turned into something more cruel. Minutes were being stolen from future days.
Finally, as the sun came up, the second convoy arrived, and after much maneuvering the journey home resumed. By 8:00 am we were safely home. Somehow spending the night in an MRAP had been more exhausting than a night of clubbing.
The people of the farmland had their night interrupted thanks to our late visit. Our night had been interrupted thanks to an IED. Interruptions are hardly ever welcomed but sometimes they are a useful reminder of what came before, and how things can change for the better.

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