ANOTHER TASK FORCE MISSION |
October 19, 2006
ANOTHER TASK FORCE MISSION
Name: Don Connolly
Posting date: 10/19/06
Returned from: Iraq
This one starts at 0200. I was going to be better this time. Prepared my gear, did everything I needed to, and in bed asleep by 2130 with the alarm set for 0130. I would be, if not well-rested, at least in good shape to go through the mission. Eyes popped open at 2250, and nothing I did would get me back to sleep. Figures.
At 0155, I put on my gear and head out to a now-familiar sight -- my soldiers moving around in the darkness doing the final preparations for the mission. Over the radio, platoon sergeants conduct an unending series of checks and verifications:
"Did you get the _____ team picked up at the CP?"
"Have all vehicles done radio checks?"
"Where the heck is _____, and why isn't he here now?"
"Get over to vehicle _____ and check ______!"
My vehicle this time is an M1114 armored HMMWV borrowed from another company. Looking at it yesterday, it was clear that they didn't loan us their best. This morning, a new gremlin shows up in one of the radios that wasn't there when we did radio checks yesterday. We can't fix it, but figure out a work-around that will get us through the mission.
Final checks for my crew:
"Hearing protection?" Check.
"Eye protection?" Check
"Ammunition for the turret gun?" Check.
"Water?" "In the cooler with the ice."
-- and the list goes on.
Not a problem with my crew, as my driver and gunner are both experienced, and have done it countless times. I check anyway. They check me.
0230 -- We move from our staging area toward the departure gate. On the way, we link up with what to me is a very ironic sight. Most of my military career has been spent studying Soviet/Russian-designed weapons and equipment, and how to defeat it. The unit we are linking up with is equipped with that very same equipment. We are working alongside an Iraqi Army company which is equipped with BMP armored personnel carriers and Kalashnikov rifles.
We stage alongside the IA vehicles and wait. They look nervous, sitting atop their BMPs chain-smoking. After a few minutes, my driver and I get out and stretch. They look on curiously while we discuss a couple of details, then I turn and say good morning in Arabic. A couple of them try out their English, which amounts to "What's your name?" and "My name Hasim".
The word is passed -- "Mount Up!"
0300 -- Out the gate. Driving under blackout conditions with night-vision devices. We receive instructions to keep the speed down, far below normal. The BMPs can't keep up with our normal speed.
By the time daybreak comes, we have made it to our objective and are ready to start. We will seal off a series of small villages and search the buildings and surrounding areas. This will be a "cordon and knock" operation, much more polite than a "cordon and search". We will do what we need to do, search what we need to, take down census information, but we will do it courteously unless given reason to do otherwise.
The first few houses and farms are searched, and I stay with my vehicle monitoring the radio nets. By the time we move to the next area, I get out and move with the search teams. We slowly move into the hamlet, carefully looking at everything because there have been numerous attacks nearby. Sergeant V's team enters the first house. It apparently has not been used for some time.
On to the next. This one is lived in, with cows, goats and chickens in the yard. Everything goes by the unwritten script -- the women and children go into a quiet huddle somewhere in the yard and try to pretend we can't see them. The men stand anxiously, some with a defiant look, others with trepidation. Many are simply resigned to it. Today, most seem helpful.
At the third house, there is an older couple who seem overly helpful. Sometimes this means they are hiding something. Not this time. The man shows us right where he keeps his AK-47 for quick access against the "Ali Babas" who raid at night. The woman scurries about, laughing as she warns us about the low door lintels so we won't bang our heads. They rush ahead of us to open cupboards, doors, the trunk of their car. The rooms are mostly bare with concrete floor. They roll their sleeping mats out at night, but for many, that is the extent of their furniture.
As we leave that house, the man manages with hand signals to convey that he is the patriarch of the small hamlet we are in -- all the houses, all the residents, everything is his.
The team moves to the next house and, rounding a corner, find we have met another part of the platoon. There is a large group of women and children huddled around something in the yard, but present no evident threat. I check with the search team in the house, they have found nothing amiss.
Moving back into the yard, I see what has drawn the crowd -- the medic, PFC N, is open for business. He dispenses aspirin, antacid, antibiotic ointment, whatever he has to relieve suffering. N is a good medic. I have worked with him before. He is young, quiet, competent and caring.
The people are joyful to have that kind of attention. They carry an old woman over to where N works. She is the matriarch of the clan, perhaps the mother of the man at the last house. Whatever the relationship, all show respect for her and concern for her condition. There is something wrong with her feet and legs, I never find out exactly what. N and the interpreter go to work while the platoon sergeant does his own kind of work.
These people are very family-oriented -- it is all they have. They are virtually all completely illiterate. There are no books, no papers, nothing. They are born, grow up, farm, marry, have children, grow old, and die.
They are proud to show off their children, and the platoon sergeant responds by taking out a picture of his baby daughter. The women are excited and pass the picture around chattering away. On the other side of the crowd, I also take out a picture of my three year-old daughter and join in. Now N has plenty of room to work. The platoon sergeant and I have drawn most of the people away.
We are each working the crowd, admiring the children while the mothers (and a few fathers) admire the pictures. Many of the women actually kiss the pictures and then hold them up to heaven with a short prayer phrase. In this culture, it is considered bad luck and invokes the "evil eye" if you admire someone's family member or possessions without giving praise or credit to Allah.
The platoon leader and I have our cameras out and, with the exception of a few younger women, the people are eager to have their pictures taken. The women are interested as the platoon sergeant and I describe, mostly using signs, how many and how old our children are. At this point, I do something I have not yet done since coming to Iraq. A word to the platoon leader and the word goes out over his radio net: "Send Private C. down to where the large group of people is ASAP." A couple of minutes later, Private C. appears, walking quickly but carefully, ever alert and scanning for danger. He has his M4 carbine slung over his back, and carries a shotgun. He has grown even more in the few months we have been here, and now towers several inches over me as we stand together.
He quickly figures out what is going on, but I tell him to bear with me on this. We turn and face the people, and I point to my name tape, and then to his. There is a look of disbelief on everyone's face. I have the interpreter tell the people that this is my son, and that we together made the decision to come all this way to Iraq to help the people as much as we can. After a moment of astonishment, they cry out in a flood of excitement. They have never seen anything like it. We are escorted into the presence of the matriarch, still seated on the ground where the medic was working on her. The relationship between Private C. and me is explained, and she lifts her face to heaven. She looks back at us, and I see a tear coursing down her cheek.