March 02, 2008

Name: SFC Toby Nunn
Posting date: 3/3/08
Stationed in: Kuwait / Iraq
Hometown: Oakland, CA via Terrace B.C. CANADA
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(Note: This post is excerpted from Northern Disclosure, a memoir by frequent Sandbox contributor Toby Nunn. The book chronicles his previous deployment as an infantry squad leader during Operation Iraqi Freedom -- from stateside training, to the desert sands of Kuwait, and on into combat in Iraq. His unit was the first to train and fight as a Stryker Brigade Combat Team. The following episode is from a chapter about training Iraqi security forces.)

I was updating the schedule for staff duty and showers when an Iraqi asked to speak with me. Alla had already left and there was no interpreter, so I prepared myself for confusion, but hoped I would be able to understand as I was pretty pleased with my progress in Arabic in only a short time. The jundi was talking fast, his arms swinging around him like an octopus. I was not sure if he was speaking Kurdish or Arabic. Finally, he used his hands in a manner that gave me a hint, and I heard the word "douche", which has a similar word in French for shower. I started to demonstrate bathing, and his eyes lit up with recognition. Growing up in Canada I had to learn French, so I had a solid grasp on that language as well as German.

I started to walk toward the showers to see what I could decipher from his words while seeing firsthand. As I approached I was mobbed by the Iraqis, all speaking a mile a minute and obviously complaining. I quickly looked around to make sure I was not alone. I saw Souci within reach, looking his usual hard self. I was glad that he just sensed I was going to need help, and jumped in. I also nonchalantly slipped my hand down by my pistol, just to ensure that I still had it and was ready to use it. I tried to make it look as innocent as a man verifying that his wallet was still in his pocket after leaving the subway.

The problem was easy to detect. There was no water. With the use of the obstacle course we had just built, and needing additional water to clean uniforms, we had run out. I had underestimated what we would use in a day. I told the men to relax and go to bed; I would work it out. To me it was not that big of a deal since I had gone almost thirty days without showers when in field environments in the past. Less than a day would not be a big deal, right?

Wrong! I was in the middle of what was slowly becoming an angry mob. I was diplomatic, polite, and courteous, but it was not working. All these men were yelling and waving their arms at me, and I was starting to feel the encroachment of them on Souci and myself. We looked at each other, and I could tell he was thinking the same thing I was: "What the hell is wrong with these people?" There had never been a shortage of body odor among the locals, in fact at times being in some homes was so unbearable that we would hasten our activities to get out quicker because the smell was nauseating. Why were these men, for whom I had gone to great lengths to provide good living conditions, getting so riled up?

Then I heard the magic word come through the crowd like it was spoken on an intercom: "Prayer! We must be clean for prayer, Sadi!"

It hit me like a brick to the windshield. To prepare for prayer they must clean themselves ritually before God. This ritual consisted mainly of washing the hands, feet, and face several times in a particular order, always starting with the left. At times the procedure was a male's only source of bathing -- hence the body odor we had experienced. I knew that this shortage was going to be used as a political tool against me, so I called for Wally and asked him to coordinate the extra water buffalo, so that the Iraqis could wash for prayer.

This took time, since it was at night and I didn't have the appropriate vehicle. There was no potable water available, so I had to use non potable, but they were going to be washing with it, not drinking it. But I also had water bottles from our emergency supply brought out.

While we were working this out came the epiphany. I had heard the complaint in English, not Arabic. Did I translate it in my mind, or was it in English? I asked Souci, and he looked at me like I was stupid, and said it was in English.

"Why was it in English?" I asked. Then the enlightenment that had hit me, hit him.

"Do you remember who said it?"

"I think so, let's go grab him!" God bless Souci and his aggressive ways.

When we had interviewed and vetted all the recruits, no one claimed any understanding or ability in the English language. The person who had just spoken on behalf of the soldiers had hidden his abilities and understanding. This might not seem like a big deal, but all of a sudden every conversation I had ever had near an Iraqi was going through my head, and I was hoping I hadn't said anything that would have jeopardized anything.

It took us a few minutes to find the soldier, since we were trying not to alert him to our intent. We wanted to talk to him in private. Being careful to extract him from his sleeping bay without arousing suspicion was hard, but we were able to do it. I had a room set aside for detention and questioning, so we took him there. I expected him to be nervous, thinking he probably was beginning to realize that we now knew he spoke English. But he played dumb and pretended not to understand us.

Whenever we had to "talk" to someone, I usually took point. I asked a few simple questions about where he was from, and he spoke in Arabic, signaling he didn't understand us. I had already called for the human intelligence team to come and assist. I needed an interrogator, so I called for my friend, who had fought with us in Samara, to come. I knew it would take a while, since it was at night and I needed to send a runner.

Coincidently, one of the Special Forces guys was dropping off a movie he had borrowed from us and asked what we were doing. After we explained what had happened, he offered to assist. With some Arabic in his toolbelt, he went in and started to ask some of the same questions I had. Together we were able to trick the man into saying some words in English and translating some words for us. Then, like a floodlight had been turned on over his head, we saw the look of, "Oh shit! They figured it out!"    

I immediately asked him to remove his shirt, and my SF counterpart looked at me funny. It might have seemed like I was challenging the Iraqi to fight, but I was simply trying to get him to take off his shirt so I could see his skin. I was looking for scars, tattoos, or anything that might help tell his story.

He was a military-aged man, slender but athletic. His hair was maintained, which was a tell-tail sign; he obviously had the money to afford some basic grooming. Then, on his arm, there it was, calling out to me like a siren: the eagle claw with snake tattoo. He had been a member of the Fedajeen. Like a U.S. Marine will brand him- or herself to demonstrate "Once a Marine Always a Marine", the Fedajeen did as well, so there was a strong possibility this man was an infiltrator...

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