by John Melton
“Sullivan, go ahead and park it along this parapet wall while I position the rest of the guns.”
“Hooah, Sarrnt!” I say, more than happy to put my back up against ten inches of solid concrete, extending several feet above the three-story rooftop we’ve just occupied. I’m bullet proof right now. Safe. From this elevation our machine gunners will provide support for the men on the ground.
I lower my rucksack onto the superheated, gravel-covered rooftop and perform the necessary radio checks with Battalion and the Company Commander. As a forward observer it’s imperative I can reach our fire support assets at all times. Today I’m attached to the weapons squad of 3rd platoon. They’re all good guys I’ve worked with before, guys I want to protect. I’m relieved once I know I have good comms, so I allow my thoughts to wander for a few minutes until the sergeant returns.
Back at the base, mail call had happened just as we were told to mount up. A bunch of off- duty soldiers gathered around the company clerk’s sandbagged Quonset hut, where I saw Sergeant Peterson hold up a big box wrapped in brown paper. His booming voice called my name as I loaded gear into our armored-up Hummer.
“Sully ain’t here, Sarrnt!” Jackson, my buddy from 1st platoon, had shouted from the back of the growing crowd. “Third Platoon’s going outside the wire today.”
I was intrigued by the size of the box once I knew it was mine. I haven’t received one that large since we deployed. After Sergeant “Pete” had set it back down, I’d noticed crayon markings on the brown wrapping paper and assumed my little sister was over being mad at me for abandoning her four months ago. She’s pretty stubborn for a nine year old. An impulsive mental image appears of me chucking a piece of homemade pottery against a concrete blast wall. Then I’m tearing apart a canvas covered with finger paint art. Shouting ensues at the naive simplicity of the gifts in a war zone. I cut off the video of the mind, not surprised at my fictitious outburst of anger. Yeah, you could say I have some issues halfway through my tour.
I shake my head at the thought. It’s odd, knowing I’m kind of messed up, but also feeling normal at the same time. The sweltering rooftop brings sweat across my upper lip, a savory sensation that reminds me there will be edible items in the box as well. In an hour I’ll be back inside the air conditioned barracks, showered up, the box on my bunk ready to open. I laugh inwardly at myself, knowing I’ll probably let it sit for another hour or two before ripping into it. I’m not sure if that is prolonging the distracting anticipation a little longer, so welcome in this dusty shithole of an existence, or if it’s to prove I’m not desperate for home. And if the latter, who do I have to prove it to? I’ve always been the one younger guys come to when they’re missing home, probably because I don’t project homesickness myself.
Because other than sis, what’s to miss from home?
Suddenly, a torrent of outgoing rounds from the squad erupts. I look over the top of the wall, raising my head just enough to gain a line of sight, the dome of my K-pot all that is visible to the enemy. From my vantage point on the roof I can see across a vast empty lot, at least the size of a football field. It’s dusty and patchy with desert scrub and windblown garbage throughout. Not a palm tree in sight, so no real cover to be had for anyone trying to cross. On the other side of the potential killing field is a row of cinder block buildings. They mark the boundary of a dense neighborhood full of sympathizers, the protected hive of the enemy. From every jagged opening— the windows have been shot out—bristle the barrels of AK-47’s or aged long rifles. The fighters are protecting their turf—and Moustafa—the militant leader Alpha Company is here to roust and capture.
The gunfire increases so I press my ear plugs further into my skull. I can smell the gun oil cooking on the red hot barrels. The machine gunner closest to me has already gone through a hundred-round belt pounding those masonry structures. His pockmarks kick up concrete dust with each impact. I rarely use my own rifle, because with the radio next to me I can call for several kinds of air or ground-based fire support, raining much more death than a rifle ever could. I’ve done that on three occasions so far. Twice with the company mortars, and one time I got to bring an F-16 to the party. Having so much destruction at my disposal was shocking. The sudden reduction of an entire building into rubble had sent a wave of goose-bump producing adrenaline through me that I will never forget, even though I would very much like to forget that day.
We didn’t even hear the roar of the jet until the ordinance had already dropped, a direct hit that allowed us to return safely to the fortified base outside Ramadi. I received a case of contraband beer from the platoon that day for my efforts. The lieutenant said an award might be in store for me, but the paperwork will take a while. I told him I was just doing my job, which sounded so cliché coming out of my mouth. Part of that job is battle damage assessment, or BDA. That night the beer went down hard and fast until I blacked out.
These skinnys across the way aren’t a big enough threat to the platoon. I don’t see myself using the radio today. Just as I have the thought though, a skinny in track pants and a faded #20 Detroit Lions t-shirt leaps out of a shattered storefront. He’s carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
Half a dozen voices around me call it out as the skinny takes a knee and raises the launcher in our direction. “RPG ten o’clock!” “Shift fire left, Ruiz!” says the squad leader.
From my experience around these hooahs, Barry Sanders has about three seconds to get that round off before he’s toast. Ruiz is a little slow on the draw this time though, so we all see the burst of smoke behind the skinny as the high-explosive projectile is loosed toward us. An instant later the fighter slumps as the tracer rounds find him. A stitch of automatic gunfire shudders his upper body and pink mist erupts from the back of his un-helmeted head.
A thought flashes that this fighter’s quick but courageous death will inspire his comrades. Out of habit my hand reaches inside my breast pocket for the laminated card with all the important call signs and codes I need to call for fire. I don’t need to study it, all of it committed to memory of course. It’s kind of like my security blanket. I’m holding it as the rocket slams into the building we’re on top of. The shock wave is the same as a jab to the diaphragm. It staggers me so I reach for the parapet wall to steady myself. The smell of spent explosives rushes over the top along with the heat and smoke from the explosion.
I risk an exposed lean over the edge that tells me the rocket had hit a lower part of the building where the lieutenant is positioned. The mode of the squad instantly shifts from offensive to that of a defensive posture. A few soldiers continue providing suppressive fire toward the enemy, while everyone else makes for an internal stair to help with the wounded. The need for assistance is verified by the screams I hear in between bursts of gunfire.
“Skinnys left!” shouts the team leader on the roof.
I peer over the edge again and see a group of Iraqis bolting between two buildings. The rifleman next to me draws a bead on one of the trailers. Two puffs of dust near the man’s heels correspond with the soldier’s rate of fire. The third one buckles the Iraqi and he goes down. As the remaining fighters duck into a half-destroyed building, more Iraqis pour out of the storefronts.
This snatch and grab mission is starting to turn on us, I realize. I’m about to run downstairs to see about calling in a fire mission when Saunders from the command element bursts through the doorway to the stair.
“Lieutenant’s hit, so is Macphail! We’re bustin’ out of here in two mikes. Everybody downstairs!”
He turns back down the stair and I’m already moving toward it. My gear is on my back and I’m only accountable for myself, one of the benefits of being a forward observer who is attached to the platoon but not actually a member of it. The machine gunners on the roof send one last hail of suppressive fire, but are right on my tail as we hustle down the narrow stairwell, which I notice is much darker and cooler now that the sun is beginning to set.
In the room below, the platoon sergeant—in charge now that the officer is down—is already getting the men ready to move. The lieutenant is on a stretcher. He seems out of it, but is conscious. Part of his uniform is shredded and his midsection has a lot of gauze, some of it soaked through already with blood. It looks like Corporal Macphail is being treated for superficial wounds by the medic. I could be asked to call for fire during the retreat to a safer location, so I reach for the card again. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I realize it’s not there.
I’m overrun by panic, realizing I must have dropped it on the roof as the RPG exploded! Once again, being accountable only to myself, I drop the heavy radio pack at the bottom of the stairwell and do an about face, brushing past the last private coming down behind me. Once on the roof again, I return to the area where I was crouching. I narrow my search down to a ten foot section of the long parapet wall. A frantic search begins for the card. It’s gray with black letters and the top of the roof is gravel-covered, lots of grayish gravel with darker stones mixed in. The sky is also darkening by the second and the parapet wall casts a long shadow over the area. To make matters worse, the Iraqis have begun to advance. Out in no man’s land two dozen fighters are bounding across in groups of two and three. I have to find the card though. It’s considered a sensitive item and I will get a serious reprimand for losing it.
Not to mention letting it fall into the hands of the enemy, which could actually get hooahs killed.
I still hear shouting below, orders being given, so I have a few more seconds to burn looking, clawing at the gravel with my bare hands. I’ve never felt the crunch of time that I feel now. Every tick of the clock I’m closer to one of two perilous outcomes: imminent attack or eventual deep trouble with the unit. My head swims in the implications of both for a torturous minute, losing all sense of the causal happenings around me. Finally my hand touches flat plastic. I rejoice with an audible cry of relief and jump up to my full height, well above the parapet wall. Bullets slam into the other side as I curse my stupidity again, ducking and running toward the stairs. They’re even darker this time—and much more quiet. I emerge into the lower room and understand. Everyone has gone! And the radio is missing too.
I lunge through the door that was left open. Looking to the right I see the tail lights of the last five-ton truck. It’s already fifty meters down the darkening alley. I chase after it, yelling at the top of my lungs.
“Hey! … Hey! … Hold up, man!”
The roar of all four engines accelerating drowns out my voice. Worse, I know there are men inside the covered bed of that last truck, but the canvas flap at the tail gate has been pulled down to keep the ever-present dust out. The vehicles gain more distance until I see the lead driver turning onto a larger road at the end of the alley. One by one they disappear. Any hope I have of catching them disappears too. Once the noise from the vehicles fades, the muezzin’s call echoes from some nearby mosque, signaling the prayer hour. The sudden stillness is unnerving. I’ve never felt more alone. Fear comes like oil from an uncapped well back home when it hits me that these people would flay my skin from head to toe if given the opportunity. More images of gruesome torture flood my mind, and then the big one comes, because these days they’re regularly finding heads in the streets of Ramadi.
My desperate rush down the one-lane alley to catch up with the platoon came up short, but one good thing happened. I’m not inside the building we’d occupied. Gunfire suddenly erupts from within it. A couple of grenades thump in succession, ejecting glass and dust from the windows in the rooms that are no doubt being methodically cleared.
I duck into a shadowy alcove on the side of the alley when two armed Iraqis emerge from the building. They look confused and pissed at once, their eyes darting in each direction. My heart quickens and I grip my weapon tighter when one of them begins running this way. He only gets twenty meters down the alley before he’s called back by a leader it seems. I can’t tell what’s being said. They’re speaking Arabic and I’ve only picked up basic words and phrases over the last six months: No, Yes, Please, Thank you. Just the basics in other words.
Somehow amidst the swirling cauldron of my thoughts I at least recognize the need to focus, to give myself the best chance of making the right decisions. Every step I make forthcoming could mean life and death. Praying comes natural to me and I try, but it’s hard to center my thoughts on Him. I’m too out of the moment, too frazzled.
The internal battle rages for untold minutes there in the dark. Dogs bark in the distance, but not at me. This comforts me somehow, and a deep breath lessens my pulse a little bit. With the American presence gone, so went the violence. The realization that no Iraqis are combing the area looking for stragglers provides more than comfort.
They don’t know I’m here.
I relish sitting here in the dark and not being noticed. I could just wait until the unit figures out I’m missing and comes back. Then I think of all the dogs on the loose in this city. One of them is bound to come by for a piss and go nuts over me, or maybe the militants will make their way here. I endure scattered thoughts for a few minutes more, the threat of a dog nagging me now. It causes me to edge out of the total darkness, up to the corner of the building. Peering either way down the alley tells me one thing. There are no dogs in sight, but plenty of people are around. Several locals have emerged from their homes now that the fighting has stopped. One of them is organizing some garbage bags by the curb in front of his house. He’s only twenty meters from me. He turns my way and I whip my head back in time, but it was close. Down at the three-story building it sounds like the enemy is still tearing up the place looking for intelligence after our sudden departure.
The rustle of garbage bags being hoisted grabs my attention. The local must be moving toward the alcove. I slink back into the darkest part, only six feet from the narrow curb. My heart pounds so hard it seems audible from outside my body. Somehow rational thought dispels that notion, preventing a rash move in the next few seconds. Nonetheless, I loosen the strap on the sheath holding my combat knife. It’s never seen the light of day, but I grip the hilt as if I mean to use it. Heavy steps grow nearer until the man stops short of the alcove. Part of his body is visible as he tosses the bags in, landing just before my feet. His fleshy face is in my line of sight too, but only for a second. I swear his eyes pierced the darkness and found mine. To my surprise, he walks away.
I’m immediately struck with food waste odors. Nasty curry by the smell of it. This hideaway suddenly became a lot less safe. Now there are two things for a nosy dog to come in here and investigate. I’ve been lucky so far, or maybe those distracted moments of prayer had reached Him—arrow prayers as my sister calls them. It’s time to move though. Edging out of the shadows again I poke my head out into the alley and look for my first waypoint on the journey to the base. Twenty meters to my left is a gangway opening between buildings. Hopefully it will lead me to the broader avenue on the other side.
The coast is clear once a woman finishes sweeping her stoop and reenters her home. A deep breath precedes my dash across the alley. Padding my steps helps reduce the jingling of all my equipment as I run, but with my free hand I hold the magazine pouch on my left hip. It would draw attention for sure; the combination of metal clanking against metal and booted footfalls at the double time is a dead giveaway to a soldier’s presence. I duck into the gangway. Being exposed like that made my skin crawl. The shadows are welcome as I catch my breath from the adrenaline rush, of which cottonmouth is a by-product. A drink from my canteen precedes firing off another arrow prayer for stealth. Then I begin moving through the narrow passage.
There are many openings in the walls on either side of the gangway. I’ve already passed several shuttered windows and one doorway on a raised stoop. I can see more of each ahead. One stoop has a light above the door that casts a yellow glow on the ground. The entire width of the passage is lit there and I will have to cross it momentarily. But before any of that, I will have to do some damage control—I’ve just tripped on the uneven stones that line the gangway and made an unacceptable amount of noise. I’m furious with myself as I jump up and pin my body against a portion of the wall.
Anger towards God is there for the antithesis of my prayer answered, but I immediately feel guilty for it. I’m the klutz after all.
He surely can’t control my every footstep.
It’s that same question that has been the biggest hurdle in growing my faith. Freewill or fate. Which of those two invisible guiding forces drives our actions while we live our lives? Or is it a combination of both? It would help to know. What if God only steps in ten percent of the time? What if it’s only one percent?
I’m screwed if that’s the case.
The thought is guilt-driven, because over the last few months I’ve felt spiritual distance and can’t help but think He might not hear me as loudly as when I first arrived in-country. I was so dependent on that life line being secured and maintained, reading my Bible between missions and attending services on base. This war though. It’s in the gutter, especially here in Ramadi. It’s grinding me down. And lately I haven’t exactly been an angel. That life line feels a little loose, untethered at one end, probably mine.
Maybe I’m being punished.
As if on cue, a window across the way opens. As the shutters are pushed outward a warm light spills out into the gangway and I am bathed in it. Busted. I’m a cockroach in the kitchen when someone suddenly flicks a switch. But there are no holes for me to crawl into and disappear.
Directly in front of me an adolescent Iraqi girl is staring wide-eyed at me, a fully armed American outside her home. I can’t imagine what she must be thinking. I know I look scared, because I am. I’m terrified she will shout for her father any second. With the kind of luck I seem to be drawing at the moment, he’s probably a member of the resistance himself. And I’m about to become famous on the internet for my new uniform—an orange jump suit.
Instead, we just stare at each other for what feels like minutes. Realistically, it’s maybe five seconds, and it means she’s conflicted about what to do. She’s probably scared herself, maybe even curious about me. The girl peers out into the gangway, probably expecting to see more soldiers. When she turns back to face me her eyes are saying something different, stunned surprise no longer in them. They’re active, more furtive. She quickly closes the shutters and I know I’m totally screwed. It’s dark again where I’m standing and I’m about to take off to the end of the gangway when the door nearest the window opens. The girl pokes her head out, beckoning me.
Now it’s my turn to be confused and hesitant. I’m definitely surprised. She’s almost the same age as my sister. Maybe a little older, ten I guess. Maybe that’s what does it for me, even subconsciously, because just as I hear my internal voice say, “Go to her,” I feel my legs following the directive as if it were an order given by a hard-nosed sergeant. Before I know it I’m inside a foyer, the door is closed behind me and the girl is dashing down an arched corridor, dimly lit by flickering candles on the sidewalls. They cause the half-barreled ceiling to come alive with dancing shadows. It smells like a home—my first Iraqi home—the faint odor of lamb leftover from the dinner hour. Out of instinct I back myself closer to the door with my weapon at the ready, safety off.
Several voices can be heard down the hall in another room. I don’t hear the deep voice of a man, however, which is good. A commotion occurs and bodies are definitely moving this way. I crouch into a firing position and aim my weapon toward the arch. From it emerges a young woman and the girl. Behind them is a pudgy boy who looks to be entering puberty by all the acne on his olive skin. I’m a little distracted by his super thick eyebrows and the bushy mop of dark hair on his head. He looks like the type back home who sits around playing video games all the time. They are wary about the weapon, but the woman is still advancing, a hand up as she speaks calmly in Arabic. I’ve picked up a few words and phrases, but what she’s saying is gibberish to me. Going off her tone, I gather she’s trying to diffuse a potentially lethal situation. She’s definitely not freaking out, something I’m grateful for.
I glance at the children. The young girl lingers behind the boy, peering out from his side. He’s holding his position by the arch, a protective arm held out that wraps back around the girl’s waist. His demeanor is hard to peg. I’ll call him neutral for now. The woman is pointing at the weapon as she continues speaking, never losing eye contact with me. To her I’m scared and unpredictable, because the girl probably told her I’m alone. I don’t feel that way though anymore, scared that is. Since it appears it’s just the four of us here my guard is lowered enough to lower my weapon; my hands remain wrapped around the trigger housing and forestock, but it’s pointing at the floor. It’s the only change I’m willing to make.
The woman stops a few feet in front of me, nodding as she talks in a low tone. I’ve given her something. Now the ball is in her court. But it’s the little girl who scampers back down the hall and returns momentarily with a glass of water. She moves right past her brother. He and the woman both blurt something, but her innocence is the equivalent of a soldier’s courage and she crosses the no-man’s land between us with outstretched hands. A few drops of water splash onto the floor due to her hasty pace. Still in my crouch, I rest the fore stock on my thigh and reach to receive the water. The girl and I make eye contact and I offer her the same smile I do back home when sis returns from the fridge with a cold drink in hand for me.
“Thank you, little one. You’re very brave,” I say before I take a sip. “And you’re a good host.”
The woman talks quickly then, gesturing to the girl with her hand. The tone is universal to me: “Okay, you’ve shown us how thoughtful you are, now get your little butt back here.” After finishing the water, I hold the cup up, nodding and smiling to make sure she knows I’m thankful. Now it’s my turn again. I take a risk on the assumption there is no man in the house to upset the balance of power we are establishing. A recollection occurs from my history final before graduation last year.
The Cold War. Right now the policy of mutually assured destruction is being played out. I have the ability to unload a magazine into the three of them. They have the ability to just start screaming at the top of their lungs. Each action could set off the other and this situation could end in an unfortunate bloodbath.
For my part I know I couldn’t do it. As I lay down the weapon slowly on the floor, I sure hope they choose the passive option as well. It’s been quiet outside since I entered the house, but now all our heads turn at once when we hear banging on doors and shouting in the alley.
They must be going door to door. Shit … It’s a good thing I moved out from that alcove.
I look at the woman, knowing desperation must be painted across my face. It’s her move again. And it better happen quick. It appears we’re on the same page, because she offers another universal gesture: “Come with me.”
I have to remember taking me in was not her idea. With the militants returning, she may be thinking in terms of self preservation, so I pick up my weapon and move down the hallway wary of betrayal. But I’m a go-with-the-flow kind of guy in most situations. Right now I’m flowing away from the enemy and by all indicators, being led by a sympathizer; what the woman has done so far—or not done rather—could cost her and her children their lives. Everyone knows what happens to Iraqi sympathizers in Ramadi. Heads roll. I store it away as a debt that I may have to repay before this night is done.
A door is opened ahead of me and I’m shepherded inside a small room. It’s dark, without windows, perhaps a pantry by the odors I pick up. Before I know it the door is closed. My heart sinks when I hear the heavy metallic sound of a lock being latched.
I immediately second guess what I’ve just done. I should have found a way out the back when we heard the knocking start. And everything I’ve learned since my arrival tells me no Iraqi would do what she has done for me so far. The thought of treachery turns my stomach and my mind begins to race again with anxious thoughts.
“Hey! Open the damned door!” I shout as I pound it with my fists.
I feel very stupid when I realize I’m yelling in English for anyone to hear. Who knows how thin these walls are? I step back from the door, decide attempting escape is a better use of my mental faculties. Then I’ll make for that back exit if there is one and resume my movement through the city. In my cargo pocket is a red lens pen light and a Leatherman’s tool—standard personal gear for most infantrymen. I use both to set in on the door hardware and I get as far as removing two screws from the dead bolt’s cover plate when more banging on doors and yelling occurs. It’s amplified, closer.
There’s movement outside this room, furniture being rearranged, the patter of small feet and the woman whispering hurried instructions in Arabic. I think they’re trying to conceal the door. My hope returns. All the while, the intensity of the knocking increases. Moments later they all shuffle away and a male voice can be heard for the first time inside the house. The woman is talking, then being talked over by the man. She starts again. He interrupts her. This happens several times until he shouts at her and I hear a slap. The girl is crying now, and I’m getting pissed, all wariness about their loyalties gone now. We’re on the same team, somehow, someway, and she’s taking one for the team right now. My debt to her is growing.
Again, I’m left to wonder why she would do this and then it occurs to me that the militants themselves may have something to do with it. It’s as far as I take the thought because the situation in the foyer moves closer to me. I hear voices and footsteps in the room outside now. I ready my weapon and aim at the center of the door. Then I wait, my eyes on the handle. But the knob never turns. There is no banging. There are hoarse words, condemning words by the tone. Then the gaggle moves back toward the front of the house. Now the woman has a conciliatory tone toward her rude guests.
Of course, she’s somehow kept them out of this room and just wants them to leave.
After an interlude of stillness, I hear two voices arguing in low tones as they move down the hall toward me. The woman’s is recognizable and the other I assume belongs to the teenage boy, although I haven’t heard him speak before now. If it’s him he must be protesting her actions. I store it away that the kid might not be as neutral as I thought. Still, he didn’t rat me out under pressure.
No turning my back on him if they let me out. And watch for him to pick up a cell phone and start acting shady.
A minute passes while they converse. Curt responses to the woman’s entreaties tell me the kid is not on board with some aspect of how to proceed.
Could be anything … the level of comfort I deserve, the timing of my departure … whatever. And where the hell is the man of the house?
The dialog ends outside the door. Heavy footfalls amble down the hall and the little girl makes her presence known. She says something to the woman—a question, maybe by the upward tone at the end of her statement. Moments later I understand. The sound of rustling fabric precedes the same moving of furniture as before. Then the lock unlatches and the door is opened. The little girl is there, holding another cup of water for me.
Squinting as I emerge from the dark closet, I see a table had been pushed in front of the door. On the table is a folded fabric wall hanging which must have been cleverly draped over the door to conceal it. The woman stands protectively behind the girl. I maintain eye contact while the cool water coats my cotton-mouthed throat. Once finished, I set the quart-sized glass on the table and let out a big exhale. It’s the calmest moment I’ve had since I was day dreaming about the contents of my care package. I have enough presence of mind now to begin formulating a plan that will get me back to the base, which is in the desert outside the city. It’s imperative I get around the language barrier.
“I need to find my base,” I say, immediately struck with the futility of doing this without visual aides or gestures.
Most of the high tech stuff I use to call for fire is in the larger rucksack with the radio, the one that somehow was taken by the platoon. I keep my maps and some personal items in the various cargo pockets on my BDU’s. I pull the map out of one of them, along with a half-eaten MRE. I remember I hadn’t eaten the M&M’s yet, so I offer them to the little girl, who is studying my every move intently. She makes a smile for the first time now as she starts eating the candy one color at a time.
“Can I have one?” I hold my hand out. She understands, pulls out a yellow one and studies it for a second before popping it in her mouth. She tries again. The next one is brown, which she offers to me.
“I don’t blame you. I never used to like the brown ones as much either.”
This interaction draws the curiosity of the brother. He’s watching us from the edge of the hallway. I look at him. “Hey man, I have a little sister too.”
I give him the “wait one minute” sign with a raised index finger. After retrieving a photo of sis from my breast pocket I hold it up and point at it, before pointing at myself. Then I repeat the process with him and the girl.
“See. I have a sister too.”
Everybody gets it and somehow it’s an ice breaker. I’m human to them now, not just some faceless soldier with a weapon and a hair trigger. The kid seems less suspicious and I haven’t seen him pick up a phone yet. After the exchange, I see his first genuine smile. It looks like I’m in with the kids, so I turn my attention to the woman. It’s atypical to see an Arab woman’s face and shape in Iraq, especially for an American; we would never be welcome in a setting wear a woman could present herself that way. But I’ve caught her off guard in her home, so she’s without the hijab, and she’s wearing yoga pants and a blouse. Her face is round and she has wavy, shoulder length hair. She can’t be older than thirty, I figure. Somewhat attractive, but not to me because she’s older. I’m only twenty and not into older chicks. Maybe because I’ve never been presented with the opportunity, but that’s beside the point. I do sense strength in her, a little wiser than her years. I want to thank her and do so. She understands without any gestures. Then she starts talking and not using her hands much. I shake my head and hold my hands up.
She halts briefly and shows me her phone.
It dawns on me that she wants me to use the phone to call for help.
Can I even do that? I don’t think I can do that.
We don’t take phones out on missions because they can interfere with the jamming devices we use to ward off IED’s triggered by phones. And we don’t have a number for our unit that a regular Iraqi’s phone carrier could reach, because theirs are unsecured lines. I rule it out as an option, and let her know with a shake of the head. I’ve been worried the whole time about a man coming home who lives here. I look around for signs of a male presence: boots or clothing, tools for work etc. I don’t see any and return my attention to her. The woman has no ring on her finger, which may or may not mean anything. And it doesn’t tell whether the kids are hers or not.
Hell. She could just be the babysitter and both mom and dad are on their way home. If they are her kids, she must have had them young.
I’m aware teenage brides are many times subject to arranged marriages, so the question begs.
“Are the children yours?” I point down the hall to where the two have settled into quiet play together. She’s confused until I do it again and point to her as well.
She nods. I touch my ring finger. “Married?” I make sure to raise my eyebrows so she knows it’s a question.
She does not respond but there is a change in her eyes. They’ve become distant, the stillness in her indicating she’s gone to a faraway place. She gets up and walks to a cabinet. From inside she pulls out a framed picture. She stops and stares at it for a moment before handing it to me. A man in uniform, a little older than her, poses in front of an Iraqi flag. He’s expressionless, his uniform undecorated, without rank.
Probably a basic training photo. He has that deer-in-the-headlights look all privates get.
Eye contact with the woman tells me the reason for the thousand yard stare. She’s lost him to the war. And it seems she loved him, arranged marriage or not.
How could she even consider taking me in if he was a soldier killed by Americans?
She starts doing something with her hands, talking slowly and shaking her head in the negative. I can’t figure out what her gentle caressing motion means. She’s also making the shape of a rectangle with her hands, lowering the box, covering the box … Burying the box … The sadness. The shaking of the head.
I think I understand. She wasn’t able to perform the proper burial rituals adhered to by the Muslim faith. A mental image flashes of his body being ripped apart by some coalition bomb. Somehow I know that can’t be right though.
Wouldn’t that cause her to hate us all? It has to be something else.
His enlistment in the fledgling Iraqi army, coupled with her resistance toward the militants solidifies the idea they had something to do with it. It would explain her helping me.
Made an example out of him for joining I bet. And did something to the corpse that denies him proper burial. Because he is the infidel. That’s messed up, man.
Either way I’m saddened by her loss, and the kids’ loss of a father. I tell her I’m sorry and for once I’m glad there are no words for me to use. We’ve bonded through this somehow. I feel completely safe. For whatever reason this family feels no ill will toward me. This has ruptured my pre-established belief that all Iraqis hate us to the core, especially those who have lost loved ones from the war. I can’t help but feel a little more debt has been added to my side of the ledger though. The man probably would be here if we hadn’t unilaterally invaded from halfway around the world. Or even if we just had a better post-invasion plan.
Hiding out in big bases. Going out of the wire for missions like the one today. Then high tailing it back to the safety of the base and our air-conditioned barracks. Not to mention the morale tents with all the video games. I reckon someone will have to figure out a way to get our boys out there on the streets where the Iraqis can see us. Only then will we gain their trust. Enough for them to turn over the bad guys hiding among them. But right now … those barracks, my care package. They never sounded so good.
There is a powerful urge to just get up and run out the door.
Forget about cautious planning. I can blast my way back to the base if I have to. Never stop moving.
I know the urge is based in fear, which morphs into anger at myself for not paying attention when we drove into the city earlier. I have my map but it doesn’t tell me which routes back to the base are safer than others. That information is highly sensitive, continually changing, and pulled together by a whole staff of intelligence officers. I’m just an E-4 flapping in the wind, with no comms. And even if the woman knew where the bad guys were, she couldn’t tell me because of the language barrier.
I have to try though, so I spend the next minute orienting her to my map. Then, with one finger on our present location, I trace a wiggling path from the house to the base, located on the edge of the map. I raise my eyebrows, as well as my hands, as if to say: “I don’t have a freakin’ clue how to get back.”
I hadn’t realized it but the teenage kid has been watching from over my shoulder. He offers something that she agrees with because she’s nodding her head. He keeps talking while she keeps nodding, tracing a route on the map that takes a few turns, but is a fairly direct route to the city’s outskirts. I like what I’m hearing but she’s talking for almost a minute as she redraws the route for me, even stopping to tap a few places and make eye contact with me as she offers some important piece of information.
I have no idea what she’s saying, but I realize I’m nodding my head as if I do. I put up the stop sign to get her to quit talking. My message is clear: too much information. She nods and looks around the kitchen. Then she hops up and grabs some unused kebab skewers nearby. Two small pieces are broken off and carefully placed on the map, along the path of travel she’s indicated. I notice each location is a broad intersection on the map.
Now she makes her fingers into a gun shape and in a very girly way shoots them with a bang sound that makes us both chuckle. It feels good to break more ice. Even the kid is in on the joke. The moment is all the better because I understand. Those little sticks represent road blocks, obviously set up by the local militants. Her fingers draw a circuitous route around these obstacles that I’m meant to take. I use a pen on the table to mark the locations on the map.
I take a look at my watch. The last thing to figure out is the timing of it all. It’s now 2300 hours and I assume the middle of the night would be the best time to move around the city.
I tap my watch again so she can see. “When should I leave?”
The woman and the boy converse a little and she takes the pen from me. On the edge of the map she writes: 0200
Perfect. We’re on the same page.
All of a sudden the girl comes to the room carrying a bundle of clothes. We all focus on her as she makes her intentions known, albeit in Arabic. The woman and the boy laugh again. I can tell the woman is moved by something the girl has said, most likely the earnest intent of her helping me. It appears she’s been off procuring a suitable disguise for me to walk the streets in. The woman nods her approval as she lays out the Arab attire. Once again I’m grateful and thank the girl. These must be the dead husband’s clothes, I think. It’s strange to me that they will give them away so freely, and it draws more curiosity about the nature of his death, the conversations about us and them that followed.
Thinking about something other than my predicament makes me realize the weight of the unknown is lifting. I have a plan. I’ve been so hyper vigilant and focused I also realize I haven’t eaten all day. I retrieve the rest of the MRE from my pocket, but the woman moves to take the rations from me. She’s indicating she wants to make food for me. I haven’t eaten much local food, especially a home cooked meal, but will choke down this woman’s with a smile. No matter how bad it is.
Before that, she prepares some snacks for her kids. It appears I’ve kept them up past their bedtime with my arrival. It’s been over an hour since the militants were here. Things have settled down enough that it looks like the kids are being sent to bed. As they sit and eat some yogurt with dates she’s laid on top, my thoughts shift to how the time will pass for the next few hours. Surely she won’t leave me alone and go to bed. I assume she’ll stay awake until I leave. I entertain the idea of getting some shuteye, but think it will be impossible. Too amped up, and wary.
Suddenly, everyone in the room tenses. The knocking and yelling has begun again outside.
A wave of panic overtakes the three Iraqis, and I’m not exactly feeling calm anymore, but instead of going right into the room again I move toward the front of the house. I’m drawn toward the chaos as I push past the woman’s attempt to corral me. At the same window from which the girl first saw me, I peer through a crack in the shutters. It’s enough to discern what’s happening outside. Down the empty gangway, toward the wider alley, I see the man who had tossed his garbage near me earlier. It sends a hair-raising shot of adrenaline up my spine.
The man is talking to an armed militant while other fighters move freely up and down the alley rousting the locals. Just as I feel a measure of relief that nobody is in the gangway, a young militant does enter it and start to bang on the doors he finds. I have just enough time to get back down the hall before a louder knock is heard. I’m ushered into the dark closet again. Déjà vous occurs when I hear the same rustling of fabric from the wall hanging and then the table sliding in front of the closed door.
The knocking becomes banging and I hear the woman giving orders to the kids. They patter off to another room and she opens the door. I can tell because the noise from outside has become louder. I hear shouting and the sounds of feeble protest. More yelling outside. The locals are being pulled into the alley for questioning it sounds like. The male voice inside the house gives a directive and the front door shuts again. She’s been taken into the street like the others presumably. Then the banging on doors and the general chaos end. They are replaced by a single male voice, deep and threatening. The man is lecturing the locals by the sound of it.
After a few minutes the diatribe is over. I wait as more minutes pass. I hear the front door open again. There is the woman’s voice. Then another.
It’s the same deep voice I heard outside, but he’s just talking. It’s stern talk though. They’re moving down the hall having a terse conversation. Out of instinct I touch the door knob. I have no memory of it being locked this time, so I turn the knob a hair to see. It’s unlocked.
The man’s voice changes now. Lower still, and slower. Almost pleading. This surprises me, creasing my brow with concern. Something is changing. She starts to repeat the only Arabic word I’ve been taught to say when we haven’t any candy left for the kids we meet on patrol.
“La … La.” (No. No.)
Now the pleading increases, his tone becoming insistent, curt. To my utter disbelief, I realize he must be making advances upon her. Now I hear the teenage boy speaking. He’s pleading too, but for a different reason, no doubt. He’s yelled at. I’m nervous of the attention the whole thing is drawing, because I assume there are other militants in the house or just outside. Part of me wants her to just take what’s coming so the man will leave. The red blooded American in me though won’t accept that and I know it.
And I have that debt to pay.
There’s a slap, a commotion, and then the kind of grunts that come from repeated body punches. The table must have been jarred because the door moves. I grip the handle tightly, my pulse a runaway train for probably the tenth time tonight. He’s raping her and I’m standing in here frozen. Seconds feel like hours to me, my self-judgment torture. I’ve been fearful of action, fearful of killing, fearful of capture tonight. But in a matter of seconds all my fear boils off. What’s left is my pent up rage that consumes me and is directed at the faceless voice outside the door.
I turn the knob and put all my weight into the door. The first push makes a hell of a racket, sliding the table back. The second one sends it on its side, the edge falling on the man’s leg. He’s got the woman down on the floor. I see her traumatized face as I rush out of the dark room into the light, my target the stunned Iraqi. He’s been hobbled by the weight of the table so he’s off balance when I execute a textbook tackle, wrapping him up and taking him to the floor. I bounce to my knees, straddling him now. The blows to his face are rapid but forceful to slow his reflexes. I’ve also caught the rapist, literally in his most vulnerable moment—with his pants down as he was trying to force intercourse. The woman is already scrambling away, pulling up her own clothing. The kid is on the floor, unconscious. I pull out my combat knife with one hand and deliver a stiff forearm to the offender’s chin with the other. His dazed sluggishness resembles a caught fish that’s been whacked against the side of a boat. Then the knife goes to his fleshy throat.
“I don’t care if you understand me or not, but you move, you bleed out right here. Get up!”
With the blade pressed firmly I get to my feet and pull him up by the shirt. He’s wobbly but I feel strength in him. If he gathers it again I could have a tougher second round. I push him down on a chair and the woman produces a roll of duct tape, which she wraps around his head a few times. Then she uses the rest of the roll on his body and bare, hairy legs.
“Screw him,” I say. “Go ahead and wrap his balls with that stuff.” I know she can’t understand but it feels could to vocalize the thought. He gets a little louder and I whack him upside the head.
“Knock it off,” I say, my voice trembling from all the action. “You picked the wrong freakin’ house so now you suffer.”
By now he’s immobile. I pull the knife back, wiping beads of anxious sweat from my brow, then sheath the knife. I rub my banged up knuckles. They look no different than after any fight in high school, the few of them that I had. Those fights seem like kid’s play now. This one could have been to the death if I hadn’t caught him off guard. Death. The thought is before me. I recognize that I may have to kill this man.
By now the little girl has entered the room and sits by her brother’s side. The woman gathers herself, moving toward her son as well. We all look to one another, desperate allies. She says soft comforting words to them and I look off, pardoning her from the shame I sense filling her. It’s not clear to me if he succeeded, but the fear, the domination, they will persist I’m sure.
Her kids knowing, seeing. This after they lose their father. What a mess. What an asshole.
I’m disgusted by the man in the chair. She’s looking at him too. But the look on her face is not disgust. It’s still fear. She stands up and points at him.
“Mou … stafa.”
Now I’m the one who is stunned. If true, we can expect his guards who are probably waiting outside. Somehow I know that isn’t right though. We made enough noise that they would have come by now.
Unless he came alone.
My mind races, formulating a plan even if the details are not fully in place yet. I have to confirm something.
“Is he alone?” I’m too frazzled to think, drawing a blank on a way to get my question answered with a gesture of some kind.
She shakes her head in confusion. I forego another attempt and rush to the front door. I’m not sure if it’s firm belief in my assumption or simple desperation to know the truth, but I fling the door open to the outside. No one is there.
Moustafa had made his speech, sent everyone back inside, sufficiently terrorized, then dispatched his men elsewhere. All so he could come here and have his way with a single mother. Maybe he’s been here before and that’s the reason for her actions. Once back in the kitchen, I drag Moustafa’s chair into the dark room. He’s protesting quite a bit now but cannot speak and is well bound, so I don’t even care. I close the door and the woman reassembles the table and wall hanging, locking the door again.
When she looks at me I say, “I’m leaving now, but we’ll come back for him.” I hold both hands up, palms facing the door. “Keep him there until I return.” I touch her arm, being gentle on my mind. “Do you understand?”
She looks at me blankly but there is no protest to what I’ve done so far. I’ve estimated it will take several hours to get back to the base and give my superiors a situation report. But then they’ll be here faster than shit to retrieve their prize.
“In three hours, okay?” I say, touching the watch and counting out three fingers.
She barely nods and I’m not at all convinced she will follow my lead. After all, the man tried to rape her and knocked her kid around. She may just end his life. I decide that would serve the same purpose as my plan, which is to spare this family from reprisal violence from him. Any way you slice it, it’s time to get moving. If we get back here and she’s carved him up, at least we’ll have positive i.d. I go to the girl one last time.
“Thank you again little one.” I pick up the Arab attire and put on the most helpless look I can muster, a playful look that the woman sees. “Will you help me?” As I stand there putting loose pantaloons over my BDU trousers, and a tunic over my shirt, I can tell the woman is rallying a little. She’s caring over the boy now, outside her head more.
I’m handed a bottle of water for the road. I’m so thirsty though that I chug it on the spot, and hold out my hand for another. The girl runs to the fridge. We bond one more time with a shared, tired chuckle. Such a small thing, laughter. But strong like glue. I suddenly feel overwhelmed with emotion, go closer to the woman and the boy, who is sitting up now, his back against the wall. I point at him and clasp his hand in a brotherly grip, like I would a guy in the platoon. “You did good, my man. Very brave.” He beams a little from the praise. The woman musses his hair, obviously proud of him for his protective instincts. I gather the little girl in with an outstretched arm. They are all looking at me and I thank them each again. They touch my shoulders, my arm.
I tap my watch again and put up three fingers. “In three hours.”
With my weapon slung underneath the loose-fitting tunic, and the map handy, I push through the door into the night, down the gangway to the edge of the alley. It’s almost 0200 and there is nobody out now. I glance back at the door. The girl is leaning out, looking very tired, but possessing that same brightness in her eyes I first saw at the window. She waves. I blow her a kiss and she giggles. I raise my finger to my lips in the “Hush” signal. She mimics it, then ducks her head back in the door. It’s only me and the rats out here now. I welcome the darkness as I walk swiftly along the narrow stretch of pavement between the buildings and the street. Just as I become accustomed to my anonymity, I’m suddenly caught in bright light.
A motion detector. Shit.
Moving through the area flooded with cool LED light I try to act as unaffected as possible, remembering I am in disguise. Once in the darkness again, I look at my watch. I’ve been on foot for forty minutes. I should be coming upon the first makeshift checkpoint set up by the militants. Soon I can hear voices on the other side of the buildings. I also hear vehicles idling. It must be them. A gangway is nearby that passes between buildings. It’s possible I could get a closer look at the checkpoint, but I decide against it, choosing speed and distance between me and them. Ten minutes later I come upon the second checkpoint.
This time my route is interrupted by another larger street. The checkpoint is half a block down it, and in order to continue on the safer path I must cross the road in view of the militants. If they see me and call me over I’m done. I count down from ten, then wait a few seconds more to get my nerve up. Emerging from the darkness into the well-lit street feels like taking the stage on opening night. My heart rate jumps. My palms are sweaty. I’m doing everything I can to not break into a sprint for the unassuming side street across the way.
This walk feels like a rickety rope bridge spanning a chasm, either end more desirable for its firm ground. I feel the first strands snap under my feet as my peripheral vision—I don’t dare look in their direction—tells me one of the fighters is walking toward me. Thirty meters to go. The man is saying something. I offer a nod of acknowledgment but nothing more. To the Heavens above I shoot another of those arrow prayers.
The armed Iraqi beckons once again, increasing my nervousness. Then I hear noises near one of the vehicles at the checkpoint. It draws the attention of the man approaching me. Out of reflex I turn as well. Iraqis in street clothes with AK’s are moving toward a civilian with his arms up. Then he reaches down and pulls apart the lapels of his blazer. Suddenly, the militants spin around and rush away from the man. I know what this is so I dash for cover behind a parked service van, not ten meters from the opening to the side street.
The blast is behind me, sending me sideways into the pliable aluminum skin of the van. My body crumples and I fall to the ground. I look toward the expanding smoke and debris cloud. It engulfs the Iraqi who had been between the suicide bomber and myself. The militant’s curiosity in me saved his life. Everyone else within twenty-five meters of the bomber had been cut down, no doubt by hundreds of nails and ball bearings layered onto the explosive vest.
I may have a concussion, and my ears are ringing like hell, but I also have just been given the biggest diversion I could possibly hope for. I wonder if that was a prayer answered. I can’t imagine it would happen that way though. But who knows?
I’m just glad it provided the necessary distraction at the right time.
I thank Him just in case and continue down the narrow alley lined with squat mud brick homes, typical of Ramadi’s old quarter. Barking dogs punctuate the still of the night. The occasional car squeezes past me. Faces close up make me nervous, but nobody stops me. My luck runs out a minute later when I approach a caged dog. I can’t tell what kind of breed it is as I pad quietly past the curled up, sleeping animal. I’m amazed when one of its pudgy eyes rolls lazily open—just one! And it’s only half open. The dog is sleepy and I keep moving. I feel like Obi-Wan Kenobi pulling a Jedi mind trick. The force is with me apparently.
Or another miracle …
The thought seems to propel me with a new confidence that I am meant to get back safely. I’m making good time now according to the map. I’ve run out of shadowy alley though; a more modern section of Ramadi becomes the area I must traverse. By the time I find myself walking on the outskirts of the city a couple of hours later, the encroaching light of dawn pales the eastern sky. More vehicles are out and about. Pedestrians as well. The body length dish dash I’m wearing has a hood that I’ve covered my Caucasian features with so far. I pull it further out over my face. Strangely, as more people and vehicles fill the streets, I find my level of anonymity increases, as long as I keep my head down.
Thirty minutes later, when I’m two hundred meters from the front gate, I ditch the Arab clothing in a garbage pile. With the weapon held over my head, I walk out into the street so the MP’s on duty can clearly see me. Once I’ve got their attention, I call out the correct passwords, which I know will have rolled overnight. The final steps up to the gate are filled with grateful praise for my safe passage.
The moon is up again after my longest day in country so far. As the silvery ball casts its half-light across the desert, I know the restive nation will be active tonight. There’s danger out there, but not here. Tonight. I rest. I’ve been given a week of down time. No missions. I’ve been backslapped and ribbed at once by my brothers-in-arms. But I saw the guilt on every one of their faces for leaving me behind. I let them off easy, mostly because of the hero treatment I received after they went out and grabbed Moustafa, alive, if not a little more bloodied than how I left him.
I’ve found a quiet place up in one of the abandoned watch towers, made that way when the base perimeter expanded. I have my box and my beer the lieutenant got me—that means the good stuff, and sanctioned. I’ve just cracked open my second one. It tastes so damn good. So American. I savor slicing the tape across the top of the box with my knife. The first thing I see is summer sausage wrapped in plastic. Of all the things I imagined in the box over the last twelve hours, summer sausage never came up. Nonetheless, I will be devouring it in a matter of minutes.
The glossy sheen of hand-painted ceramic catches my eye next. This I did expect. Sis has been taking a pottery class for the last couple of months. I carefully remove the newspaper— classifieds from the local paper back home. It’s a ceramic football helmet with my Sooners colors and logo. Instead of uncorking the latent rage that I’d previously imagined, I hold it close to me and lower my head. I let the lump form in my throat. I let the tears flow. I’m so grateful for the peace that descended on that house in Ramadi, and in me when I needed it.
John Melton served as an infantryman in the U.S. Army between 1992-1996, and feels fortunate to have split his enlistment at peacetime duty stations in Savannah, Georgia and Hawaii. He is a home services consultant with a Master’s degree in Architecture from the University of Illinois-Chicago, currently residing in Illinois.