No joke, there I was – knee-deep in hand grenade pins…
Just kidding, this isn’t an action story – no hand grenade pins. This is something else. If you thought 2020 was weird, let me tell you how we started 2006 in Iraq. Names have been removed from this story to allow for plausible deniability. Concurrent events have been cut to get this short story to a 5 minute read.
I was a young lieutenant, just beginning a yearlong deployment as the infantry platoon leader attached to an armor company. We were just south of where Baghdad’s urban sprawl turns into an agricultural area. The chief crop must have been explosives because that stuff was everywhere. If you put a shovel in the ground, it was likely you would find something that goes boom. The unit we were replacing, along with the Iraqi Police and Army, avoided the area as a matter of policy.
My Humvee was rocked by an IED on our first attempt to change that policy. The concussion popped the lenses out of the gunner’s sunglasses, but otherwise, we were fine. The next day we made it a little further before another IED exploded a fraction of a second behind my Humvee. We were lucky again and suffered nothing more than a mild headache and pavement rain, but it went on like that until the higher-ups decided we would need a permanent presence in the area.
A lovely piece of real estate known as “the Island” was the obvious choice. On the bank of the Euphrates and surrounded by an extra-wide irrigation canal, the Island was, according to Intel, a terrorist stronghold.
The battalion plan was simple. The infantrymen from Alpha company would clear the island from south to north while our tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles held the adjacent road. My piece was to gain another foothold further north on the Island and hold it as a collection point for casualties and prisoners. For the task, I had a 9-man infantry squad, a 3 man sniper team, and the gunner and driver of my Bradley. They were on foot with me because the armored vehicle was destroyed a few days earlier. (As I may have mentioned, the operating environment was suboptimal)
So that’s where this story takes place.
It was a cold day for Iraq, in the low 40s. One of those days where the sky can’t decide whether to rain or not - just randomly loosing little blips of rainfall. Not enough to justify wearing rain gear, but enough that you end up damp after a few hours. You get just wet enough that, when the sun goes down, it starts to leech away your body heat. That part of the day was nearly upon us when we saw a lone figure strolling down the dirt road toward us. It was an Iraqi man in his 40s wearing a simple dishdashi and carrying a single plastic grocery bag.
Have you ever met someone who made you instantly uncomfortable? Just being near them somehow feels wrong? I had that feeling before we came face to face. As he came closer, I could make out a huge curved scar across his head from hairline to crown. The poor guy had endured some pretty serious brain surgery at some point. We searched him, but he had nothing except his plastic bag. The contents were just a few cuts of meat – he must have been on his way home to make dinner when he ran into us. Through our interpreter, he answered questions with one or two-word statements in Arabic. We explained why we were there and that we’d need to detain him until our operation was complete. He seemed completely unconcerned and went willingly into the house we were using as a collection point.
By the time darkness had completely fallen, it became obvious that the Island was what is referred to as a “dry hole,” - meaning not the terrorist stronghold we were expecting. The man in my custody was the only person found in the area. Nobody was home, not even the typical loose livestock wandering around. I had gotten word to hold our lone detainee until a “Tactical Human-intelligence Team” (THT) was on site.
The Island had been cleared thoroughly enough to be sure there wasn’t an enemy barracks here, but it still wasn’t exactly secure. We planned to remain on the Island overnight and begin a more thorough clearing in the morning. Since we were just under half a mile from our support, I made everybody stick to night vision and red “tactical” light as needed.
I had left my gunner, with my interpreter and our detainee, in the house while I worked out a security plan with the squad. The house had no furnishings of any sort, dirt floors, and mud-streaked walls. A sharp metal hook hung in the middle of the room where I left them.
When we finished setting our security and I came back to the room, I got that “bad place to be” vibe immediately. My gunner didn’t say anything (because he is a total professional), but I could tell he was extra uncomfortable about something. His eyes were just a little too wide as he held the red beam of his flashlight on our prisoner. The man was squatting in the corner, rocking back and forth and talking to himself. When I turned to ask our interpreter what he was saying, I noticed the interpreter’s face held the same creeped-out expression as my gunner. “Those aren’t words…” he said, searching for the right way to explain. “Is like is all the tongues.”
Great. A mental patient with a brain surgery scar? Check.
A dark room with a single red flashlight? Check.
Metal hook hanging from the ceiling? Check.
Sure, let’s add “speaking in tongues” to the mix.
Before I could arrive at the correct way to de-escalate what was happening in this room (tell my gunner he could just use white light while inside the house), my squad leader poked his head in the door and asked me to come to see something. So, I abandoned my gunner and went off to fail yet another leadership test.
As my squad leader led the way, he briefed me on the security plan to assure me all tasks had been accomplished. He wanted to show me an old burn barrel they had found. Somehow, they had even already found some dry wood to burn.
I went through ranger school in the winter and I have maintained a deep love of warming fires ever since. So I easily relented and approved the fire with the condition that no more than 2 soldiers gather there at any given time. I then wandered off to check our guard posts before heading back indoors to check on my long-suffering gunner.
By the time I returned, I had developed a kind of sick amusement by just how incredibly creepy the situation in the house had gotten. It really was like walking into a horror movie. So I did not bring up the switching to white lights thing. I did tell my gunner about the fire and that once it got going, he would be able to rotate out of his horror story post.
It wasn’t long before the second part of my squad leader’s plan was revealed. The men had also found a metal grilling grate that fit over the top of the barrel. They didn’t just want a warming barrel - they wanted hot chow. I did feel bad for the poor guy we were detaining. The dinner he was carrying home would now spoil while he politely tolerated more interrogation. My guys wanted to offer to buy the meat from him so they could cook it on their new grill. Our unlucky detainee would at least get a few bucks out of his unfortunate experience with us, and the guys would get to eat something other than MREs – win-win.
It was a bad idea, I know. I should have told my guys we didn’t need to risk getting a parasite. But getting rocked by explosions every few days tends to skew your concept of acceptable risk. I once again relented. The guys gathered some money and paid the man twice what he asked for his dinner. They gave the man an MRE and started to cook the small cuts of meat outside on the improvised grill as they rotated through guard posts.
There was debate about what the meat actually was. Every time I checked in, I could hear the men discussing it. Pork was ruled out because Iraq is a predominately Muslim country, and every red-blooded American knows the taste of beef. Lamb made more sense, but at least one soldier was convinced the meat was Camel. Another insisted the meat was Goat. He claimed he had Goat on his last deployment, and this was definitely Goat.
Eventually, the THT team showed up, and I escorted our new friend back to the road for his next round of interrogations. When I got back to my guys on the Island, I went into the house first. They had switched to white light when indoors, but several of the muddy streaks on the walls still held a crimson hue. I went to go check my guard posts and found several soldiers gathered around the warming fire.
“Hey, I said no more than two at a time” I reprimanded them as I walked up.
“They got to the bottom of the bag, sir” replied my squad leader as he pointed to the grill.
Lying there in the middle of that old metal grate, bathed in the red light of the flames below, was a …
Author Notes: Upset about being denied an ending? We are coming up on 20 years since the attacks of 9/11. When it comes to war, satisfying endings are never guaranteed. The things you do in pursuit of an ending don’t feel entirely voluntary, either. That is a special kind of irritating. That is what it feels like to be Global War on Terror veteran.
But if it genuinely bothers you, find a copy of PTSDragon and look at the first sentence. These letters spell out your answer. 12th, 6th, 24th, 13th, 8th, 23rd, 13th, 16th.