This is a series I had started on my buddy Phil. He was killed in Iraq, 10 years ago. We have driven halfway from Kuwait to our destination of Tikrit, Iraq. We are about to enter Baghdad.
How Did I Get Here?
Baghdad, February 1, 2005– I made a Faustian bargain to go to war. I volunteered to deploy as an active-duty augmentee to a National Guard unit.
The Headquarters, 42nd Infantry Division, New York Army National Guard was a great unit. It fought with distinction in both world wars and was among the first responders of 9/11.
When I reported in to the unit in the summer of 2004, it was light years from where I wanted to be. If I controlled my fate, I’d be blazing across the Iraqi desert atop an Infantry Fighting Vehicle, raining hate and discontent on Islamic insurgents near some unpronounceable village.
I would be wearing the Combat Infantryman’s Badge that I earned leading my company to glory, while defending America from evil. I’d be smiling from ear to ear like a kid who just scored a date with the prom queen.
Instead, I was assigned to a National Guard Division Staff. One of a dozen Captains assigned the boring job of studying maps, making coffee and useless PowerPoint Slides. I was bored to death, until now.
The unit was mostly made up of cops and firemen of New York City. We had a healthy mix of mechanics, teachers, and even a few lawyers in the mix. Like most Guard units they came from every walk of life. Phil was a Wall Street stockbroker from a working middle-class neighborhood.
They had seen a lot and done a lot since the war started.
Most of the men were in their late 30’s to early 40’s and had 20 years or more in the National Guard. Most were Irish, Italian, Black and Puerto Rican or a mix of all four.
With receding hairlines and a little overweight, it seemed more like a class reunion of over the hill football jocks than a unit at war, I fit right it.
The distinct New York City accent filled the air with sharp edges and lots of “Fuhgeddaboudits” first thing in the morning as we got the vehicles ready. It felt like “The Sopranos” in Iraq.
They were direct, opinionated and confident. They talked a lot and loudly. They were streetwise, kind and self-aware. They came to Iraq to do a job.
Now the job required us to drive north. We were about to roll into the once forbidden city of Baghdad, the center of the war.
The 3/7 CAV commander was a slender, soft-spoken man with a sharp New England accent. With his retreating black hairline and clipped phrases where he forgot his “r’s” he seemed more like an academic than a military commander.
He and Phil were pouring over a military map that took up half the hood of a Humvee. It laid underneath a plastic lamination cover held to a large clipboard with alligator clips.
It looked like a four year old’s painting gone bad with lines and scribble marks in different colors. The map has no civilian markings, no neighborhoods, and no exit signs just numbers and grid squares.
The Lieutenant Colonel had been here before, two years ago. In 2003, he had been a major blazing away in a tank on the 3rd Infantry Division’s famed “Thunder Run” to capture Baghdad. He remembered the route into the city.
We planned on cutting through the southwest corner of Baghdad.
He points to a jumble of twisting overpasses and off-ramps on Baghdad’s western border. He says, “Here, at this Spaghetti Junction,” pointing to the center of the maze with his pen, “this will be where we head east and you head north.”
Phil agreed and said to roll in 30 minutes.
It was 3:30am. We were 30 miles south of Baghdad and about to get our war on.
The black night sky gave way to the harsh glare of the desert sun as dawn approached. In a vast desert landscape Baghdad was an oasis of flowing rivers and green trees. We were back in civilization.
The training wheels had come off. We were on the edge of one the largest cities in the Middle East.
Baghdad was a world unto itself as it began to wake-up. It was a relentless visual blitz of new sights, sounds, and smells all competing for your attention. The city was coming alive with the activity of a new day, call of pre-dawn prayers and vendors opening shops.
It was a spectacular mix of sounds, eye-popping new sights and cringing smells.
We past blue Arabic signs with white English writing on the bottom. The pungent smell of the dead hung low mixed with the sick, sweet odor of burning garbage. You could taste, burning plastic.
The men wear colorful head dresses of red and white wrapped across their faces, it can’t keep out the smell. We see families digging through piles of rubble and debris.
On the edge of the city we pass, low-built clay houses. In the pre-dawn light kids are carrying buckets of water and the houses are dark, so they have no running water and no electricity.
The remains of a dead loved one are placed in a pink floral comforter and carried off down the road. Kids play with makeshift toys made from cans and leftover items from trash on the side of the road.
A bulldozer beeps in the distance.
Suddenly there is a loud explosion in the southbound lane. A parked small car the size of a Toyota Corolla bursts into flames. A fireball erupts, sending a big cloud of black smoke billowing into the sky.
Our convoy slows from 40 mph to 20 mph as we maneuver around a collision barrier. The steady chatter on the radio grows frantic and speeds up. Instantly there is a loud burst of machine gun fire. It’s all training and adrenaline as we react.
The sounds of combat are like industrial sound effects. Reviving of engines and loud unexpected noises. The only constant sound is the rat-a-tat beat of machine gun fire resembling a metal press and men yelling over chaos.
We have no casualties. Phil’s calm voice on the radio urging everyone to push past the burning car.
This was war in living color. A blur of suspicious eyes, push broom mustaches and upraised hands, screaming in Arabic while drinking steaming cups of tea. We pass them quickly, shocked looks cross their faces.
Cars in the southbound lane screeched to a halt or drove onto the shoulder and abruptly stop. Iraqi cars are leaking fuel, spread a trail of liquid following them as they drive down the road hurrying to escape the confusion. This is nothing new for them.
We pull over to the side of the round half a mile away from the explosion. Gunfire has died down, shots released in pent up rage and fear.
At the head of the column Phil hears from me and the other serial commander that we have no casualties or damage to our trucks. I am still pinned to my seat. The explosion was less than a minute ago, but it seems much longer. So much has happened, so much has changed.
A Blackhawk helicopter flies over and we hear another, smaller explosion in the distance. I look around where we pulled over, I see more clay houses. Squat, one story buildings with beige walls. Shards of broken glass at the base of the buildings from blown out windows.
There are flip-flops, shreds of clothes, broken clay blocks, and pieces of twisted metal caked with dirt. Explosions are nothing new for this small corner of the war in Iraq.
In the courtyard I see black flags and light brown colored walls with groves of date palms and thick underbrush but no people. I am trying to slow my breathing.
Welcome to Baghdad
A complicated, academic argument of why we’re in Iraq has is reduced to the mind numbing terror of survival.
Without excitement each day of a deployment is an eternity. I got what I wanted- the high octane mix of adrenaline, excitement and ceaseless action and now I want to go home. I am scared witless with no idea what to do.
All thoughts of a brave, calm response left my brain and body with the confusion and noise of the explosion. I am deeply ashamed at my lack of courage. I remind myself I have a job to do. Thank God, no one was hurt.
I assure myself, it will be different next time. The only difference will be the size of the explosion and the country. My cowardly response is always the same.
Not for the first time I think, “What I am doing here? This is not the place I should be.” This is a constant mantra throughout my military career.
The blinding, white heat of the sun just popped over the horizon. The sun is so bright it makes the grass yellow. This experience, although small and unromantic, had seared itself into my brain. We rally and continue to drive north.
“Welcome to Baghdad,” I thought.