Stories From the Sand

Baghdad—September 2006

I don’t know if it was the inexperienced staff sergeant (SSG) leading the patrol, or some supernatural premonition, but somehow I knew the patrol was going to get hit. Personally, I think it was the fact that we were about to reconnoiter an abandoned two-story residence for an observation post (OP) that we’d already used on at least two separate occasions, the last of which the OP was compromised by enemy insurgents. Despite my vehement protests against such a stupid and dangerous mission, someone at a higher pay grade than me was determined for us to use that building. I never got a straight answer as to why.

It was a miracle no one got shot that day.

Another week and I’d be back in the States on leave, visiting with my family, smoking a fatty, and drinking a cold beer. Four more months and my second year-long tour in Iraq would be finished and we would all be back in the States. Hopefully. I’d chosen to go on R&R late in the deployment so that I would maximize the amount of suck that I had to endure in Iraq, and in turn, my leave would feel extra relaxing. The more you miss something, the better it feels when you have it.

All I had to do was survive one more week.

My unit went on twice as many patrols as any other unit in the squadron, sometimes three or four times. Between reconnoitering previously compromised OP’s and patrolling a three-hundred-meter strip of frontage road for four hours like circus targets, it was no wonder why we all felt like we were being used as fodder to fill the pages of another glorious war story.

I didn’t even know why we were still in Iraq. The question repeated at the beginning, during, and at the end of every patrol. There was no overarching goal like there was in the World Wars. We weren’t trying to prevent some fantastical political STD from spreading to other countries as we’d claimed in Vietnam. We were told we’d been sent to Iraq to find weapons of mass destruction and capture Saddam Hussein. Well, there were no WMD’s and we captured Hussein (I know because I had participated on that mission), established a new government, and yet we were still in Iraq.  So…what was a unit of Army scouts doing in Baghdad if for no other reason than to become statistics?

That question was emphasized by the other crews I saw, waiting to go on patrol with me. SSG McCraw looked like an ugly version of Earnest P. Worrell, but with fewer teeth and an IQ that would make a squirrel feel like Nikola Tesla. McCraw’s entire military career had been spent in various headquarters units, filling out paperwork and fetching coffee. He was proof that the Army would promote anyone. Apparently McCraw had pissed off some higher-up with his brazen ineptitude, so the oxygen thief was passed down to us as he had with all of his previous jobs. Politics…

SSG Brown was the patrol leader and an eternal jokester. He was a good friend, fun to be around, and well-liked. Sure, he could piss you off at times, especially when you were trying to be serious, but there was definitely something to be said about his ability to draw a laugh in the face of death. He was a great soldier and turned out to be a stellar leader, but at the time of this patrol, his ability to lead soldiers into combat was limited. He simply hadn’t been given the chance until now. Combat in one of the more dangerous areas in Baghdad didn’t seem like the best place to break one’s teeth on leading a patrol.

My crew was tight. We weren’t the cleanest, most well-kept group of scouts. I understood the purpose of garrison mentality—to instill order and discipline in every aspect of life—but we weren’t in garrison. We were in combat. We were realizing the product of our discipline, training, and the purpose of our existence. I didn’t care if my men put their hands in their pockets, if they didn’t shave every day, or if they were overdue for a haircut. I cared about performance. I cared that they were well-trained, our HMMWV was reliable, we were well-supplied, and our weapons were clean and functional. I also made sure my crew had as much downtime as they could get; we patrolled so often, and at such varying intervals, that the thought of a sleep schedule was laughable. A lot of the other sergeants didn’t appreciate my mode of leadership because they thought it too lackadaisical for their taste. I didn’t give a shit. We were at war. I needed my crew’s morale high and senses acute since our chain of command leeched away every speckle of motivation they could get.

My driver, Tom Elliott, looked like a 6’5” Viking baby, with rosy cheeks and flaming red hair. He’d arrived in Iraq straight out of basic training, and was immediately assigned as my driver. We were hit with I.E.D.’s during Tom’s first three patrols—thankfully no one was injured—and I earned my Purple Heart during our fourth. That day Tom earned an Army Commendation Medal with V device for charging into enemy fire to save our medic who had been shot in the back. The fucking chain of command (starting with the platoon sergeant and lieutenant) had asked me to throw away the paperwork over something totally unrelated. I told them to go fuck themselves. Tom had been a real hero that day.

I had a new gunner after I’d fired my previous. Unlike Tom, this guy hid like a coward when the bullets came. Not a single shot returned. I didn’t blame him for hiding in the HMMWV instead of engaging the targets—we never know how we’re going to react in a situation like that—but I sure as hell wasn’t going to have him on my truck! My new gunner was Pearce. He always said that his family could have been on the Maury Povich Show. He never really said exactly how, but hints of father-uncle, sister-mom, and the like leaked into conversations. He was a really cool guy, and funny as hell, and he wasn’t afraid of the suck. He was just the type of gunner I wanted on my vehicle.

On the morning of Brown’s patrol, Tom and Pearce greeted me at the staging area. The HMMWV was stocked with water, ammo, and MRE’s, the radios were filled with the correct encryptions, and the appropriate maps were loaded into the FBCB2. I asked Brown if anyone else was coming along, and he shook his head. He deservedly seemed very nervous about the mission. It was his first time leading a patrol, McCraw was actually in charge of a vehicle instead of fetching coffee like he should have been, and there was an extremely high probability that our objective was already compromised. The Brown joked and chuckled uncomfortably about the mission, offering light-hearted portents of their demise. He was trying too hard to seem casual and confident. He pulled me aside and confessed that he had no idea what he was doing, but for the record, I think that was a combination of nerves and humility speaking.

Brown looked over my shoulder at McCraw, then shook his head. “I need your help, Eyler,” he told me, fear and uncertainty tainting his speech.

I clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, Brown. You know I got your back. You just get us to the objective.” I cast my gaze to McCraw and felt my anger start to roil. He was already in his truck, as goofy and out of place as a fish on Arrakis. Nothing on him seemed to fit right as if he almost understood how to dress. I hated the danger his incompetence posed to the men. “I’ll make sure we get home.”

When McCraw saw that we were looking at him, he put on his war face (too pathetic even to laugh at), and shambled over. He nodded to each of us in turn.

I shook my head.

“Look, SSG Eyler,” McCraw said from his seat, “I know you don’t like me, but—”

“I’m glad we understand one another,” I said, cutting him off.

“Come on, man,” McCraw said, with a face filled with stupid.

“You’ve sat at a desk, fetching coffee your entire career,” I said. “You’ve been in the Army for eighteen years and only got your E-6 because you blew the right people. You don’t know the first thing about being a scout, you think reconnaissance is a time period, you’ve never done the job you signed up for, and now you think you can just jump in on a patrol.”

“It’s not my fault—”

“Not your fault that no line units would take you?” I said. “That’s bullshit. You chose not to avoid your skillset. You skirted through eighteen years in the comforts of admin, and now you want to do your job? Just stay the fuck away from me and my men,” I growled with a knife-hand. “Got it?”

“Fine,” McCraw mumbled, taking a hesitant step back.

“Get the fuck back in your truck,” I said.

McCraw grumbled his way back to his vehicle.

Brown chuckled and shook his head. “Tell me how you really feel, Eyler.”

I told Brown to stay safe, and he offered an off-handed joke in response. When I got into my HMMWV I told my crew to be on extra high alert. They looked at me like I’d told them water was wet.

“Here we go,” I said, as Brown’s truck pulled forward.

The patrol started like all the other hundreds I’d been on—heat that permeated the soul, children playing in the streets, women in hijabs (most of them in black from head to toe, mourning the death of a loved one), groups of men sharing a hooka in front of their house while their wives cooked, cleaned, and tilled the fields. Iraq had a peculiar smell. The inviting aroma of incense and local cuisine collided with unfettered exhaust, trash, and rivulets of sewage. And the dust…as ubiquitous as the heat, pushing ‘un-permeable’ to new boundaries. So-called Toughbooks, sealed packages, and containers—nothing was safe from the dust.

Brown radioed to tell me that we were headed straight to the OP to get that part of the mission out of the way, then we would meander through the streets. I replied that we shouldn’t even be going to that location in the first place and that we should perform a thorough reconnoiter of the area before we even thought of moving into position.

Complacency won that day.

The location was just north of Route Cedar (Airport Street), and a couple blocks east of the airport, on the corner of a main thoroughfare and side street. A few weeks earlier (no more than a month), another squad had been compromised at the exact same location. A knot grew in my stomach as I recalled the details of that day. Two insurgents had been killed, one had escaped. He knew the location of the OP, why were we going back?

“For the record,” I called over the radio, “I do not approve of this mission. This is stupid.”

“Noted,” Brown replied.

After taking a pathetic excuse of an indirect route, we parked the vehicles twenty meters east of the OP. It was in a nicer neighborhood of Baghdad. The houses were built side-by-side, with no space between them, and weren’t left half-finished, with exposed brick and mortar on the outside. The security walls that surrounded the properties were topped with iron spikes instead of broken glass, and the street was clear of trash and debris. 

The street was empty, but that wasn’t too uncommon in a blazing September afternoon. There weren’t any immediate signs of IEDs—no boxes, trash piles, recently repaired sections of curbing or asphalt. I reiterated for my crew to stay alert and then stepped out of the vehicle with Tom. I looked back and saw McCraw still huddled in his seat.

“Fucking pathetic little coward,” I mumbled, adjusting my M4 as I scanned the area. “At least he won’t get in the way.”

Tom shook his head with open disgust. “Proof that you can polish a turd.”

Brown and his dismount were already standing by the door, their stance casual and annoyed as if this was just another training mission.

“It’s locked,” Brown said.

“I got this,” Tom said, slapping a pry bar against his hand.

Shots form AK’s popped in the air, halting Tom mid-swing. On the rooftops of one of the houses were three insurgents, shooting down at the patrol. I moved toward the insurgents, taking cover behind the property wall. Pearce and Brown’s gunner had engaged the insurgents with their M-4’s, while McCraw’s gunner was shouting at McCraw as he cowered in his seat.

“Shoot, damn it!” I yelled at McCraw’s gunner as I fired my weapon. Brown walked in front of me as I was suppressing the targets. I grabbed him by the collar of his body armor and shoved him against the wall. “What the fuck are you doing? Shoot!” His eyes were blank, his movements jerky and uncertain. He was in shock. His dismount huddled next to him, shaking.

“Well, shit,” I cursed, taking a quick glance at the situation. McCraw was still cowered in his truck, while his gunner took hesitant shots at the insurgents. Pearce and Tom were taking aim, firing whenever they saw a form pop over the wall. I shook Brown, then pointed at the insurgents. “Shoot them, goddammit!”

I pushed away from the wall and fired three more rounds. A pop sounded next to me, then another and another. Brown and his dismount had finally awoken from their stupor and were engaging the targets with Tom.

“They’ve moved!” I yelled, getting into position at the house gate. “Stack!”

Brown moved behind me, tapping my shoulder. “Ready.”

I heard the tap on Brown’s shoulder. “Ready.”

Tom stood in front of the gate, a confused expression wrinkling his brow.

“Tom…”

He looked at me, his eyes pleading for guidance.

“Get in the stack,” I said, jerking my thumb behind me.

“Right,” Tom said, shuffling to the back of the stack. “Ready.”

The gate was made out of sheet metal, painted green. I took a step back, then front kicked with a loud grunt. When my foot hit, the gate came off its hinges, falling to the ground with a loud clang. Surprised, and feeling a little awesome, I looked at Pearce. His eyes were wide with amazement.

“You Hulked that shit!” Pearce said, his voice thick with awe.

“Pretty badass,” I said with a chuckle, then rushed into the house with my stack behind me.

The homeowner met us at the front door, pleading with his terrified little boy next to him. They were both shaking and mumbling incoherently. The father pointed next door. “Please, please…there, there!”

I shoved him out of the way and dashed up the stairs to the roof. My instincts told me no one but the father and son were in the house, and the sounds of “clear” coming from downstairs only managed to inflame my impatience. “No shit!” I called. “Get your asses up here!”

I moved to the roof, guessing that the insurgents were probably long gone by now. There was no movement. The area was barren, the insurgents gone. A glimmer of brass caught my eye—AK shells glinting in the sunlight. The neighboring houses on either side were three-storied, which made those rooftops inaccessible. The house behind was the only was the insurgents could have gone.

“There’s nothing here,” Brown called from the stairwell.

“Let’s get back to the trucks,” I said just as the rest of the squad had made it up to the roof. I pointed to the neighbor’s house. “That’s the only way they could have gone.”

“But I just got up here,” Brown whined, thick with sarcasm.

I ignored Brown’s attempt to make light of the situation and ran back to the vehicles and got a headcount. No one was injured. McCraw was still huddled in his seat. I swear I saw tears on his cheeks. I slammed my HMMWV door shut with a curse, then turned to Tom as he fired up the vehicle to follow Brown. “I fucking told him we should have recon’d better. Those bastards probably left their getaway vehicles on the other side of the block. I fucking knew it!” I looked up at Pearce, manning the M2. “And why the hell didn’t you use the .50?”

“Because I don’t want to go to jail,” Pearce replied.

“Goddammit!” I yelled.

“I thought we couldn’t use the .50 to shoot people.”

“People, no,” I confirmed. “Combatants, yes. Next time use the damn .50. That’s why I have it on my truck. To use.”

Brown pulled up to the house adjacent to the one used by the insurgents and called over the radio. “The gate is padlocked.”

Tom looked at me. I could see the question in his eyes.

“Yes, Tom,” I said, calm and with a smile. “You can ram the gate.”

Tom’s eyes went wide with excitement, and he inched the vehicle forward.

“Ram, Tom,” I said, impatiently. “Raaaaaaaaam.”

Tom slammed on the gas and the HMMWV lurched forward. Nothing in those vehicles happened fast, but the thin metal gate was no match for 10,000 pounds of armored vehicle. The gate bounced off its hinges and fell to the side. I heaved the vehicle door open and got my stack ready at the front door.

This house was nicer than the last, nicely painted exterior, a columned and tiled entryway, and luscious plants. Whoever owned this house had money. And they weren’t home. The kitchen should have proffered sizzles and mouth-watering aroma; music should have rung through the air; the sounds of children playing, or calling for their mother was eerily absent. The only sounds to be heard were heavy breathing and the “glug-glug glug-glug” of the HMMWV’s diesel.

Through the window, I could see a few pairs of flip-flops on the floor. No dust. This house was recently vacated. We weren’t going to find anyone here. No family. No insurgents. No one but my team behind me. We’d lost them. I wanted to scream and punch someone. We would have had them if complacency hadn’t won the day. But it wasn’t my patrol, and it wasn’t my call.

I saw McCraw push open his door and step out of his vehicle. When he started to make his way toward us I shook my head and pointed back at his HMMWV. “Oh fuck no,” I growled. “Get back in your truck.”

McCraw scowled and did as he was told.

He and I were going to have some words when we got back to base. A smile twitched the corners of my lips. Something to look forward to.

The entryway led to an open room with three doors (one closed) and a stairway at the end. Brown and I moved to the stairway while his driver and dismount cleared the rooms. The stairs turned halfway up, making it impossible to see the second floor. I moved with a purpose, training my weapon on the only avenue of approach as I walked. When I reached the top…nothing. Brown and I cleared the few rooms upstairs. It was obvious that someone still lived here. But today, they were conveniently absent.

Shouts and the sound of a door being kicked came from downstairs. Brown’s driver was kicking the closed door, over and over again, to no avail.

“What the hell are you doing?” I demanded.

“It’s locked,” the driver explained. “You open it, SSG Eyler.”

I gave the door a solid kick. It didn’t budge.

“See!” the driver exclaimed. “It’s harder than it looks,”

I rolled my eyes, then gave the door another solid kick then a third and a fourth. The door budged a little. A few more and we’d have access to the room. But my legs were already burning from the day’s events and the adrenaline was already starting to fade.

I kicked the door again, and again.

A recent memory scrolled through my mind. A briefing less than two weeks old about insurgents planting explosive traps behind doors in houses.

I pulled my foot short on the last kick as the day’s events enveloped my mind. The feelings of unease from the onset of the mission. An empty street. The firefight. A father and son, confused and desperate for safety. An empty house that should be teeming with life. A suspiciously locked door.

“Stop!” I shouted as Brown’s driver moved to kick the door. “I’m trusting my gut here. Move away from the door.”

“You think it’s trapped?” Brown asked.

I nodded. “You need to call this up.”

“But if we call it up, we’re going to have to wait for EOD,” Brown said, “which we both know will take hours for them to even show up. And then we’ll have to secure the area while they clear the room, which will probably be empty. By the time they’re all done we’ll be back on another patrol. I don’t know about you, but I’m not looking to do any more patrolling for these assholes than we have to. Besides, the bad guys are probably already back home eating hummus.”

“So you just want to leave?” I asked.

Brown’s driver nudged me. “Come on, SSG Eyler. You know you don’t want to be stuck out here for another eight hours.”

My body cried for water, and my belly clamored for food. The driver’s words rang true. I didn’t want to be here anymore than they did, but more than that I didn’t want to be responsible for the deaths of innocent bystanders, or another military unit that stumbled upon this location.

“Besides,” Brown said, “if it is trapped, we’ll leave it for the chap that owns this place. You can’t tell me you don’t think they weren’t involved.”

And what were they supposed to do? I thought. Stand up to armed insurgents? Should the father have sacrificed his family just to help protect us? I kept my thoughts to myself. That line of inquiry could wait until after we were back in camp, relatively safe. If the family had assisted the insurgents, either willingly or not (the insurgents could have forced the family to leave that morning, hence the flip-flops, as well as the absence of dust), then they would know if the door was trapped.

Of course, that’s if the family hadn’t been kidnapped outright. The insurgents had also started forcing innocent men into driving VBIED’s through checkpoints, knowing that the car would explode once they reached the target. To ensure compliance with the suicidal mission, the insurgents held the man’s family hostage, informing him that they would kill them all if he didn’t drive the car. Once the vehicle arrived at the target, the insurgents detonated the bomb with a remote.

But what was I to do? Wait until the insurgents returned with more armaments, maybe an RPG or two?

“Look,” Brown said. “This is my patrol, and I say we’re leaving.”

I shook my head, disappointed by the order.

“What do you want me to do?” Brown implored, thick with sincerity.

“I want you to do whatever you think is right,” I replied.

Brown held my gaze, then turned toward the door. “Load up. We’re heading out.” He paused and looked back over his shoulder. “I’ll make sure and tell the CO about this house.”

I measured Brown, examining him, searching for the lie.

“Promise,” Brown said, with a wry smile.

That was it, I thought. He had no intention of telling the CO.

“I’ll buy you to some mint chip ice cream at the DFAC,” Brown joked with an empty chuckle. There was no charge at the Dining Facility, of course.

“Thanks, Brown,” I replied, reciprocating the sarcasm. I gave him one last lingering gaze, and then followed him to the trucks.

“What the hell was that about?” Tom asked after the patrol started to move again.

“What part?” I replied.

“Brown just froze back there!”

“Yeah, SSG Eyler,” Pearce chimed in, manning the .50 cal. “He walked right in front of you.”

“You never know how you’re going to react,” I said, not bothering to hide the frustration from my voice. “Remember all that shit my previous gunner talked?”

“He froze like a little bitch!” Tom barked a laugh.

“Yeah, but at least he’s not leading any patrols,” Pearce said.

Tom’s face was a mixture of sweat, grime, and contemplation. “This mission was a farce from the start, wasn’t it?”

I met his gaze but didn’t say anything.

“I mean, why would they send McCraw out on Brown’s first patrol? His first patrol! Were they trying to get us killed, or just hoping?”

“Kinda makes you wonder,” Pearce said, thick with cynicism.

I told them I thought today’s lineup had more to do with complacency than anything else. We all succumb to its seductive call at some point. Like a siren tempting a sailor to his watery grave, complacency eroded a person’s will to persevere. It was no less deadly than the siren’s call and as inexorable as the tides. The true battle in war isn’t against enemy combatants; it’s the never-ending struggle to treat each mission, patrol, and scenario with as much attention to detail and safety as the first. “Stay alert; stay alive” and “Keep your head on a swivel” were two of the most important lessons anyone in the military could learn to prepare for war. Unfortunately, they are also the most overlooked, underestimated, and under-appreciated lessons, vastly overshadowed by weapon qualifications and physical prowess. Of course, using those locutions with lackadaisical frivolity, usually accompanied by a joke, didn’t help to emphasize their importance.

“So, what do we do?” Tom asked.

“We do our job,” I replied, looking at Tom and Pearce in turn. “And we do it well.”

We reached the compound with no incident. I took a deep breath and released a heavy sigh, trying to exhale my frustration. I was in the business of reconnaissance, and we had left a room unchecked, in a house that was potentially used to stage an ambush. The sin weighed heavy on my mind and left a sour taste on my soul. I would talk to the CO after Brown finished his debriefing, but until then I needed to purge myself of the surmounting anger.

“SSG Eyler, can I talk to you for a moment?”

A smile spread across my face. There was no mistaking that voice. “SSG McCraw. Just the person I wanted to see.”

It was a miracle no one got shot that day.