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Mohammed offered me a cigarette. I wasn’t about to refuse. I dont normally smoke, and a choked a little after inhaling. Then the nicotine seared through my veins. Relaxed.
I was suited up to join Alpha ‘Attack’ company on a night time mission in a neighborhood just outside of Balad. And beyond. Ranger trained Cpt. Matthew Cunningham, 29, had insisted that I don camouflage grease paint so that I might join him and his squad in infiltrating a farm community from the rear. The Captain looked the part of a ranger: lean, stern determined and focused, yet I had found him to be quite congenial when things weren’t so serious. The objective this night of February 11 was the capture of one man, Fawzi Youniy (nicknamed ‘Fuzzy Anus’ by the troops), deemed responsible for funding and/or directing mortar attacks on the 1-8th’s TOC.
Lt. Goldman led me in to the Bradley. He called out to the driver, “I only printed up three detainee forms, so if we get any others I guess we’ll have to shoot them.” He waited a bit and then remembered that I was standing behind him. “I was only joking, of course!”
The Bradley’s loading door sealed shut with myself, the Sergent and Mohammed the translator in the rear. As we rumbled on, tossing us about inside, Lt. Goldman explained a few things. “These sorts of missions are always hard. Don’t be surprised if the soldiers use no compassionate at all,” he explained. “I’ve only been with the unit for a couple weeks, so its still hard on me to watch. Women and children will be crying, and hey, we are waking them up at midnight and taking their husbands and sons away. I don’t even know how to explain it to my wife.”
Some thirty soldiers were to participate. I would hang by the commanding officer, Cpt. Cunninham with an infiltration squad. Another squad would circle around to the front of the homes as we would cut off any rear escape. The Bradley’s would then circle around and position the front for a quick extraction.The plan was to detain all males in an around the Younis home to find the suspect.
We dismounted as a whole and split up in the darkness. I followed the soldiers down a few main roads. A few homes and garages lit the only lights at night. But yet again the dogs howled and barked as we passed by. We moved in relative silence, the soldiers relying on their night vision to scope out routes through dirt and gravel. Finally we came upon a large fenced orchard and slid off the road.
We trudged for a good half-mile through twists and turns of bramble, trees and irrigation ditches. At times the Captain would pause to check his Global Positioning Sattellite unit for a precise location fix. After an arduous journey, we finally settled into a ditch about 200m in front of the first target home amid a large orchard. Then it was a waiting game.
The dogs throughout the area continued to bark loudly. As they abated the other sounds of the night picked up. Eerie screams and yowls broke through the air.
They turned into a cacophony of banshee cries. I took them to be stray cats, caterwauling in choruses, but it was of a pitch and degree I had never heard before. Then some of the dogs began to howl. The three-quarters moon broke through the cloud cover and cast dancing lights through the trees. It felt like the perfect holloween setting. I looked to my left at Cpt. Cunningham in full camoflague gear, laying in the irrigation ditch with his M-4 at the ready and his eyes focused through his night-goggles. It was a heavily armed holloween.
After almost 45 minutes of waiting in total silence (and having been awake for 16 hours with only 4 hours of sleep the day before, myself drifting in and out of sleep), we finally heard loud bangs of metal. The Captain turned to me. “The first objective,” he whispered. “They’re breaching the first objective.” Soon enough the heavy roar of the Bradleys broke through the night as the vehicles moved into position outside the neighborhood’s homes. Then we moved in. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I began running through the field and towards the homes. I had seen recordings of raids done in urban areas and I didn’t think I would ever have the heart to participate. But as the soldiers began entering the homes, I just followed, running behind. I let my camera do my thinking (which wasn’t doing to much in the total darkness).
Bam! Bam! “Go, go, go!” We poured through a gate and ran across a short courtyard. Bam! The double metal doors of the house were smashed open. Immediately women began crying. We passed a small foyer and found two elderly women and one old man startled as the lights were flicked on. The soldiers poured through the house, fanning out to all rooms and looking for other people. “Friendly going upstairs!” “Upstairs clear!” “Friendly coming out!” The old man was taken from his home as the women followed, crying out. The soldiers moved on. “What about the house across the street?” “Blue 6 has it.” “We’ve still got this big one over here.” “Let’s go!”
Again I follwoed the unit, this time around a large brick wall and over to the front of the farmhouse. A few swift kicks to the gate. A dash to the front of the house. Splitting up to enter all visible doors simultaneously. Running into the home amid cries.
As I entered a darkened hallway I came across seven young girls and boys. One young girl, no older than 10, with large glasses and a tan hejab kept her hands raised in the air. I had never before seen a child do such a thing. They all wore fear deep on their faces. The males, children and adults alike, were brought outside in a line up. The youngest two were released, but all others from about fourteen and up were cuffed and brought out to the Bradleys down the road. Running out the back, the women tried to follow sobbing. I looked back briefly. I couldn’t stare long. I began to well up myself, realizing that these people had no clue what was going on. Even if the men would likely be released in a matter of minutes, it was still a terror for the women and children to see their fathers, sons and husbands torn from them by a legion of masked men.
Here, infront of a home, some twenty-five men, all bound by flex-cuffs, were lined up for identification as Mohammed took down their names. Once it was determined that Fawzi Younis was not among the detainees, the Captain ordered the restraints to be cut. He then addressed them, with Mohammed translating. The detainees voluntarily moved to their knees with their hands in their laps. They still looked bewildered and frightened.
“Thank you for participating in tonight’s roundup,” he began. “You know who we are looking for and we will not have to do this anymore if you help us. We know you know who is attacking Americans, and we need you to come forward.” The flourescent light glistened against the grease paint on his face.
One man stood up and asked the Captain what the people of the village could do if they didn’t know who was firing the mortars. Cpt. Cunningham was curt. “They are firing from your fields. You cannot sit inside and let it happen. I want you to be proactive. I want you to go out and find out who these people are and come tell us. Otherwise we will continue to come at night and ask.” There was nothing more he could do here. “Ok. You are going to stay sitting here until we have left the area.”
And with that, in a matter of seconds all thirty soldiers had boarded the APC’s and we were off.
As our Bradley lurched forward and we headed back to the base, Lt. Goldman broke the silence. “Well, that was fucking worthless.”
BEN GRANBY is a freelance reporter in Iraq. He can be reached at: Sarin@devo.com