Running the Gauntlet

06 November 2003


“Lock and load, gentlemen!”  The action of the bolts slamming forward on our M-16s can be heard 1-2-3-4 from each of us in the humvee.  Rounds chambered, we are ready to go outside the wire. 

The engine of the humvee roars as the driver steps on the gas and we go screaming out of the north gate (dubbed “The Assassins Gate”) of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) compound into the increasingly dangerous workaday traffic of Baghdad.

Adjusting my Kevlar helmet and checking to make sure my body armor is still centered as I shift myself around to face traffic along our side.  (I pay special attention to the groin protector hanging between my legs.)  We took all the doors off the humvee the moment we got to Baghdad.  Can’t move your weapon like you need to with the doors on.  Can’t jump out if you have to with the doors on either.

The three humvees in our small convoy are bumper to bumper, so as not to let any “Hajis” get between us.  Over the Jumhuriya Bridge to the east side of town we go, scanning the tall buildings left and right, up and down.  Rifles at the ready, our eyes look for movement in the windows, on the rooftops, along balconies.  A car comes speeding up beside of us.  We draw down on him.  He steps on the brake and backs off enough to make both parties comfortable.

Scanning, constantly scanning.  Storefronts, windows, rooftops, balconies, on-coming cars.  On the sidewalk, a child raises his hand suddenly.  Kevlars turn, trigger fingers tighten.  The child’s hand becomes a peace sign; a bright smile spreads across this face.  Hands relax, tight chests loosen.  As we exhale, our fingers mimic the child’s as we wave a V in response. 

Cars parked on both sides of the street now.  Movement is restricted.  “Don’t slow down!  Don’t slow down!” I shout to the young driver above the engine noise.  The escort gun-truck in front of us side-swipes an old, white sedan that has veered into our lane.  A side-view mirror is ripped off the door.  The escort doesn’t stop, so neither can we.  “Don’t slow down!” I shout again.  “Do not slow down!”  In my side-view mirror, I see a young man give us the finger.

Scanning, constantly scanning.  Storefronts, windows, rooftops, balconies, on-coming cars.  Scanning the road, too.  Looking for objects in our way.  Don’t run over anything.  Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have been going off almost every day.  Remotely-detonated, these killers are hidden in empty soda cans, garbage bags, whatever.  Impossible to detect, really.  Pretty scary when I stop to think about it.  (So I don’t often stop to think about it.)  Just don’t run over anything.  That’s the best we can do.

Scanning, constantly scanning.  Storefronts, windows, rooftops, balconies, on-coming cars, things in the road.  “Overpass!” a soldier seated behind me in the bed of our truck shouts.  We lean out the door and raise our rifles to our shoulders, scanning the overpass for bad guys holding bombs.  Breathing is held, trigger fingers tighten, eyes narrow.  “Clear!” the soldier shouts as we emerge on the other side.  Exhale, loosen grip, open eyes wide.

At last, our target.  We gun the engines up to the objective, then park the humvees so as to provide 360 degree perimeter security.  Teams are assigned to guard the vehicles, while the team going in readies itself for entry. 

“Bang, bang, bang!” my fist says to the door.  A small woman appears in the large frame.  “Salaam alaykoom,” she says.  “Alaykoom ah salaam” I reply, “We’re here to deliver the donated textbooks we called you about.”  “How wonderful,” the headmistress replies, “Come in, come in.”