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Boots on the Ground

10 March 2005

What follows are a few snapshots of things I saw during my trip to Tikrit and Baghdad, Iraq last week. 

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Sitting in the back seat of an armored Humvee speeding down the Airport Road towards the Green Zone.  My jaw and fists are clenched, though I don’t realize it at the moment.  A soldier is to my right, standing up through the open hatch, manning a machine gun.  I can’t see his face, or even most of his torso, but I do see his desert boots.  On them, he’d written his name in permanent marker.  Underneath his name it says “O Neg.”  When we arrive safely and get out, my fingers relax and my jaw is sore.   As the soldiers smoke and joke, I see other boots that say “A Pos” or “B Neg.”   

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The 42nd Infantry Division is patrolling Tikrit these days.  They replaced the 1st Infantry Division.  The 42nd Infantry is a National Guard unit made up mostly of guys from New York.  I have a lot of friends from the “Rainbow Division,” having served in both the 101st Cavalry Squadron and the 69th Infantry Battalion several years back.  Many of these men were on the scene at Ground Zero in the hours immediately following the attacks on the Twin Towers and remained on active duty for a year guarding bridges, tunnels, West Point, and other important sites in the Empire State.  They were called up again in the spring of 2004 and began their train-up for Iraq.  Last month, the 42nd officially completed its transfer of authority from the Big Red One.  Their tour in Iraq is supposed to be one year.  Add that all up and you realize that by the time they are finally back home sipping martinis at Tavern on the Green or cracking peanut shells in Yankee Stadium, many of these citizen soldiers of the New York Army National Guard will have been on active duty, away from their families, 34 out of the past 53 months.  The concept of one-weekend per month, two weeks a year no longer applies.  The dangers to which these men are subjected to on a daily basis was made clear to me when I walked past the burned out hulk of an exploded Humvee in a quiet, sunny motor pool on their compound. 

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I met the loneliest man in Iraq on my way back from Tikrit.  En route to Baghdad late one evening, our helicopter landed at a refueling area near Baquba in the Diyala province.  It was literally in the middle of nowhere.  From the air it looked simply like a big circle drawn in the moonlit sand.  This circle was reinforced with concrete barricades, barbed wire, and sand bags.  As the crew refilled their tanks, I walked toward a lone wooden shack in the middle of the compound.  A young army specialist emerged from behind a plywood door that got caught by the wind as he pushed it open and slammed against the wall with a loud slap.  Our noisy arrival had obviously roused him from a deep sleep.  The E-4 squinted into the lights of the landing pad, scratching his matted hair as he did so.  “You guys okay?” he asked with a yawn and a rub of an eye.  I looked at the crew chief, who appeared to have everything under control.  “I think we’re all good,” I replied.  The young man opened his mouth and slid his tongue between his teeth to scrape off the gunk of sleep.  “Alright then,” he said, “Have a good night, sir.”  With that, he turned around and went back to his little shack.  A couple of minutes later, we were back in the night sky, leaving the loneliest man in Iraq behind to count sheep and mark off the days on his calendar like Commodore Byrd having to wait out the winter on the South Pole. 

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Back in Baghdad.  Many American contractors have moved their operations into the secure Green Zone.  They have built large trailer parks within the perimeter.  I overheard several discussions about which company offers the best housing.  Size is not the only determinant in being the best; whether or not one has to share a bathroom is also a major factor.   

Unlike the care-free days of the spring of 2003 when soldiers in civilian clothes drove to the Al-Rashid Hotel in soft-skinned Humvees to dance in the club with attractive journalists and aid workers, the atmosphere inside the coalition compound is rather dull.  There are no parties at the Al-Rashid.  Outside of the dining halls, there is no place to really relax and hang out.  There is one civilian restaurant at which to eat, and one gymnasium at which to sweat and stare.  The extremely disproportionate guy-to-girl ratio means there is a lot of staring going on.  In this regard, the Green Zone has much the same feel as a construction site.  When a pretty civilian girl walks through a mess hall filled with soldiers and contractors, guys nearly break their necks watching her go by and say things their wives back home might find a bit inappropriate.   

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The majority of shops in the Green Zone are closed.  The army deemed it too dangerous to have Iraqi civilians coming in everyday with bags of merchandise, any one of which could actually contain a bomb.  The long street that once was the site of the vibrant Green Zone Bazaar is empty.  The hundreds of people who worked there are now back home, angry, no doubt, at having lost the opportunity to make a living.  One person who remains, however, is Alia.  She is a roving salesperson, and so had no shop to close down.  I first met Alia in May of 2003.  She is little girl now, and was even littler back then.  She has dark eyes and dark skin and dark hair pulled into a ponytail.  She wears a little Adidas red sweat top with vertical white stripes on the sleeves, and a pair of blue jeans over her lean frame.  Alia was eight or nine years old when she first approached me with a box of chewing gum.  She spoke no English other than “Please, mister.”  To make money, she would stand in front of people with her box of gum held toward them and stare with her charming little eyes until the money reluctantly came forth from back pockets and handbags.  Today Alia speaks quite confidently in English and her conduct is very businesslike.  She approaches people waiting at the shuttle bus stops throughout the Green Zone and asks them if they would like to buy any gum.  Two packs for a dollar is what she charges.  When a friend of mine handed Alia a dollar, but only took one pack, the little girl said flatly, “You paid for two, you should take two.”  I wanted a pack of gum, but all I had was a $20.  “Don’t worry,” Alia told me,  “I can make change.”  She pulled out of a pocket in the same little red sweat top (now a bit small for her) a wad of cash that I judged to be at least $500. 

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I got a seat on a Black Hawk flying out from the Green Zone to the military side of the airport.  To get to the civilian side, I hitched a ride from an Air Force tech sergeant who happened to be driving by.  “Let me check with my lieutenant to make sure it’s okay,” he said as he pulled into the parking lot of his make-shift office.  The tires ground to a halt in the crunchy gravel.  The metal door of the pickup slammed shut as he went to go inside.  Staring out of the window of the passenger seat, drowsy from an early-morning wake-up, I noticed a sign that said “Morgue” on an adjacent building.  Near the sign were two large, white, refrigerated tractor trailers.  A cargo truck with its motor running was parked out front.  Two soldiers were pacing back and forth, one talking excitedly on a satellite phone.  I didn’t notice the tech sergeant come back until I heard the door open.  He’d seen me staring at the white trailers.  “That’s THE morgue for Operation Iraqi Freedom.  When the helicopters come in with the bodies, that truck meets them out on the tarmac.”   I wanted to say something, but everything seemed trite, so I didn’t.  Then my Good Samaritan, with the permission of his lieutenant, turned the key in the ignition.  The tires ground through the crunchy gravel and we rolled away.