As our platoon leader and platoon sergeant spoke with their counterparts from the 101st, us soldiers scouted out the school and each squad found a room to drop their gear in and claim as home. The 101st soldiers walked around this small compound, looking raggedy, sleeves cut off their brown t-shirts. We judged them and found reasons to continue to hate them. Here in this Baghdad school, just like in Karbala, they left their mark, spray painting black hearts – their unit designation – on the windows of the building. To us, they were undisciplined. These little discrepancies gave us reason to hate.
There has always been friendly hostility between the 101st and the 82nd. Mostly because the 101st calls themselves an “airborne” division but they don’t actually jump out of airplanes. They “air assault” meaning they ride helicopters somewhere and get out. So does everyone else, but the 101st does it a little more.
While our leaders spoke with one another, we did the same with our counterparts. Joes found guys with dip and cigarettes and began to shoot the shit. NCOs found other NCOs and discussed how things went down here – things like guard duty (how many men did it take to secure the building? what were the on/off rotations like?). They told us that they were mostly doing “presence patrols” – walking around their sector letting people know they were here, and occasional raids on the criminals’ homes.
To show us around the neighborhood, our leadership planned a joint patrol, where a couple of NCOs from the 101st would go out with us as we did our first patrol. The 101st passed along some information that there was a storefront down market street that was selling weapons. The 101st hired a local Baghdadi, M, to serve as their interpreter. M was a middle-aged man, maybe in his late 40s who was an engineer before the war started. College educated, he spoke good English and was friendly. The guys from the 101st seemed to like him, but we were all very skeptical. We had never worked with an Iraqi in such a close capacity before. The only interpreters we knew were the ones we brought with us from the US. We had a grand total of one for our battalion (~1000 paratroopers) and he was usually with the Battalion Commander.
Our PL planned a deliberate mission and gathered the platoon to give a hasty OPORD. It was the most information we had gotten for a mission since we invaded. It was hard to tell if he was doing it because this was new territory – Baghdad – and things might be more complicated or because the leadership from the 101st was there, watching.
After the brief, we put on our gear and flowed out of the school, making a right towards market street a couple of blocks away.
Our first patrol in Baghdad.
This was significantly different than anything else we had done until now. The streets were busy. Iraqis were much closer to us than we’d experienced before, literally bumping into us as we moved through the market, like we were navigating a crowded Times Square. I’d try to shake uncomfortable eye contact with smiles and greetings, which were usually returned. I enjoyed walking past store fronts and peeking inside, wondering what they sold and wanting to go in. Warrior-Tourist.
As we approached the suspected store selling weapons, we spread out to pull security and formed a perimeter. The storefront was on the corner of a major four way intersection. Throngs of vehicles and people passed by. We created a little bubble of space for our leadership to move inside and speak with the owner. They brought him outside. He didn’t speak English.
As planned, our platoon sergeant shouted into the Iraqi crowd “Does anyone here speak English? Can anyone help?”
Across the street, M emerged. He had been following our patrol from the other side of the street. This was the way he operated with the 101st, coloring himself as just a random guy on the street who speaks English. A good samaritan who just happened to be there to defuse a local situation, not a guy employed by the occupying forces.
“I speak English,” M said, “I can help.”
With his crisp white shirt, pressed slacks, neatly combed hair and a dark pair of sunglasses, M crossed the street and placed his hand on the shoulder of the store owner and began translating – no, interpreting. That is, he said the things he knew he needed to say to accomplish the mission.
After a few minutes of conversation, the store owner admitted he had been selling weapons, but just small rifles and pistols to residents for their personal protection. He didn’t have any cache of weapons.
We took some information and headed back to our school, taking a different route through a residential area. We walked through streets lined by high walls, hiding courtyards and homes. Women sprayed water in their courtyards and swept our mud with squeegee brooms, glancing up at us as we passed. Children played in the street and ran to us, growing larger in numbers and settling in a snake behind our patrol. They’d shout and try to make us react, using the few English words they knew, “Mista! Mista! Bush good! Sadd-am bad!”
Any reaction was a win for them, whether it was anger or joy. At first, we found it amusing. As more and more children tagged along, it became annoying and we began to worry about what would happen to them if we were attacked. We’d try to shoo them away, and they’d quickly scatter only to reassemble moments later, following us all the way to our little compound.
As we filed back into the school, M debriefed with our PL. They made arrangements for meeting again the next day and then he went home for the night. The rest of us found our rooms and dropped our gear, collapsing down against the wall and then picking up where we left off. Cigarettes were lit, games of Spades were resumed, letters were written.
Some of us just stared at the wall.