Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Photo Story Monday - Goodbyes

On May 30, nineteen days before the start of Arrowhead Ripper, we were well into a groove of regular patrols and the occasional raid. Our relationship with the Sunni insurgent group 1920 Revolution Brigade was improving. They identified potential Al Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq members and pointed us in the direction of cache sites, which going to always felt like buying a Powerball ticket: you could win, but not likely, stupid.

The beginning of our work with these American soldier killers concerned citizens was spotty at first. They'd walk or drive around with AK-47s, and we'd kill them inadvertently (I use that term loosely). There really wasn't a way for them to identify themselves as our ally. A uniform could easily be copied by the bad(der) guys and defeat the purpose. It was finally decided that they would wear brown t-shirts with a certain letter combination after they kept on dying by our hand.

We got a couple of calls one day: one, an Apache laid waste to a carload full of gunmen, and they were all killed. Shortly afterward, the 1920s let us know it was their members that the helicopter killed. The second call was about a mass grave out in the boondocks of the city, in a big field. We had the approximate area, but we had no idea how many bodies were buried under the ground, or why.

We set out from our outpost for quite a walk across town, taking a lot of side streets and avoiding the main ones. On a long stretch, we spotted the car that was destroyed by the Apache helicopter. The passenger door was open, but the bodies were gone. Closer to it, the only thing left of the men in the car was blood and one pair of shoes with the heels shot off. The wall showed the signs of automatic cannon fire, as did the windshield and the seats.

Better call Maco

The destroyed car. Note the bullet holes on the wall next to it


If he survived, I'm willing to bet his shoe size is a tad smaller

Walking a little past the car, I noticed a small Motorola radio on the ground. I picked it up, wanting to hear the chatter on the other side of the radio. I decided it was a bad idea, since it could have been the trigger for an IED somewhere. I really didn't believe the 1920s stopped their insurgent operations against us. We often wondered if the "Al Qaeda" members they pointed out were simply victims of in-house cleaning.

We continued on the road, reaching an intersection with the purported mass grave field. Looking down to the right, I recalled a day when half our platoon was pinned down by dueling enemy machine guns (but that's a story for another Monday). My squad was sent up to a roof overlooking the field where the supposed bodies were to provide cover for the other squads meandering in the open, kicking over rocks and looking under weeds. The hour slowly dripped away as the squads below turned up nothing. We decided to call it a day and headed back to our outpost. Apparently I didn't get the word that was a deep buried IED in the middle of the road on the way back. We halted our movement and Josh said "How many times in your life have you stood on top of an IED?" I looked down at my feet and saw a groove cut into the road with a fresh patch of concrete. I said, "One more." On the way back we passed the car again. A few kids were hanging around the corner, watching us pass by.

The next afternoon we had more reliable information. Not only did we have the exact area, but someone was going to point it out to us. Hoping it wasn't going to be an ambush, we set out again. This time we had a military camera crew with us to take pictures of the scene. Winding through a power station, we entered the large open field from the left side, some of us using a trail, the others stepping on huge dirt clumps and cussing the tall grass. We reached a tiny collection of buildings some distance from the road we were on the previous day. They were simple one-room mud huts. Almost immediately you could smell the decay. We took off our helmets and vests, set our guns down and began digging. Near a wall, a body was quickly found. It was not buried very deep. Bill began to dig deeper and found the skull, split in half from a bullet wound. Though not experts on the matter, we determined she was executed by gunshot at a very close range. Bill tried to lift up the remains, but the skin slid right off the flesh. He had to stop often because the smell was so great, so we traded off.

To the left of the woman we found more bodies, but of two children. The man who pointed out the grave was the husband of the woman, and the father of the two daughters. He explained they were taken 42 days prior and that the dudes had threatened him too. As he told his story, the Iraqi Army soldiers laughed and smoked, watching Americans dig up the bodies of their slain people.

In more rooms, we found more bodies. We were there to merely confirm the graves being there and call in the proper local authorities to recover them. Instead we dug them as we waited, and the Iraqi Army watched on. Payday threw up after awhile. The man, stone-faced and emotionless so far, began to weep as he touched the skull of his wife. The blindfold she was wearing was matted to the skull but began to come off. Into the evening we waited until we got the word to head back for the night. We said goodbye to the man still standing there by the hole, and turned our backs to him as we slowly made our way through the field once again.

A man says his final goodbye to his wife. The Iraqi Army guy takes back the shovel he brought