Combat, Grace, Silence
I feel like more of a witness right now more than a photographer. Maybe I will become braver. I don't know yet. Today two RPGs passed our Humvee. So close. I wonder how many chances one gets? I came to do photography stories not war photos, but there is war and it is impossible for me to ignore it. I will stay for a while longer. Maybe until I am just too scared. The soldiers are scared and they can't leave. I like them. Two guys from the Humvee I was in the day before were hit with an IED (Improvised Explosive Device). I had opted out that day to catch up on sleep. Soldiers don't get that option. Two soldiers in the vehicle had slight concussions and PFC Jose Flores had a piece of shrapnel in his face but he will be OK.
Street Level, Baghdad
"Attack . . . Firing below bridge, Attack on convoy Get in vehicles... Let's go.... shit... shit" An IED blasts shaking the bridge from which we were now running. The three soldiers whom I am riding with jump into the Humvee and I follow. Four other Humvees trail behind as we speed toward the action. Bravo Company 91st Engineers is en route to support those under attack. The Humvee tears down the side pass of the bridge screeching around corners and the driver slams it to a stop in front of the heaviest sound of gunfire.
Rapid gunfire thuds from the north side of the highway. Several guys of the platoon jump out and with M-16s in hand run towards the shots while Lieutenant Mease and other soldiers position themselves to cover and support their platoon. The soldiers search a vacant lot, looking behind groups of shrubs and in a vacant building but find no one. Suddenly an RPG rips into one of the supply trucks in the convoy. It hits the motor. The guy they call Doc Watson and another pull out the driver. He's a Reservist. His thigh is bleeding from shrapnel. He is going to be O.K.
Fire shoots towards us from the opposite south side of the highway. The Reservists and I hit the asphalt. The guys in Company B scatter into planned positions and scan through scopes and binoculars for the enemy location. Another IED in front of us. Another one blows from behind.
Bravo Company from North Victory, whose names I've barely learned, are of the First Cavalry. One day before I had asked the press office to be put on the list to come out here. The officers told me I would have to wait my turn and it would be weeks but it's the very next day and I am here.
An hour after I arrived in camp, they put me on patrol. There is 1LT Isaac Mease from El Paso, SSG Marc Misher, SSG Adam Bills, SGT Bernard Teich, Specialist Justin Serrano, SGT Michael Sell, PFC Robert Lucero PFC Marc Krenzke, Gunner Michael Isom, PVT Jose Flores, PFC Everett Huerer, PV2 Michel Wynus, PFC Adam Logan, PV2 Andrew Halsing, Spec. David Kelley.
They had originally come to the bridge so the soldiers could support the bomb squad platoon that was blowing an IED. IEDs are the weapons of choice of the opposition. IEDS are hard to see. Insurgents place them in dead animals, in cement blocks under trash. A patrol can run upon one anywhere anytime. Then they detonate them when the army drives over them. Within one hour there may be as many as six in one area.
It is quiet for a moment. One solider crouches up on top of a truck with a sniper rifle continuing to scan. He looks vulnerable to me. We are trapped. More gunfire shoots towards us. 1LT Mease, SSG Adam Bills, SGT Michael Sell, PV2 Andrew Halsing, and SSG Marc Misher are standing shouting and cussing at the shooters to come out and show themselves. The fire comes directly in front of us from the rooftops and brush. Legs spread in an inverted V, weapons in front these American soldiers from Bravo Company 91st Engineers First Cavalry stand fearlessly returning fire with no cover between them and the aggressors. Perched above on top of a vehicle is Specialist Justin Serrano volleying back fire with an M-14. Gunners on top of the humvees also open fire. More IEDs explode around us. The noise is penetrating.
My helmet is too big and falls across my eyes. I lift my head to see better, I feel a soldier's hand push me. "STAY DOWN!" Bullets continue. The gas from the machine guns blow into my face, more IEDs explode. Shells spew out on all sides of me.
Pushing my helmet back from my eyes, I look around. Nearby there is a woman, a reservist hunched down, her machine gun ready, beads of sweat dripping down her neck. Her face is red and scared. There is too much noise to say anything.
I feel my knees shaking. I thought I was tougher. I feel ashamed of this fear.
Would we get out of this? Would this be in the news tomorrow? Dead soldiers ambushed on the roadside? My helmet is a problem. I try to shoot but my camera and the helmet clash. I resign for the moment . . I try to back into a safer position. It feels good to back off. Just try to live.
A second later I crawl back over to the shooters. They continue shooting back at their enemy unyielding to the enemy fire. They are focused and they are mad. Someone yells an order and they run towards the enemy. I follow them running, knees still unsteady. No enemy was captured.
Two hours later, we are back at the base. Everyone is OK. I had read stories written about the bravery of the US soldiers. Now I've seen it. I am awed. They changed my mind about many things. My pictures suck. I don't even care. It feels good to see these guys alive, to feel myself alive. I learn that their nickname is "Beast."
Patrolling with B Company today-
We drive through a neighborhood for four or five hours. It is hot in the Humvee. I had some sleep, maybe 5 or 6 hours, but these guys have been on 16 and 18 hour shifts. Sometimes the shifts turn into more time. They are hot and tired. There hasn't been running water for two days on the base. The sweat keeps the dust and sand from caking on your body.
The driver yells back to De Leon to keep his eyes open for IEDS along the roadside. De Leon is originally from Guatemala but his home is Chicago now. I look over at him. He is asleep. His chin is resting on his flak jacket. He opens his eyes for a minute and falls back to sleep. Sometimes those things, those IEDS, are daisy chained. Those are the ones that kill. The opposition places them in dead animals, cement slabs, paper bags anything, anywhere, anytime. I watch out the window.
The commander Lt. Wells sits in the "shotgun" seat and gives the driver directions: "Left, Right, Turn around, Go Back, Left Right, Go back, Stop, Go, Slow down, Turn right . . ." The humvee roar becomes monotonous.
I fight to keep my eyes open. I think about the Japanese who have been kidnapped. The kidnappers let three go but they have kept Jumpei. Jumpei was my neighbor at the hotel. We shared a taxi one night after hearing an explosion. We searched everywhere for the blast site but found nothing. We made a pact that if one of us heard or saw something we would grab the other and roll on it. Jumpei is serious guy. He is quiet, kind and good humored like many Japanese I have met. The last I saw him he and another Japanese man knocked on my door to tell me they were going to Basra to make a video of the marshlands.
I look over at De Leon. He is looking out the little double plated humvee window. His window is cracked. The bullet didn't make it through. Not much makes it through these except those RPGs and IEDs. We continue. "Right, Left, Back, Left, Right." I am thirsty, my throat feels full of the dust, but I don't drink because I need to pee. We are still in the same neighborhood. The people are looking out the windows of their homes. We must have been here four or five hours by now. I avoid the temptation to look at my watch.
Then black minivan arrives. She is like a shiny black spider, tantalizing and inviting. We follow. She speeds up leaving a trail of dust. We screech around the corners. She easily outruns us. We try to keep up but we spin, making a 180-degree turn. I giggle at the quickness of the turn. I feel drugged by the heat, dust and roar of the motor. There she is again. She could have split and left us in the dust but there she is at the entrance to the highway waiting for us.
The driver starts to gas it.
My heart jumps as I imagine an RPG shooting out of the back of that black van and making a direct hit on us. "STOP!" Lieutenant Jeffery Wells shouts, "It's a trap." The LT smells it.
The black van slides slowly ahead. We turn away and wait under a bridge. She never appears.
We go back to the patrol. "Right, Left, Left, Turn around, Go left" Hours more we continue. Now there are just dirty looks from the people in the neighborhood. The guys get to sleep tonight in their beds but there is still no running water for them.
Are these guys are protected? I am seeing miracles. An RPG lands between a soldier's feet and doesn't blow. One hits the gas tank and doesn't go off. Two pass the heads of two soldiers by a few inches and blows up in the field. Can this be real?
My answer comes when I see a young guy, dirty, sweaty, tired and hungry bow his head. His hands are stained with the dirt of the day and he folds them against his forehead for a moment before tearing open his MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) distributed by the army.
It felt like everyone was just beginning to recuperate a little when a call came in that another squad was under attack by RPGS. SGT. Misher and the guys jumped into their vehicles to go to their aid.
Is Fallujah moving towards Baghdad? In April there were 74 IEDS; Today is May 2nd and there have been 8 already. Not a good start. I am reading about Eisenhower and how he went out to the troops constantly making contact with individuals learning about their hometowns and families. You don't see that here.
It's not because no one cares but because everyone is overworked. I can go by the headquarters office at 1:00 a.m. or 6:30 in the morning and the same guys are still there. The 91st Engineers often sleep on top of their tanks or crouched up inside the cramped Humvee seats. "It's not worth it to go back to the hoogie," says Lucero, "we just get called back again".
The mission is spoken of quietly and in whispers but the 91st Engineers at Bravo Company are wrestling on the gravel, throwing a football around. A full moon is already rising over Camp Blackjack.
Bravo Company's mission tonight is to go question and hopefully arrest six men who had been bragging about creating an IED and killing two American soldiers with it on the 2nd of May. SPC Ervin Caradine, JR. and PVT Jeremy L. Drexler of 91st Engineers with the 3rd platoon Bravo Company were the soldiers blown up in an armored Humvee. Three others survived. Hussom Fadel of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corp lost his leg and SGT. Ricky Cecil was severely wounded with shrapnel.
Capt. Michael Rainy, their commander, is a quiet mannered guy but everyone in Bravo will tell you not to mess with Rainy. I've gone out with Rainy and his guys when they go out to speak with Islamic leaders. On one occasion he spoke with a leader of a strong Islamic group that had posters up throughout Baghdad with the American flag burning on the bottom and the two fingered peace sign painted with blood dripping down the fingers. The posters call on Iraqis to take up arms against American Coalition troops. Captain Rainy sat with the leader of the group, fiddling with his helmet that he held in his hands.
"Sir" he begins, "we know that you are a good man and a well-respected leader in the community." He pauses and varying his eyes from his helmet to the leader's eyes, he continues, "we would really appreciate it if you and your men would take down those posters." He shows him an example of a poster. The Islamic leader replies, "We didn't put them up". Rainy answers, "I understand that you did not put them up, but since your organization's name is on it we would appreciate if you would take the responsibility to take them down." The man repeats himself, "We did not put them up." Rainy rewords his response and says the same thing to the man. This conversation continues for almost an hour. Rainy never loses patience although the man persists with the same answer. In the end Capt. Rainy says, "we'll come back in a few days and see how it is going." A week later Rainy and his men return to find stacks of new posters on the tables ready to be distributed. The leader is not there this time.
It appears Bravo Company may capture the men who killed two soldiers from their unit. Rainy says to his guys, "No matter how frustrated and upset we might feel I want my Company to know that every person out there is a human being and must be treated as such." "These are the guys who killed out buddies," says SGT. Sells, but in spite of the anger and frustration he feels in handling the guys who killed his friends, he keeps his cool during the search.
Fifteen armored military vehicles surround the mosque. Captain Rainy, SFC Brister and the soldiers approach the guards and ask them to surrender their weapons. They quickly turn over their machine guns. The Sergeants ask to speak to the leader of the mosque, the Imam, who agrees to bring out the group from the mosque. About 50 men file out of the mosque and quietly line up on the streets. It is dark and the only lights are the bright fluorescents glowing behind the heads of the men who have surrendered. They stand in a long row between the tanks waiting to have their pictures taken by the Coalition. Everyone is silent. SSG Misher and 1SG Patrick test hands for explosives and find 5 men (the same identified by sources) positive. The men are arrested. Surprisingly, those who spoke so loudly about kicking ass don't do it. Instead they gently help the men into the 113 for the ride.
They later capture one more suspect at his house. It's a long night. One more explosive weapon test shows the men to have handled TNT.
All six tested positive for TNT on their hands. The same that was used in the IED that killed their two comrades. The soldiers are satisfied for now. Tomorrow the suspects will be once again tested by officials for explosives on their hands.
The men spend the night at the camp in a special tent set up for them. They are held at this location until the next morning when they will be transferred to a processing center. Their worst punishment: their hands stay tied behind their backs and they are not allowed to speak to one another. If it were another time maybe this meeting could have have been with free hands over a cup of tea.
Some other prisoners were there also. The Iraqi police had caught them with massive weapons in their hands. They told me the Iraqi police beat them hard. They were with the Iraqi police 11 days, they said, before the Americans came and picked them up. They said they wanted to stay with the Coalition Forces because the Americans give them food, clothes and let them sleep. And the Americans, they told me (without anyone else around listening), have not hit them. They asked me to please not let them be sent back to Iraq police, just to let them stay at this prison with American soldiers. They beg and plead extensively. They are also people of many faces.
One positive thing that has come out of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal is the brigade is talking about doing more aggressive PR work. They are putting more money into trash pickup, building some fire stations and other work to establish relations with the people here. But the guys that they had out picking up the trash were shot at too. So now they must wear armor to pick up trash.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Many thanks to Gary Fong, who helped us out this month by forwarding jpgs from Sherrlyn.
LINKS TO BRAVO COMPANY ON THE WEB:
© Sherrlyn Borkgren
Back to May 2004 Contents