With dawn still several hours away the first stirrings of life appeared, the new day heralded by the collective groan of tired soldiers pushing aside dusty poncho liners. For most it had been a brief and quite unsatisfying sleep, more of a nap then anything approaching slumber. But the shared experience of suffering has a power all its own, and rather then roll over and get more rest our element moaned and bitched its way to wakefulness. After a few minutes the wry jokes settled into a dull murmur and we started packing our vehicles with the small mountain of equipment we had shuttled out with us. A few soldier collected up out trash, collecting it in a small mound that they burned to ash. By time they were finished all that was left as evidence of our brief occupation was a large pile of bottled water we left for the Iraqi police and soldiers.
Having finished our haphazard packing (if you have ever seen an Infantry unit pack a vehicle in the dark you might suddenly understand why everything is over-engineered) we rotated the security elements and waited for dawn. The election officials were supposed to arrival shortly after dawn, and as the sun climbed ever higher in the sky I started to wonder if they were going to arrive at all. The poll opening hour was rapidly approaching when a small white sedan plastered with election placards snapped around a corner. As the Iraqi soldiers checked the election vehicle our security elements pulled of station and we started mounting our vehicles. The poll workers were all men in their late 20’s, neatly dressed in slacks and collared shirts, and as they approached they greeted us with wide smiles and warm English greetings. As the election officials started unloading the boxes of election material I walked over to my Iraqi security counterparts and once again gave them solemn assurances that we would not abandon them. I’m not sure if the bright, clear air of morning burned away their anxieties or if our lengthy conversations the night before had bolstered their confidence, but I sensed some subtle change in demeanor. As I turned away I was confident these men would give the last full measure to ensure the election went smoothly.
We separated into two separate elements and took up stations several hundred meters from the election site. As the polls opened a steady trickle of Iraqi citizens made their way towards the election site. Since all vehicle traffic had been shut down to prevent VBIEDs they came on foot, crossing the fields, weaving through the palm groves, and loping down the vacant streets. They came in small smiling groups, and when they noticed us in overwatch they waved with wide, open smiles. There was no common feature that tied together these meandering groups other then their common destination. Some were dressed in the traditional Dishka as if they were conjured out of some ancient Arabian fable. Other were dressed in neat western style clothing that wouldn’t have looked out of place in any American business. And still others came out in jean, sandals and gaudy American t-shirts. Grandfathers walked with sons. Mothers came with children in tow. Friends came in chattering groups brimming with bravado.
That was how we spent our morning, watching a steady stream of Iraqis wave as they walked to the polling center, and then smile and hold up their ink stained thumbs as they returned. The entire area swimmed with motion as Iraqis came from kilometers away to cast their vote. As the sun reached its burning apex one of the Iraqi soldiers ran over with a grave look on his face. He spilled a torrent of words, urgently motioning for me to follow him. I took a small detachment to the outer perimeter, a wall of concrete barriers a couple hundred meters from the polling site and was met with an anxious group of Iraqi soldiers. As I walked over there I expected I would have to listen to pleas for additional ice, or some other creature comfort. What they had to say took me by surprise, and I felt embarrassed at my callous guessing game. The reason they had called me over was to express concerns that one of the election officials was trying to sway the voters in the polling center. As they laid out their case their eyes burned with passion and their voices trembled with emotion. It was only then, seeing these soldiers aflame with a desire to have a free and fair election, that I truly understood how committed these men were to their fledgling democracy. I had one of the Iraqi policeman collect up the election supervisor and the poll worker in question and as they arrived the soldiers let loose a heated verbal salvo. I motioned for them to stop for a moment, and as they lapsed into silence I explained to the supervisor how critical it was to remain impartial. The poll worker lowered his head in an obvious expression of shame, and the supervisor promised to keep a close eye on his staff. They walked back to the election building, and the soldiers seemed convinced that my impromptu civics lesson would cow the passionate poll worker into a semblance of impartiality.
As the afternoon heat flared I started seeing groups walk away with the water bottles we had left with the soldiers, and I walked over to the perimeter to see if everything was alright. They told me that they had plenty of water, and that they wanted to share it with the people who were walking great distances in order to vote. All of these soldiers were Shia, and all of the voters were Sunni, but that didn’t matter to them. For on this day sectarian concerns faded away like the morning mist, and all the Iraqi soldiers could see was Iraqi citizens in need of a cool drink. For the second time in the day I was impressed and slightly humbled by these soldiers I had been so concerned with the prior evening.
The afternoon was no different from the morning, and voters continued to make their way to the polling site in spite of the oppressive heat. In our small position soldiers took turns on the heavy weapons scanning for threat that never materialized. And then it was over. The election officials packed the ballots into their small sedan and piled into it like it was a circus clown car. As they left the site we pulled out of our overwatch positions and reassembled on the election site. As I stepped out of my HMMWV I noticed an Iraqi soldier carefully cutting down the election banner. I snapped a picture of him holding up the banner and then watched him carefully folded the banner. Once he had done so he walked over and placed it in my hands saying “take, take – thank you for you protecting Iraq
As we waited for the armored vehicles to pick up the Iraqi soldiers the atmosphere burned with the a sense of joy that is hard to express in words. American soldiers wrapped their arms around Iraqi soldiers and mugged for pictures. Iraqi soldiers let their American counterparts take pictures holding their AK-47s. One of the younger soldiers danced an clumsy jig in the empty street, flanked by Iraqi soldiers dancing to a tune only they could hear. Even the hardest of our NCOs had to crack a smile at this strange pageant.
A few minutes later the vehicles arrived and the Iraqi soldiers happily piled on. Our vehicles settled into formation and we started back towards the link up site where we would meet the rest of our company.
At our link up site the rest of our comany was busy packing the last of their gear into their waiting vehicles, all traces of fatigue eclipsed by the tantalizing thought of returning to the FOB. The deliberate packing that had been slowly occurring all afternoon suddenly ended, replaced with an avalanche of boxes and bags hurriedly stuffed into the cargo bays of waiting M1114s. Finally, with all the material loaded into the overfilled HMMWVs the clamshells doors over the cargo bays creaked shut, and the soldiers scurried back to the sheltered alcoves of the main building.
The scattered conversations were suddenly muted by the sharp, angry bark of automatic weapons fire. The flat, ugly crack of AK-47 fire creased the night air, as if some monstrous rattlesnake had been stirred to wrath. But once the initial shock wore off most of the troops continued with their conversations, for all its fury this frenzied burst of gunfire was too far away to pose any kind of threat. As the firing was dying down one of the SPC Spartan heard a soft hiss, so gentle and short it seemed like an auditory phantom. He paused in mid sentence, trying to get a bearing on the sound, but the night had swallowed the noise. On the other side of the building SSG Rock heard the same sound, followed in turn by another, and yet another. The sounds were so brief, and so silent they barely reached the threshold of hearing. They were fragile unformed sounds plucked from the air before they were ripe – amounting to little more then a few sighs of air too weak to influence anything of substance.
As our soldier finished their preparations to leave, a small Iraqi family a few houses away was settling around their dinner table to share Iftar. Iftar isn’t just a dinner, it is the meal that breaks the daily fast required during the month of Ramadan. If you have ever gone without food or water for a day you have an idea of the joy, gratitude and kinship this single meal can bring rushing to the surface. Midway through dinner a stranger arrived, heralded by the same muffled hiss that had caught our soldier’s attention. It was the sound of a plunging bullet.
Far, far from this little table someone had raised their rifle into the air, switched the selector switch onto fire, and pulled the trigger. Whether their fire was celebratory, an angry warning, or a shot fired in anger we will never know. All we do know is that those deadly, arrow tipped rounds were suddenly rammed down the barrel of an AK-47 by the explosive expansion of propellant, and finding themselves in the open air they soared into the night sky. As the rounds clawed their way towards the black star stained vault their momentum was bled away by the relentless tug of gravity, until they reached their bitter apogee and the implacable force jealously bent them earthward. As they hurdled back towards the ground they picked up some of their initial velocity, whipping through the air with deadly force. As the rounds crashed to earth they left soft hisses in their wake, as if the air in their wake was mysteriously transformed into a ghostly serpent. This gentle hiss was the sound that had caught the attention of a few of the soldiers, only to be shrugged off as some auditory hallucination.
The bulk of the rounds vanished into oblivion, the only trace of their existence the soft rustles of twisted air. But one solitary round left a more lasting memory - arcing down in an evil trajectory that brought it crashing down onto a roof. This simple, shoddy roof, designed to deflect little more then a mild winter storm, instantly yielded to the brute force of this fated projectile. And this is how a stranger arrived at this small celebration of Iftar… a stranger that tore into the happy, beaming face of a 10 year old girl.
A ghastly scream tore through the darkness, a ghastly, painful cry plumbed from the very depths of a mother’s heart. That shriek of terror and loss seemed to hang in the air for several seconds, only to be replaced with the hysterical sobs of the girl’s family. All conversations came to an instantaneous halt, and in those terrible seconds security teams scanned the area for the origin of this calamitous, heart wrenching sound. And then one of the sentries cried out “Medic”. Our two combat medics had already grabbed their gear, and the second they heard the cry they lept into action. As they ran out front they instantly spotted the anguished father carrying his bleeding daughter outside into the street and sprinted over.
The father placed his daughter down, entrusted his daughter to our medics, and as he rose he revealed a shirt stained with bright, hot blood. The girl was dying right in front of them, her lifeblood pouring into the dusty street. Sizing up the enormity of their task SGT James T shouted out “Medevac” and one of the Platoon Sergeants started making coordinations over the net.
As this was all unfolding our convoy was steadily making its way toward the link up site. As we approached we received an order to halt in place, and the radios crackled out an ominous message “we need the medevac site clear”. Any residual joy we might have felt bled away in the next heartbeat, and every soldier wondered just what the hell was going on a couple of hundred meters away.
The medics worked feverishly to stabilize the little girl, but her lifeless body was pumping out blood at a hideous rate. Their skilled hands worked feverishly to keep her crumpled body from pouring out any more blood, and in the next few minutes they managed to stabilize her frail form. This ghastly tableau was suddenly interrupted by the powerful growl of a Blackhawk helicopter on a crash descent. The rotors kicked up a tornado of dust as the bird settled down, and the medics used their own bodies to shield their patient from the sand blast. The second the medevac helicopter hit the ground the medics and the flight nurse picked up her tiny frame and loaded her into the chopper, and just as quickly as it had arrived it left. Leaving behind a tortured family, a shocked platoon, and two brave and blood stained medics standing next to a pool of scarlet.
After a long pause the soldiers shook off their momentary daze, and started to load into the vehicles – we still had to link up and make our way back to the FOB. Our convoy got the clearance to move, and we made our way to the rotor scoured asphalt that had just served as a medevac site. The rest of the company finished loading into their vehicles and we started back to the FOB in one long, silent convoy. Our joy was tempered by the cruel twist of fate we had just witnessed, but not the pride. That still burned bright. I imagine it will for quite some time.