When I started ‘Shooting Iraq,’ the intent was to post pictures of my one year deployment to Kuwait/Iraq. I knew there would be some moments that I would be forced to write more about, the battle of As Samawah being one of them. I didn’t think it would suck me in the way it did.
This was simultaneously the easiest thing I’ve ever wrote and the hardest. Easy because it flowed. It’s real. Hard because the same.
There will be other moments like this for the rest of the deployment. But none like this. I hope.
The Battle of As Samawah
March 28, 2003 - “The showers are located to your left, my right.”
March 29, 2003 - Ground Assault Convoy to As Samawah
March 30, 2003 - “I’m not re-enlisting!”
March 31, 2003 - “It’s just water!”
April 1, 2003 - “They wrote a fucking book about this!”
April 2, 2003 - Escape from As Samawah
April 3, 2003 - Victory: As Samawah train station
Emerging from the darkness, we got off trucks and filed into a quiet train station in the middle of the desert. The war was over, as far as we were concerned. We were told to rest. It was our job. Word spread that the capture of Baghdad was imminent.
We slept. In the morning, our duffel bags caught up with us and we digged through them for treasures packed away in North Carolina. CD players, junk food, tobacco. Mail came. I read a letter from my fiancé describing the awesome images of ‘shock and awe’ on her television. She said she was proud of me. It meant everything. I felt like I did something.
The Scouts found a small puppy and took it under their care. Everyone visited and pet the small creature. They called him ‘Meces,’ like feces.
Rumors spread about when we would go home. Next week? Next month? Soon.
We explored the station, creeping inside a green, resting train. Did this train take tourists from the rural south to the big city, Baghdad? Soldiers took shits in the train and got yelled at. We slept. We joked and told war stories from yesterday. We were glad we survived and that it was over. It felt like a well deserved respite from what we just went through.
The XO came around and handed out Light Anti-tank Weapons (LAWs). We requested them in Kuwait, and weren’t surprised that we got them now, with the war over and our redeployment to Fort Bragg seemingly imminent. We scoffed as he distributed them throughout the company.
“We’re not going to need these, sir. The war’s over” someone said.
He laughed. “Okay. Take one anyway.”
We slept and slept and joked and joked.
As Samawah train station is the victory I never had.
We spent the day lounging in the farmhouse. Soldiers sprawled out along the cool tile floor. The extended family that lived there moved to an attached guest house. Our snipers took up a position on the roof and shot at targets of opportunity at the hospital, still controlled by the fedayeen. Soldiers would go up there from time to time to take a shot, and then slip back downstairs to talk about it or go to sleep.
I took off my armor and helmet and lay on the floor, resting my head on my helmet, slipping in and out of a dreamy sleep. The temperature slowly rose, cooking us inside. My dream-sleep was punctuated by single shots from a sniper rifle or a volley of machine gun rounds flying into the hospital. I slept until sunset.
Finally regaining some energy, I stood up and looked through the dirty glass in a door to see a line of Iraqi women in brightly colored robes setting up an old black stove on the patio. They moved swiftly, nervously, trying their best to ignore the dozens of young, dirty paratroopers living in their home. They were cooking bread. Lots of it. A doughy smell waffed through the house, reminding us how much we hate our MREs.
Pieces of bread were passed around. It was fresh and warm. The crust was either soft or crusty, but the inside was always chewy. There was more than enough. The women kept cooking until we stopped eating. Soldiers held giant pieces of circular bread and pulled off small pieces, filling their mouths.
I never got the impression that they wanted to cook for us, but I wanted so badly to believe they did.
Night fell and it got dark. The shooting from the roof stopped. Calm came over the house. A bunch of us moved into the guest house, a large rectangular room. It was dark, lit only by candles casting an eerie, flickering glow over our faces. Pictures of religious figures adorned the wall. The floor was covered with a bright red rug. The head of the household sat, leaning against a wall. He was an old man, maybe in his sixties. His beard what white and long and he wore a turban. His elbow rested on his knee, fingers massaging some prayer beads. His other hand supported himself sitting up. He was the image I had of a wise old Iraqi man. Here he was. Other family members came and went, bringing trays of tea and more bread.
It was terribly quiet. For the longest time no one spoke. I sat against the wall and watched intently. Someone began conversing with the man in broken Arabic. He spoke a little English. Over the next couple of hours, we learned about the fedayeen in Samawah, how they were intimidating the people, threatening them if they supported the Americans.
We listened and ate bread and drank tea. A woman came in and argued with the man. He tried to dismiss her and send her off, but she persisted. The man relented and asked us through hand gestures and the most rudimentary English if we could look at a young girl who needed medical attention. We agreed and brought in our combat medic, a tall, skinny black soldier.
The woman left and then came back holding the hand of a young girl, maybe four years old. She looked scared. The medic, tall and imposing crouched down and took a look at the girl. The woman grabbed the child’s hand and turned it over under the medic’s headlamp, revealing a small growth on the child’s hand. Our medic said it was some kind of growth that could be removed with a scalpel.
He prepped the area and gave her some local anesthetic. We all watched. Quickly, he sliced off the growth and the child started shrieking at the site of her own blood. The medic applied a bandage and the woman smiled, hugging the child and calming her down before whisking her away from the room, expressing her thanks as she exited.
We all felt good, having done something to help.
We sat for a little while longer until our platoon sergeant came in saying we were taking off, we wouldn’t be assaulting the hospital after all, but heading north.
The old man watched. He must have sensed what was happening. A couple of the guys in the platoon tried to explain to our leadership what the man had said, that once we left here the fedayeen would descend on them and hold them accountable for having us in their home – something that was surely known by everyone in town by now. The leadership heard their complaint and said there was nothing we could do. The soldiers cursed, feeling terrible for abandoning this family.
I remember feeling ambivalent. It sucked, but we had orders to move forward. We all felt very disconnected from whoever it was who made these decisions, who was certainly someone much higher in the chain of command, moving chess pieces across a map. The chess piece that represented our small team was sitting in a house with an Iraqi family that told us they would be killed if we left. That is the disconnect. We said our goodbye and quickly got out of there, not knowing what would happen. Never knowing.
We walked out of the house and into the darkness through the same farmland we came in on, working our way to trucks lined up off of a road. We piled in, not even caring about pulling security. I climbed onto a gator – a kind of golf cart – and lay down in the bed and tried to sleep. The platoon felt like shit for leaving the house.
We bounced along, driving somewhere, leaving Samawah behind us forever. It would become the war for us. That was it before everything else.
Somewhere down the road, we stopped suddenly. I opened my eyes, seeing black and occasionally dark blue sky, appearing fleetingly between shadows of soldiers shifting in the back of the truck.
“The LMTV in front of us tipped over” someone said, disinterested.
A couple of the guys near the rear of our truck got out to help. I closed my eyes and went back to sleep.
We sat in our platoon position for the longest day, digging holes and piling rocks. The city was declared a “free fire zone,” if that’s even a thing. A speeding truck across the river was torn apart by our machine guns. It crashed and burned, providing an endless stream of black smoke into the sky, reminding us and everyone around that it was a war.
It started to heat up. We were out of MREs and were told to conserve what we had,
because we didn’t know when we would be resupplied. This was another one of those things that I didn’t think could happen in 2003 – no resupply?
I heard the strangest sound behind us, from the area we were ambushed the day prior. It sounded like fighting dogs, lots of them. It was frightening. I asked about it, and someone said it was a bunch of women mourning for the deaths of loved ones. It was a public display of mourning. I didn’t see it, only heard it. The flat land and water carried the sound from them to us.
This became a lazy, hot, hungry day. We joked and stretched our muscles, sore from carrying the gear nonstop for over 24 hours. We watched the river flow and the lush greenland across from us, the truck pouring thick, black smoke into the blue sky in the background. We convinced our platoon sergeant to let us take off our gear and take an improvised shower under the damaged water pipe that was leaking water from bullet holes. It was the first time we could take off our body armor, and we lingered under the water until we were yelled at.
When we weren’t pulling guard duty, we retreated under ponchos strung out to stay out of the sun if we were hot, or slid down these large concrete sumps to protect us from the enemy if we were scared.
The day dragged on. Word spread that we would be assaulting a hospital in the city that the fedayeen were using as their headquarters. The sun set and the moon came out, shimmering on the river in front of us. I was pulled under a poncho with the platoon leadership to go over the plan. Six heads close to one another, hovering inches off the ground looking at a satellite map. I tried really hard to keep my mouth closed, concerned about having bad breath. The plan was simple. We would breach an outer wall with C4 and flow the rifle squads into the hospital while weapons squad supports with their machine guns. Simple. There really is no other plan.
We’d roll out at 2300, a couple of hours away. In the dark, I walked back to our squad’s position and quickly briefed my team on the plan. Then, we went into a rest plan to try to get some sleep before the mission. I was exhausted, but thought it would be best to stay up myself and pull security while my two guys slept. They crawled out of their position and slid down the concrete sump and quickly fell asleep. I settled in behind our team’s SAW with the M203 sitting next to me. I flipped down my night vision and watched the river flow in front of me, stars twinkling in the sky. It was peaceful and quiet.
I woke up to violent shaking. The giant image of my squad leader, hued in green night vision came into focus. He was yelling but I didn’t hear anything. He was furious and telling me to wake the fuck up. I fell asleep on guard. Back in the US, I always thought that when in a real war, you would never fall asleep on guard like you do when you are only training in the woods of Fort Bragg. The fear of the enemy would be enough to keep you awake. Nope. Exhaustion is a force more powerful than fear.
I stood up, confused. The world slowly came back into focus, the realization that I was in Iraq hitting me hard. It was 2300 and we were on the move. I slipped my fingers into one of my pouches and pulled out a package of caffeine pills I bought at Walgreens before deploying. I experimented with them in Kuwait and they worked at keeping me awake all night, to the annoyance of the guys in my team who were trying to fall asleep while pulling guard. I popped two of them in my mouth and washed them down with a sip of cool water from my canteen.
We walked and moved into a wedge formation, the squads expanding out like a long snake. We were all pretty pumped. We were about to hit a building with known enemy inside. This was exactly what we trained for. An urban fight, where we’d get to use all of our gizmos and gadgets to their best effectiveness. We even spent some time in the concrete sump prepping C4 breaching charges.
The caffeine was starting to hit me and I was ready for anything. My cells opened up and I sense everything. The rest of the platoon stumbled like zombies. We moved maybe ten meters before being halted. I raised my hand to signal a halt with vigor and took a knee, amped. Everyone else either just stood there or immediately flopped down on their assault packs, exhausted. Word spread around that we were waiting for a Bradley from 3rd Infantry Division that was going to move with us and support the mission.
Ten minutes went by. I was still on a knee.
An hour. I flopped on my assault pack.
Four hours, and I was finally coming down off of my caffeine high.
It was now nearly 0400. The platoon slept. The low pitched grumble of a heavy diesel engine in the distance cut through the night. It was our escort, a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, finally showing up. The platoon leadership roused us awake. Word spread that the plan changed, but we didn’t know what it changed to. We started moving out in a mission that degenerated into what every field problem back in the US degenerates to – follow the guy in front of you.
It was still dark, but barely. The twilight of the morning was beginning. I stumbled along, turning into a zombie as my true exhaustion set in after the caffeine-induced adrenaline receded from my blood and exited my body through beads of sweat, evaporating into the Iraqi ether.
Every dog in Samawah barked at us. One of my guys stumbled up to me and pleaded with me – he had a terribly twisted ankle. I told him there was nothing we could do (there wasn’t). He pleaded again – I understood. I told him this was war, there was no stopping. He grudgingly fell back to is place in formation. I felt bad.
The horizon hued purple for a moment before fiery orange began spreading out. The sun threatened to reveal us to the enemy before we got to our position. We moved faster. The Bradley grinded along the road while we walked at a fast quicktime, before picking up a light jog. Chickens clucked. Goats yawned.
We were still on the outskirts of town. Crops. Animals. Lots of greenery. We moved along a mud wall and then turned into an opening into someones farm. It was still early, maybe 0600 now. Heads peeked out of windows at what must have looked like martians playing war in their yard. Our nylon armor rattled against the metal of our guns as we bopped along, teams pulling security to allow for the rapid movement of the next team. Leap frogging one another deeper into someone’s livelihood. The sun was up. It was morning.
Somewhere not far away we heard shooting. At us? We don’t know. The temperature rose and we all tensed up. I was tired, but alert. More shooting. I took cover behind a cow that popped up in front of me. I looked at it, frightened that it was going to kick me or bite me. I got up and continued on. Our platoon emerged from the the farmhouse and into a wooded area, brightly lit by the rising sun. I had no idea where we were. I knew this wasn’t the hospital. Where was the Bradley? Back on the road?
Our leadership put us into a circular formation. We took up security positions. I slid into the cool shade behind a log. In front of me was grass, trees, lots of bushes, and a house behind all of that. Every now and then we heard machine gun fire in the distance.
I could hardly breathe. I felt like my heart was about to shut down. All I wanted to do was collapse into sleep. I was in my post-caffeine exhaustion and losing. I rocked to my side in the prone and propped my rifle on the log in front of me, scanning my sector.
One of my teammates looked at me and said I looked like shit. I told him about the caffeine pills. He said to take more. I disagreed, wanting to normalize my system. My skin was clammy. I felt sick.
The Weapons Squad Leader came by with the greatest news of the war. We were going to hold this position for awhile, so we could go ahead and go into a rest plan.
Without even saying anything, I slipped behind the log and curled up. My two teammates nodded at me, knowing I was exhausted and took the first shift. I closed my eyes and tried to quiet my mind. I thought I would immediately pass out, but I had to actually focus. The sun was up and bright. it was around 0700. Birds chirped, and I could hear Kiowas nearby, humming.
My eyes opened to the sound of nearby gunfire. I looked up to see my two teammates, pulling security, scanning. I closed my eyes. A couple of moments later the gunfire returned, closer.
I huffed deeply, annoyed, and poked my head back up over the log, grabbing my weapon. I scanned and saw nothing but the same bushes.
More gunfire. They were somewhere in front of us.
I dipped my head back down behind the log for cover. I looked back and saw a couple of other guys in my squad, heads up and exposed like a couple of Easter peeps. We made eye contact and they giggled at me, low behind the log. I thought they were crazy. The gunfire kept getting closer. All I wanted to do was sleep. I fought to stay awake. It hurt.
I would poke my head up and take a look to see if I could see anything and then quickly dip back down behind the log. I was terrified of being popped in the face. I repeated this several times. Two Kiowas were circling directly overhead, making it hard to hear anything. They were looking for the source of the gunfire. An RPG whizzed past one of the Kiowas.
My squad leader broke in over our radio. “Gomez, have Stifter fire a marking grenade where the shooting is coming from, the Kiowas will take them out.”
My grenadier heard the call and started fishing around in his bag. We made eye contact and I pointed out the general direction.
A few seconds passed by and we heard a loud explosion.
The company 1SG broke in over the radio, “I said fucking smoke! Fire a smoke round!”
This time with a smoke round loaded, he fired again. After a moment, the Kiowas rushed towards that area, but still couldn’t find anything.
More gunfire. Dangerously close.
I clutched the ground behind the log. It sounded like they were right in front of us. The Kiowas circled above for a moment and then left. It got very quiet. More gunfire.
1SG over the radio, starting off as calm as can be and then exploding in anger: “You know, they wrote a book about this – it’s called fucking FM 7-8! SHOOT AT KNOWN OR SUSPECTED ENEMY LOCATIONS!”
That was all I needed. I looked to my SAW gunner and said “Ready?” He nodded and we simultaneously popped up over the log and started shooting cyclic, into the bushes.
Once we started shooting, everyone started shooting.
We fired for a minute or so. When we stopped, the mystery gunfire disappeared.
Shortly thereafter, we occupied a nearby farmhouse. The platoon moved up to the farmhouse in a file. Exhausted and exhilarated. Soldiers flowed inside. I was put on guard duty. I had to sit in a lawn chair in front of the house and watch the roof of the hospital, which was far in the distance. I positioned myself so that I could watch it through a break in some nearby tree branches. I wondered if a fedayeen sniper could take me out from there.
I fell asleep in the chair. Completely passed out. My eyes opened as the platoon sergeant from a sister platoon passed by, his platoon behind him in a file. He looked down at me as he passed and smiled slightly.
“Tired?” he asked.
I nodded. “Yeah.”