Paratroopers lounging in the farmhouse (As Samawah, April 1, 2003)
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.