The end of combat ops is like a singularity: the closer we approach, the more time itself seems to dilate, every minute feels like a year, every day an eternity.
This mission was only supposed to take a couple of days. "No longer than 48 hours" were the words our CO used. So we packed accordingly. I brought only a change of socks, some ramen and some Easy Mac, a couple packs of smokes. We would supposedly be pretty busy, so I didn't even bother with my sleeping bag.
That first night, when we raided a section of the town of Haklania while two other LAR platoons, a provisional rifle platoon from 1/23 Headquarters and Service Company (read: POGs), and a platoon of Combat Engineers took down some adjacent neighborhoods, was when I just started to feel really shitty. My throat was sore, I couldn't stop coughing, and I was completely drained of energy. It was all I could do to keep up with my scout squad as we cleared building after building, took detainees, and set up a patrol base.
That first 72 hours (after the promised 48 hour mark came and went) remains a blurry haze of being absolutely exhausted and sick, standing constant post on a bridge, running security patrols throughout our section, never getting more than a couple hours of sleep at a stretch. Up to that point I had managed not to eat an MRE since Al-Qaim, several months, but after running out of noodles and macaroni and candy bars, I almost wept as I gave in and choked down as much of an MRE as I could stomach. I didn't smoke for those first several days, but my abs were tender and my throat was sore from coughing.
A few things stick out in my mind from Haklania. At one point we received a report over the radio that there was a man across the bridge whose mother had been shot and needed help. Our scout team crossed the bridge to meet him, and when we got there he was waving a white flag and hysterical.
Struggling with my limited Arabic, I managed to ask him where she was, and told him to bring her to us. He ran home and about twenty minutes later he drove up with someone sprawled across the back seat.
It turned out to be his brother, not his mother, and when we got him out of the car, our Corpsman got a handful of brain and we realized how badly the guy had been wounded.
He'd been shot in the back of the head, with the exit wound exposing a large patch of brain and skull and his right eye was missing.
He looked pretty dead to me, but Doc found a weak pulse, so we loaded him onto the poleless litter and ran him across the bridge, where our medevac vehicle was waiting.
He didn't last long.
We never found out who shot him. The thing that disturbed me the most was how undisturbed I was about the whole thing, how undisturbed we all were.
Without my sleeping bag, I shivered through each night, two hours at a time, through chills that would hit me periodically, taking two tylenol and two sudafed every four hours, and downing a Red Bull when I needed the boost. The night before we left, I probably shouldn't have stayed up until 0300 playing Poker. The $300 I won that night did nothing to warm me.
After the first horrible 72 hours, instead of going back to the Dam, we entered the city of Haditha and repeated the process. Though I was tired, hungry, dirty, smelly, and sore, it seemed I was through the worst of my sickness and I was feeling a thousand times better.
Starting at around 0400, our scout squad began entering and searching houses for weapons and asking about any local insurgent activity. We did this for the next few hours. Most of the houses had one AK-47, which the owners told us were for protection, but we were under orders to confiscate them if they didn't have permits. A few protested, but most handed them over with sighs of resignation.
Though we were waking them up at a retarded hour and rifling through their belongings, the local residents have been generally cooperative, even friendly. They don't hesitate to open locks, and several offer us tea.
After around five hours of this, exhausted, we enter a house and search it, and tell the head of the household that we have to confiscate his AK. He asks us why, and I tell him he needs a permit.
"It is for protection," he insists.
"You must have a permit," I reply.
"Where can I get a permit?"
"I don't know," I tell him as I realize I have no idea.
But we have our orders and I tell him as much, and after a period of back and forth he reluctantly gives up.
"Salaam," I tell him as we leave. It means: 'peace,' a sort of all-purpose greeting, but I don't think he believes me. Patrolling to the next house, I consider the loaded rifle I hold ready, the helmet and body armor I wear, and suddenly I don't believe it either.
In the next house we search, it seems we have interrupted breakfast, but the head of the household is extremely friendly and shows us around the house, shows us his rifle, introduces his whole family. He insists we sit down with him, insists that we eat, and when we politely decline, he begins breaking off pieces of khubus flatbread and fried egg and shoving them into our hands, all but hand-feeding us.
So we sit, and eat, and drink tea, while the man tells us he is a teacher, has been for forty years. He tells us this is a good neighborhood, and no Ali-Babas (bad men or thieves) live in the area. I ask about any Mujahedeen activity, and he tells us there is none in the area, and that this is a very close neighborhood, that they all take care of each other, and protect each other so no Muj can really operate in the area.
When it comes time to leave, we tell him we have to confiscate his rifle and he asks us why. I look around at the family, the children whose breakfast I've just eaten, and all the dirty, smelly Marines, armed and threatening, and I am suddenly more tired than ever.
I glance at Sgt. W_____, our scout squad leader, and I can tell he's thinking the same thing I am.
"This is fucked up, Sergeant," I say. "We want these people to help us stop the insurgency and we're taking away their only means of self-protection because they don't have permits that we can't tell them how to get."
"Yeah," he agrees, and sighs. I watch furtively as he thinks about it and the room goes quiet for a few tense minutes.
"Fuck it," he decides finally, and relief and elation wash over me. We let him keep the rifle, thank him for the chow, try to offer him payment, and leave, and as we return a few of the other AKs, I feel good, extremely good, for the first time like I've made a difference. I feel like I've done something really good, like I've shielded the little guy from the bullshit that trickles down from above, from some asshole in an armchair with a heavy collar, who has no idea what's going on down on the ground. I feel like maybe we've made a friend and an ally, and left him armed against a common enemy.
I've lost track of how long we've been here now, I changed into my only extra pair of socks a couple of days ago, and my junk is approaching maxiumum funkiness. I just smoked my last cigarette, so I'm burning some incense we found in the school we're using as a patrol base, and at night I sleep under some blankets I scrounged up in same. During the day, the Dam comes into view, but they're telling us we'll be moving to another area within the city and we'll be there for 48 more hours.