American troops keep the peace during a typical shift in 'the Bag'
BAGHDAD, Iraq — At about 10:30 p.m., Sgt. 1st Class Terry Daniel’s platoon stretched rolls of concertina wire across a four-lane thoroughfare to snare Iraqi motorists breaking curfew.
An eerie moon cast enough illumination for shadows, but the soldiers mostly scampered around in the dark as they set up machine-gun nests and parked their massive M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles.
Iraqi drivers know to slow down and put on their emergency flashers when they approach well-armed soldiers at night. But before 11 p.m., Daniel waved them past.
“We’ve got 30 minutes until show time. Then we’re cooking with Crisco,” Daniel said, using GI slang for being ready for their mission.
Daniel, a 30-year-old platoon sergeant from Cleveland, offered advice to troops from 2nd Platoon, Company A, 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment, but let junior sergeants take the lead as the Friedberg, Germany-based unit took up positions in the Iraqi capital in early June.
In charge of his first traffic control point, Sgt. Charles Hicks, 28, of Baltimore, called the troops in for a huddle. Hicks went over baseball terminology that soldiers call out to each other to control the action.
“Batter up” — a car arrives.
“First base” — the car and drivers are being checked.
“Home run” — the car is cleared to leave.
“Then there’s ‘foul ball,’ which means something bad happened,” Hicks said.
Tanks from Company C, 2nd Battalion, 37th Armored Regiment arrived to set up their own checkpoint — their captain claiming that the infantrymen were in their sector.
At 11:03 p.m., the soldiers were in place as two headlights crossed the bridge from Saddam City, one of Baghdad’s worst slums, and stopped just short of the checkpoint.
Pfc. Brian Segay, 24, a Navajo from Winter Rock, Ariz., trained his rifle on the driver as Hicks spoke to him through a translator. The man had no identification papers.
“Ask him why he’s out after 11,” Hicks said. “He knows the rules.”
The interpreter, a 25-year-old Iraqi named Omar, is not used to barking soldiers or interrogating his own people, but he learned that the man lost his wallet to thieves and was going to visit an injured friend in the hospital.
“Tell him to go this time, but don’t be out so late,” Hicks said to Omar. Another car pulled up from behind carrying six older men dressed in Arab garb who also claimed to be visiting a sick friend in the hospital.
Each was frisked while Hicks checked their run-down red Toyota. Their papers checked out and they carried no weapons, so they were sent on their way.
Then, a car full of drunks rolled up. Just like in the States, the five inebriated men refused to follow instructions, but the soldiers were the law.
“Get this guy out and zip strip him,” Daniel called out. “He wants to smoke a cigarette and not put his hands on his head.”
Sgt. Jeremy Moon, 25, a country boy from Shenandoah, Va., yanked the chubby Iraqi from the car and bound his hands with black plastic strips. In garrison, Moon is quiet and keeps to himself. He’s called Dungeon master, because he oversees the platoon’s running Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game. But on the streets, Moon morphs into a hardcore grunt, swearing and fuming at the uncooperative Iraqis.
It’s medically called bipolar, Moon joked. “I just stop thinking about family and focus on the mission.”
While Moon cuffed the drunks, Pfc. Wayne Bjorkman, 19, of White Bear Lake, Minn., trained his M-16 on their every move. In a ditch along the roadside, Pfc. Tim Leshney, 19, of Lexington, Ky., and Pfc. Jason Klingensmith, 25, of Phoenix, kept their M240B machine gun ready.
“They’re drunk and they broke curfew,” Daniel said. “We’re just going to let them cool off. It’s for their own good.”
By 1 a.m., the street was quiet, except for the drunk Iraqis complaining about their detention. After a couple of hours, Daniel cut them loose.
Then, the only sound was a tiny black kitten, wandering lost along the curb. Its crying meows faded into the darkness.
When the sun rises, the infantry soldiers are still at work, trying to keep their neighborhood safe. It’s amazing how little sleep 2nd Platoon gets, and yet the soldiers keep going.
Each morning, hundreds of trucks line up outside the U.N. World Food Program distribution center.
Company A took over security from the 2nd Squadron, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, said Staff Sgt. Ryan Creech, 28, of Atlanta.
“We’re controlling access and making rounds so no one tries to steal the food,” Creech said. “We also patrol to a nearby girls school to deter kidnappings.”
In a nearby tower, Pfc. Oronde Homan, 20, of Detroit, and Pfc. Ramon Jiminez, 19, of West Palm Beach, Fla., passed long hours toying with their own fan club of local children.
“They keep bugging you, ‘Meester, meester, gimme, gimme,’ ” Homan said. “They want anything from a spoon to hand sanitizer.”
The Bradley’s rear ramp opened and the squad members clambered inside. Their feet vibrate as the Bradley’s tracks rumble through Baghdad’s streets. The ramp drops, and they are outside the Rasheed Bank, where Sgt. Eric Graessly, 22, of San Francisco, and his squad are guarding sealed vaults.
Robbers, called “Ali Baba” as in “The Arabian Nights,” made unsuccessful attempts to cut into the banks’ two vaults with a blowtorch, said Louy Habib, a local security man.
“No one knows how much money is inside,” Graessly said.
Down the road, Staff Sgt. Jason Audiss, 29, of Portage, Wis., spends his morning chasing off black marketers at the Palestine gas station. While his soldiers control seemingly endless lines of cars entering the station, gas peddlers fill up containers, then sell the fuel for double the price a block away, Audiss said. But that’s nothing his bayonet can’t cure.
“I just pop holes in their jerry cans. They’re breaking the law, but they’re not a threat,” Audiss said. “And they’re always back in a day or two.”
When Ali Tawfik, the gas station manager, learned that the soldiers would not continue their 12-hour shifts for periodic checks, he approached Daniel with pleas.
“We have no protection if you go,” Tawfik said. “If someone comes here with a weapon, what should we do?”
Daniel knows his soldiers have several tasks in the months ahead and made no promises.
“We’ll try to work something out,” Daniel said.
Packs of boys cluster around the soldiers, often bringing handfuls of bullets they found. Gunshots ring out and Audiss’ squad runs to find the attackers, who flee as quickly as they fight.
Soliders shortened Vietnam to “Nam,” and referred to Mogadishu, Somalia, as “the Mog.”
“This,” Audiss said, “it’s just another day in ‘the Bag.’ ”
Company A knows it could be worse
Back at Raider Ranch, the former school testing building that serves as Company A’s barracks, soldiers can relax in air-conditioned rooms or sun themselves on a large balcony.
They know by Baghdad standards that they are living pretty well. Other 1st Armored Division soldiers are living in rough conditions. Company A soldiers’ biggest fear is that the battalion staff will move in and force them out.
A local man and his sons sell sodas, cookies and homemade potato chips from a small corner office.
In the evenings, vendors arrive with hamburgers on pita bread and grease- soaked french fries. Guys sift through care packages, write letters home and play handheld video games. Occasionally, they argue about who is better — light or mechanized infantry.
Some guys sleep on the floor. Others make beds from large tables or by putting rows of chairs together. Their toilets are little more than a hole in the floor to squat over.
Most troops wash their filthy uniforms by hand in small, round wash basins. A few found an Iraqi hospital in their sector that will do laundry, but it’s at their own risk. And a U.S. uniform carries a hefty price on the local black market, so troops are wary of handing their clothes over to strangers.
Five times a day, the mosque towers serenade the troops as they try to catch up on sleep.
Soldiers are taught to improve their battle position. That often means adding creature comforts that will help alleviate the stress from the streets.
While patrolling nearby markets, the soldiers price everything from televisions to satellite telephones, with hopes that they can pool their money and return to buy a little piece of home.
“They need something to do on their down time,” said Sgt. 1st Class Terry Daniel. “You can’t expect soldiers to just sleep and patrol.”
— Rick Scavetta