Friday, January 16, 2009

Things We Saw, But Nobody Will Ever Believe

These are accounts from several people:

We were doing a VCP [vehicle checkpoint, where all vehicles are searched and allowed to pass] in Mahmudiyah in the middle of the night, and we get a call over the net that there’s a black BMW that’s loaded with dudes, and they’re going to ambush us. They had just turned around and run from another checkpoint somewhere in the city.

So we start looking out for a car like that and before long, we see one coming towards our checkpoint. We run up to it, rifles up, and scream at them to stop and get out. They do, and we search the whole car – nothing at all. Not a thing. And they had the tape deck going. It was the Gun ‘n Roses album “Appetite for Destruction.” We weren’t sure if they were hostile or not, but if they were, it’d be really weird for them to come try to kill Americans listening to our own music. We sent them in for questioning, anyway, because their stories didn’t match up at all. Each one of them said they were going to a different place.

We were manning VCPs over Tampa [largest highway in Iraq, running from Kuwait too Baghdad], and we kept getting cars come up to us with strange stickers on their back windows. Like for local politicians somewhere in Missouri, or even Marine Corps stickers. I have no idea where they got them, but they were really proud of them. They’d pose with us for pictures with their thumbs up, grinning happily.

I knew a guy that had a small truck run on his position, and after the guy ignored their orders to stop, they ended up shooting him and stopping his approach. Well, when they searched the truck, they didn’t find anything. But for some reason, he had a Marine Corps sticker on his back window. Sometimes I wonder if they thought we’d let them through if they had USMC stickers on their cars. We didn’t, though. And we never figured it out.

When we were patrolling west of Ramadi, we’d frequently drive into this small town near our base in the early morning when everything was still blanketed in a layer of mist. We’d see a white donkey on the roadside all the time. I think he’d escaped and nobody bothered to catch him again. But we’d see him almost every day, just trudging along the side of the road and looking miserable – like donkeys always do, I guess.

Anyway, we started calling him the spirit donkey, because every time we’d drive through in the morning, we’d see him along the side of the road – or IN the road – and he’d always have a little bit of rope dangling from his halter. Wandering around like he was lost. One day we saw him as we rode through, but across one entire side of his body he had “USA” painted in huge, blue letters. I have no idea who did it, but I almost asked the platoon commander to stop so I could take a picture. I still regret not asking him. That would be my favorite shot from Iraq.

When I was training Iraqi soldiers, they always spoke fondly of America, mostly California and New York. They’d always ask me where I was from, and since none of them had ever heard of Virginia, I’d draw a map of the country in the dirt, point out California, New York, Florida, and then show them were Virginia was. And they were always disappointed. Then they’d ask me if I liked Michael Jackson. After I got over being incredulous that they DID like him, I would imitate some of Jackson’s early dances and they’d cheer me on. They loved that guy – and his one glove. We searched a lot of cars that had Michael Jackson tapes in the glove compartments. These guys have awful taste in music.

I was in a convoy one time and we were riding through a bad neighborhood where we got hit with IEDs all the time. Well, as we were driving, I see about three young men standing on the side of road just watching us like hawks. As we pass, one of them raises his hand in the air with something and shakes it as us.

“Stop the friggin’ convoy,” I screamed into the radio, so we all screech to a halt and a bunch of us go running back down the convoy to those guys and scream at them to get on the ground.

I spoke a fair bit of Arabic at the time, so I started yelling at them. “Show me the cell phone. Where is it?” We assumed they were going to detonate an IED with it.

They all looked me and said they had no phone. Right. We searched them, and they had nothing. And we even checked their car – no phone.

“Where’d you hide it? Where’s the phone?” I imitated the gesture that I saw the guy do. Maybe they’d figure out what I meant if they weren’t understanding the Arabic.

The little kid with them pipes up. “This?” He imitated the hand waving in the air.

“Yes. So where’s the phone, huh?”

This friggin’ kid runs to the car, digs in the glove compartment, and comes running back. He waves his hand in the air – with a Michael Jackson tape in his hand. THRILLER. That was the cell phone. We were about to truss them up and arrest them. Oops.

I was on a big mission one time, a cordon and knock [completely surround an area and search every structure within it], and we were reinforcing an ING post [Iraqi National Guard – predecessor to the Iraqi Army]. It was still dark when we got there, and as the sun came up, more ING guys came out of their bunker, relieved the guys on post, and started talking with us.

This huge guy comes out. He looked like a wrestler. Just big and stocky. He soaks his hair with a water bottle, slicks it back, and looks up yelling. “Me crazy!” he tells us. Yeah, that’s for sure.

But then he says, “America good.” Yes it is.

“America good. Michael Jackson bad. He viki-viki little boys.” Viki-viki isn’t something I need to define. You can figure it out. I guess at least one guy in Iraq doesn’t like Michael Jackson.

Whenever we found weapons caches buried in people’s yards, or search bodies of insurgents, we frequently found LBVs [load bearing vests – with magazine pouches for ammo]. While some of them were old Iraqi army shit or even Russian stuff, a LOT of them were Ralph Lauren or Tommy Hilfiger. I know they weren’t actually made by those companies, but who the hell decided to put that logo on it? And, where were they made? We never figured it out.

For whatever reason, literally half the cars in Iraq are white Opals, and nearly all of the other half are small, blue “Bongo” trucks – with rear tires smaller than the front. They were all pieces of crap, but I don’t know where they were made. Some of our guys thought they were great trucks.

Almost every day, we’d be out on a mission and they’d call over the net that we should be on the lookout for a white opal or a blue bongo truck loaded with insurgents and guns. What are we supposed to do? Stop and search everything? We didn’t have the time. After awhile, we just started ignoring the alert. If they shot at us, we’d shoot back. Simple. But when they blew up, it was a different story. Only a few did, though. White Opals every time. Well, one guy I know got hit by an Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme – one of like the four in Iraq.

During the initial invasion, the Iraqis were all terrified of Marines. They knew that the heavy gun teams had trucks loaded with huge machine guns and missiles. They called us “little trucks with the big guns.” Or, because we always roll up our sleeves and you can see the much lighter interior fabric, they’d call us “men with the white sleeves.”

But they also thought we were nuts. Some of them were so convinced we were lunatics, that they started telling the other Iraqis that in order to be Marines, we had to eat our parents, or babies, or kill off entire your family – depends on who you ask. No shit. They actually told people this. We found this out when they started doing the interrogations.

Another rumor that went around about Marines in the first year of the war was that our sunglasses were magic. If we wore them, we had x-ray vision. We would see through their wives’ clothing. Seriously. When we found out, we started taking off our sunglasses whenever we talked to them so they’d calm down a little bit. They were firmly convinced we were staring at their wives.

We patrolled one town all the time where there was a retarded boy that would stand on the shoulder and wave to us every time he saw us. He’d stomp his feet and clap his hands and cheer. We felt sorry for him, so we always greeted him right back, which was pretty neat.

But then, we’d drive across town, and he’d be there again somehow. Miles away, within minutes. We knew he didn’t drive, so we had no idea how he did it. We started calling him the Amazing Teleporting Retard. It sounds insulting, but we were pretty impressed with his special skills, no pun intended. The town we were in had NO insurgent activity at all. So we started thinking it was the Teleporting Retard that kept them away. Whatever.

We were doing LPOPs one night [listening post/observation post] and what we’d typically do is patrol for awhile, then knock on some random peoples’ door and tell them we were going to sleep on their roof and watch observe the area when the sun got up – and hopefully nobody would know we where there. We did this all the time, and we were always really nice to the people, so it usually went okay.

Well, one time, we knocked on a door and some guy answers. He has a HUGE head like a basketball – it was freaky. And behind him, he had a bunch of kids with pinheads. And they no power in there so we just saw it with flashlights, which made it even more disturbing. We’re talking like horror movie stuff – the movie “Freaks.” It looked like a circus. My buddy turns to me. “Man, we can’t stay here. These people are scary.” We all stumbled out of there and never, ever searched it again, even though it was in an area that was known to be full of insurgents. It was one of the most horrifying things I saw.

Actually, not exactly. There was one time we were patrolling and suddenly I see a man GALLOPING at us like a dog – he had stumps for legs and arms. I was like, “Holy shit; it’s Wolf Man!” I started to raise my gun. Then he just gallops up to me on his stumps, sits back, and says, “hello mista.’” It freaked me out.

When we were leaving out of Iraq on my first tour, we had to drive in a huge convoy from the center of Iraq all the way south into Kuwait. It was usually a two or three day drive. We were almost into Kuwait, and we pulled off the highway onto an overpass to head to a base, and I looked back onto the highway below us. There, with each letter larger than a car, I saw the following message:

“America, Fuck Yeah.”

It was a great thing to see as we put Iraq behind us. I flew over it at least four more times, but I never saw it again. I’ll bet somebody made people go out there with cleaners and brushes and scrub it off. And probably not the guys who did it. I wish it was still there.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


Uncle Caesar said...

Too bad you couldn't bring the donkey home.

Sarah said...

My favorite story is the magic sunglasses.
Whoa... that rumor mill in Iraq is over the top.

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