*Retold with permission.
When we were doing clearing operations last tour, we’d frequently move through whole neighborhoods that had been cleaned out and abandoned – many of them abruptly, if not violently. I imagine that many were killed before they had a chance to flee. We spent a fair amount of our time in a town called Gazalia.
Just looking around, you could see that it used to have beautiful streets with lavish homes, but six years of war, neglect and poverty had taken its toll. The buildings were often abandoned, the walls riddled with bullet holes, and once-gorgeous yards now covered in trash. We called one neighborhood the “Bowling Alley.”
Every AO [area of operations] has place like this; a stretch of road or a neighborhood where US forces are always get fired upon or blown up and the aggressors could quickly retreat into the alleys and disappear. In our case, the bowling alley was two streets divided by a long, open field, which I presume at one time was a well-kept lawn. After years of conflict, it’d been transformed into nothing more than a trash dump. On the outer edges of the streets to either side of the field, were large, two-story houses. Though many showed overt signs of war, it was obvious that the area used to be beautiful. Now, many homes were abandoned, and those few who elected to stay had somehow survived untold violence.
As we’d sweep through, we’d occupy a house for the night. There were always more than enough to choose from. Once we’d settled in I always tried to figure out what happened to the occupants. Because so many had left in a hurry, there was more than enough evidence. With a little patience, you could learn their entire story, up to a point. One house in particular sticks with me.
After we’d moved in that evening and set up the guard rotation, I started looking through some of the possessions the occupants had left behind. In this case, there was a surprisingly large collection of photographs.
In the beginning of the albums, I found old childhood pictures of a boy, shot in a background not too dissimilar to the one we were now in. From those, I more or less concluded that he was a native of Iraq. But he didn’t stay in Iraq.
I found a number of photos of him attending college – somewhere in Europe, actually. It would be him and a few of his friends; typical college shots of them hanging out somewhere or getting dressed up to go out for the evening. There were photos of him receiving his degree, and eventually photos of him earning certification as a doctor. He always looked happy in those shots. Then there were more of him back in Iraq.
Those photos showed him in Spartan conditions again, in a small house with meager furnishings, but as the timeline progressed, his surroundings improved. There’d be shots of him in his clinic, then with nicer clothing, then shots of him with his clinic staff, him in a white coat, and eventually a few where he was wearing a suit. He also apparently moved to a lavish home, too.
From other photos mixed in, I could also see that he’d met his wife and gotten married at some point along the way, and in time there were photos of the two of them with children, infants at first. By the end of the album’s record, there were two adult sons, the doctor’s wife, and maybe a younger daughter, too.
As a doctor, he must have been making a good living, too, because I found photos of them touring in Europe, and even a few of them visiting the United States. And then abruptly, the timeline, the records, and the photos just stopped.
From the photos, and also from some of the other papers I found, I could tell that this man and his family rushed to leave. After all, who, when moving methodically, leaves family photo albums? Not only this, but I even found his degrees and medical license among his possessions. No doubt, they’d left hurriedly. I wanted to know what happened to them, if they were alive, and if they were safe.
Whenever we first entered any area for clearing operations, we’d receive a pretty cold reception. It was understandable, since we were blocking roads, walking through homes and interrupting personal lives, but we always made every effort to do it respectfully, disturb as little as possible, and treat the locals with dignity. And because of that, they’d usually warm up to us fairly quickly. One family went so far as to invite us in, offer us chai [tea], cheese, bread and dates. They were relieved to see us in their neighborhood. After a time, I asked them about the doctor’s empty house. It was like opening a floodgate.
They explained that a few years back, one terrorist organization or another came through and started threatening a number of the locals. Many left in fear of their lives, and many more were approached and given deadlines. If they didn’t leave within the allotted period of time, they would be killed, as would their entire families. That, this family explained, is what happened to the doctor and his family. About three years ago, he was approached, told to leave, and with little more preparation than packing a few clothes, he fled with his family. His whereabouts since then were unknown, but he was probably out of the country. He’d left nearly everything. I still think about him, though, and many others.
When people think of the Army, they often mistakenly think of one word: “kill.” It doesn’t occur to them that we have other purposes, like preventing violence. While we may have been sent here to conduct a war, we were also sent to help prevent several more. At the time of that clearing operation, sectarian violence was at its peak, and the slightest provocation would commence regular kidnapping, killing and bombs. In many ways, the purpose of our war was to prevent a sectarian war from consuming the country. And personally, it was a rewarding mission.
We weren’t here just to kill people. In fact, we never were. We’re here to preserve the lives of the innocent from brutality, fear, and coercion. I enjoy what I do, I enjoy leading Soldiers, and I’d like to think we’re making a difference. I want to leave here knowing that these people are safe at least in part because of our efforts. Ideally, I want those who fled to feel safe enough to come home. When all those who fled have been safely and voluntarily repatriated to their own homes and properties, I’ll feel satisfied that we’ve completed our mission. As it stands, just 30 minutes ago, a car bomb detonated outside the Iraqi base here with a handful of deaths and several wounded. Though drastically reduced, the violence continues. And so, we still continue to work.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved