Saturday, July 02, 2005

Walking the Line IV

LT Noah Harris in Buhriz

The Fine Line

Baghdad, Iraq
It's a dusty walk through blowing heat to the crowded mess hall at Camp Victory. I don't really know anyone here. To pass the time while eating, I sometimes imagine I'm sitting alone in a jungle with insects chirping and birds singing through the thickness, the fresh smell of green jungle and running water. It could be Costa Rica, or the jungle of Laos, or best of all, the Appalachians in spring. Settled down next to an icy stream, I'm just laying there, reading a book and drifting into sleep.

Here in Mesopotamia the thump and rumble of car bombs shudder through the base every day. One bomb last night sounded especially large, or maybe it was just close. Probably both. There were a couple of people killed by bombs in Baghdad yesterday. Or maybe it was a few dozen. No sense in trying to keep track; today will be more and tomorrow will be more again. The accountants of war have been busy. Some are saying there have been nearly 500 car bombs in Iraq over the last year. Last night, the base got mortared, or rocketed close by; seven of our people were wounded. I found out after someone told me in passing the next day.
The Associated Press reported that car bombs in Mosul are so prevalent that police have banned trunk lids on taxis. Actually, the trunk-lid idea came from an Army captain named Paul Carron. He not only thought the whole thing up but also negotiated with the union that represents taxi drivers, and then gave credit for the idea to the cops. I see Captain Carron often when I am in Mosul; soldiers like Paul Carron are making this work.

Today, here in Baghdad, CSM Mellinger will head to a Combat Support Hospital (CSH) in less than an hour. In soldier patois the CSH is "the cash," and in military parlance, a "casualty" is any person who no longer fully functions due to something: Wounded, sick, killed, missing in action, or just gone crazy, anything corporeal that takes a soldier off the fighting roster makes for a casualty.

Nearing the mess hall, two helicopters fly low overhead and disappear, the sharp sounds of automatic weapons fire cut into the familiar rhythm of the rotars stirring the dusty mass of boiling air. It would be nice to be scuba diving in the Pacific today. Armed soldiers at the mess hall check my ID, "Thank you sir," says a sergeant, and he waves me in. Looks like I will be eating alone. I pick up a copy of The Stars and Stripes, the only newspaper around. Many soldiers call it the Stars and Lies, but in reality the paper is mostly a synthesis of mainstream media sources—anything from Michael Jackson to military scandals, right up to parochial, “hometown” military stories.

The banner atop the Stripes reads:

Lawmakers upset with pace of Marines’ up armor program

STARS AND STRIPES - The headlines:
No Change expected in Iraq troop levels:
U.S. general sees no reductions before December elections Page 3

They must be talking about Lt. General Vines, I think. Vines became an Army officer in 1971, before most of the soldiers in Iraq were born. I flip to page 3 and read that Lt. General Vines is indeed the man they quoted. I've noticed lately that the military top brass seems to be carefully trying to distance themselves from civilian leaders, who seem to be carefully trying to gloss over the situation here. Clearly we are winning, but it's tough going.

Underneath that story is another:
U.S. ambassador ‘horrified’ by attacks on Iraqis

Also on page 3 is the daily war accounting by the Associated Press:
U.S. deaths in Iraq

As of Monday, it says, at least 1,721 members of the US military have died since the beginning of the Gulf War in March 2003. I usually skip that part; I don’t want to learn about the death of a friend in the paper, but there are several names and my eyes arrest on Army 1st Lt. Noah Harris, 23, Ellijay, Ga. Noah Harris? Noah Harris? But it didn’t say what unit. Yes, there it is, "Died Saturday from injuries received the previous day when their vehicle was attacked in Buhriz." It was Noah. I lose my appetite and walk back out.

LT Noah Harris on the path to the beehives

The last time I saw Noah was during a big raid in Buhriz when his unit found weapons and bad guys in the houses. I followed Noah and his soldiers into the palm groves nearby where they found weapons. There were a bunch of beehives stacked next to the river and someone said, "that would be the perfect place to hide shit."

There were dozens of bustling beehives; the locals have citrus trees planted among the palms, and I imagined the bees were there to pollinate the orange trees. That's how it works in Florida. Most of the soldiers sleeked back from the bees, but one walked forward and said, "We can search, guys . . . just have to be slow. Nice and slow." And he started lifting up covers, nice and slow, and looking inside.

"Ain'ch you ever heard of African killa bees?" asked a soldier.
"You ever done that before?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said. "These are just regular bees."
"Reg'la bees sting too!" said the killa-bees soldier.

The hive-checking soldier wasn't running away under an angry cloud of bees, which I took as an endorsement of his apiarian credentials, and I started lifting covers, too. Nice and slow. Then, a couple more soldiers started checking hives, which really would have been a great place to hide weapons. But most of the others stayed back. Then I said, "Can you imagine if we take some RPGs now? These bees are gonna sting." And that's when the lieutenant said, "Let's go!"

That was one of the last missions I did in Baquba, and it was the last time I saw Lt. Noah Harris, the same Lt. Noah Harris the Stars and Stripes reports killed in action. I am supposed to meet CSM Mellinger in twenty minutes for a trip to "the cash." He visits hospitalized soldiers twice a week. I grab my gear, we load up the Humvee and drive off base.

Just as we pass through the front gate, SSG Billy Helton's voice comes over the internal comms, announcing that we are passing the spot where six people died in a car bomb yesterday.

When we reach the hospital, CSM Mellinger and an Australian senior enlisted sailor head inside, taking off their battle gear before making the rounds. The doctors, nurses and other staff seem pleased to see Mellinger and eager to start guiding us to the patients. Our first stop is by the room of an American soldier. He's got a bad thigh wound, –fragged by an IED– but he's sedated, breathing through a tube. CSM Mellinger asks questions about his condition. Apparently, the frag barely missed his right femoral. The soldier is lying there, unconscious and shirtless. He's got a dog tag tattooed over his right ribs that tell his blood type, social, and that he's Catholic. The CSM puts his hand on the patient's shoulder and quietly says something to him, and then we head to a nearby room.

There are three Iraqi patients in this room: two men and a woman. One of the men is a wounded Iraqi policeman. The woman is young, perhaps in her twenties, and she's lost both legs to an IED. The other man has a stomach wound that is stinking up the room.

We head down the hallway and into a room with two patients; an Iraqi man who is unconscious and breathing erratically, and little Iraqi girl. A nurse says the girl is eleven. She is sedated, her face is very pink, her skin has been burned. She has no shirt and her chest and stomach are smooth and without injury. She breathes slowly and regularly but her hands are horribly burned, charred and cracked, covered in some kind of medicine. She's been here for three weeks, a nurse explains, but the girl has a long way to go before she can be released. The girl could have been blown to bits, but the flash of the bomb only burned her, searing her skin as if over a grill. Flash burns are common; soldiers often cut off the fingers of their gloves for better dexterity, only to end up with charred fingertips, such as this little girl suffered on her hands and face. The mercy of her sedation doesn't extend to her visitors, visibly upset to see one so little so badly hurt. The Australian slowly shakes his head. "Where are her parents?" I asked the nurse. Her father is living at the hospital until his child can get skin grafts. The staff provides her father—along with any other parents of wounded children—rooms to live in, and meals while they stay and care for their children. The Australian sailor looks saddened as he puts a stuffed animal at the foot of her bed.

Lying in a bed close to the burned girl is a man who's been shot three times in the torso. He's an insurgent. He looks to be in his forties. His face is several tones darker than his bare chest. Blankets cover his legs, but the soles of his feet are thick, like dog pads; filth so embedded that it has become part of the skin. The feet look as if they have walked around the earth without shoes. He is heavily sedated. “Why did we shoot him?” I asked. Apparently we caught him–in flagrante deflagratu–emplacing an IED.

Hearing the details of the shooting, I recall an interpreter who was severely burned in an attack that killed two of our soldiers in Mosul. The interpreter was flown to Amman for treatment. But infection beat him there in Jordan. He died because he couldn't get the authorization for us to provide the treatment, yet this enemy is given excellent medical care.

The man sucked a labored gasp, followed by erratic puffs and pants, before his breathing settled again. His mouth hanging agape, showed jagged teeth. This dreg was probably hired for a few beans to plant a bomb in the road, or perhaps he met a man in a mosque selling martyrdom as the fast track to Heaven. But he looked too old, poor and weathered to muster much excitement about virgins in Heaven. Judging from the looks of his jagged teeth and craggy face, his slim belly and leathered feet, this man was no officer in Saddam's military machine. His grasp of politics probably did not exceed the reach of his scrawny arms. He was a pitiful beast with no business recovering in the same room as that innocent little girl with the scorched face and charred hands.

But it's all about the rules and laws, made perhaps by people sitting at long shiny tables beneath crystal domes, far far away. One thing is certain, soldiers at war didn't make the rule that put the perpetrator of a crime in the same room as a young victim.


Close by, at the Al-Rasheed Hotel:

Sergeant Arnold Duplantier of the California National Guard was on the roof of the Al-Rasheed Hotel providing security, probably while journalists journalized on the floors below him. A hot dusty wind tinged the whole of Baghdad a pale orange. The enemy sniper steadied the rifle on his shoulder, put the sights on Arnold Duplantier, and began squeezing the trigger.


Back in the hospital, we walked down the hall, stopping in a room where more children were recovering from injuries caused by enemy IEDs. There was a boy and a girl in the same room. Brother and sister. He was eleven; his sister in the next bed was sixteen years. The children did not speak English, and the nurse said they had been very afraid of the Americans at first, but now they smiled and the girl tried to speak English.

After the smiles and fractured conversation, we walked to a nurse's station. CSM Mellinger asked if they had figured out what was causing so many soldiers to get cellulitis, which is an inflammation that results from bacteria entering cracked, burned or otherwise opened skin. Down this hall, we visited a Marine gunny sergeant who was wounded for at least the second time. The "Gunny" was an impatient patient and wanted to get back with his Marines. His roommate was a young Army soldier with blepharitis, a swollen eyelid. He was grumpy and didn't seem to want company, or to be in the hospital and probably not Iraq, either. Some soldiers do not like it here, no matter how smooth their blephars are, and they make no effort to hide it.

In yet another room an army sergeant was in high spirits, despite being sidelined by some kind of cellulitis. He also wanted to get back to his soldiers and was embarrased to be sidelined by the unseen.

More than half of the patients in the hospital were Iraqis. Among the other half was a Romanian civilian who had been providing security until he got shot in the leg. Now, he was in healthy spirits, but in that Romanian way—looking askance with slightly raised brows as if to say, "I am skeptical, cynical, and clever . . . and I expect to suffer a thousand lies for every blade of truth, and I will drink you into submission and you will tell more than you intended you fool!" Actually, he seemed a pleasant fellow.

When we left the Romanian with the raised brow and immobilized leg, we trod downstairs into what amounted to an emergency room. A wounded soldier had just been brought in. There were other soldiers wearing 3rd Infantry Division patches, the same division Noah was in. The soldiers were sweating and grimy the way soldiers look after working in the heat and dust of Iraq. Their ammunition pouches were mostly full, so I doubted they had been in a big fight, but something was wrong.

We walked into a small room where a soldier lay face up, eyes closed. His hair was cut short to the nubs. Arnold Duplantier was in a black body bag with the corner folded back. He was shirtless. The sniper's bullet had found the opening in his body armor and gone straight into his chest and through his heart. CSM Mellinger puts his hand on Arnold's shoulder, pats the shoulder and then places his hand on Arnold's head, as if to say something to Arnold. Another young soldier bear hugs CSM Mellinger the way a son might hug a father after a brother dies. The soldier weeps and Mellinger holds him and I feel I am intruding and so quietly walk out. There are times when soldiers should be left alone.

Some of Arnold's friends were there, but others were still out in the fight. The sniper was still working; he hit two more of our soldiers after killing Arnold Duplantier. A group of soldiers wheeled another soldier through the doors. He'd been shot slightly in the neck, and was smiling and even waved as his buddies wheeled him in, apparently oblivious that Arnold was killed.

Arnold Duplantier had run his final patrol, and as soldiers from his unit began to flood in, they crowded the back of the room where the body of their fallen comrade lay. When the soldiers left the room, tears streaming down their cheeks, their sergeant major rallied them by saying that now was not the time for tears. There was work to do. The sniper who had killed one comrade and wounded two others was still out there. The men straightened up and started getting back into the fight. There will be time for tears, he said, but not today.