Save the Rainforests
Inside the Alamo, soldiers that have just come off of a guard shift lay fully clothed on green, sweat stained cots. Two small rooms have been outfitted with air conditioning, and they have crammed a dozen cots into each. Others lay sprawled on the uneven tile floor, their noses buried in month old copies of well-worn magazines and tattered paperback books.
Coming off of my rounds I can’t seem to find the energy to get up and find a spare cot, so I sit in a chair in the CP and doze.
Yawning, I cover my mouth and glance at my watch.
The hottest part of the day.
Leaning back in the chair, I stretch out my tired muscles, close my eyes and think of home.
Outside the window to the CP, there is a deafening explosion.
I am suddenly wide awake.
The soldiers sleeping on the cots jerk awake, looking sleepily at one another in confusion and alarm.
There is a second explosion.
“What the fuck?!”
The soldiers curse as they throw themselves out of their cots and in an organized scramble, snatch up their body armor and run to their battle stations.
Someone outside is shouting.
We are being mortared.
I find myself on my feet, reaching for the radio.
The I-Com clicks and I hear the excited voice of one of the soldiers on the roof. He is a private, and he shouts excitedly into the radio.
“CP this is Gun 2!”
“Gun 2 this is CP, send it!”
“A house across the street just exploded!”
My whole train of thought stops.
A house just exploded.
What the hell? Outside I can hear the thundering crash of other explosions. They seem to be moving further and further away.
After the fourth explosion there is silence outside.
The silence is deafening.
Glancing out of the door to the CP, I can see that all of the cots are empty. The soldiers have moved to their battle positions, and the Alamo is now at full security.
The mortar attack may be the prelude to a VBIED attack or a ground assault.
I key the handset again.
“Gun 2, tell me exactly what you saw.”
This time the calmer voice of the Sergeant of the Guard replies. He had gone to the roof to check for damages and assess the situation.
“Roger Sir, it looks like something hit the building just south of the Alamo. Probably a mortar round. Whatever it was caused an explosion on the roof. We counted four other explosions. All south of the Alamo running in a line moving east to west.”
“Roger, so the house didn’t explode.”
“That’s a negative sir.”
In the background, I hear the private swear in a sheepish voice.
Things are making a hell of a lot more sense.
I can’t help but smile.
“Alright, get a team together and meet me at the front gate. Let’s check out the damage and see if anyone has been hurt.”
After notifying Battalion about the attack, I shrug on the rest of my gear and head out into the harsh sunlight. I instantly break out into an uncomfortable sweat beneath the body armor.
A squad of soldiers is assembled and ready to move out. This soon after a mortar attack the soldiers are still tense. They grip their rifles and scan for trouble as we move out of the chicane.
In the town, people are beginning to emerge from their houses. They walk from house to house and check on one another after the attack.
To the southeast, a skinny, barefoot boy is standing at the corner of an intersection. He has dark, curly hair and is wearing striped blue shorts and a green shirt.
I do a doubletake.
“Save the Rainforests” is printed in bold yellow lettering on his tattered green t-shirt.
The irony is painful.
I turn to the squad leader standing next to me.
“Alright, let’s go check out the house that was hit and see what kind of damage was done.”
He motions to his squad, and they begin to fall into teams, spreading out to provide security on both sides of the street. Turning west, we pass near a small huddle of women, dressed head to toe in an all encompassing black. They fall silent as we pass by, and then they continue their hushed discussion.
There is stillness to the air.
As if the town is holding its breath.
A middle age man walks up to the squad as we move thru a trash strewn alley, stepping gingerly over fetid pools of liquid green waste. He is wearing a long, white cotton robe, with yellow sweat stains under the armpits. His teeth are crooked and they shine a dull yellow in his dark, sagging face.
Walking up, he turns and speaks to Max, the interpreter. Max looks like something of a pirate, with a bandanna pulled up over his face and his dark, expressionless eyes looking out underneath heavy brows. Max has a threatening, brooding presence about him, and the man is hesitant to approach him.
Max turns to me.
“Sir, this is the house of the man that was hit.”
“Ok, tell him to show us his house and show us the damage.”
The man listens to Max, and turns abruptly around heading down the muck strewn street. He keeps a fast pace, his sandaled feet stepping neatly over the heaps of refuse stacked up against the walls of the crumbling yellow brick buildings.
Up ahead, I can see the house described by the Sergeant of the Guard. The two story building rises haphazardly into the sky, as if the second level was added as an afterthought. Still, the house shows signs of wealth, with a pigeon coop on the roof, and clear glass windows.
Approaching the house, I quickly reassess the situation.
There is not a single pane of glass left unbroken.
In fact, there is no glass left unbroken in the windows of the houses on the other side of the street either.
The blast from the mortar round has shattered the flimsy, single paned windows, blowing fragments of jagged glass out into the dirt and dust.
We are lucky that there weren’t any serious casualties.
Looking up, I can see clear blue sky thru a jagged hole in the reinforced cement balcony overhanging the front door. The cement is smashed and scarred, with bent and twisted strips of rebar sticking thru the gaping hole.
The house took a direct hit.
The sandaled man walks directly up to the house and steps over the cracked rubble that has been blasted from his roof. Entering the building he is closely followed by the squad leader and two of the soldiers from his alpha team.
As they enter the building, each of the soldiers look up at the hole, and their upturned faces are briefly illuminated by the powerful sun shining thru the jagged hole.
Outside the building I stop and watch the activity across the street. A construction crew is squatting across the muddy road, watching with wary eyes as the remainder of the soldiers in the patrol secure the perimeter of the home. Squatting on their haunches, they are mixing cement by hand in round shallow dishes. As they mix each batch, the cement is layered onto a row of rough cracked brick, each trowel full slopping over the sides and cementing the ragged rows of brick together.
The crumbling bricks manage to hold themselves together.
I just can’t figure out how.
Directly in front of the wary bricklayers, one man in a blue shirt and loose black pants stained with cement powder walks barefoot on the dirt, sweeping up fragments of glass with a tattered broom.
Although I am sure he can feel my gaze upon him, he never looks in my direction.
Above me I hear a shout, and the backlit head of my squad leader pokes thru the mortar hole in the roof. In his right hand, I can see the fin and tail section of a 60mm mortar round.
He is smiling from ear to ear.
“Hey Sir, I got it. Looks like the back azimuth is 146 degrees.”
“Roger, sounds good. Check for any other damage and then come on back down.”
In my head I do a quick calculation. An azimuth of 146 degrees would put the origin of the mortar across a small canal and in the empty fields of an area that is infrequently patrolled by U.S. forces.
My platoon will have to pay the farmers in that district an unscheduled visit.
The team leader descends the staircase and exits the building, followed close on his heels by his two soldiers and the owner of the house. The owner of the house hesitates for an instant as he looks at Max, and then he approaches me with a depreciating smile on his face.
As he lights a cigarette, he speaks to Max in an insistent voice.
Max flushes with indignation.
“Max, what is it.”
Max turns to me, his face an angry red.
“He says he wants payment.”
I stop in my tracks and turn around.
The man stops walking and lowers the cigarette.
In a quiet voice, I ask Max to translate.
“Max, ask him what exactly he wants payment for?”
Max translates, and the man answers forcefully.
“He says he wants $1,000.00 for the damage to his house. He wants the Americans to pay for it.”
Beside me, one of the soldiers stiffens. Despite his expressionless face and black-mirrored sunglasses, I can tell he wants to say something to the Iraqi.
I raise my hand slightly to forestall any outburst.
I am pissed off enough for the both of us.
“Why does he feel that we owe him money?”
“He says that you owe him money because the insurgents damaged his home with their mortar attack.”
“Then you tell him that he can ask the fucking insurgents for his money. They are the ones that shot at his home.”
“He says that because the insurgents were shooting at you, you are to blame. His house would not have been damaged if you were not here.”
Max finishes translating. Furious with indignation, he starts to swear at the man in a mixture of English and Arabic, but all I can make out is the word “motherfucker.”
For a second I am speechless.
I can’t believe that this man considers the attack our fault.
At that instant, every attack I have ever experienced flashes before my eyes.
Roadside bombs exploding as our patrols pass by.
Soldiers running for cover from incoming mortar rounds.
Charred and flaming armored vehicles, exploding from the inside out.
Automatic weapons fire raking across an open field.
Dead bodies lying in ditches.
And this man is blaming us for the mortar attack.
He is blaming me.
A burst of frustrated emotions erupts inside of me.
Looking directly at the man, I point my finger at him and spit out each word in contempt.
“You listen to me closely. What you say is an insult. We did not attack your home today. We came here to help. We are not to blame. If you want to blame someone, blame the terrorists. Ask the terrorists for the money. Ask them to repair your home, and they will kill you without thinking twice.”
Max’s voice reflects my restrained anger. For the first time that I can remember, he translates almost as quickly as I speak, our words blending together.
The man is standing still, his face ashen.
He takes an unsteady drag on the cigarette, and begins to smile, as if hoping to smooth things over.
In a smooth tone, he begins to tell Max that he had not just in fact asked me for money.
That he didn’t know what he was saying.
That it was all just a big misunderstanding.
My hand drops wearily to my side.
The humidity, stress, and lack of sleep is starting to take a toll.
After a moment of silence, I turn around and walk away, inhaling deeply and forcing myself to relax.
This is not worth getting upset about.
As we move east down the road looking for the next impact site, the soldiers of the patrol fall into a lose formation. Checking the formation, the squad leader makes a quick adjustment before turning around and walking on with his lead fire team.
In his gloved right hand he has the body of the 60mm mortar round.
I shake my head and breathe deeply, the anger flowing away.
Maybe it was all just a misunderstanding.
Glancing over my shoulder I see that the man has quickly disappeared from site.
Then I mutter under my breath.
That man knew exactly what he was saying.
And he knew exactly how much of an insult it would be.