May 28, 2007
We are back in the palace, waiting patiently in the entry hall. A worker is mopping the Italian marble floors which reflect the dim light of an enormous chandelier that hangs from a carved Moroccan ceiling three stories above us. We have been moved around from one side of the chamber to another twice already, photographers and assistants trying to figure out the right location for the ceremony. As is true of most things here, the exact nature of the ceremony is a matter of some conjecture. The night before Col. B informed me that we had to be here at 8 a.m. with six members of his personal security detail for an awards ceremony. Later that night, sifting through a stack of e-mail I find one that sheds a small amount of light. Buried in the thread is a comment from Gen. Petraeus to the corps commander saying he will be the one to give out the awards, but there is little meat on the bones other than that. Given the names of the Shurta involved, Lt. Mahmoud, Gazi, Nabil, Mohammad, Nour Adin and Daud, I can only assume it has to do with the car bomb from a few days ago.
A suit walks up to me, an ear piece stuck in his ear. He looks about my age, and out of place in a coat and tie. He clearly knows who I am and without introductions gets straight to business. A flurry of words: "Do you know what this is all about? … great story … read your report … chance to recognize heroes … the general will be here shortly … how do we pronounce this name? … great stuff …"
And off he goes. I am left with little more knowledge than I had other than confirming my suspicions linking the incident to the ceremony. My mind races back to the official report I sent, which as I recall, was far less detailed than the account I gave in my last letter. So much so that I am left wondering if my update, and not the official report, is the basis of the day’s event.
Regardless, a crowd is beginning to gather around the six shurta that stand at a loose form of attention in front of the Iraqi, American and brigade colors. Col. B fusses over them. Today, they are all in the same uniform, the old American-style green BDUs. On most days these six would probably sport at least three or four different camouflage patterns. Today they have borrowed what they needed and look uncommonly uniform. COl. B is a bit of a traditionalist in terms of uniforms. He thinks military uniforms should be green and that the appropriate headgear should be the beret. He has found a red beret for each. Anyone who has ever worn a beret will know that you just can’t borrow one from someone else. They are temperamental creatures, that take months of training to conform properly to the head. The shurta fidget, uncomfortably trying to keep them on. Their eyes wander as they admire the palace, they never could have imagined being inside of.
The pace is quickening and the important people start arriving. The general in charge of the National Police is early, and looks over the troops. The MND-B commander arrives. My brigade commander. The Minister of Interior. The corps commander. The Minister of Defense. All are here for a meeting after the ceremony. Col. B, my American brigade commander and I are pulled outside to greet Gen. Petraeus when he arrives. He is all smiles when he pulls up, and after exchanging brief greetings, focuses straight in on Col. B and gets to work. They have a quick discussion about expectations and standards and the status of his district. Then it’s inside so the fun can begin. I slink off to the side and join my team to watch. Col. B falls in on the end of his row of shurta.
The ministers give a few quick words describing the bravery of the young men, willing to risk themselves to protect their countrymen. Petraeus does much the same, and then they begin to load the awardees down with gifts. From the Americans, a certificate and a coin. For those that don’t know, the unit coin has almost replaced the traditional medal as a form of recognition. Each unit commander develops a coin with unit crests and mottos and histories, which they present to soldiers. It requires no paperwork, is immediate, and usually much more valued than the official ribbons. The shurta love it. Several have started wearing plastic ID card holders on their arms and have the coin tucked inside for all to see. The Minister of Defense is generous as well. An official letter to each is accompanied by a gift of 500,000 dinar (about $350) and a promotion of one rank. Seeing themselves on TV that night or in the newspapers over the next few days can hardly be discounted either. More words are exchanged as the ceremony dissolves into the normal swirl of congratulations and mingling. I catch an occasional glace from the shurta. They wink and nod at my team. They are as proud as they can be. And so am I.
Victor slides up next to me.
"Sir, I think the Minister of Interior just told Col. B that his promotion is approved. He handed him some official papers."
"Are you serious, they didn’t announce that?"
"Sir, that’s what I heard him say."
"Wow, I better go find out."
When the crowd finally departs for the meeting, and Col. B and I are back in charge of our agenda, I ask.
"So general, do you have something to tell me?"
He grins and his eyes shine. He takes an envelope out of his breast pocket, and unfolds the paper inside to show me. I don’t have to read Arabic to know what it says.
A few of my team gathered around the back of our HMMWVs. We watched silently. There was really nothing to be said. Snake, our terp, stood spread-eagle with his hands up against the truck. A squad of military policemen from the detention facility searched him methodically, cataloged his belongings and cuffed him. Snake was silent as well, and complied. He did not attempt to make eye contact. Over the last few days it had become clear that Snake had been serving as an enemy agent. We were lucky to detect it after only a few weeks. We have no idea if his infant son really died last week, we hope not for the wife’s sake. We do know that the charity we gave to him will not be recovered. We are reminded that the first casualty of war is innocence, and trust has been wounded in the collateral damage.
Hours later, we are preparing for a mission. Capt. S gives the intel dump before we roll. We have the details on an attack that happened the previous day. One of the Transition teams we had trained with at Fort Riley had been hit with one of the EFMPs that come from Iran. Two of our comrades were dead and a third very badly burned. The mood is somber. While many of the teams we trained with have been attacked, these are our first casualties. Today there is none of the normal cheerful banter and good-natured abuse we normally exchange as we head out. I get into the truck and strap on my intercom set. Sgt. 1st Class C has his on already and comments quietly.
"The team is pretty shaken up today, what can we do about it?"
I reply. "Ya CJ, we are a bit shaken up. Nothing we can do but get back in the saddle. The war isn’t going to win itself."
We of course will do something about it, collectively and alone. Pray, tell stories, listen to music, write. In a few days we will attend the memorial service. And then, like generations of Americans before us, we will go back out and win. It is what our country expects, and it is what we expect of ourselves.
I read an editorial today in the Stars and Stripes newspaper. A teacher asked her class what Memorial Day was. One young man apparently answered, "that’s when the swimming pools open." Sad but true.
It is quite possible that that young man’s family has not had any members that served or died in our nation’s service. Maybe there are no stories for him to have been told, no family heirlooms on the wall, no uniform in the closet, no rack of medals on display, no photos on the mantel, no grave to put a flag on. But I doubt it. My guess is, no one took the time to tell him those stories. I also bet he would love to hear them, and would be a better man if he heard them now, as a boy.
One of my favorite possessions is a typed manuscript of my grandfather’s autobiography. In it is a mix of stories that he told us as a kid, and some that he never really mentioned. Before I deployed, I reread his tales of service in the Navy Seabees during Wolrd War II, and of recovering in a long string of veterans hospitals when he returned home. I am grateful to have the opportunity to travel back with him, all because he had the generosity to leave that behind. It is to a large extent why I choose to write these letters home. One day, when all is said and done, I hope that my girls can dust off my words as well. Memorial Day should be remembered with memories, and not just a small flag next to a stone. And then, if it is really hot, maybe a dip in the pool.
As always, I hope this finds you and yours well … and sharing your family stories.