In the Shit
November 2, 2004
Our last mission before Fallujah
Seven months later, by the light of a full moon, we wade through chest-high sewage. We inch along, arms above our heads to hold our weapons out of the muck. The sludge that bathes us is exquisitely rank. Gnats swarm. Mosquitoes feast and flies crawl. If my first day in the army had been like this, I'd have gone AWOL.
Behind me, I can sense my men are pissed off. We have a mission, but some of them question it. What's beyond question is the fact that I've made them come out here in the middle of the night to wade through a trench of human excrement. I glance behind me just in time to see Piotr Sucholas nearly take a header into the filth. John Ruiz slops an arm out of the sewage and catches Sucholas before he goes under. The two of them spit funk out of their mouths, then make eye contact with me for a nanosecond.
Part of me feels guilty for their plight. Knowing they're angry with me makes it even worse. Call that my human side. At the same, the professional in me, the NCO side of my brain, gives exactly two-fifths of a fuck about how my men feel. This inner conflict doesn't usually last. The NCO in me beats the ever-loving shit out of my human side. The mission is what counts.
But tonight I just can't seem to help myself.
Voice barely a whisper, I ask, "Hey, you guys alright?"
Ruiz and Sucholas nod. So does Hugh Hall who is next to Ruiz.
"Pull your nuts out. You might just die at the end of this bitch."
They stare at me without expression, streaks of shit water running down their faces. Sucholas spits again, but does so quietly. They get the point.
The fact that my men don't say a word in response shows discipline. They are angry and miserable, but they don't display it. We both play the game, soldiers and NCOs. I'm proud of their discipline, yet at the same time I am hyperalert for the first one to break the rules.
I have pushed my squad so hard in the ten months we've been in Iraq, the men must despise me. Back at base, there is a long-standing rumor of a sock full of five-dollar bills the platoon has collected, a little wager over which of their three leading sergeants will get fragged first: Fitts, Cantrell, or me.
We push along the trench. We have almost two more kilometers to go. The moonlight leads the way; it is so bright, we don't bother with our night-vision goggles. We slop our way slowly toward a large pipe that crosses the sewer trench right at head level. It is old and rusted and looks unstable. I turn around and motion to Staff Sergeant Mike Smith. Smitty edges past me in the trench and swings a leg up onto the pipe.
A metallic groan echoes through the night. Smitty tries to shift his weight and the pipe whines in protest. It starts to buckle, and a good-sized chunk falls off, leaving a gaping hole in one side. The palm groves around us are full of chained watchdogs — the hajji version of an ADT security system. They hear the noise and bark viciously in response. The barking grows frantic. Smitty eases off the broken pipe. We can't get over it, and now we risk detection, thanks to the dogs. The whole squad freezes. I grow tense. The mission is on the line here.
We are after Ayub Ali again, the terror-for-hire arms broker who has sewn so much misery in the Diyala Province since the Shia uprising began in April. When we first arrived in country, we had no idea who he was. Gradually, through the summer, we picked up bits of intelligence that suggested there was a network providing weapons and explosives to both the Mahdi militia and the Sunni insurgents. Ayub Ali sits atop this shadowy group.
We've tried to catch him several times already, but his luck ran strong and he evaded us at every turn. The more I learn about him, the more I want him dead. He's no ideologue or jihadist, he's just a criminal selling the tools of death to the highest bidder. He helps blow up women and children for profit. Taking Ali down will save countless innocent lives.
Tonight, we are on a sneak-and-peak mission to find his latest hideout. Intelligence reports suggest Ali has moved into a horse farm in the countryside outside Muqdadiyah. Our job is to get as close as we can, get a good look at the place, and confirm he's there. The shit trench offered the surest way to approach undetected by those vicious mutts.
Now stuck at the pipe crossing our trench, we face the possibility of blowing the op altogether. In the satellite photos I received before the mission, this pipe could not be seen. Now I have to act like I expected it. We cannot backtrack. If we do, it will be the admission of a mistake, and NCOs never make mistakes. We lie like professionals to protect that image of infallibility because that is what cements us to our men.
If they believe in you and the example you set, these men will do whatever is asked of them. This connection between soldiers is a deep bond. It is the root of what it means to be an infantryman. In this cruel here and now, it is what gives my life value and meaning. That doesn't mean my men won't despise me. The nature of soldiering brings ultra-intensity to every emotion, especially in combat. We love, hate, and respect one another all at the same time, because the alternative is the bland oblivion of death.
I look at the pipe and utter a silent curse. The men are going to have to take a bath. It is the only way to continue the mission.
I had handpicked these men for this mission. I chose Specialist Lance Ohle for his mastery of the SAW light machine gun. In a firefight, Ohle on his SAW is an artist at work. He talks like a gangsta rapper but wears cowboy hats and listens to Metallica. Neither the Army nor any of those other worlds he has occupied has prepared him for this. He moans a protest about the breaststroke confronting us.
"Shut the fuck up," Hugh Hall hisses.
Staff Sergeant Mike Smith stands beside me. He's our land navigation guru, though he's usually a Bradley commander, not a dismount. I nod to him and point downward, and he grimaces before taking a deep breath. An instant later, he descends into the sewage and swings around the bottom of the pipe. I hear him break the surface on the other side and exhale. Somebody hands him his weapon.
Sergeant Hall goes next. He doesn't hesitate, and I'm not surprised. I consider him one of the best soldiers in Alpha Company. He dips under the filth and pops back up on the far side of the pipe. The moonlight betrays Hall's misery. He's slick with sewage; the ochre slime drips from his Kevlar. John Ruiz sees his condition but doesn't flinch. He ducks under the pipe and breaks the surface next to Hall a second later.
I'm next. I close my eyes and hold my nose. Down into the filth I go, feeling my way under the pipe. Then I'm out the other side. Misa, Sucholas, and Sergeant Charles Knapp follow me.
We continue along the trench, more concerned about watchdogs than gunfire. Finally, we come to a stretch of palm grove that seems to be free of hajji dogs. We crawl out of the sewage and move through the grove. By now, it is 0300, and the night's chill has set in. Soaked to the bone, we start to shiver. I almost wish I was back in the shit trench. It was warmer.
We creep to a barn about 350 meters from Ali's main compound. The squad sweeps through it, hoping to find somebody to detain, but it's empty. We maneuver toward the compound. Our job is to get within view of the place, to study its layout and defenses. If possible, battalion wants us to try and flush people from the compound. If they bolt in vehicles, we can call helicopters down to follow them and others will trap them with Bradleys. Taking down these guys on the road while they're inside their cars will be easier than storming a fortified and defended compound.
On our bellies, we snake forward, bodies still shivering from the cold night air. We're just about to reach a good vantage point a hundred meters from the compound when the roar of engines shatters the stillness of the night. The cacophony grows deafening. Around us, the guard dogs howl with rage. I look over my shoulder in time to see a pair of Blackhawk helicopters thunder right over us. They hug the ground, then hover over the compound.
I hear men shouting in Arabic. A shaft of light spears the night, then another. Ali's guards are turning on searchlights. Soon the entire compound is ablaze, and the searchlights probe around us.
The birds have inadvertently compromised our mission. Cursing, we pull back to the barn, then dash into the palm grove. Behind us, the compound is fully alerted now. The guard dogs growl. The searchlights snoop. We cannot stick around. The Blackhawks dip and slide overhead. Their spinning rotors blast the buildings with mini-hurricanes of wind and dust. What was silence is now total chaos.
We hike the four kilometers back to our Brads without a word between us. This had been a perfect op until it was ruined by miscommunication with a pair of helo pilots. Stinking, frustrated, and ill-tempered, we mount up into our vehicles. We know this was our last shot at finding Ali. This mission is our swan song in the province.
Our unit is set to head out to Fallujah, a city of about 350,000 in the restive Anbar Province, along the Euphrates River. Fallujah has been under total insurgent control since April, when Operation Vigilant Resolve, a Marine offensive planned in response to the ghastly and well-publicized hanging of four U.S. contractors, was canceled for political reasons. The jarheads just loved that. All they wanted to do was finish the insurgents off once and for all. Marines. They may all be double-barreled and single-helixed. They may just be the worst historical revisionists of all time. But at their core they are fiercely proud and spoil for an unfair fight. God love 'em all.
In two days, Diyala's miseries will be behind us — the IEDs on the local highway, the Mahdi militia around Muqdadiyah, and the house-to-house firefights downtown. We can't yet know how much we'll miss them. We are leaving the good life, and heading into the mother of all city battles.
I lean back against the Bradley's bulkhead, my uniform still wet. My boys shiver violently from the cold. A few wipe their faces with rags. Piotr Sucholas, my new Bravo Team Leader, sits next me, weapon between his legs, barrel touching the Brad's floorboards. I half expect for him to start riffing on the evils of President Bush again. Sucholas is our platoon liberal. He fell in love with Michael Moore after watching a bootlegged DVD of Fahrenheit 9/11. Fortunately, his flaky suspicions that President Bush is out to conquer the world don't have the least effect on his willingness to do battle. When the shooting starts, he thinks only of killing the other guys and saving his men. That's why I love Piotr Sucholas.
Now he sits quietly next to me. The news that we are going to Fallujah has made everyone introspective. Sucholas has ice water for blood. In a fight, he is utterly calm, but even he is uneasy at the thought of what we will soon face.
The Brads carry us back to base. We pile out and head for our isolated, three-story barracks building. From where we live, it's a twenty-five minute walk just to reach a telephone. The battalion operations center is over a kilometer away. Even the former Iraqi Army morgue that serves as our chow hall is half a kilometer from us.
Our uniforms are filthy. Cleaning them is no easy chore. We have a couple of Iraqi washing machines, but we currently don't have electricity in our building. We'll have to do our wash by hand. Fitts and I order the men to round up as many spray bottles of Simple Green cleaner as they can find. We have no running water either, so the shower room on the first floor of our barracks serves mainly as a storage area.
In the darkness, we peel off our filthy uniforms and get to work. Soon, we're all freezing cold and shaking uncontrollably as we scrub our uniforms and wash them with bottled water. When they're as clean as we can manage, we take bottled-water showers and lather up with the leftover Simple Green. The muck of the sewage trench dribbles off us as the frigid water hits our bodies. It takes us until dawn to smell semihuman again.
Once my squad is squared away, I collapse into my cot in hopes of a quick catnap. Sleep does not come easily, despite my fatigue. My mind refuses to shut off.
When I first learned we will be redeployed to Fallujah, I pumped my fist and shouted with excitement. Finally. We'd been stuck in the backwater of the war, chasing shitheads like Ayub Ali across palm and dale without luck. We'd missed out on the Battle of Najaf in August that wiped hundreds of Mahdi militiamen and crippled al-Sadr's street army — at least for the moment. Perhaps now we'll have a chance to take part in something truly decisive. My adrenaline is already flowing.
Later that morning, we head out of the barracks to blow up our own equipment. Intelligence reports tell us that the defenders of Fallujah, who may number as many as three thousand Sunni and foreign fighters, are heavily armed — with our own weapons. Aside from the standard AK-47s, PKM machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades, the Sunnis and foreign fighters in the city have acquired American weapons, body armor, uniforms, and Kevlar helmets. They've also used stolen Texas barriers to fortify the roads leading into Fallujah. Texas barriers are five-ton, reinforced concrete barricades that will hamper the movements of our vehicles.
We're not sure how to destroy Texas barriers, and we've never faced our own defenses and weapons before. John Ruiz, who has written the message "fuck you" on his knuckles in honor of our Fallujah vacation, wondered aloud during one meeting if our SAWs can penetrate our own body armor.
Today, we will find out. Our Brads deliver us to our firing range, just outside the wire. Usually, we shoot at pop-up targets, human silhouettes that allow us to hone our marksmanship and zero our weapons, making sure our gunsights are accurately adjusted. Not today. We pull out a couple of plates from our body armor and set them up at various intervals on the range. The plates hold up well, even against our armor-piercing rounds. This is good news and bad news. Our equipment is world-class, but some of our enemies will be wearing it.
Finally, with our SAWs, we discover a weakness. If we hit the plates with multiple concentrated bursts of fire, our rounds will penetrate the slab of armor that protects a soldier's heart and lungs. When we're done, the plates look like sieves. And this discovery, too, has a dual effect on morale — the enemy has captured our SAWs. We're in an arms race with ourselves — we know how to kill our enemy, but he can kill us in the same way.
Next, we work on ways to blow up Texas barriers. We operate with Bradleys and tanks for this exercise, and discover that a main gun round from an Abrams tank is the best option. The 120mm shell demolishes even the thickest concrete barrier. As yet we have no reason to believe the insurgents have captured any tanks.
After lunch, our battalion Command Sergeant Major, forty-six-year-old Steve Faulkenburg, shows up with a cache of leftover Eastern bloc goodies. He arms himself with RPGs and AK-47s and takes aim at a couple of wrecked Humvees that were dragged onto the range. He blasts the vehicles with rockets and small-arms fire, pausing every few minutes to inspect the damage. He searches for weak spots in the armor system. All afternoon, he goes about this chore and takes copious notes. Finally satisfied, Faulkenburg sets off to design extra pieces of "hillbilly armor" to cover our vulnerable spots.
We move to the vehicle range and work with the Bradleys and M1A2 Abrams tanks, practicing our breaching techniques on fortified houses. For weeks now, we have been working around the clock. Day after day, night after night, the manic routine grinds us down. We rehearse our breaching roles, refine our room-clearing fundamentals. Every mission into Muqdadiyah serves as an operational training exercise. We polish our tactics; we cross-train on different weapons systems. Every man in the platoon is now intimately familiar with everything in our arsenal. Every man can drive a Bradley and work a radio. Every man in my squad goes through combat lifesaver medical classes. I tell them they must be their own medics.
At the same time, we carry on with our twelve- to fifteen-hour combat patrols around Diyala. We're training for a fight while continuing to be in one. It leaves us brittle and bone-weary.
Toward sunset, we finally knock off. The tanks roll back across the road into the base. My platoon stays behind, tasked with guarding the sandbags and pop-up targets from marauding Iraqi thieves. The locals will steal anything.
It is easy duty, and I stretch out on the ramp of one of our Bradleys. Fitts limps over and sits down next to me. With Sergeant Cantrell on leave, Fitts is our acting platoon sergeant.
"Not to alarm you, but I am beginning to develop early stages of pretraumatic stress disorder. I want to officially go on the record to say that I am pretty sure we're all gonna die, dude," I say with as much sarcasm as I can muster.
Fitts grins. "You know, you are a difficult subordinate."
"Maybe you just can't handle me as a subordinate," I shoot back. He has already reorganized the platoon, which is sure to piss off Cantrell when he returns.
As the two of us smoke and joke, watching the Iraqi sun sinking on the horizon, Captain Sean Sims, our company commander, appears and steps past us to climb inside our Bradley. He sits down and props his feet up. He's been tense and short-tempered ever since we got the orders for Fallujah. I've also seen him head to the call center almost every night to talk with his wife. Prior to October, he rarely did that.
"Staff Sergeant Fitts and Staff Sergeant Bellavia. How are you two gentlemen doing?"
I am a little surprised by Sims's friendly tone. When Fitts returned to us over the summer, his wounds only half-healed, our captain tried to kick him out of the company. Fitts had pissed him off by bashing a hostile Muqdadiyah police officer in the face with his Kevlar helmet. Staff sergeants often piss off the higher-ups, but Fitts was particularly good at it.
"We're good, sir. You?" Fitts replies cautiously.
Captain Sims and I also have a tense relationship. In April during the house-to-house fighting in Muqdadiyah, we fought as disparate squads with little overall coordination. I later heard that Sims never left his Bradley during the fight. A commander who leads on the ground is always more desirable than one who stays in an armored vehicle. After that, I questioned his judgment on the battlefield. Later, our relationship almost fractured after I had my squad shoot three IED-laying Iraqis who turned out to be the nephews of a local good guy, an Iraqi security officer. Instead of believing my version of the events, he took sworn statements from my men and even considered opening a formal investigation. Sims dropped it at the urging of our company executive officer and other elements of our company leadership, but the incident created an uncomfortable rift between us.
Captain Sims watches the sunset in silence. Not sure he had heard us, I ask, "How are you, sir?"
"I have been better."
We can tell. He looks exhausted, and he has a quarter-sized stress zit marring his face. Since the news broke, Sims has worked relentlessly. He rarely sleeps. Instead, he pores over incoming intel reports, studying and restudying the plans the battalion staff produces. He sat for hours at night with Captain Doug Walter, our previous company commander, discussing details and working through new ideas.
Captain Sims even wanted to use Muqdadiyah for a final dress rehearsal before Fallujah. He proposed that the full task force do a cordon and search of the city, clearing every room and every house. I thought this was a brilliant idea, and it showed Sims had a lot of nuts to even pitch it. Of course, battalion command nixed the idea, afraid that such a heavy hand would stir up the locals. Nevertheless, the fact that he wanted to do it gave us newfound respect for our commander. We don't give a shit about stirring up the locals; as far as we're concerned, they're already stirred up. Using maximum force is exactly what we want to do.
Captain Sims takes his eyes off the sunset and turns to us. "What do you think about the training?"
Neither Fitts nor I hesitate. We give him some input, and he takes notes. I am astonished. He's never listened to me like this before.
We talk shop as dusk overtakes us. It is clear that Captain Sims genuinely wants our opinion. Eventually, the conversation takes another turn.
"Where are you both from?" Sims asks.
"Randolph, Mississippi," replies Fitts.
"Buffalo, New York," I answer.
"Why'd you two join the infantry?"
I reply first, "Stephen Sondheim."
Both Fitts and Sims stare at me.
"Stephen fucking Sondheim."
"You mean the composer?" asked Sims.
"What the fuck are you talking about, bro?" says Fitts. So there's one thing about me the guy doesn't know.
"I was a theater major," I begin to explain.
"No fucking way."
"Sure. Musical theater direction and stagecraft. I ended up starting my own theater company in Buffalo. Sondheim, well, I loved his work. He was my idol, man."
"This is a very different side of you, Sergeant Bellavia."
"He wrote a musical called Assassins. Basically disenfranchised Americans kill presidents, except that he got his history all screwed up. John Wilkes Booth commits suicide, Leon Czolgosz kills McKinley over a girl, Lee Harvey Oswald actually shoots JFK — shit like that."
I take a drag on my cigarette. Both Fitts and Sims are just staring at me. I guess a grizzled infantryman who loves Sondheim is more shocking than one who loves Michael Moore.
"Okay, so I rewrote it to make it historically accurate and show why these losers killed our presidents. When my theater company put it on, Sondheim stopped my show and threatened to sue me. I called his bluff. Only he wasn't bluffing.
"Next thing I know I'm field-dressing machine guns."
Sims and Fitts burst out laughing.
I ask Captain Sims, "What made you go infantry, sir? How'd you end up here?"
"My dad was a colonel in Vietnam. I went to Texas A&M. Married the love of my life, decided to join the army. My dad told me that I could be whatever I wanted to be, but nobody would respect me unless I started out in the infantry. And I loved it, so here I am."
He paused, then added, "I have a little boy. Sergeant Fitts, you have two children, right?"
"Three kids now, sir. Two boys and a two-year-old she-devil who runs my life."
"Are you married, Sergeant Bell?" Sims asks.
"I am. We have a four-year-old boy, Evan."
Sims looks off in the distance again. The sharing of personal details strikes me as almost unprofessional, until it dawns on me that Captain Sims is trying to do something here. He is breaking bread with us, making peace. Settling our differences.
"How are your men doing?" Sims asks.
"They're great. They're all great kids," says Fitts.
"We're lucky, sir."
"How do they feel about the intelligence reports?"
"Well," I begin, "I painted a green arrow in our living area. It points east. I figure we might as well get them used to praying six times a day now."
I know the men are ready, but they are also tense. In recent days, all the typical bitching and bickering common among infantrymen has evaporated. Those with grudges have made peace with one another. Even Cantrell did that before he left on leave earlier in the month.
One night, Cantrell was walking back to the platoon area when Sergeant Major Steve Faulkenburg spotted him and drove up in a Humvee. He told Cantrell to climb aboard. The two men seemed to detest each other. It hadn't started that way, but conflicts early in the deployment had hurt their relationship. Here was the opportunity to bury the hatchet. When Faulkenburg said good-bye to Cantrell, he looked him in the eye and remarked, "You know, we won't be able to bring them all back."
Our platoon sergeant nodded grimly. "I know, but we'll handle it head on."
The same spirit of reconciliation drove Captain Sims to share this sunset with us. Already the past weeks have changed my view of him. Uncertain in battle, perhaps, Sims is in his element when planning and preparing for a set-piece event. He has no ego invested in his ideas, and he genuinely seeks input to make the company even more capable, even more fierce.
"You know what, sir?" I finally say, "we're gonna be all right."
Fitts looks around, spits chaw in the dust near the ramp. "The way I figure it, sir, Fallujah can't be worse than hearing Sergeant Bell bitch at me every five seconds for not having enough batteries or forty-millimeter rounds. This guy is unbelievable. What a pain in the ass."
"Sergeant Bell, are you demanding?" Sims said in mock astonishment.
"I have needs, sir," I explain. "Sergeant Cantrell met those needs. This new guy you brought in — he's such a dick. Doctrinally proficient, sure. But he's just not a people person."
Fitts scoffs, "People person."
Sims chuckles, but soon grows contemplative again. He's not finished with us. After another long pause, he asks, "Did you know Staff Sergeant Rosales well?"
Rosales was killed during an engagement on our way to Najaf in the spring. His vehicle had been targeted, and he'd been hit. Despite his wounds, he stayed in the fight, shooting his weapon until he died. He never once let anyone know he'd been wounded.
"Yeah, sir, I knew him. We all did," I explain, "He was a great guy. His wife was over in finance, so they deployed together. They had a little boy."
We had named our makeshift shooting range after Rosales, but Fitts seemed bitter about it. "And what do we give him? This piece of shit range in his honor."
I nod my head. "Yeah. When people die in the army, it isn't like the real world. They die and it's just like they went on leave or went to a new station. It isn't real till it's over, I guess."
Sims nods his head, "It sure seems that way, doesn't it."
"When you get home, sir, sit your little boy down with your dad. You tell him about us, okay? Our war. The way we fought. They can't touch us. They'll never touch us. We're gonna be all right."
"Spoken like a man who has never been shot repeatedly."
Fitts has been throwing that down a lot recently.
"Dude, I gotta hear this story again?"
Sims grinned, "It gets better every time I hear it."
"April 9, 2004. We face a company-sized element."
"Bullshit, it was a twelve-year-old with a .22 rifle."
Fitts shrugs, "Well, that little fucker could shoot."
Fitts hikes up his pant leg and sleeves, and we see the damage. The scars of that day in Muqdadiyah will always mark him, like bad tattoos.
The sight of them sobers Captain Sims. He slides off the bench inside the Bradley and jumps to the ground next to the ramp. Turning, he makes eye contact with us both.
"You two are the best squad leaders in the battalion. Everyone knows that. And everyone looks to you two to set the example." The compliment catches both of us off guard. "We're going to lose people."
"We know, sir."
"We're going to be tested. We will all be tested."
Silence. We wait.
"The only way we'll make it through this is to stay together."
We nod our heads. Sims is speaking from his heart.
"I am proud of the men," he manages. "I am proud to lead Alpha Company into the fight."
"Thank you, sir."
I needed him to say all this. As I watch Captain Sims move off into the growing darkness, my entire view of him has changed in less than twenty minutes.
I'd die for this man.
Fitts and I stay on the ramp, the silence between us like a cocoon. The sun is long gone, and we stare into the blackness.
Copyright © 2007 by David Bellavia