Chapter One: Eleven Hours Earlier
April 4, 2004
Camp War Eagle, Sadr City
"Where the hell is Aguero?"
Captain Troy Denomy had been in Iraq only four days and already he was irritated with his soldiers. In ten hours the seven hundred-soldier infantry battalion to which Denomy's company belonged would officially take over command in this huge, impoverished Baghdad neighborhood of two and a half million people called Sadr City. At exactly 1,800 hours the 2-5 Cavalry battalion flags would be unfurled, salutes exchanged, and the transfer of authority completed. But things were not off to a good start. Twenty soldiers from Denomy's First Platoon had been assigned security duty that morning for Iraqi sewage trucks, escorting the "honey wagons" through ankle-deep liquid waste that ran through the streets. Their Humvees were supposed to be lined up and ready to head out the gate of Camp War Eagle, the forward operating base on the city's outskirts.
It wasn't like his platoon leader to be late, Troy Denomy thought. Lieutenant Shane Aguero was a solid soldier who had worked under Denomy back at Fort Hood for six months prior to this deployment. Aguero was familiar with the routine of these sewage runs, having arrived in Sadr City several weeks before his captain. This teeming Shiite neighborhood had suffered more than any other during the Sunni-dominated reign of Saddam Hussein. Once called Saddam City, its infrastructure was rudimentary at best; the principal means of sewage removal here was evaporation. Securing honey wagons wasn't exactly warrior's work, but it was part of the effort to improve the quality of life for Iraqis. Suck up a little waste, help turn on a few lights, and at the end of the day the soldiers figured they'd have a far better chance of eventually getting out of this miserable place. And maybe diminish the incentive for their being shot at in the meantime. The patrols had the added benefit of providing the soldiers a gut check on the mood of the streets.
Denomy was a natural leader who'd earned considerable respect for surviving the crucible of Army Ranger School. Before that he'd been a history major at a small southern college, where he was captain of the soccer team and a regular at his fraternity house. The army had made all that possible through school loans. The last eight years' service had been payback—a fair exchange as far as Denomy was concerned.
Now the young captain made his way past the two-story concrete headquarters. Almost all the buildings looked alike on the barren terrain of this forward operating base. The decaying rows of rectangular barracks had once housed units of Saddam Hussein's intelligence service. Mottled buildings that smelled like rotting cream lined up next to wide dirt paths packed with dried weeds. Denomy still could see no sign of the four Humvees, or of Aguero's platoon. He was irked but, on second thought, not surprised: It was a chaotic time, to say the least. Denomy's battalion was moving into Camp War Eagle at the same time the battalion from the First Armored Division was pulling out. The heavily armored Bradleys, the few that had been brought on this mission, were still rumbling through the camp that morning, and massive supply trucks were being unloaded near the motor pool, where the vehicles were housed, after the long ride in from Kuwait. Three hundred twenty-five miles of sand and sweat. Gear and ammo and the few personal items that the soldiers were allowed to bring were dumped wherever space was available. Some of the new arrivals were sleeping inside and on top of vehicles; others were in a maintenance bay until the departing soldiers cleared out.
Denomy had been one of the last commanders to arrive at Camp War Eagle. His superiors had allowed him to stay behind in the battalion's home base of Fort Hood, Texas, until the birth of his first child in March, a boy named Merrick. Five days later, Denomy found himself in the middle of the Kuwaiti desert, preparing to enter Iraq with most of the 136 soldiers under his command. A handful of junior and mid-level officers had gone into Iraq early to start the transition process, Shane Aguero among them. But 90 percent of Denomy's men had arrived in Sadr City with their captain just four days before.
The farewell from Fort Hood had been wrenching for everybody, but especially so for Troy Denomy. Merrick was born the Saturday before he left for Kuwait. Because his wife, Gina, had had to have a cesarean section, she couldn't leave the hospital until the following Monday. She arrived home with the baby midday, sore and exhausted; by four in the afternoon the Denomys bundled up Merrick again and headed for church. A friend had helped arrange a hasty baptism for Merrick because Troy was scheduled to leave the next day. It would be the only night he would spend with his wife and son at home before his yearlong deployment.
Troy and Gina cradled Merrick between them that night, professing love in halting whispers and crying so hard the baby was wet with his parents' tears. It was the first time in three years of marriage that Gina had seen her husband cry. There had never been any cause before, she reasoned: Nothing bad had happened, no one close to them had ever died, and they had never been apart for more than a few weeks.
Now there seemed to be no end to the tears. By Tuesday morning Gina was dizzy at the thought of Troy leaving. To make matters worse, all departing soldiers were to gather with their families at the Fort Hood gymnasium, the "Abrams gym," to say goodbye later that evening. Everything in the military seemed to be a shared event, even when you ached for privacy.
"How am I going to cope at the farewell ceremony?" she asked her husband.
Troy looked into Gina's blue eyes and outlined a plan. "We are going to go to the gym and you can hang out for a while, but you're not going to want to see kids clinging to their dads and all that sadness for long. So I am going to give you the biggest kiss of your life, and then I want you to walk away with the baby and not look back."
Gina didn't argue. Hours later, standing in the refrigerator-cold air of the gym, Troy kissed his wife—yes, the biggest kiss of her life—and then Gina turned and walked through the crowded gym, past all the sobbing families, and out into the steam of the Texas night.
When Troy arrived in Kuwait a few days later, the pain of that goodbye still lingered. It was the hardest thing he'd ever been through. And now, just days later, here he was living in an enormous tent with twenty other soldiers nearly eight thousand miles away. Mercifully, the tents were air-conditioned: even in these days in mid-March, the temperature was reaching eighty degrees. The showers and bathrooms were in portable trailers, as clean as one could expect with so much sand and dust. There were even a Subway and a Burger King. Conditions weren't so bad, considering. But what really made it all bearable was the Internet. A handful of computers had been set up in a trailer so the soldiers could keep in contact with their families. The lines were long and the
connection was slow, but Troy was determined to get a message to his wife.
Got in safely with no issues. The very next morning at 0600 I had to go to a range to shoot! That night, I completely collapsed. How are you feeling. I assume that you are still pretty sore. I hope that my Mom is taking very good care of you. Everyone congratulated me about Merrick and sends hellos and their best wishes. I miss you and Merrick and not a minute goes by without me thinking of the both of you. Love you tons and miss you. Give Merrick a hug and kiss for me and tell him that his daddy loves him.
For those last few weeks in March, while he was training in Kuwait, Gina and Troy were able to communicate fairly regularly by either e-mail or phone. Gina provided updates on Merrick's progress, right down to how many diapers he was filling a day. Troy laughed at how much pride and delight such mundane details could bring.
As a security precaution, soldiers weren't allowed to reveal on the phone or computer the exact day they were leaving Kuwait and heading into Iraq. But Gina knew what was about to happen when Troy told her during a late-night phone call, "I might not talk to you for a few days." She was a nervous wreck for the week after that, fearful whenever she watched TV and saw news of a convoy attacked en route from Kuwait to Baghdad. On the second day of April the tears came again, when Troy finally managed to get a
phone line to let Gina know he'd arrived. Since then he had been so busy he hadn't had another moment to call, and the lines for the computers were so long that he did not even try e-mailing. Gina was just happy he was safe, starting a mission that had been described
to the wives as largely a peacekeeping mission, in an area of Iraq that had seen little violence since the war began one year before.
For the soldiers arriving after weeks in the Kuwaiti desert, it was a stunning transition. One of Denomy's fellow captains, Steve Gventer, wrote in his journal after riding through Baghdad on the way to Sadr City on March 31:
The desert suddenly became a full-fledged city with the traffic typical of a New York, Boston or Dallas... My 60-vehicle convoy was escorted through the city, past some of Saddam's old palaces. It had a feeling of seeing history — the same buildings we watched on FOXNEWS getting tomahawked were right before my eyes, and as we traveled further there were huts, next to BMWs and rusted junk cars. The people seem friendly and I yell "Mahaba" (hello) and smile a lot. This usually gets a wave especially from the kids. The neighborhoods are so dirty and street markets have live sheep and sides of beef (the live sheep are chosen as a lobster might be in the US and slaughtered on the spot — the head set on a table). Life here seems to be less meaningful or death more commonplace as evidenced by the dead body from a car wreck I passed today—bloody and in theopen on the highway, no slowing of traffic, just common.
Like Captain Gventer and the others, Denomy knew almost nothing about Sadr City. To make matters worse, a directive from the Office of the Secretary of Defense—that no soldier should have "boots on the ground" in Iraq for more than a year—had had the unintended consequence of depriving Denomy's unit of a carefully coordinated transition. The soldiers from the 2-2 Cav (Second Squadron, Second Armored Cavalry Regiment) had been in charge the previous year, but they had reached the end of their twelve-month deployment and left weeks before the main body of Denomy's unit arrived; the 1-2 Cav (First Squadron, Second Armored Cavalry Regiment), responsible for another part of Iraq and with little experience in Sadr City, had been sent to fill the gap for a month until the 2-5 Cav took over. The result was that Denomy's soldiers never had a chance to conduct the thorough going"right seat, left seat" rides that allow for the experienced unit to pass along to its replacements what they need to know before assuming command.
There was one thing the new soldiers did know, however: There had been only one violent incident in Sadr City the previous year. On that occasion, between fifty and a hundred Iraqi insurgents had ambushed a scout platoon, killing one soldier. He was the only soldier to die in hostile action in that area during the entire first year of the Iraq war.
But the day before — April 3, during his first foray beyond the gates of Camp War Eagle — Denomy hadn't liked what he saw.
His reconnaissance platoon was stopped at a major intersection by members of the Mahdi Army, a local militia loyal to the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. His father, a revered Shiite cleric, had been murdered along with two of his older sons in 1999 by Saddam Hussein's government. Moqtada, the fourth of his sons, was now the de facto ruler of Sadr City.
The militia had caused only minor trouble in the past, but now they were refusing to let the U.S. forces pass through a makeshift checkpoint. Denomy's interpreter explained that the Mahdi Army was protesting the closure of al-Sadr's Al-Hawza newspaper by Paul Bremer, the director of the U.S. Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance as well as the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority; Bremer had charged the paper with inciting violence. When Denomy tried to keep his convoy moving, the militiamen lay down in front of the vehicles and formed a human chain ten rows deep, locking arms and preventing them from passing.
A minute later, Denomy understood the reason for the human barricade. On the other side of the rows of militiamen, huge groups of protesters were coming into view. Men, women, and children, thousands of them, were carrying poster-sized portraits of al-Sadr and banners written in Arabic. Most of the men were carrying swords.
From the Humvee behind Denomy, Staff Sergeant Franklyn Doss looked around at his twenty soldiers, then back at the thousands of marchers. This must be how Custer felt, he thought, just before the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Captain Denomy had a similar thought, and he acted on it swiftly. Denomy had no idea where the marchers were heading, but his gut told him to turn his convoy around and head back to camp. No need to incite a mass of sword-carrying militiamen.
Reprinted from The Long Road Home by Martha Raddatz with permission of G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group USA. Copyright 2007 by Martha Raddatz