Tuesday, August 11, 2009

What The Hell?

*Retold with permission.

My last tour over here began with a whole series of “what the hell” moments. The very first day in the City of Kirkuk was not only a disaster, but also sufficiently strange that it left us wondering if the remainder of the tour was going to be equally unpredictable. Nothing was as we expected it to be. But in all fairness, we shouldn’t have made any assumptions. You don’t prepare for Iraq so much as you brace yourself for it.

Because of Kirkuk’s proximity to numerous oil wells, the city and its outskirts were crisscrossed with various periphery gas lines and then the occasional main lines as well. We were briefed that illegal cutting and tapping of these lines would be a problem we’d face. If we saw somebody doing that, arrest them. They were considered a disruption to the local, if not national infrastructure. Sounds easy enough, we told them. Anything else? Oh yeah, watch out for VBIEDs [vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices – IEDs]. Great.

Our very first operation in the city was actually a joint patrol composed of us (the new guys), and Soldiers from the unit we were replacing. We would drive some distance in humvees, dismount, and then move on foot while the vehicles “shadowed” us a few streets or blocks away. As we were driving along to our first patrol point, one of the Soldiers from the unit were replacing says, “see that down there? He’s about to cut the gas lines.” Down the street, I saw a car parked near the gas line and a man next to the lines. It did look suspicious. The Soldier called it up, and we turned around to intervene.

As we rolled up, the Iraqi man just stood there, looking nervous. The Soldiers we were replacing approached him. “You can’t cut the gas lines, understand? It’s illegal.” As one stabbed the Iraqi’s tires with his knife, another walked over with an ASP and started breaking his windows.

Searching his car, however, revealed that this was a not a one-time event for him, but a livelihood. In his trunk sat an extra tank, complete with a dispensing valve cleverly concealed inside the car’s fuel door, right next to the real nozzle. Clearly, he had intent to sell.

“Well, you’re doing to jail now, buddy.” As soon as he heard the word, he took off in a sprint.

We started to chase him on foot, down the street and around a corner – directly into a huge open sewage dump. The Iraqi man kept running, but we tiptoed, cursed, and picked our way through as carefully as possible. None of us wanted to be covered in sewage. As he ran off, we quit and ran back to our humvees. We’d catch him in the trucks. As we mounted up and started driving, we heard a brief report of gunfire, and drove on scene to find Iraqi soldiers standing around, and the man lying wounded in the middle of the street.

We asked them what hell had happened.

“He wouldn’t stop running.” Great.

We still had a man to detain, but now he also needed medical assistance. Since he was entering Iraqi custody, the Iraqis soldiers called for one of their own vehicles to come pick him up. His medical transport would be a flatbed metal truck. They laid him in the back and stopped again. They weren’t quite sure where to take him. Meanwhile, the prisoner is lying shirtless on the floor in the back of the flatbed, moaning as he burned on the hot metal. How about you drive him to the hospital, we said. Oh, okay. They left, and we started walking back to our trucks.

As we mounted up and prepared to continue our patrol, a gigantic VBIED rammed into a sister unit and detonated. We were diverted to go help them out. Amazingly, and thankfully, nobody sustained any major injuries.

The whole time I’m thinking, “What the hell? Is the whole tour going to be like this?” The answer to that, we later found, was yes. We’d get blown up all the time.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved


  1. This rings soooo true! I can see it.

  2. Poor guy. Even if he was a thief. A flatbed truck ride when you have a gunshot wound sounds very uncomfortable.