Sunday, September 13, 2009

Haifa (By Ben Shaw)

*Reprinted with permission from the Fluvanna Review.

*Retold with permission

Until about eighteen months ago, Haifa Street through Baghdad was known as one of the most dangerous roads in central Iraq. You’d had a good day if you didn’t get blown up or shot at moving through there. None of us particularly enjoyed missions that took us along that route, since it was usually just a matter of time before we were hit with something.

We did a patrol through there in Bradleys one night, and as we hit a straight stretch, we started hearing rounds ping off the armor. We weren’t exactly sure where it came from, so my vehicle commander stuck his head out the commander’s hatch and peered out into the dark with night vision goggles. A second later, a round impacted right next to him, so he ducked back down and used the internal optics. In back, I switched on the screen to see what he was looking at.

There on thermals, plain as day, an Iraqi Army soldier was shooting at us from the balcony. You could even see the shell casings flying from the weapon as he fired. Then he stopped, looked around, took off his flak vest and helmet, and tried to look innocent. A moment later, he put his gear back on and resumed shooting directly as us.

Friendly fire isn’t unheard of in Iraq, but there are times when there’s simply no excuse for it. There’s no other vehicle like a Bradley. It’s loud as hell and easily identifiable. If you’re shooting at it, you’re doing it deliberately. It’s not like a single guy on the ground; it’s a huge, loud, armored vehicle with a 25mm cannon mounted on the turret.

My vehicle commander radios up the chain to see if we have any friendly troops in the area. Are there any known IA positions nearby? If yes, then why the hell is an IA soldier shooting at us? His inquiry went all the way up the chain, then back down. The answer: there are no friendly troops at that position. All fire is hostile. Yeah, no kidding… We all start dismounting as the 25 opens up.

A second later, the entire side of the building explodes as HE [high explosive] rounds level the entire structure. It was awesome, like the fourth of July. I was standing there in awe when a bullet from the opposite direction rips through the cargo pocket on my pants. Shit; we were getting shot at from the other side of the road, too.

Over the next hour and a half, we fought hard. People were coming out of the woodwork to shoot at us, and it got pretty harried a few times. We kept gunning with everything we had on the ground, both small arms and our main guns [25mm Bushmasters]. Overhead, helicopters fired away with their 30mm cannons as the hot, heavy brass rained down us below. Dangerous as it was, it was absolutely beautiful. We were finally doing something – and definitely taking out the enemy. Eventually, everything fell silent, and we headed back home. After that night, nobody really ever got hit hard on Haifa. Whoever they were, we’d pretty much cleared them out.

Sometime later, we were doing another night patrol on Haifa, and our driver turns a corner and plows into a tangle of concertina wire somebody had left in the middle of the road. Sure enough, it snagged in the treads and then wrapped around the sprocket. It was massive enough that we couldn’t continue to roll. We’d have to cut it out before we moved any further.

When we dismounted, the birds nest was so bad that thought we might have to break tread, which is complex, time-consuming, and just a major pain in the ass, especially in the dark. We figured we could get by without doing it, but it’d still take awhile.

As we screwed around trying to cut out the wire, we sort of lost track of time, and before we knew it the sun was up – and we’re stuck there on Haifa Street, vulnerable as hell, trying to get our Bradley operable. People were starting to come out and stare at us, too, so we pushed out dismounts and got the interpreters out to explain the situation.

The terps told the locals that we’d run into a heap of concertina wire and now we were stuck out there trying to cut it loose. To our surprise, they said no problem. Even more than that, they said we’re welcome there because we were out killing the bad guys. Then, to everybody’s total amazement, they came out, grabbed their own tools and equipment, and pulled out the wire for us. We were so thankful that we gave them all the waters and Gatorades we had on our vehicles, said a bunch of thank you’s, and headed back to base.

Haifa Street hasn’t been the same since that morning. Nothing happens through there anymore. It’s not a gauntlet now; it’s just another road.

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