Isolated physically and with limited links to the outside world, Bravo soldiers frequently had no knowledge of how their efforts were fitting into the broader strategy of the war, let alone what that strategy might be. Indeed, the very notion of strategy, and whether America’s strategy was sound, was simply not a concern for many of them. All that mattered was what was happening in and around the ground they were occupying.
News of anything occurring beyond the FOB, the traffic control points, and the JS Bridge was hard to come by, and even major events about Iraq making headlines around the world seemed to have little impact on their lives. In the two and a half months since their arrival, for example, Iraq had ratified its constitution, the trial of Saddam Hussein had gotten under way, and Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania John Murtha had begun calling for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. None of these got much notice from men on the ground. Far more important to them was staying alive until the next morning and whether there would be hot food for dinner that night.
One exception to the company’s odd remove from national affairs was its activities in support of Iraq’s December 15 nationwide parliamentary elections. Polling- day safety became a priority for American forces throughout Iraq, and, hoping to entice Sunnis (who had largely boycotted a round of elections in January), U.S. commanders put particular emphasis on safeguarding Sunni areas such as Yusufiyah.
Shortly after coming off of a full day of patrolling on December 13, Eric Lauzier was ordered to take a 3rd Squad fire team out for an overnight ambush at a site where mortars had been launched at Yusufiyah several times before. He protested, because his squad was supposed to be off. They had just put in an eighteen- hour day. His guys hadn’t slept that day. They needed some rack time, he insisted. Arguing was futile. He was ordered to move out. So he and five other men walked about three or four miles into the bush and settled into their overwatch positions, on the inclined banks of a canal.
Winter nights in Iraq can get cold, with temperatures plunging to the 40s, and the guys were freezing. Soldiers got an hour or two of sleep when they could, but most of them were up at any given time pulling 360- degree security. When the sun rose, they expected to stay in position and, if they made no contact, they’d return after nightfall. About 4:00 p.m., they got a radio call. Their mission was changing.
“Uh, you know we’re in an ambush right now, over?” Lauzier asked. "Roger", came the response. "Scratch that mission. Do the new one." They were now to walk another five miles to do a battle damage assessment on some mortars that an element of 2nd Brigade had fired. Lauzier was pissed. Things come up, yes, but to be forced to abort an ambush for a nonessential mission, to have nobody else to send, is either bad planning or bad priorities. They got the grid coordinates, popped up from their hiding position, and started walking. The coordinates were off, however, so they spent another several hours crisscrossing the fields trying to find the impact site. They were starting to run low on water. Trying to keep his men’s morale up, Lauzier told them that when they got back, he guaranteed they would get some hot chow and several hours of uninterrupted rack. He would make sure nobody messed with them. They were doing a hell of a job, he told them, and they’d be rewarded for sucking it up and driving on.
A few hours later, they found the place. There was nothing there except a few large smears of blood, like someone had been dragged, and a child- sized bloody flip- flop. Now Lauzier was pissed and disgusted. He called it in.
“Hey, you wanna know what you hit? You fucking blew up a kid. Good job, over.” Night fell as they humped the several miles back to the FOB. Third Squad had just started to unload their equipment when Miller called Lauzier over.
“Sorry to dump this on you, but you need to go out and patrol Fat Boy overnight,” Miller said.
“What do you mean ‘patrol Fat Boy overnight’?” Lauzier asked.
“I need you to go out with two Humvees, and drive up and down the road.”
“Drive up and down the road?”
“In two trucks?”
“Just us, driving up and down the road, all night.”
“Yes, that’s what I’m saying.”
“That is fucking retarded.”
“I know. I tried to tell them that, but that’s the mission.”
“Bullshit. No. We’re not doing it. Get someone else.”
“There is no one else. Everybody else is out. ’Cause of the elections,
doing the same stuff.”
“So our mission is to drive up and down Fat Boy drawing out IEDs—
with no medic and no QRF and no air support— so they don’t bomb
the civilians tomorrow? Our mission is to get blown up?”
“Yup, pretty much.”
“But my guys haven’t slept. They haven’t eaten. I promised them.”
“Dude, I’m sorry, but you know how it is.”
Lauzier could not bear going back to his men and telling them what they had to do after he had promised them they would get a break. He knew what got soldiers through the nights, the hard times, the exhaustion, or the stone- cold conviction that the commanders either were incompetent or didn’t give a damn about them. What got them through the night was the next moderately pleasant experience: the next hot meal, the next time they could sleep for five or six hours, the next time they could just be left alone, for just an hour or two with an iPod, a movie on the laptop, or a book. He had just dangled that in front of them, and now he was going to snatch it away. He went back to look at them, exhausted, dirty, hollow- eyed. They knew bad news was coming, and he delivered it. They all sat silent for several seconds as the mission sank in.
“Hey, you wanna know what you hit? You fucking blew up a kid. Good job, over.”
"So our mission is to drive up and down Fat Boy drawing out IEDs— with no medic and no QRF and no air support— so they don’t bomb the civilians tomorrow? Our mission is to get blown up?”
“Fuck it,” said Private First Class Chris Barnes, raising his hand. “Let’s do it. This sounds like a great fucking idea. Who wants to get blown up?” They started laughing. Watt, Barker, Cortez, and Private First Class Shane Hoeck all raised their hands. They did not give a damn anymore. It was all so absurd to them, that they were going to drive up and down a road for the next eight hours as bomb magnets. The only thing that they could do was laugh. “Hooray! We’re going out to get blown up!” they sang. “Who’s on board? Hey, who wants to come get blown up? Woohoo! Yeah, dude, I am ready to go fucking die! We are all going to fucking die!” Lauzier, at that moment, was prouder of them than he ever had been, and he loved them more than he ever thought possible.
The six men went out, and until well past sunrise they zipped up and down Fat Boy, dozens of times. They did not, in fact, get blown up, although one of the trucks did hit a dog, which scared the hell out of them. Once they returned to the FOB, fifty- six hours since their last downtime, their mission was still not over. They had to turn around and escort Captain Goodwin for ten more hours to all the polling locations so he could shake the hands of voters and meet with local officials. By late afternoon of the third day, there was no one who could drive the Humvee longer than a minute or two without falling asleep. The man in the passenger seat had to hit the driver in the arm every twenty or thirty seconds. As they walked back into the FOB, dirty, delirious, strung out, and aching for sleep, First Sergeant Andrew Laskoski took a hard look at them and asked, “Did you men shave today?”
This is an extract from Black Hearts by Jim Frederick (Macmillan). To buy a copy click below.