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Two days later I leave for an embed with the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, part of the Fourth Infantry Division under the command of Col. Nate Sassaman. Stationed near the city of Balad, these soldiers patrol the Sunni Triangle, the region north and west of Baghdad that is generating the most violence against the Americans. Located within this area is the farming village of Abu Hishma, where I have been investigating claims of unfair detention and wrongful death at the hands of American troops.
I am joined by Mike Ferner, a Vietnam vet–peace activist turned journalist who can’t see tanks roll by without snarling. As we arrive at the outskirts of the base we are immediately surrounded by men from Abu Hishma. They are looking for detained relatives and ask us to help them. We take names and say we will inquire but do not promise anything.
Once inside we are greeted by Capt. Blake, a fellow New Yorker with Albany roots. He is the base’s jack-of-all-trades—a press officer and legal liaison who meets with villagers once a week to hear their complaints and settle compensation cases, and greets unexpected guests like me and Mikey. Sassaman is out on patrol and has left no word of our visit.
Capt. Blake takes us to our quarters, a small, bare room at one end of the H-shaped after-school center turned military headquarters. In the lobby is an image of the burning Twin Towers; a sign next to it reads, “Do you want to win?” The glass of the window in our room has been blown out from a mortar attack, and they haven’t gotten around to filling the gap with sand bags. There are two army cots in the room, a portable radiator-type heater, and an electric cord hub with a blown fuse. It has suddenly turned very cold—temperatures are expected to fall below freezing at night. We go hunting for something to plug up the window and find two plywood boards that cover most of the opening.
The base is mortared on a regular basis, we are ordered to stay within specific parameters, especially after dark, when the camouflaged guards on the roof and perimeter will shoot at anything that moves. This information makes the walk to the one porta-potty, with its neighboring open-air “pee tube,” more unnerving than the visit inside. (I have been told there are three women in this battalion and before I leave I have seen all of them.) In addition, we are warned that some time after dark, a series of mortars will be fired from the base onto selected sites from which insurgents have launched attacks in the past. “They make quite a sound and we don’t want you to be frightened unnecessarily...”
Sassaman arrives and asks us to join him on a brief patrol. I beg off, due to last minute deadline commitments, but Mikey goes along. The Internet room has 20 or so laptops and several phones, all in use by soldiers talking to loved ones and surfing the Web. Outside, on both sides of the hallway, is a neat line of their guns and flak jackets. Although there are soldiers of many ages, the majority are young, so very young that I am reminded of my 23-year-old son, who called from college the day after 9/11 to say that he and his best buddy were enlisting. “We’re going to join the military and go fight. We’re smart. They could use smart guys like us, Mom.” “Just who are you going to fight?” I asked calmly as terror filled my heart. He didn’t talk about it with me again and went back to his studies. Looking around the room filled with other mother’s children, I wonder if my negative reaction caused my son to think twice. I wonder what their mothers said when they learned their sons and daughters were enlisting.
After finishing my work, I go back to the room, plug in the heater, and place it in between the cots. There are no blankets. Mikey comes back with his face so blackened by sand and dirt that I barely recognize him. Capt. Blake comes to tell us, “Catch some rack and be ready at 3am. You’re going out on patrol.”