“We got nothing, LT.” SSG Boondock’s voice ricocheted around the thin walls of the Iraqi hut we had raided in the dead of the night. “No males, military-age or otherwise. Our guys must’ve bounced, already. Nothing here but the mom, the teenage daughter, a younger kid and a baby, and a crazy-ass grandma who won’t stop giving me the evil eye. Easy, lady! Put down the broom and come outside.”
I was standing in the main room of the house with Sonic – a young terp with a propensity to spike his hair - explaining to the mother why we were there. Yes, of course you can pick up the crying baby. No, we are not here to talk about your eldest daughter being so sick that she’s in the hospital, although that is awful. Yes, I want everyone in the house outside. Now. No, you cannot talk to each other. I want to talk to each of you separately. Yeah, including you grandma.
The previous hour had passed in a blur any Zoloft addict could appreciate. There I was, chillaxing in Sheik Stack-On-Me’s living room, drinking chai and watching Suzanne Somers’ workout videos, on his very expensive and very golden Arabic couches. My soldiers pulling inner security – SGT Chico and PFC Boomhauer – were slightly confused at the sight, but I had keyed in on the Sheik’s dirty old man status months ago. Finding him in his pajamas at night learning about the wonders of the Thighmaster only confirmed my suspicions. To his credit though, he hadn’t appeared the least bit embarrassed when he found us on his front porch, checking up on him due to a recent assassination threat put out by an insurgent cell. He simply invited us in, and lectured me about the benefits of “a woman with experience who … still exercise. Heh heh heh.”
Sheik Stack-On-Me was in the process of bestowing upon me a brand new chai set when my dismount radio buzzed with want. “Gravedigger 1, this is Gravedigger 4.” It was SFC Big Country, and he had the unmistakable “I am relaying a Frago from higher, would a plan every now and then seriously kill these fuckers?” crispness to his voice.
“This is 1.”
“But I’m getting my chai set! Can’t it wait?”
“Yeah … about that … we’re gonna have to ask you to come in to work tonight. There’s a raid the Gravediggers need to execute.”
“Raid? Fine. At least it’s not another market assessment. I’ll be there in two mikes.”
Two minutes and a chai set bequeathal later, I got the full run-down from Bounty Hunter X-Ray. Fadl, a local thug for a Mahdi Army splinter group and known spreader of mayhem, had been spotted at a local female shopowner’s house in the northern portion of town, with another unknown man. Our source said that Fadl routinely came to this house at night to pay the mother money to – cue locals’ broken Aranglish - freaky-freaky with her teenage daughter. A family without a man of the house being unable to financially sustain themselves is not a rarity in Anu al-Verona. Unfortunately, neither is the solution utilized by this particular family. After a quick radio rehearsal and confirmation of the house’s location, our Ghost Tanks raced off into the darkness, grateful for this unscheduled variation in the nightly patrol grind.
The vehicle cordon called set. The dismount teams were stacked. I gave SSG Boondock the shaka’, and in they swooped, a silent, efficient testament to hours spent training under the rigid specificity of my NCOs. The raid itself lasted no more than two minutes, yielding no Fadl and no unknown man, either. JAMnation. Time to tactically question. One at a time on the patio with me, everyone else in the main room, where you can watch and verify that I am not committing horrible infidel acts to your family members. No talking, though. My men are going to search your house. Don’t worry, they won’t break anything. You don’t have any weapons? Not even an AK? No banana-clip magazines? Okay. You first, grandma.
I found two chairs in the main room and pulled them out to the patio. I took off my helmet, set my rifle to the side, and instructed the elderly woman to sit down next to me. “Hello Ma’am,” I said, completely certain that the manners so carefully ingrained into me by my Southern mother would be lost in translation, “my name is Lieutenant Talib and I need your help.” (Quick aside: I’ve settled on going by Talib, another Sheik’s designation for me, with the locals. Iraqi tongues never got the hang of my actual Irish surname, and previous nicknames no longer apply. I don’t look like the “Happy LT” anymore, and I definitely don’t feel like the “Young LT” anymore. So Talib it is.)
“I know nothing,” she responded to Sonic’s translation, automatically. “I am an old woman. I am tired. Let me go back to bed.”
“I will,” I promised. “Just help me first. We’re trying to find bad men we know are causing harm to your family.”
“I know nothing.”
“We’ll see. Maybe you know something important that you do not know is important.”
Five minutes and many rebuffs later, I was still as stonewalled as Don Juan at a nunnery. Fine. You win, you snaggle-toothed wench. Ma’am. Wench-Ma’am. Go back to bed. Bring me the little girl. Damn it, I said no talking in there! Translate that as soothingly as possible, Sonic. Huh? What’s soothingly?
Nevermind. They got the point.
A young girl walked up shyly to me, taking Sonic’s hand, who guided her to the seat next to mine. She had big black eyes, and wore her hair in pigtails. Her mouth hadn’t closed since she had first seen the American Giant, PFC Das Boot himself, some minutes earlier.
“Hi,” I said. “My name is Talib. What’s yours?”
She gazed at Sonic for many seconds before answering. “Asma.”
“What’s her deal?” I asked my terp.
“She is surprised I speak Arabic,” he said. “Because I wear American uniform.”
“Ah. Okay, Asma. I was hoping you could help me out.”
“With what?” she whispered, avoiding any and all eye contact. Her eyes kept swinging back behind me, to the doorway where her mother and her older sister still were.
“Do any men live here?” I asked.
“Not since my father died.”
“When was that?”
“One year ago, I think.”
“Do any men come here now? Men who aren’t in your family?”
Her eyes betrayed her again. She tried glancing behind me again, and when I moved my body in between that vantage point, she suddenly became very interested in a piece of concrete below her.
“No,” she said. “The only men that ever come here come during the day to our shop.”
“Please don’t lie to me. I thought we were friends. Aren’t we friends?”
There was a slight pause before she answered. “No.”
I couldn’t believe it. I had been rejected by an eight-year old. “No? Why not?”
“Because you are American,” she replied, matter-of-factly.
Well, at least I’ll get one honest answer out of her, I thought. Sonic laughed, in spite of himself, and gave it a shot. “What about me?” he asked. “I am Iraqi. Can we be friends?”
She didn’t even bother to hesitate this time. “No. You are Iraqi, but you are American now. We cannot be friends. I’m sorry.”
I tried to ask her who had said we couldn’t be friends, but there are only so many questions you can ask an eight-year old before they go all oyster on you. Yeah, you know there are pearls of wisdom tucked away in there, but it’s for damn sure you aren’t unfurling them tonight. Go to bed, Asma, and bask in your friendless existence.
“Hey, Sir.” It was SSG Boondock, looming in the doorway. “House is clear. No weapons, no propaganda, not even an expensive TV. Nothing.”
“Any sign of a man being here recently? Clothes or something?”
He shook his head. “Nope. The only thing is … well … I think the story we got is right. There’s only one mattress in the entire house, and it’s in the older daughter’s room. Queen size. That don’t make any sense.”
“Okay.” I hadn’t been looking forward to this questioning. I’m awkward enough with girls, and that’s even when I’m not accusing them of being terrorist whores selling their body to Mahdi Army insurgents hellbent on my bloody destruction. “Might as well bring her out here, then.”
Out came an Iraqi girl so homely it was striking. She was built like a rectangle, hadn’t washed her hair for seemingly weeks, and wore way too much bright red blush. She claimed she was 23, but I wouldn’t have placed her a day over 16. The dynamics in this questioning had changed considerably from the last one. Now, my interviewee kept trying to stare at me, while I avoided any and all eye contact. (I wanted to use the term role reversal somewhere in that last sentence, but thought it was a little inappropriate, given the subject matter at hand. Oops.)
“I was hoping you could help us out by answering a few questions.”
“Sure. I’d love to help out the Americans.”
“Right. We know you know a man named Fadl. Tell us where he is now.”
“Fadl? I do not know a Fadl.” I looked back up at her face, searching for signs of a wry grin, but found nothing but dreary eyes probing me like I was an alien freshly arrived from the rings of Saturn. Just like the slutty girls back in high school, I thought, an empty face with an empty gaze. She has seen too much of the primal desires of man already to have any sense of awe anymore. There’s no intrigue left in human relationships for her.
“There is no reason to lie to me. We know what is going on here. I don’t care about that. We need to talk with Fadl.”
“I do not know anyone by that name,” she said. I couldn’t decide if I had picked up a tinge of smugness in her voice, or if that had been my imagination. I asked her about her bed, and was told that the whole family slept on the mattress with her. That was about as far as I was willing to go with that subject matter. You can’t help people who don’t want to be helped.
Having now been rejected by a two-dinar prostitute (or whatever the going rate is these days in the doldrums of Anu al-Verona) in addition to an eight-year old turning down my friendship request, I asked the mother to come out to the patio. I could hear the frustration seeping into my own voice. We’re Cav scouts, not beat cops; certainly there was something better, and more kinetic in nature, for us to be doing with our time. My men were pacing anxiously, waiting on me to finish up this boondoggle. I went with the expedited version of tactical questioning.
“Do you know a man named Fadl?”
“Do bad men come here at night?”
“Are you lying to me?”
The mother stared back at me, just as stonily as her teenage daughter had minutes before, and then smiled. I lived with a single mother long enough to know that this woman was feigning deference. Behind this masquerade of feminine submission was a tartness as sharp as razorblades and a will as stanch as steel. Boyish charm or no, this woman wanted me out of her house as soon as possible – and that meant perpetuating the lies of her family members. I decided that her thinking was that the known horrors of Fadl were still better than the unknown horrors that could occur if it was learned she helped the Americans.
I tilted my head and looked back at her. “I understand why you’re lying to me. You are scared. I would be scared, too.” I pulled out my notepad, tore out a piece of blank paper, and handed that and a pen to Sonic. “Write down the number to the combat outpost,” I told him, before continuing my talk with the mother. “Call us if you get scared again. We can help you.” I took the paper from Sonic, and pressed it in the mother’s hands. “We want to help you.”
She bit her lip and whispered back at me. “I will.” She looked around her, absorbing the tall, broad-shouldered, straight backed, clean-shaven, stoic profiles of SFC Big Country, SSG Boondock, SGT Chico, and PFC Das Boot. For the briefest of moments, I thought she was going to collapse into one of their arms and begin weeping. Instead, she simply bit her lip again and stared down at the ground. It was the final, and surest, sign for us to depart.
On our way out though, I waved the teenage girl out of the house and to the front walkway. She brushed past her still motionless mother, and strolled up to us. “Tell Fadl,” I said as soon as she came within earshot, “that we’re going to capture him or kill him. It’s only a matter of time.” I turned around and meandered to our Strykers then, not bothering to listen to a fresh set of protests of ignorance.
A few days later – after receiving intel that Fadl had left town – we were conducting a mounted patrol in the same neighborhood as the house in question and decided to pay a visit. The dismounts hadn’t even knocked on the front door yet though, when the gunners radioed us, saying that they had stopped a car with two military-aged males, who had tried to break the cordon and make an escape.
Neither of them were Fadl. They were just two nobody punks, drunk on something, and high on something else. They eventually admitted though, that they had been visiting with the dreary eyes on the Queen-size mattress. For a price, of course.
I guess Fadl fleeing Anu al-Verona hadn’t solved all of the family’s problems. Certainly not the financial ones. We called the IP’s, who detained the two for being under the influence, and then we mounted back up in our Strykers. Perhaps there was something kinetic in nature out there for us to deal with.
If there was, we were going to find it.