Monday, January 05, 2004

Dignity, Atonement, and My Personal "Weekend at Bernie's" 
“Lieutenant Van Steenwyk, I have a mission for you,” said Captain Kevin Harrison*, the battalion S-4, or supply and logistics officer.

“What’s that?”

“We just shot a bad guy this morning. He’s in the back of that Alpha company humvee over there. I need you to take him up to Al Asad.”

Al Asad is an hour and a half away from Ar Ramadi. At that time (mid-August), it was a very hot hour and a half away. It was only 0700, and temperatures were already poking 90 degrees F. Furthermore, none of my trucks were covered. By the time we processed the other prisoners, I’d have a ripening corpse liquefying in the sun for three hours, at best, before I could hand him over to the good people at Mortuary Affairs and get him into a reefer truck.

“Well, how come we don’t just notify the Red Crescent, and have them come and pick the guy up, like we normally do?”

“We can’t do that in this case,” responded Captain House, cryptically.
“Well, how about we drop him off at the morgue in the Ar Ramadi hospital?”
“Well, the thing is, this guy is supposedly the regional director of the Ba’ath party in the city of _______, and we don’t want anyone else to know he’s dead yet.”
“Oh. I see. Sir, do you see a sign on my helmet that says “Dead Haji Storage?”
“Exactly, sir. And do you know why? Do you know why, sir?”
“Why’s that?”

But, alas, I was. And as gratifying as it was to get to use the coolest line from “Pulp Fiction” in a real-world setting, I had fifteen detainees collect photographs on and process, including collecting two witness statements on each one, plus I had to check on the latest intelligence for the route up to Al Asad, line up all my vehicles, conduct radio checks, brief everyone on the mission, go over actions upon contact, etc. In short, I had a pretty busy morning ahead of me. It was now 0730.

It was Alpha company who had made the kill just an hour before hand. We had intelligence that the targeted individual was staying in town with relatives, and one of our good friends in the city had showed us where the house was, and pointed out the guy’s car. That’s a big help, because that’s an indicator you can use when you send everyone in for the raid. If the car was there the night before, and the car’s not there when you arrive to take the guy down, then you need to consider holding back and TAKING the pitch, as it were, rather than swinging away and raiding the guy’s innocent nieces and granddaughters, while ruining the value of the intelligence that gave up the house in the first place.

Alpha company had a full description, and had cordoned off the area. When the assault team arrived outside the house, they encountered a man closely matching the target individual’s description (I’ll call him “Bernie”) outside the house, moving toward his truck. They shouted at him, in Arabic, to stop. “Keef!!” He didn’t, but kept moving slowly towards the open window of his truck, and began to reach inside, at which point one of Alpha’s soldiers shot him once, through the chest. It was a clean kill. He died almost instantly.

Our men raided and searched the premises and came away with several of Bernie’s brothers and other relatives, who were ziptied and brought back to us, to be transported on our scheduled convoy. Bushmaster company had brought in several more EPWs the evening before in a separate incident and we were busy trying to sort their stories out to. At that point, I was kind of the resident expert on EPW processing and paperwork, thanks to hard experience (I had brought in over 150 by that point) and went over to A co’s compound to see if I could help with the paperwork.

I was eager to expedite things so I could get on the road. The daytime temperatures at that time were hitting 120 degrees Fahrenheit—far from the ideal dead Haji storage climate. I found Bernie still lying face down in the back of the Humvee, surrounded by Alpha company soldiers, some of them taking pictures with digital cameras.

That was where I encountered the ascerbic “Captain Hoo-ah,” the commanding officer of Alpha Company.

“May I ask what the FUCK you’re doing here, lieutenant???”

He’s like that. You kinda have to get to know the guy. Well, even then, he’s still like that. But after being received like that by a fellow officer, I wasn’t in the mood to do the guy any favors.

But I was also not looking for a fight. Especially in front of his troops. “Oh, I’m just looking for your first sergeant. We’ll take care of things.”

So I find his first sergeant, and we go over the paperwork. Screw up the paperwork and you wind up locking up an innocent man indefinitely or letting a terrorist scumbag go free to hurt and maim people. You’ve got to build a case, like you’re going to court. Because at some point, you are. All cases are reviewed, sooner or later, by a joint Iraqi-American tribunal. All cases have to be documented by a minimum of two eyewitnesses. So there is a modicum of due process that goes on here, for all these guys—a system that is slowly improving as we develop procedures and generally get better at this. I’ve been able to release people at my level when I just can’t find any evidence to muster against them. In the early days we’d raid a house, and then arrest someone for the crime of having a Saddam Hussein wall clock. There’s Saddam wall clocks, Saddam wallpaper, Saddam collector’s limited issue chinaware, Saddam portraits done on black velvet, I mean, he’s like Elvis of Arabia here.

But having a Saddam wall clock is not an arrestable offense. As we get better at this, the zealousness of our frontline troops gets tempered with experience and discretion, and it’s now very rare for them to arrest someone without a reasonable probable cause. We’re much better at this now than we were back in June and July.

Anyway, I put word out to my convoy crew to stand down until 1000 hours. It’s going to be a while, and I can’t rush this process. We flip old Bernie over onto a couple of 4x4s and schlep him onto the back of one of my 5 tons, on loan to us courtesy of the Iowa National Guard.

Well, most of these Iowans haven’t worked with infantry before—at least, not with a unit as regularly in contact as we are. So Bernie attracts a few gawkers from the rear echelon-type troops. Some of them haven’t seen a death before. I guess they feel a need to punch the ticket before they go home.

They can punch it somewhere else. “Ok, guys,” I said. “Let’s give him a little dignity.”

(No, the irony isn’t lost on me. I mean, I am being rather flippant calling the guy “Bernie.” Well, losing sucks, doesn’t it? So sue me. I was really more interested in the dignity of my soldiers than in Bernie’s anyway.)

Finally, we load all 15 or so detainees on the truck, along with Bernie (he traveled alone in the back of his own truck.). We get everyone (except Bernie) a bottle of water, and we’re ready to go.

An hour and a half later, we pull into Al Asad, and I pull the whole convoy directly to Mortuary Affairs, without stopping anywhere else along the way. If I stop, then soldiers will start to disappear in order to avoid dead body moving detail. So I don’t give them the chance. The soldiers of mortuary affairs (yes, they have their own Military Occupational Specialty and, I hope, a hefty enlistment bonus) met us outside, and they immediately took Bernie in, I filled out a couple of forms inside, and off we went to transfer Bernie’s relatives.

And when we were done, one of my attached truck drivers got to atone for her voyeurism by reenacting Randall Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” and washing Bernie out of her truckbed with a hose.

She’s probably way ahead of me.

*Name changed at officer's request.

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