Being a combat veteran and someone who wrote a book about the war… More than that- being someone who was critically wounded and lost a good friend during the war, I’ve been asked what I think about what’s happening in Iraq right now. What do I say? I knew it would happen. In my book I describe our actions in trying to bring democracy in Iraq like building sandcastles during low tide. When I was writing my book the first chapter I wrote was in the middle somewhere. It was a chapter called The Kid. I wrote this first because it became my metaphor for the war. Iraq is the kid. My squad is the US.
The day we drove north into the war I sat in the passenger of my Humvee seat trying to take in every detail of my surroundings. The flat land ran so far into the horizon that I thought it might be possible the world wasn’t round at all. Kuwait was an absolute wasteland of blinding light and unbearable heat. It took hours before we saw patches of brown grass squeezing their way up through the sand. The only signs that any type of civilization had ever been there at all were the melting plastic bottles, curled cardboard, crushed aluminum cans, and pieces of Styrofoam dropped by the other military convoys on the way up.
At 0900 hours I noticed the salt stains dried into my uniform start to darken with sweat again, and the first sergeant’s RTO, or radio telephone operator, announced to the convoy that we had crossed into Iraq. There was no line in the sand, no fence, no boundary marker—only more of the same nothing. The next transmission said one of the maintenance trucks blew a tire. Since my squad’s two trucks were designated the QRF or quick reaction force we were ordered to stay with it until the tire was changed.
My Humvee parked in front of the five-ton maintenance truck and Sergeant McCreery’s Humvee parked behind. Other than our three vehicles I couldn’t see anything but flat land for hundreds of miles. There wasn’t a terrain feature or any discernable hill within eyesight.
The wrecker with the blown tire hadn’t been desert-painted yet, so it was still green, the only green for miles. I jumped out of my vehicle and walked over to talk to the driver of the big rig, fully aware as I stepped out that it was the first time I was setting foot on Iraqi soil.
No one from the truck got out of the cab, so I climbed up on the running board and looked in. I saw two white male soldiers and one black female soldier; all three had decided they weren’t getting out of the cab. The most I could convince them to do was roll down the window. When they did, all three wide-eyed faces were framed in the passenger side window. I asked if they could change the tire, being maintenance and all. That was pretty much their job. The female buck sergeant told me they didn’t have a spare.
“How are you driving into combat without a spare?” I jumped down and looked under the frame of the truck, hoping they were wrong. The female told me her supply sergeant couldn’t get her a one. One of the specialists told me that it didn’t matter anyway, because they didn’t have a hydraulic jack. The female then said her supply sergeant couldn’t get her one of those either. I walked back to my truck, leaving them calling out a list of all the equipment they should have had but didn’t.
I swung the door open on my side of the Humvee, plopped down on the seat, and shut my eyes tight, letting the sweat bead up and run down my cheeks. The sun shone so intensely that when I breathed in I could feel it warm the inside of my lungs.
“Are they pogues?” Eric asked. Pogue was sort of a dirty word in the infantry. It was slang for non-infantry, or someone who didn’t have to go through the same stress we did.
“Yeah, mechanics without a jack or a spare. Imagine if we went to war and forgot our guns.” I opened my eyes and sat up. “We’re going to need help getting these guys moving. Call it in to the next chalk, see if they can help.”
Zedwick yelled from the back of the truck, “Holy shit, Sergeant, there are kids out here.”
I turned and saw four boys dressed in rags and dirty dishdashas—ankle-length, shirt-like garments that most Iraqis wore—but with all the caked-on dirt and stains, they could have been wearing colored burlap sacks. The oldest had on green and couldn’t have been more than fifteen. A kid in blue with a block-shaped head almost as wide as his shoulders pushed a kid wearing an old gray private’s shirt with the word “ARMY” on the front. He must have gotten it from a soldier somehow. The youngest had to be around four years old, in brown rags that folded up around his feet and dragged in the sand.
The oldest recognized that I was in charge and walked toward me with a thumbs-up and a smile. I told him to go home in his language, but he kept moving with that smile like he had no doubt I would help him. He pinched the fingers of his right hand together and bounced them off his pursed lips.
“He wants food,” Zedwick said, standing in the back of my Humvee.
I looked back at him. “I know.”
My first instinct was to give them food and water, but one of the staff majors told us before heading out not to give them any. I didn’t want to start out my tour by disobeying orders. They were dirty, disheveled, and thin, but didn’t look starved. I hesitated for a second before shaking my head no, and the kid knew that hesitation meant I still had enough sentimentality in me to exploit.
The kid turned without missing a step and walked toward McCreery’s truck, giving the same motion and pointing to the four-year-old. The youngest child gave us all starving eyes. These kids were practiced actors and talented at playing the GIs’ heartstrings. They had to be; surviving in the desert demanded focus and determination. Every desert creature needed to be quick, and when the kid in green saw that he wasn’t going to get any scraps from my guys he produced a stack of Saddam bills from under his clothes.
We all eyed those bills. He held in his hands our first opportunity for a war trophy. The kid pointed to Brady, pointing at his cigarette, but it took a second before Brady realized this. When he did, he unclipped his extra ammo pouch, grabbed his smokes, and pulled one from his pack.
The kid peeled off a bill and held it out.
I should have stopped the transaction. Brady had just given a cigarette to a kid. Instead I yelled, “That money isn’t worth anything.”
“I know, Sergeant, but it has Saddam’s face on it.”
Now everyone in the squad wanted to trade something for Saddam money, and instead of putting a stop to it I decided to remove myself from the situation by stepping around the Humvee to piss by the driver’s-side wheel well. I finished and zipped up, and when I came back there were five more kids. “Where did they come from?”
“I have no idea, Sergeant. It’s like they just appeared from nowhere,” Zedwick said.
I looked into the distance and saw the mirror effect the heat waves created across the desert floor. It must have been cutting off our field of view. They either walked from a settlement somewhere out there in the complete desolation, which seemed impossible, or they had a tunnel system, which seemed more impossible. Either way, there they were. They called for food and water in their language and in ours. They pointed pleadingly at watches, pens, sunglasses, and anything else they saw. Then I heard Eric call my name. I turned to find another small crowd around my Humvee.
“Hey, hey, get the hell away from there. Lil byet, lil byet!” I yelled, which I was pretty sure meant “go home,” but either they didn’t understand or they ignored me, and more were coming. They started out as little black dots that broke the mirror effect, grew into silhouettes, and then, almost like magic, turned into little boys dressed in ragged clothes.
Stories had circulated, handed down from the brass—stories of these orphan panhandler children throwing grenades into Humvees, onto the laps of unsuspecting soldiers. I pictured my truck exploding. I yelled at them to leave and waved my arms at the swarm of beggar children. This time I got a few looks, but they soon went back to yelling and jumping at the guys in the trucks. How was it that these children didn’t recognize our chain of command? Our rank structure? They washed against the trucks like a wave. Some children started climbing up the big rig and this terrified the maintenance pogues. They quickly rolled up the windows on the cab of their truck.
Those kids crammed flush against our vehicles and pulled against the padlocked shovel-and-pick set mounted on the outside of the big rig. Little dirty hands grabbed at the rucksacks hanging off the outsides of the Humvees. If they hadn’t stolen anything yet, they would shortly. My arms shook and my chest jittered. I walked through the swarm of desert children to the older boy in green and hoped he spoke enough English that I could use him to get the mob back. He saw me approaching and looked me right in the eyes.
“We want food, water,” he said with a smile that let me know he had me right where he wanted me. I wondered how often he was able to play this little game of his.
“We don’t have enough. Make them leave and I’ll give some to you and your brothers.”
He set to work instantly, yelling in Arabic to the kid in blue and the one in the army shirt. The three of them screamed, pushed, and kicked the others until they dispersed. They acted with such enthusiasm that I almost changed my mind. Their hands waved wildly in the air and the stubborn kids who tried to stay received kicks in the stomach or bloodied noses. I had just put a small despot in power. The scene looked like a riot at an orphanage. Finally, they chased them all away into the desert, and soon only the original four stood there. The violence of the whole thing started the four-year-old crying, with snot running down his nose, over his lips, and down his chin.
“Jesus Christ,” Eric said, standing outside the driver’s-side door with the radio hand-mic clipped to his chin strap. The whole event had taken maybe thirty seconds.
“Z, give me four bottles of water and four MREs,” I said.
I handed a thirty-two-ounce bottle of drinking water and an MRE to the kid in green, then the kid in blue, and down the line, but when I gave one to the four-year-old, the kid in blue grabbed it from him. The four-year-old started to cry louder.
“Hey, give that back to him,” I said.
The blockhead held both the water bottles and the MREs tight to his chest and stared at me.
“Give it back.” I took a step toward the oldest to have him tell his brother in Arabic. As soon as I broke eye contact, the blockhead took off running. The one in the ARMY shirt chased after and tackled him, and they went tumbling into the sand wrestling and gouging at each other. I thought for a moment that the second kid was getting the little one’s stuff for him, but when he grabbed the MREs that fell to the ground, he tried to take off with all of them himself. The one in blue caught the ARMY shirt kid’s leg, and they rolled around wrestling and biting each other. The oldest ran over and gathered up all the food and water that tumbled out, and took off sprinting. When the other two realized there was nothing left to fight about, they ran off chasing the oldest.
The four-year-old screamed like he was surrounded by devils. I looked at him and took a couple steps into the desert, but the others were gone.
I searched the horizon, but still couldn’t see anything but the blurry, mirrored sand. “What the hell?”
“Now what?” Eric asked.
“What the hell?” I didn’t know what else to say. I walked back to the truck and told Zedwick to give me another water and MRE. I opened the bottle, kneeled next to the kid, and held it out. He grabbed it and sipped between sobs. I unfolded a knife with my thumb and cut through the plastic MRE bag. Inside I found a chocolate-covered oatmeal bar and gave it to him. He went at it with both hands, shoving half into his mouth and letting his water fall to the sand, where it gushed out. I picked up his water bottle and sat beside him in the shade of my Humvee. While he started in on the meal, I took my helmet off and ran my hand through my sweat-soaked hair.
Fifteen minutes or so later the ground started to rumble, letting us know Chalk Six was coming.
Eric called from inside the truck. “Sean, I made radio contact. The second wrecker will be here in five mikes.”
It took ten minutes to fix the tire. I told the female buck sergeant to fall into Chalk Six’s convoy. She nodded but didn’t say thanks. Both the wrecker and the big rig pulled off, leaving me, my squad, and the kid.
The kid was in the middle of finishing the main meal of the MRE.
“We can take him with us,” Eric said, and jumped out of the truck to piss. His chin strap was always unbuttoned, his sleeves were rolled up almost to the elbow, and he left his flak vest pulled open so only half of the front was Velcroed together.
“What the hell, Eric?” I said. “You can’t even take care of yourself and you want to adopt?”
“I’m serious. We should take him with us. He can’t be more than four years old.”
“He’s got to have a family around here somewhere.” I looked down at the kid spooning the last bit of chili-mac from the plastic pouch into his chocolate-covered mouth. A small feeling that I just might take him with me started itching in my gut.
McCreery came out of his truck to see what was going on. “This is something out of Star Wars. I can’t believe people live in this wasteland.”
Eric climbed into the driver’s seat, put his head down, and spoke into the hand-mic. Then he called out, “They want us to catch up.”
The kid scratched some sand out of his hair, completely oblivious to anything else. I made a fist. “Shit.”
“They want to know what’s taking us so long,” Eric said.
I lifted my helmet and ran my hand through my hair. “What’s taking us so long? The big rig only left a minute ago.” I knew we’d lose radio contact in ten minutes or so, and it would be at least another couple hours before Chalk Seven came through. I couldn’t wait. We needed to get back to our chalk.
“Sean, come on, we have to take him with us,” Eric said.
I looked at Eric and wanted to agree. Taking the kid with us was the right thing to do.
“Are you kidding? He’ll find his way back to whatever mud hut he lives in,” McCreery said. “If we take him, his parents will put a jihad out on the next convoy.”
“Hell,” I said. I knew that this was the first desperate kid in a country full of desperate kids. I couldn’t go around saving them all and probably would be court-marshaled for abducting the child, even if I did it with the best of intentions, but could I leave a four-year-old in the middle of a wasteland? “Hell.”
I squatted down next to him. This got his attention, and he smiled at me and rubbed his nose.
“I gotta go, kid.”
His smile widened and I noticed he was missing a couple of his bottom teeth.
I looked up at Zedwick. “Give me two bottles of water.”
McCreery jumped in the cab of his truck. “The minute we leave those other kids are just going to push him down and take them, you know that.”
“I hope so.” Then he wouldn’t be alone in the desert. Zedwick handed down the two bottles of water and a bag of Skittles. I set the water beside him, ripped the bag, and poured some in his hands. He thanked me in Arabic.
“Let’s get out of this shithole,” McCreery shouted.
I stood up, looked at him, and yelled, “Shut the hell up. No one is going anywhere until this kid finishes his god-damned Skittles.”
No one moved until every piece of candy was gone. I told the kid in his language to go home and got in the truck. He hugged both bottles of water to his chest and started walking. I tried to watch him in the side mirror of the truck, but we kicked up so much dust that he disappeared.
A few hours later we were rolling through Baghdad, less than an hour after that we hit Taji. The war kept me busy after that and I didn’t think of the kid again until I was convalescing in an army hospital in Germany months later.