'This place is crazy'
In Fallujah, it's not IF you'll get shot at, but when

March, 2004


FALLUJAH, Iraq - Even the guys who earned their Combat Infantryman Badges during seven months in Afghanistan and have been fighting here for six more get that look when they're told they're going on patrol in Fallujah.

It's the look you get when it's hard to swallow, when your jaw locks and your weary eyes reveal the resignation of grunts who've been ordered time and again to do what no reasonable person would do the first time.

"This place is crazy, that's for sure," said 1st Lt. Dennis Cook, 24, of Traverse City, Mich. Cook is a platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne Division, and he had just dumped two dead Iraqis in front of his battalion's tactical operations center on Forward Operating Base Volturno, three miles from downtown. The two had ambushed Cook on his way back to base, which is not that unusual except on this particular afternoon it was the second time Cook's platoon had been attacked and it came within sight of the base and its relative safety.

"This place is crazy," Cook repeated, in case you didn't get the message the first time.

"Pretty much every time you go down there you get shot at," said Capt. Ryan Huston, 25, of Huntville, Ala., a liaison officer to the city from 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, the same regiment Cook serves in. "I can almost count the times I didn't get shot at."

No one from the Fort Bragg, N.C.-based 82nd lives in town. Although Lt. Col. Brian Drinkwine, the 1-505 commander, is proud of the progress in pacifying Fallujah, he is under no illusions.

"Don't misunderstand me," he said. "Fallujah is not a safe place."

Some Army officials felt insulted in January, when reports circulated that members of I Marine Expeditionary Force, which will replace the paratroopers here in March and April thought the Army somehow had missed an opportunity to win the hearts and minds of the local population.

A Marine Corps planning document said Marines would live in town, learn the language and work to be less intimidating by forgoing helmets on some patrols.

Ask soldiers here about that, and they respond with wry grins, a knowing twinkle in the eye and this wish: Good luck, pal.

More recently, as they get closer to deploying, the Marines have tempered their remarks. The man who will lead the 25,000 Marine Corps troops in Fallujah, Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, said in an interview at Camp Pendleton, Calif., that his Marines will pick their battles and targets carefully in Fallujah.

"We are learning from what the Army has done," he said. "We realize that the vast majority of the people are not going to [be] picking up arms against us, so we are being very specific in terms of those people who we do intend to target and remove them from society.

"The term we use is 'manage the levels of violence,'." he said. "We will achieve the level of fire superiority necessary to take care of each and every situation. But we need to be discerning in our fires to make sure that we don't create enemies in the process."

Here, then, some scenes from Fallujah, the most dangerous town in Iraq.

Mines before breakfast

A resident told Iraqi police there was an anti-tank mine in the road along the southern outskirts, a neighborhood the troops call Queens. (They have divided Fallujah into the five New York City boroughs.)

Up the chain of command, this kind of intel is viewed as progress - a resident dropping a dime on the bad guys. The soldiers of Delta Co., 1-505, didn't view the tip to the police as an act of good citizenship. The Delta troopers believed firmly based on bad prior experiences that this was a baited trap.

Just at daylight, an Explosives Ordnance Disposal van, two M113 Armored Personnel Carriers and four gun trucks from Delta headed to town. On the way in, Iraqi kids waved, adults glared and snarling dogs chased the convoy. Now, where someone had thoughtfully piled up three rocks marking what turned out to be not one but two anti-tank mines, the kids and adults and dogs slunk back two blocks distant. The north side of the pitted road was lined with crumbling brown brick homes. To the south, open country with all the picturesque charm of a garbage dump. The mined intersection was horribly exposed.

Into this tense scene speeds a pickup truck, barreling toward one of the APCs. Warning shots ring out before the truck stops, turns and speeds away. From a rooftop nearby, four rounds fire in the general direction of the soldiers.

The paratroopers set up a perimeter while the explosives ordnance disposal sergeant begins the unenviably touchy job of walking out in the open and detonating the mines.

Viewed from a distance, the baggy BDUs, bulky body armor and Kevlar helmet obscure the fact that the sergeant is a woman, Staff Sgt. Melissa Kennedy, 28, of Syracuse, N.Y. She is a member of the 789th Explosives Ordnance Disposal Company, late of Baghdad but based at Fort Benning, Ga.

Knowing every eye is on her - because she is the one who has to walk out exposed in a neighborhood where soldiers believe the mines were nothing more than bait for an ambush - she gets to work.

The soldiers' eyes are on her, too. If she screws this up, she'll be shredded by mines powerful enough to blast the hell out of 60 tons' worth of tank. Kennedy places her explosives and saunters back with a casual, steady, this-don't-scare-me swagger that causes one of the joes to say, admiringly and without any evident irony, "She's got balls."

When the mines blow, the soldiers pile back into their beat-to-hell Humvees with the mismatched armor-plated doors and race back to the base before someone can shoot at them.

All of this before breakfast.

The civil defense force

Delta Company's first sergeant, Steven Womack, was to receive 140 new recruits for the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, the militia the United States has created, recruited, trained and equipped.

The 140 showed up on time at the front gate of the base, along with an additional 200 clamoring for a chance to enlist. All this just a week after a different group of recruits was bloodied when insurgents fired two rocket-propelled grenades into the bus carrying them to the base. Ten were wounded, none killed.

Womack barely had begun sorting through the new recruits when, from Fallujah three miles away, there came those all-too-familiar sounds - the crunch of RPGs, the rattle of small-arms fire.

American soldiers and their interpreters listened on the radio to accounts of the Valentine's Day battle in downtown Fallujah, an hourlong attack against five Iraqi government installations. When it was over, the police headquarters had been overrun, 23 Iraqi policemen were killed, scores more wounded and 70 or 80 prisoners had been freed, the count depending on which day you ask the police.

The Americans have chosen to let the Iraqi security forces keep order in downtown Fallujah, at the specific request, they say, of the locals. The Valentine's Day raid stands as a bloody symbol of how poorly that has worked out. And so, at midnight, four nights after the insurgent attacks, 200 Americans, with a Spectre gunship and a pair of Kiowas overhead, swept into town and raided four homes, scooping up nine men they believe helped stage the Valentine's Day attacks.

This is democracy

If you want a measure of how twisted and difficult the city of Fallujah is, you could do no better than the meeting of the Fallujah Provisional Authority Commission four days after the slaughter at the police station.

The F-Pac, as it's known, is the rough equivalent of a city council. Its membership has been carefully crafted by the Americans to make sure the tribal sheiks and religious leaders are balanced by businessmen and professionals.

When the council gathers in a dusty youth center auditorium, about a third of its 41 members wear traditional head scarves - kheffiyahs - and robes. Drinkwine leaves his body armor and M4 backstage before joining the four top council members on a stage draped with faded burgundy curtains. But there are always several of his troops in full battle rattle in the room. What happens here is a hesitant first step toward representative democracy, something the Iraqis never have known.

Drinkwine and Stuart Jones, a 17-year veteran of the U.S. State Department and the Coalition Provisional Authority's representative in Fallujah, express sorrow and sympathy for the dead police and their families. And although the meeting goes on for two more hours and the sheiks, imams, businessmen and doctors speak at length about many things, the dead police are barely mentioned.

Instead, the council members complain about the hundreds of men the Americans hold for suspected involvement in anti-coalition attacks. They are angry that the men are being held without access to Iraqi courts or any clue to the evidence against them or when they might be released.

Those detained by the Americans include the previous mayor, whose replacement was picked at the meeting. In a demonstration of the joys of democracy, the new mayor's first speech is highlighted by a spirited attack on the Americans for holding the suspects.

Later, Drinkwine is resigned to their approach. "I don't expect to be thanked," he said. And then he adds, "It's remarkable to see democracy grow before your eyes. I have a master's degree in political science. This is great stuff."

Pictures in their pockets

Here's how the patrols go. Four or more Humvees, some with heavy machine guns, some with M19 grenade launchers, loaded with half a dozen soldiers, the sides beefed up with steel plates.

The drivers put their M4 carbines across their laps or next to their legs, wherever they think they can get to them fast and fire while still driving. The right-side front-seat passengers, if they're right-handed, try to get arranged so they can fire out their windows.

It's the same drill whether the patrol is headed into Fallujah proper or running over to the brigade headquarters for supplies or riding out in the barren wasteland on counter-mortar patrol.

The counter-mortar teams head out before dark and watch the Bedouin herd their sheep until it gets dark. Then the troops move to a new spot and freeze their tails off in a cat-and-mouse game with the Iraqis, who sneak in close at night to fire RPGs, rockets or mortars at the base.

No patrol has actually caught an enemy team but, on one infamous night, the counter-mortar patrol was mortared.

Speed is our friend, the soldiers tell you, and they drive as fast as they can, cutting off traffic, shouting at civilian vehicles to get out of their way, bouncing over curbs and median dividers, running red lights. The last thing you want is to come to a dead stop in downtown Fallujah. Get in, get out, as fast as you can.

Soldiers go through rituals before these excursions.

Specialists Scott Wolfe and Juan Torres from Charlie Company, 1-505, tap their pockets.

"I got three pictures in here," said Wolfe, 24, of Frankfurt, Ind., as he tapped his right front pocket. "One of them is naked. That's my wife."

"I got my letters and pictures here," Torres said as he tapped a pocket.

They said they don't want anyone to get their hands on those photos. And they want someone to mail the letters. Just in case. It's a ritual they go through as they leave base, as much a part of their routine as chambering a round and adjusting their sights.

But this is the Army, and no serious moment ever goes unmocked. From the front of the Humvee, their squad leader, Staff Sgt. Jerry Tucker, 33, of LaGrange, Ga., shouts back: "They've been watching too many fucking movies, Pvt. Ryan and shit. They think this is Vietnam."

Yeah, maybe, suggest the looks on Wolfe's and Torres' faces. But they still pat their pockets, showing their buddy where the letters home and photographs are.

Because when you go downtown in Fallujah, you just never know.