This excerpt is, again, jumping around in terms of chronology. After Tikrit we ended up in Al Kut, in the southern Iraq province of Wasit. This would be the end of our time in Iraq, but it dragged…
I have lots of stories about Al Kut, too many. Nastiness, like a detainee escaping Marine custody. I’d collected intel saying he was the one who had hired a hitman to throw a grenade at the police station, severely wounding one of the American soldiers. The motherfucker cost a soldier guarding the police station his legs. He wasn’t talking in the Iraqi jail, he just professed his innocence, so I ordered him moved to a more secure facility on the Marine base across the river at the nearby airfield. His escape and follow-up investigation with his family and other sources made me conclude my source had been right, and we had lost a guy who had tried to kill us.
There were heroic moments, Randy and Matt saved two kids from drowning in the Tigris river. Kids liked to swim in the water just below the main dam/bridge in Al Kut, but it was dangerous. We heard screaming and saw a mob of kids on the riverbank as we crossed the dam. Randy stopped his truck and he and Matt grabbed the tie-down straps from their humvee. Randy had to jump about ten feet down, in full combat gear with both his weapons, to a twelve-inch ledge so that the tie-downs would reach the kids in the swirling water. A third kid still drowned, but the people from that neighborhood quit throwing rocks at us whenever we went in to patrol or mark a weapons cache. Another small victory.
There were moments of levity, like Johnny getting drunk and trying to show us how big his dick was. Well, he did show us, but for some reason he wanted to show it to us hard. He was so hammered it took him about thirty minutes to get it up (he went into the showers to take care of things), but when he finally got it going it did turn out to be pretty scary big. Damn impressive for a short, skinny Iraqi.
There was melancholy. My twenty-fifth birthday was spent in a tiny mud-brick building on a mission north of Al Kut. I didn’t tell anyone. I just silently wished for a beer.
The summer of 2003 passed slowly. At one point we thought we’d found the Weapons of Mass Destruction, but it turned out to just be some kind of bridge beam X-ray machine. But, the way the geiger counter went off, I’m pretty sure I’ve been exposed to some serious radiation. We went out to cafes, smoked hookah and drank chai with an inch of sugar in the glass. We talked to the locals, ate at the restaurants, all while trying to find a meaning for staying in Iraq long past the invasion.
There was one particular incident I could classify as both nastiness and levity, though definitely not heroic. It’s probably best categorized as ‘it’s funny now.’ I had befriended a local Iraqi, Hamid, a tall (over 5’ 6”) good looking guy (he had all his teeth) in his early twenties who worked at a roadside convenience store not far from the main market in Al Kut. He gave me what we called “atmospherics.” He knew people, things. Nothing really specific, just general information on the neighborhoods in the city and the surrounding areas. I, in turn, bought sodas from him. A lot of sodas.
One day in the middle of the 135 degree summer Randy had a meeting with some guys he had been working with, and it just so happened the building they were meeting in was right next door to Hamid’s convenience store. Our concept of security back then, in those halcyon summer days between the invasion and the insurgency, was for Randy to go in with a linguist and for me to stay by the truck and stand guard by myself.
In hindsight… this was probably a bad idea. But, at the time we thought nothing of it, Al Kut was secure, more or less. And, fuck, we knew the neighborhood. I had Hamid as an informant keeping eyes out for me across the street at his convenience store.
Randy and Ra’ad had just gone into the meeting when I saw Hamid walking across the street toward the truck with another young Iraqi. He’d seen my truck, of course, and wanted to chat. More than chat. I could smell the cheap whiskey on his breath from three feet away as he approached, he was swaying and grinning and sweating, his buddy barely holding him up.
We exchanged kisses on the cheeks, of course, his stubble scratching my clean-shaven face, and we held hands as per Arabic custom. You can’t get information from an Arab if you refuse to touch them. They’re a touchy people, in both senses of the word, and it’s insulting if you refuse to engage them physically. I had my rifle in my right hand and his sweaty palm in my left. A drunk Iraqi was nothing to be worried about, but he had a glassy smile when he looked at me. And then he giggled. And started touching my shoulder with his other hand. Well, more rubbing, than touching.
Now, I had liked Hamid, he seemed liked a good guy, he’d shown me some good stores to go to, the bad places to avoid, etc. But the way he laughed made me twitchy. I was by myself, and I had no idea how long Randy was going to be in his meetings, so I started getting a little uncomfortable. I didn’t have a linguist, and Hamid was too drunk at two in the afternoon to speak much of the little English he knew.
Hamid’s buddy, though, spoke some English and he was sober, more or less. They were laughing and Hamid was starting to caress my hand. Then he leaned to try to drunk-whisper into my ear.
“Five minutes.” He breathed heavily, wafting booze into my face.
I stepped back a bit and laughed, at first not getting what he was referring to.
“Five minutes for what, habibi?” He was still holding my hand. With his free hand he pointed to the back of my humvee.
With a toothy smile he drunkenly exclaimed, “Five minutes, I give you big one!” And then he made a motion with his mouth like he was sucking a dick.
Holy fuck, I thought, I’ve just been propositioned by an Iraqi dude. I was the only Marine on the street, and Hamid was flirting with me. More than flirting. I had never felt more alone.
Keeping a smile on my face I rapidly considered my options, and hated all of them. As much as I wanted to put a bullet into Hamid, his kinda sober buddy and some random curious kids were standing around. No way I could kill all of them. At least, not without causing serious blowback from the area. And, you know, warcrimes and whatnot. We got away with a lot of shit during the invasion, but gunning down a couple drunk dudes and probably some kids in a fairly busy street would have really looked bad. And, besides, who knows who would have come out of the nearby houses and killed me in retaliation. Had we been in a blind alley and Hamid had been the only Iraqi in sight, he might not have made it out alive.
But instead of killing him I smiled at Hamid, laughed, kept holding his hand and told him I was married. And that I had no interest in men that way. He shrugged, and said, “So?” I had to keep telling him no, I didn’t want to get, “a big one,” as much as he insisted. He was persistent, and his drunk Iraqi ass couldn’t take a hint. As much as I tried to keep things chill, without escalating to shooting him, I was not happy about being hit on by a dude. Eventually, Hamid’s buddy started to get the vibe, and he started to make excuses for his drunk friend. I’m pretty sure he saw me fingering the trigger on my rifle, and he probably realized things would go badly if Hamid kept going with his drunk flirtations.
Hamid’s friend apologized, in broken english. “Salaam alakem, mister. So sorry!” He grabbed Hamid by the should and dragged him off, reeking of that damned Middle Eastern whiskey. Hamid’s buddy kinda gave me an apologetic look and, over Hamid’s protestations, they both stumbled away. Randy exited his meeting shortly thereafter, and we left that part of the city without any violence.
That day at the tender age of twenty-five I learned a valuable lesson. I most humbly apologize to any woman I have ever drunkenly hit on, I am so glad you didn’t have a rifle/pistol/knife with you. Or, if you did, I’m glad you showed restraint to my dumb ass. And, no, I never talked to Hamid again.