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(DISCLAIMER: The thoughts, opinions, and comments contained in this narrative in no way represent the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.)

Bayji Blues

Word comes down that Charlie Company got hit. Charlie is stationed at the Bayji Oil Refinery, located north of Tikrit. On one of their patrols through the city, an RKG-3 struck an MRAP, wounding three soldiers. The driver’s status is urgent surgical, though no one was killed. Charlie’s commander wants a show of force in the city to illustrate to the populace that we’re not playing around. He’s asked for our platoon specifically, so we get the order to spin up and head to Bayji.

We leave Speicher around four in the morning and travel north on MSR Tampa in the dark. The mission means another day off down the toilet, and we’re bound to be out for a while, but the mood is reasonably upbeat. This is a legitimate infantry patrol and not another bodyguard detail. The likelihood of enemy contact is increased, and it seems almost everyone is just itching for the chance to kill.

It’s light out by the time we reach the refinery, a few wrong turns and switchbacks behind us. We pull the trucks in to Charlie’s small outpost and immediately refuel. Everyone dismounts for a quick briefing, and then we load up again and roll out.

No doubt there are insurgents watching us as we descend upon the city. I’m not sure if we look like a juicy target, or the reckoning: four combat platoons and a pair of Apache gunships overhead. The patrol splits in two after we pass the first major intersection. Charlie continues on toward the city center while we turn off into one of the main market streets. Normally, this place would be crawling, but it’s Ramadan. The only people on the street are a couple dudes picking up trash. We drop our dismount squads and begin to move through the market, stopping frequently as the Lieutenant and the interpreter talk to the few locals around about the attack. I stop the truck in front of a small alleyway to allow Specialist Pressley to cover it with his M240. First Squad is spread out on both sides of the street in front of us. Staff Sergeant Moore searches the trunk of a beat-up Corolla and finds an empty US ammo can.

It takes us an hour or so to cover the length of the market. Nobody attacks us. Nobody offers any useful information about the attack on Charlie Company. The dismounts climb back in the trucks and we turn around to head out. Once back on the main road, our air escort comes up on the radio.

“Blue One, Brimstone Zero Three.”

“This is Blue One.”

“Just an FYI, as you were leaving the market, a guy stepped out of one of the buildings and gave your convoy the finger.”

We all chuckle. The Apaches must be a thousand meters up.

Someone in the back of the truck suggests we should go grab up the offending Iraqi. A few years ago, that might have happened. He’d have been questioned, maybe even tuned up a little. But it’s a different war now. We keep on driving.

After chow, we’re sitting out at the trucks, waiting to hear whether we will conduct another patrol in Bayji after the sun goes down or return to COB Speicher. The fumes from the refinery are giving me a dull ache in my right temple. I don’t want to contemplate the amount of toxins that must be in the air. There are two smokestacks just outside the wall of the compound, burning perpetually and giving off a thick black smoke.

Eggleston, Craddick and Mies are relaxing on the rear ramp of Three-Two. Egg and Craddick are sitting on the top step, each with a leg propped up on one of Mies’ shoulders.

“This is teamwork,” Craddick says.

“Not only am I helping you guys,” say Mies, “but I’m also working my core.”

“Do some air squats,” I say.

Mies does a few labored squats with their legs on his shoulders, and then sits down again. “That hurts,” he says.

I light a cigarette.

“You’re an oil guy, right?” I ask Egg. “Maybe you can tell me what the boobs are for.”

“The what?”

“The boobs.” I point out at the series of spherical structures in the refinery to our south. There are six of them, in three pairs. To me, they resemble the reactors at the old San Onofre nuclear plant.

“To be honest, I have no idea. I worked in natural gas, and I never worked on a refinery.”

“Well, if you wanted another job, you could always go AWOL and hire on here.”

“Nah,” says Egg. “They’d find me. They couldn’t find Kenny Brown when he went AWOL in Texas, even though he was living two blocks off base. But with my luck, they’d find me.”

“I don’t think it was so much that they couldn’t find him as it was that they didn’t give a shit.”

“Still, they’d find me.”

Mies makes some remark about Leavenworth and anal rape that I don’t quite hear. My attention is drawn to the damaged MRAP parked in the far corner of the yard with a baseball-sized hole punched through the windshield. The last we’ve heard, the driver may lose his foot. All of the recent RKG-3 attacks have been to the windshield or passenger side, and the soldiers getting wounded or killed are always the TC and driver, which is my primary job. I think about losing a foot. I suppose it’s better than losing the whole leg, or a hand or arm. Better than having the contents of my skull sprayed across the interior of the crew cabin.

Egg is telling me about a job he had with the oil company in Colorado, where they had blown a drill underground and tried over and over again for days to fix the pipe or retrieve the drill bit or something. The technical details are lost on me.

“As shitty as that was,” he says, “the pay was worth it. Here, the pay is shit. And I have to work with a bunch of people that I hate. I hate you all.”

“You should avoid using the word hate,” I say. “What happens if you meet someone that you really really hate? You won’t have an adequate word to describe it.”

“I loathe you all.”

This is just Egg being Egg. It’s his standard demeanor. I’d be more concerned if he said he was happy about something.

“But here,” I make a sweeping gesture with my arms, “you get to serve your country.”

“It would be worth it if I got to shoot somebody. Even if it’s a little kid that I splatter across a wall with the fifty cal. That would make it all worthwhile.”

After a bit, I walk back to my truck and climb in the back to try and cool off in the AC. We wait around for another couple hours, until we get the word we’re going back to Speicher. We won’t have to do another patrol today.

It’s a few days after our trip to Bayji, and we’re back in Tikrit.

The three prisoners are shuffled into the building in single file. They are blindfolded with what look like strips of bed linens and their hands are bound behind their backs. There are no visible bruises or signs of mistreatment, but I’m sure their hosts haven’t handled them gently. They all look weak and docile, not the image of fierce insurgents I had in my head. The IPs put each of the prisoners in a separate corner of the room, facing the wall.

These are the men suspected of the RKG-3 attack on Charlie Company in Bayji. The Iraqi Police SWAT Team apprehended them a couple days ago and transported them to the provincial headquarters in Tikrit. We’re here today to collect their biometric and biographical data for our intelligence database. One by one, we take the prisoners into a back room so I can scan their fingerprints and irises. The Lieutenant asks questions while the interpreter translates. They all claim to be honest stiffs from Bayji, refinery and power plant workers. None of them resists or refuses to cooperate with the questioning or fingerprint collection. None of them seem to know why they were arrested.

I can’t tell if it’s the prisoner’s act, or if they actually might be innocent. The IPs have not been able to tell us what evidence led them to these men. And the Iraqi justice system cannot be described as precise.

One of the prisoners tells me his birthday is the thirty-first of November. I do some quick math in my head.

“Tell this dude there are only thirty days in November,” I say to the interpreter.

They chatter back and forth in Arabic for a moment.

“He says then his birthday is the thirtieth of November,” says the interpreter.

The Lieutenant shakes his head. “Just go with that,” he says.

I enter his DOB as thirty November. Either this guy truly doesn’t know what day he was born—a possibility, since the Iraqis do not seem to attribute the same significance to dates as we do in the States—or we have to question all the information these men have given us. We are not trained in interrogation or human intelligence gathering. That’s what MI does.

We finish up and the prisoners are taken back to the jail facility. As we head back to the trucks, I say to the Lieutenant, “Sir, I’m pretty sure everything they just told us was bullshit.”

“Yup,” he says.

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Kevin Groh KEVIN GROH spent his formative years in Southern California and graduated from the Professional Writers Program at USC. He is currently serving with the First Cavalry Division.

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