Sleepless nights

I can’t sleep, so I figured I’d blog about another sleepless night I had a few years back. I was camped out with a unit from the 101st Airborne in Adhamiya, downtown Baghdad. They were scheduled to do a raid with their Iraqi counterparts the next morning, before dawn. A group of alleged insurgents had been located, Col. Tarek Abed Alkreem and his men would go after them – with a little help from their American friends, led by Capt. Josh Brandon.

We sat in Col. Alkreem’s office about five hours before the raid. He was clearly overwhelmed – and had no qualms in admitting it. “We don’t have the equipment, technology, ammunition and intelligence that the Coalition has,” he said. Adhamiya was full of Al Qaeda, Baathist insurgents, criminals – “all sorts of groups, each with their own aims,” Alkreem explained. He looked flustered. “There’s too much happening here,” he said.

The Americans I talked to that night didn’t really feel that way. They admitted to being a bit tired of training – they knew they could get the job done themselves, but they’d been ordered to train, not actually fight. They were antsy, and knew that if given the green light, they’d be able to take on the insurgents.

On the roof of the compound (a Forward Operating Base, or FOB, in military parlance) I stood by while a couple of soldiers pointed their turret gun at a nearby mosque. That’s where the insurgents take cover, one said. He could blow the insurgents out from there, without even leaving the base, he said. But no, that wasn’t his directive…

A few of the soldiers were getting a little sick of the whole situation in general (bear in mind this was way back in 2006). One private grumbled about the war being purely ideological, while another joked about how long it took him to get used to “all that man-kissing.” Most of the soldiers I talked to admitted they had enjoyed learning the ways of their foreign counterparts. But sometimes the frustration was inevitable: “the word ‘hope’ doesn’t exist in the military,'” said one soldier, griping about his counterparts’ fatalistic sensibilities.

Shortly after the meeting in Alkreem’s office (which, incidentally, was inside what once was one of Uday Hussein’s whorehouses), I bunked down with Capt. Brandon. To this day, I am grateful to all the guys who offered me their spare bunk. At least three of them did so, but Brandon said that I should sleep in his quarters, which of course were more spacious and, well, given the circumstances, luxurious.

I got into my sleeping bag, and tried to imagine what was going on inside the head of my one-night roommate. With the raid about three hours away, I didn’t probe, I figured it’d be right to just let him be. (Even a reporter has to know that at times, there is nothing more annoying than a reporter.) He was watching DVD episodes of Smallville (a self-admitted addiction of his) and clearly kinda missing home. He mentioned something about ending his tour pretty soon. Then he turned back to Smallville.

I fell sound asleep, thinking, yeah, I owe these guys my life. There are hundreds of other journalists out there who I am sure think the same.