Sleepless in TaqTaq

Dinner in the home of an Iraqi General

Lakewood native Eric Smith has been serving in Iraq since May. Major Smith is stationed at Forward Operating Base McHenry, near Kirkuk.

A’salaam aleukum.” Hello.“A’salaam aleukum,” the portly sheikh replied. “Issa ra’id Smith, bejeishi Amerikani.” I’m Major Smith from the American Army. The sheikh burst loose with a three minute welcome speech, unaware that I had just exhausted my Arabic vocabulary. I waved my hand, smiled, and fired off my last word, “mudjerd.” Interpreter. He laughed when he realized that his welcome had been received in spirit, but not understood. He reached out, grabbed my hand, and walked me to the city council room, still speaking a mile a minute, while I nodded politely.

Our arrival in the small village of TaqTaq was a military operation combined with a traveling carnival. TaqTaq sits on the banks of the Tigris, across from the ziggurat of Azshur, an ancient Assyrian monument. Aside from the satellite dishes and the automobiles, I doubt the landscape looks much different from the one the Babylonians saw. Young girls ride donkeys to their family fields in the floodplain while flocks of sheep are guided by dusty shepards along the rutted roads. Our convoy lumbered down from the surrounding hills in the late afternoon sun, and dodged through the narrow streets, while the radio crackled with warnings passed from truck to truck. “Watch out 33, low wires around the side here.” “Two kids behind this wall, looks like they’re going to try and cross.” “Five kids running toward us on the left.” “Male with a gun, two-o’clock; looks like he’s IP (Iraqi Police).”

We pulled into a small courtyard, bounded by two homes, the city council building, and a small police station that was being used by the local Sons of Iraq (SoI) as their headquarters. The MRAP drivers put their vehicles at the periphery, oriented outwards, while gunners scanned nervously for VBIEDs (Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices or car bombs). Soldiers poured out of the back of the MRAPs and immediately set to work. A machine-gun team ran up to the roof of one of the homes and set-up, overwatching the road we came in on. Our communications operators were spinning cranks and setting up a giant satellite dish. The generator operators ran cable into the police headquarters and positioned our generator near a wall where the noise would be dampened by the stone. The Platoon Sergeant, Sergeant First-Class Phillips, was seemingly everywhere at once, supervising our rapidly developing position. “Let’s go with the wire!” he yelled over the noise of the generator, as Soldiers pulled awkward rolls of concertina wire off the sides of our vehicles and stretched them out across the road like a giant slinky. I had insisted we bring twice the amount of wire than was normally carried, not because I was worried about insurgents, but because I was worried about the local kids. My worries were well-founded and even as the Soldiers pulled the wire across the courtyard under SFC Phillips’ direction, a growing crowd of children was intermingling with our position.

I grabbed our interpreter, Ronnie, and walked over to the local policeman and SoI Commander who were watching the scene. “Please keep the kids out of here. I’m worried about all the heavy equipment and Soldiers with weapons. The kids can watch, but they have to stay on the other side of the wire.” The two men nodded and started yelling at the pack of boys, who immediately scattered. I walked back to our developing HQ and took off my helmet. It was about 120 degrees in the small stone building and the dusty ceiling fan stood still for lack of power. Nevertheless, everything was going according to plan. “I am concerned about the security.” I told the Sheik. “My men are on the perimeter. Do you have men manning checkpoints? Have you heard about any insurgents in the area?” “You don’t have to worry.” He answered. “This is a very safe village. Everyone here is very happy that you have come and we hope you stay for a long time. I told all the people in the village that if anyone shoots at you, I will burn their house to the ground.” “Oh. Well, thanks.”

That night I slept on the roof, where at least there was a breeze. It meant waking up at 0500 in a pool of sweat, but for the few moments I had to look skyward, between lying down and slipping into a deep, sleep-starved coma, the stars were beautiful. Late one afternoon we were sitting on boxes outside the door, searching vainly for cool air, when we heard a burst of small arms fire to the north. After a few minutes it was followed by several more in quick succession. I sent a quick message to our main HQ back at FOB McHenry, “SMALL ARMS FIRE 500m NORTH. STANDBY.” I sent two men up to the roof with a pair of binoculars to see if they could pick out anything in the village. I then sent a runner to alert the platoon who was providing security for us and told the interpreter to get the police chief. After a few minutes the police chief came by with the interpreter. “Do you know what that shooting is?” I asked. “It’s a drunk playing with his gun,” he answered, “we took care of him.” I went back to the computer and sent another message to FOB McHenry, “SMALL ARMS FIRE WAS INEBRIATED LOCAL CITIZEN. INCIDENT CLOSED."

All of the children who clustered around me wanting to see pictures, all of the local leaders I met with, every citizen on the street I interacted with - they were all male. In fact, I’ve never talked with an Iraqi woman. Women are veiled and sequestered in the homes. When we move into an area, the women who are out working immediately go inside. We only talk with the men. The only exception to this rule is the professional women. There is a saying that, “In Iraq, there are three sexes: men, women, and women in uniform.” The female police officers, army officers, doctors, and the like, are considered socially equal while they are performing in their professional capacity. Once they go home, however, the old rules return. Fortunately, we had one female Soldier with us: SGT Perry. She was our logistics specialist, in charge of monitoring the food, fuel, and maintenance for our little outpost. It took about ten minutes after our arrival for her to become the single most popular person in the entourage. The local men all wanted their picture taken with her. I found myself on more than one occasion asking, “We need a water count. Where the heck is SGT Perry?”

One night I was eating dinner with Abu Muthanna, an important local leader and one of our strongest allies. The dinner party, of course, was all men. “We are honored to have you here as our guests. Do you have any female Soldiers with you that my wife and daughters could talk to?” he asked. I sent some Soldiers back to our perimeter to get SGT Perry and escort her out to Abu Muthanna’s home. When they returned thirty minutes later, she looked like she was being led around under duress.

“SGT Perry, how are you?” “Sir, I have a rock in my pocket with your name on it.” “Come on, the women are desperate for company. You’ll have a great time.” “We’ll talk about this later Sir.” She went to the women’s kitchen while we stayed out in the garden with the men, eating, socializing, and talking strategy well into the night. Several hours later when it came time to go, SGT Perry’s tone had completely changed. “Sir, can I come back tomorrow? They don’t want me to leave without saying goodbye.”

“I thought you didn’t want to come here in the first place.”

“I didn’t, but they’re all so nice and they speak English. They learned from watching TV. We had a great time.”

We did come back the next night. The days wore on and we continued our diverse set of tasks. There were more meetings and dinners. We planned aid and reconstruction projects. We developed a plan to reorganize the local government. We passed out humanitarian aid to local widows and their families, and at night we hunted the insurgents, detaining them where they slept. When it came time to leave, there was a long sequence of handshakes, hugs, speeches, and picture taking. “In our tradition, when you stay in some place for three days, it becomes your home,” Abu Muthanna told me. "I’m ok with that,” I answered him, “Just don’t tell anyone else. My mail is screwed up enough as it is.”

Major Eric Smith is serving in Iraq with the 10th Mountain Division. The division’s home base is Ft. Drum in Watertown, New York where Major Smith lives with his wife Dina, three year old twins Kirsten and Skyler, and one year old son Neil. The son of Pam and Tom Smith of Lakewood, Major Smith graduated from Lakewood High School in 1990 and was commissioned into the US Army after graduation from Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.

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Volume 4, Issue 25, Posted 8:02 AM, 09.25.2008