Baba Christmas and the Lion of Baghdadi                                               September 9, 2007

This past winter, American military officials held a press conference in Baghdad, intended to display physical evidence of Iran’s direct contribution to American casualties in Iraq. It was a specious presentation. While the weaponry shown was real, and the separate alliances between Iran and the two major Iraqi Shiite militias authentic, the press conference somehow overlooked an important fact. Namely, since the insurgency began in earnest in 2004, American casualties were being incurred predominantly, in fact overwhelmingly, in Sunni Iraq, not in Shiite controlled areas. At the time, the misplaced focus on Iran as our main antagonist was analogous to blaming Italy as the chief culprit of American casualties during World War II, with no mention of Germany (Saudi Arabia) nor Japan (Syria).

But then, around the time of this early winter press conference, reports of Sunni Iraqis in Anbar Province fighting against Al Qaeda, trickling and isolated in the late fall of 2006, began to frequently appear in the Iraq-focused websites. It seemed as though the US Marine Corps, responsible for Anbar, had somehow achieved the impossible; they had convinced the majority of the province’s 1.4 million Sunnis to switch sides. Instead of providing fighters and shelter to the radical Islamists that called themselves, “Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia”, the population was now with the Marines- all in with high stakes. By early spring these news reports had the only corroboration that mattered- our casualty lists. In March of this year, American military deaths in Anbar suddenly plummeted more than 50% from the previous six month average, to 16. The trend continued, with an amazing 4 in June, 17 in July, and 13 in August. Suddenly, Anbar Province had been transformed from a hopeless situation to the verge of a great strategic victory, shredding the long-range blueprints of Al Qaeda (n.b. there are no Shiites in Al Qaeda, every Iraq goal they have is predicated on the support of the Sunni population). What began with a powerful Ramadi sheik appealing to the Marines for help and protection from Al Qaeda (the Marines responded by immediately parking an M1A1 tank directly in front of the sheik’s home to deter any would-be terrorists) had quickly led to sheiks all across Anbar Province abrogating their Al Qaeda alliances. The Sunnis named their movement, calling it the “Anbar Awakening”, and now refer to it as the “Anbar Salvation Council”.

It was with this backdrop that I departed Boston on July 30th, having been granted an August embed with the USMC, 1st Battalion 2nd Marine Regiment (1/2), in Anbar Province. According to the Bible (Iraq was referred to as Mesopotamia or Babylon), this is the region of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:10), but it is also where Satan made his first appearance (Genesis 3:1). Commanded by Lt. Colonel James D Christmas, 1/2 is responsible for a region of the Euphrates River Valley, including Baghdadi, 50 miles upriver from Ramadi, Dulab, Abu Hayat, and Jubbah. The Marines are legendary for their willingness and ability to do more with less, but when I finally arrived at Combat Outpost MHC in Baghdadi, it was still somewhat surprising to see the harsh conditions they lived in. My prior embeds had been with the Army, and while they were certainly no safer outside their bases, they operated out of large camps with cavernous, clean dining facilities, a daily variety of good food, air conditioned gyms, internet cafes and big screen TVs. 1/2 Marines had very limited air conditioning, only occasional internet access and a hot and dusty chow hall that featured Meals Ready to Eat more often than not. “Showers” consisted of stripping down and pouring bottled water over the head. Most of them had not seen running water for five months. Nevertheless, morale was high. For my part I was about to discover that if you are tired enough, falling asleep every night in a room with a temperature of 100 degrees is not a problem.

Because there is no running water at Combat Outpost MHC, these are the bathrooms. For nature’s other call there are old-school outhouses, contents burned daily.

The Marine Corps is proud of its service reputation as the first to fight. The Marines’ mantra is to locate, close with and destroy the enemy, by fire or maneuver. They are built to be an expeditionary force, not a diplomatic one. Yet here in Baghdadi and in the rest of Anbar, they have forged strong personal relationships up and down the Euphrates River, one Iraqi at a time. Their new partners, the Sunni citizens of Anbar, had previously proven themselves resolute in their opposition to the new Iraq and tenacious in their attacks on Marines. They had supported the Islamic fanatics of Al Qaeda because they saw no other option. The foreigner led Islamists promised them that after the Americans were driven out they would overthrow the Shiite government, and once again the Sunnis would rule. But Al Qaeda’s rulebook was a nightmare: no smoking, no alcohol, no western style hair-grooming, no internet, females should be used only as drudges and must not reveal any skin (Michael Yon recently reported that the AQ fighters went so far as to require shepherds to fit all their female sheep with underwear) etc etc. Eventually the Sunni Iraqis tired of the Al Qaeda depredation and concluded that they had been lied to, that the Americans were not murderers, and that Al Qaeda offered a dismal future. Soon after, the Sunnis of Anbar and the Marines reconciled. The lion and the hyena were now hunting together.

LtCol Christmas, 40, is a Marine commander with boundless energy and the son of a retired, three star Marine General. Throughout my embed, when the Marines of 1/2 spoke of him it was with a reverential tone. During my first night at COP MHC he was out at the home of a local leader, relentlessly working to strengthen the ties that bind in what I would find to be a daily activity. I had slept little in the prior 48 hours, so when he had still not returned by midnight I turned in to my oven of a room and slept soundly. The following morning I was brought to his office, where he greeted me warmly and enthusiastically, and summarized his battle space. “I hunt insurgents, but everything we do here, we do together with the Iraqi Police and the Iraqi Army. In the last year the IP here has gone from zero to 458 officers. Personally, I have fallen in love with the Iraqi people. These are good, good people, they really are. They have a vision: they just want to live in peace, to be farmers, to grow their fruits and vegetables. This place used to be a cesspool, but it gets a little better every day.”

As a result of the tireless efforts of the Marines and Iraqi Security Forces, Al Qaeda can no longer store their weapon caches in homes, but they have providently stashed them away on the banks of the Euphrates and in the desert. Searching for these caches is a constant task. “Since arriving we’ve discovered 25,000 pounds of explosives, that equates to 2500 IEDs. It’s almost turned into a contest, like a Jerry Lewis telethon, to see who can find the most weapons. You should see how excited the Iraqi Police get when they find them, ‘Look, look what we found!’ they say.”

LtCol Christmas’s affection for the local population was reciprocated, plainly evident every time I left the COP. Whenever the Marines appeared kids would chase the Humvees, trying to see inside. They were all looking for the man they call “Baba Christmas” (Baba is Arabic for father). “Baba Christmas?,”- they would yell at each Humvee as it passed. One evening, at the home of Sheik Mal-Alla Barzan Himreen, the Chairman of the Baghdadi City Council, the meal had ended and LtCol Christmas and Sheik Mal-Alla were still seated on the carpeted floor, when suddenly eight or nine children ran into the room and jumped on the Marine commander, giggling with delight. After a minute of indulgence Sheik Mal-Alla rose his voice and the children walked outside, obediently, quietly. It was time to discuss serious matters. But no sooner had the discussion of security and commerce begun than the kids were back, and this time they had reinforcements- other youngsters from the neighborhood. The mob of Iraqi kids did not enter, but they stood on the terrace and boldly serenaded the meeting inside with a two word song, “Ba-ba Chris-mus, Ba-ba Chris-mus, Ba-ba Chris-mus”, over and over, louder and louder, until Sheik Mal-Alla was forced to get up to shoo them away. If the genetic researchers of Harvard and MIT, competing in their laboratories along the Charles River, are someday successful and I live to be 175 I will still never forget the sound of those Iraqi children outside the door, singing their tribute to a Marine commander.

Lieutenant Colonel J.D. Christmas (top middle). When this meal ended and the food cleared, before he had a chance to stand up, he was swarmed over by this group of Iraqi children.

‘V’ is for victory. Even the children know what is at stake here.

Lions have always held a special status in Iraq, as recently as the 1870s they were abundant along the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. The Iraqi soccer team, a source of great pride to Sunnis and Shia alike, are referred to here as “The Lions of Mesopotamia”. The late, sub-human terrorist, Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, reportedly encouraged his moniker of “The Lion of Anbar”. In the Baghdadi region there is a much more worthy assignee; Colonel Barzan Hamrin Shaban is known throughout this area as the “Lion of Baghdadi”. It is a virtual pseudonym, but Colonel Shaban makes no attempt to hide his identity. He is the Chief of the Baghdadi Police. Al Qaeda has placed a large bounty on his head, and that of the man he refers to as his “brother”, LtCol Christmas. Colonel Shaban has survived no fewer than seven Al Qaeda assassination attempts; he has been shot four times, and survived three suicide carbombers. The last car bomber attacked Colonel Shaban on a highway near here, killing the two bodyguards that were in the front seat of his car. His wounds were serious and he was rushed by Blackhawk helicopter to our surgical units in Baghdad. During my final day in Iraq I was in a large waiting room for military personnel awaiting flight transports. There were a hundred or so soldiers and Marines, sitting quietly and waiting. I walked to the cooler for water and returning to my seat, did a double-take. There in the back of the room was The Lion of Baghdadi, Colonel Shaban. I recognized the Marine seated next to him as 1st Lieutenant David Lee, from Louisiana (I had met him on the first day of my embed and had asked about the overall situation. “Things have definitely improved around here," he drawled, "but there are still terrorists that need killing.”) After greeting The Lion in traditional Arabic, I asked Lieutenant Lee what was up. He explained that there was a large meeting scheduled for the Iraqi Police a few hours drive from Baghdadi, and the Marines did not want to risk exposing Colonel Shaban to the dangerous highways.

Colonel Shaban and Lt. Colonel Christmas met nearly every day, and during my embed I enjoyed delicious dinners of lamb, chicken, rice, fresh vegetables and fruit at the homes of Colonel Shaban and a half-dozen other town leaders. Colonel Shaban: “When the Marines first got here we had been having a very hard time, the terrorists controlled everything. They want chaos only, and they offer nothing. The first time Colonel Christmas visited me here at my home they fired rockets at us, rockets which missed us by 100 meters. When it was over we went out in the street and Colonel Christmas told me, ‘Two weeks. You give me two weeks and that will never happen again.’ I knew then that this was a man of courage and a man who would help us fight these takfiris. Right away the Marines were very aggressive in hunting them, and together we were very successful and killed many of them. Now, as you have seen, we have a peaceful area.” I asked him what would happen if the Marines left, and I received the same answer that every sheik and local leader gave me to that question. “We will all be killed. They will kill all of us and our families too, they have already said that. We are much stronger than before, but still not strong enough yet. For me, it is too late to turn back. Earlier, when the terrorists first came here, I knew I was in a very bad situation so I went to Baghdad. But they killed my brother, and I returned. Now, it is them or me, it is victory or death. This I accept. Now, Colonel Christmas is my brother.”

During another visit to Colonel Shaban’s home I watched a reticent boy of 8 or 9 sitting against a wall with other youngsters in the outside courtyard, as our group ate dinner. Unlike the rest of the kids, this one would not smile. After dinner and chai tea, LtCol Christmas asked a Marine in his security detail to retrieve a bag from his Humvee. It was filled with toys, and one by one, each child was called over to receive a gift, and the childrens’ reaction was always the same: pure joy. When it was the boy’s turn he slowly approached Lt. Colonel Christmas and with stolid silence, accepted an inflatable backyard pool- a jackpot for Iraqi kids. Without any hint of a smile he turned and walked over to sit next to Colonel Shaban, and resumed studying his feet. Using the interpreter, I asked Colonel Shaban, “Colonel, these children are all so happy, but this one has not smiled all night, why not?” The Lion responded and I detected a grimace on the face of our interpreter, before he looked at me and relayed the answer, “This boy’s father was my brother-in-law, and he was martyred. The terrorists caught him on a road near here and captured him. They tortured him for a long time with an electric drill, and then they cut his head off. This boy is his son, and he has not smiled much since then.” In addition to losing a brother and brother-in-law to Al Qaeda, Colonel Shaban’s youngest brother survived a suicide carbomber, but his legs did not.

Colonel  Barzan Hamrin Shaban, the Lion of Baghdadi

After the Marines had established security in and around Baghdadi, they applied another component of their specialty- locate the enemy. He was no longer basing his operations from Baghdadi proper, but he was still around. Lt. Colonel Christmas: “The enemy had moved across the river, to what we called, ‘The Wild East’, so we called in the Seabees and asked them to build an outpost over there. We knew where to look because now we are super-close with the citizens around here, and they do not want to see us get hurt. By working together we keep the enemy off guard, and he has to react to us instead of the other way around.”

The combat outpost Lt. Colonel Christmas referred to is COP Timberwolf, and a few days later I went over for a look and found a firebase even more austere than MHC. To get to the eastern side of the Euphrates from Baghdadi requires crossing a footbridge from the west side of the river to an island in the middle- Jubbah Island, and continuing on foot until reaching another footbridge which ends on the eastern bank of the river. Like everyplace else within a half mile of Iraq’s two great rivers, this is a fertile region and the citizens, especially the women, worked their farms as hard as any peon in Chihuahua. Where the farmland ends, the desert begins. It is not the desert of the Sahara, rather a combination of steppe and sand, peaks and valleys. After crossing the final footbridge the Humvees are back in play, and as we approached the outpost and drove uphill the steppe turned to sand. Consequently, the Humvees created large wakes of fine dust which completely filled the interiors. The Marines did not seem to notice, so after my held breath had exhausted I followed their lead and breathed shallowly. After a couple of minutes the dust was gone, but the terrible taste remained. It was an unavoidable byproduct of entering and leaving the outpost, and the only way to avoid it was to be in the lead Humvee. But even then, if the wind was against you, you were doomed to breathe in the desert dust. Ironically, the Marines at Timberwolf were in even higher spirits than their battalion-mates at MHC. This was despite zero internet, zero TV, and MREs (meals ready to eat), without exception. The only advantage they had was air conditioning. Accustomed to sleeping in a room without AC in a building without ventilation, I now found myself waking up shivering.

COP Timberwolf has a younger staff, led by Company Commander, Major Gottfried ‘Moni’ Laube Jr., and First Sergeant Aaron G. McDonald. Battalion Executive Officer Captain Sid Velandy told me that, “These two guys are two of our best, and I don’t mean just our battalion. They are among the best Major and First Sergeant teams in the entire Marine Corps.” During the day they would lead their men along the eastern bank of the Euphrates, working with the people of the villages in civil construction projects, and training the Iraqi Police. They were efficient in their planning and execution, exemplified one morning when Major Laube met in a classroom with his interpreter and 5 village leaders, while outside in the courtyard Marines demonstrated battlefield first aid basics to two dozen Iraqi Policemen.

Of course, they too hunted the enemy. A sniper told me an amusing story which, without violating operational security, can be generally relayed. He and his team had been observing a suspected insurgents home when they realized that a shepherd was leading his sheep in their direction. The sniper said, “It was clear that our position was in danger of being contaminated. But just when we were going to have to make a decision about how to handle the situation, a pack of coyotes came along and chased the shepherd and his sheep away. Then one of the coyotes came running right over to my position, and we were literally face to face. I was like, ‘Beat it coyote, go on… hit the road’. He just stood there and stared at me and then finally he ran off.”

The performance of the Marines at COP Timberwolf had not gone un-noticed, and they were visited by General Raymond Odierno, the Commanding General of Multi-National Corps Iraq, and the right hand man to General David Petraeus. I had returned to Timberwolf with Lt. Colonel Christmas for the occasion, and as General Odierno met with the officers in the tactical operation center, the rest of the Marines assembled and waited in the dining facility (in this case that’s a euphemism for a dusty, wood hut). General Odierno addressed the Marines, complimenting them on their success, encouraging them, and then taking some questions. When he had finished he turned to leave and First Sergeant McDonald snarled, “attention-on-the-deck”, with the four words blended into one. Immediately, every Marine jumped to his feet and stood in perfectly still formation as General Odierno made his way towards the door and out to his helicopters.

An hour later final preparations were being made to leave Timberwolf for the trip back to COP MHC and as Marines checked their weapons and vehicles, word came that the Iraqi Police had received a tip; during the walk back across the footbridges and Jubbah Island, LtCol Christmas was going to be targeted by a suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest. We had made the trip over the bridge several hours earlier and due to his rock star status among the locals, every terrorist and his brother had learned that the Marine commander had crossed the footbridges. They knew he would have to return the same way. This information seemed to give the Marines a sense of urgency, and I could feel the tension inside the Humvee as we drove outside of Timberwolf and headed back towards the Euphrates. I surmised that the security concern could be easily remedied on the two foot bridges by preventing any locals from using it for the few minutes it would take us to cross, but I was apprehensive about the island in the middle of the river. Jubbah Island is about a mile long and 1/3 wide and would be an ideal place for a suicide bomber to strike, as the Marines must cross it on foot and they are always surrounded by its residents, especially the children. My speculation was way off. Not only did LtCol Christmas keep the foot bridges open, he lingered on the island passing out supplies to the residents, while his Sergeant Major, Waldo Rodriguez, stood nearby and studied every adult male that approached.

LtCol Christmas (hand inside the cardboard box) distributes supplies to residents of Jubbah Island, despite having received a warning that he could be targeted by a suicide bomber who would be wearing an explosive vest and could blend in to the crowd. Sergeant Major Waldo Rodriguez, is in the back of the photo, far right, watching closely.

A frequent tactic-

There are two dozen tribes in Anbar province, each led by a sheik. A sheik, generally defined, is the leader of an extended Arabic family or village. With the prevalent practice of multiple wives, the tribes include direct half brothers, but are also comprised of large groups of people that simply share roots to the same ancestors. The tribes are aboriginal and the sheiks control is patriarchal, rather than despotic. One afternoon in Baghdadi there was a scheduled meeting of the tribal sheiks of the upper Euphrates valley, to be held in the City Council, the same complex that contained the headquarters of Colonel Shaban’s police department. Accompanying LtCol Christmas, we arrived at noon. As Lt.Colonel Christmas turned the corner and approached the main entrance, a 20 man police honor guard, impeccably uniformed with spit polished shoes and white gloves, saluted him, using their dramatic, indigenous method of a double foot stamp. There was nothing perfunctory about it and Lt.Colonel Christmas respectfully acknowledged each police officer as he passed them. Inside, Sheik Mal-Alla sat at his desk in a large office, lined on each side by couches. Earlier in my stay I had sat in on a meeting of the city council, during which Sheik Mal-Alla told me, “Do you know, we have never been paid? Ten months now, we meet here often to work through the problems and issues facing us, each man risking death, and still the government will not send us our paychecks.” His tone was one of resignation that the paycheck issue would not soon change. It was also a common complaint, as some of Colonel Shaban’s police department had not received their paychecks from the government for the first few months of their duty. All 458 local officers have currently been paid, but it is a constant concern. One by one the sheiks arrived for the meeting, and each time the Arabs and the Marines stood up and the arriving sheik made his way around the room, greeting each attendee before taking a seat on a couch. Occasionally, two teenaged boys would enter, one responsible for the serving of the chai tea and the other for emptying the ash trays. All of the sheiks smoked, half of them chaining, and most addressed their comments to Lt. Colonel Christmas. For some requests he promised his assistance, for others he bluntly refused, but always with a full explanation. One sheik claimed that two members of his tribe had been arrested by Marines from a different battalion. He told the sheik, “I will find out why they were arrested, and find out if what you say is true. If it is, I promise you they will be released. But if it is not then I will not intervene on their behalf.” When the meeting had adjourned for a break, Sheik Mal-Alla approached me with our interpreter, and suggested that I step into an adjacent, empty room, as the sheik responsible for overall security in this region wished to make a statement, and would also answer any questions I had.

Sheik Mal-Alla Barzan Himreen (and his son), Chairman of the Baghdadi City Council

Sheik Abdel Man’aam Mazban is from Zukeyka’a and is a tall, dignified looking Arab who looked to be in his 70’s, resplendent in his traditional Arab robes and the black aghal that circled his head. Over the next hour, after setting up my video equipment, we sat in the adjacent room and discussed security. The sheik had what was becoming a familiar complaint- no support from the government. “We are fighting the foreigners, the wahabists, and we are losing brave men, yet we are not paid. The police in my area are strong now, where last year at this time there were none, but I am very worried about the future. What would you have us do? We are trying, but there is no pay. Imagine it, you have a family, they are hungry, you must feed them, but you are not being paid. At some time this will end, because your family must eat to live. The foreigners will tell you, ‘Listen, plant this bomb and we will pay you $2000. Blow up an American Humvee and we will double it’. Your family is hungry, what would you do? What would you have us do?” I asked him why they were not being paid, and he said he did not know. I asked him if it was because the Shiite government had no interest in strengthening the Sunnis of Iraq, and he became frustrated. “To us there is no such thing, there is no difference between us and they, we are all Iraqis. For us, it is Iraqi and nothing else, we live peaceably with Shia, Kurd, Christian, anyone can practice any religion. If they (the Shiite government) feel that way against us then that is their problem, but it is not how we feel.” I respectfully re-phrased the question, attempting to ascertain whether he felt the problem was logistical and economical, or the more sinister explanation, sectarianism on the part of the Shiite government in Baghdad. He slightly modified his answer, but did not change it. I asked him what would happen if the Marines departed Anbar and he seemed surprised, as though the question was gratuitous and the answer plainly obvious. “If that happened then of course the terrorists would return.” He then changed the subject by thanking me for visiting, and offered me a Miami brand cigarette. The interpreter took one too, and as the three of us sat and smoked, the momentary silence inside the room was enough to prompt one of the sheiks six bodyguards to open the door to check on things. Seeing that we were taking a break he summoned the chai tea waiter, who quickly appeared and formally served us the sweet tea. When the hour was up, we joined the rest of the group for lunch in another room.

Sheik Abdel Man’aam Mazban

“Nearly all bullfighters are brave and yet nearly all bullfighters are frightened at some point before the fight begins.”     

  Death In The Afternoon, E. Hemingway

Sometimes, when describing the exploits of our soldiers and Marines in Iraq, writers employ the word ‘fearless’. It’s the wrong adjective. Rarely is death here the result of any tactical failure, instead it is a game of russian roulette on the roads, with hidden bombs accounting for three of every four casualties. The Marines, for all their tenacity, are not immune to the sense of randomness. Like the bullfighters of Spain described in Hemingway’s guidebook, they may experience fear before they start a mission, but once they leave their outposts they bury it. It is a marvelous thing to witness. The enemy could not be more ruthless, and he is surprisingly clever. While embedded with the 1-2, a Marine EOD (explosive ordinance disposal) technician from another battalion was killed. He had been called when Marines located a bomb hidden at the side of a road. The bomb had a wire attached to it, and the technician had lifted the wire up and out of the sand, and was walking with it to find where it would have been detonated from had it not been found. While doing so he stepped on a pressure plate and detonated a second bomb, and he was gone. The enemy had planted the first bomb just well enough to be found, knowing that someone would likely find the wire and walk with it to locate its source. The real bomb was the second one.

Lance Corporal Tommy Sjostedt, from Marshfield, is 23. He is in a motor transport platoon, which means he spends much of his time on the roads. Last month his platoon was in Abu Hayat doing a V-sweep, with Sjostedt commanding the lead Humvee, when they approached a series of potholes. “Ordinarily”, said Sjostedt, “we would just drive around the potholes. The road had no barriers, just small sand berms on the two sides, and nothing that would have slowed down the Humvees. But I got a bad feeling and told our driver to stop. We got out and looked around, and I found a pressure plate inside the small sand berm on the side of the road, attached to three 120mm artillery rounds. My heart stopped for a second when I saw it.” Potholes are everywhere, but the enemy had created these ones and planted the bombs accordingly, expecting the Humvees to simply drive around them. “That was the fourth time my group has found IEDs”, said Sjostedt, whose call sign is ‘Boston’, “and we had random pot shots fairly often, but they‘ve definitely decreased.”

The 1/2 saw the nature of the enemy early in their deployment. Today the COP is surrounded by sand Hesco barriers and concertina wire. This was not the case when they initially arrived, and they set up checkpoints on the road which passes the COP, and four Humvees were parked to block the access of anyone allowed to pass through the checkpoints and use the road. One day a man drove up to a checkpoint driving a truck, full of gravel. After questioning him with an interpreter and checking his cargo, he was allowed to continue. Navy Corpsman Dustin Sutherland described what happened next. “So this guy is just driving along, no big deal, but then when he gets to be parallel with the COP he suddenly takes a left and guns it right down the access road towards the Humvees. Marines opened up on him, and I think he must have panicked because he detonated while still 30 meters from the Humvees. Some guys were wounded there. Behind the COP, we’re talking a few hundred meters away, Marines were walking across the lot and one of them was almost decapitated by the entire arm, shoulder to hand, of the driver. Went right over the top of his head. Back at the Humvees we immediately collected the wounded and brought them inside, and Doc and I started treating them. Boyea (Lance Corporal Kimani Boyea) was standing there holding his face, and there was a lot of blood, so the Doc told him to remove his hand so he could see. ‘I’m OK Doc, take care of these guys’, he said. Doc tells him again, ‘remove your hand’. Again he says, ‘Doc really, these guys first’. Then the Doc yells, ‘Boyea, remove your goddamned hand right now’, so he did. Man I’m tellin ya, it looked like all the skin on the left side of his face dropped down.” Lance Corporal Boyea was left with thick scar tissue on his face, but the wound did nothing to his spirit. In a battalion that relentlessly needled each other with language that would make convicts blush, Lance Corporal Boyea is the reigning champion of the verbal battles- quick, witty and a comedic genius.

There is a bridge a few miles from COP MHC, and a few weeks earlier it had been blown up by insurgents. It accomplished nothing except further alienation of the very population whose support Al Qaeda needs, but it pissed off the Marines nonetheless. One evening they decided to send out a small foot patrol to hustle across the desert towards a series of ridges and valleys three miles away, to observe an area they suspected the enemy may have been using as a staging ground. The Marines planned to slip out the back of the COP to avoid the detection which would result from Humvees kicking up sand clouds. I was allowed to accompany the ten Marines, led by Corporal Pearson Crosby from Philadelphia. Every time I left the outpost, which was every day of the embed, I was asked my blood type and the last four numbers of my social security number. It was quite routine, but this time one of the ten Marines, a medic, added a third question- was I allergic to any medications? The question caused me to pause, and before I could say no, Lance Corporal Russell He answered for me. “Yes… he’s allergic to snipers, RPGs, pressure plates, mortars and rockets.” The Marines howled with laughter, as did I, appreciating the tension breaker. Corporal Crosby reviewed what time the sun went down, and how long it would be before the moon came out. That time difference was the window needed for the Marines to take advantage of their lynx-like night vision, and at dusk we slipped out the back and fanned out across the desert. Assigned to the point- Lance Corporal He quickly moved 300 meters ahead of the rest of the squad. In the 1/2 , every other Marine looks like a Division 1 linebacker, while Lance Corporal He is short and slight. Amazed, I watched him increase the distance between himself and the rest of us, and did not want to be in his shoes. But look at the kid go, I thought…. just awesome. After arriving at the series of ridges, the Marines set up an observation watch, but saw nothing. Three hours after leaving, we walked back to the COP, arriving at midnight.

During my final day with the 1/2, Lieutenant Colonel Christmas reflected on the people of Baghdadi and the future. “They are waiting on government support; water projects, paychecks, but I think today and tomorrow will take care of itself. It’s five years from now that I worry about. It keeps me up at night.”