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Men of Valor: Part VIII of VIII

Men of Valor: Part VIII of VIII

[Shalamcha: Iraq’s southern border crossing into Iran.]
[British soldiers peering into Iran atop the crossing.]
[Their view.]
[Much of the border crossing is done by foot. Few bags searched, and then, according to Iraqis, only when Coalition troops are around.]
[Men who had fought hard in Basra.]
[American Marine Major General Roberson listens as British soldier LTC Patrick Sanders shows the crossing.]

On 29 September, Major General Roberson  arrived with his staff at the border crossing. I was permitted to attend a briefing delivered by LTC Sanders to the general and his staff. Sanders used a knife to point out places of interest on the map. During the briefing, local treats were passed around: tasty dates filled with a walnut and some sort of cream. Roberson mentioned that Basra has the potential to provide over 50% of Iraq’s GNP, a fact of which Iraqis are keenly aware.

[From Iran]
[The border is vast; it can be accurately said that for practical purposes, practically nothing coming from Iran into Iraq is screened.]
[Paperwork on entering Iraq.]

I would see Iranian trucks stream in with lumber, tiles, bricks and other building materials over a period of several days. It seemed that most of what was coming from Iran were construction materials and refrigerated trucks with various sorts of foods.

[Entering Iraq.]
[From Iran.]
[Tiles crossing from Iran.]

Some of the trucks were older, but they were not the dilapidated trucks one sees in places like Mexico, Central America or India. Some of the trucks looked new, but even the older trucks seemed well-cared-for. When the trucks returned to Iran, the ones I saw were empty.

[From Iraq back to Iran.]

Iraqi border guards take “tolls” from the drivers. From one shipment, Iraqi guards unloaded some Persian rugs. From another they took tile.  In some cases the border guards siphon fuel out of the trucks as “tax.” British Captain “Bertie” Basset saw guards take off a mess of fish, leave them in the sun all day with flies buzzing and dogs sniffing about, then depart with the fish at close of business.  Standing on the border, CPT Basset told me that this causes a delicate situation. Obviously the British don’t want Iraqi and Iranian drivers thinking the British are aiding border guards in unofficial “border taxes.”

Context is crucial when talking about corruption, whether on a large or small scale. Most of the world’s countries that I have been are openly corrupt.  I lived in Poland for about two years and got an eye full.  I’ve seen plenty of corruption in Nepal, India and Romania.  Thailand is very corrupt and yet booming along.  During a break from Iraq, I was in Indonesia in 2007, when police stopped my driver (and others) and took money. My driver just grinned sheepishly and handed it over, like paying a toll on I-75 in Florida. It’s so easy to focus on the corruption in Iraq as if the sky is falling, but countries where corruption is low are islands in a sea of corruption.

Corruption is like arthritis. Not itself a fatal disease, it grinds at the body and slows it down. Corruption makes a country hold itself in contempt. Contempt for having it, for not standing up to it, for casting one’s eyes down to the floor while handing over the change instead of saying NO. Corruption is the absence of justice. Certain types of corruption depend on intimidation and the willingness to be intimidated, and diminish the stature of the nation that allows it to occur. Institutionalized corruption diminishes that nation in the eyes of its own citizens, and in the eyes of the world. Yet it is the job of the Iraqis to stop the corruption. Coalition civilians are assisting with training, technical assistance and capacity building, but the job of the Coalition military at the border is to attempt to interdict lethal aid.  The best ameliorate to corruption is a truly free press.  Without free press, forget it. 

Though we camped far out in the desert, we moved to the border most days. The Iraqi agency in charge of the borders is the Department of Border Enforcement, and the official crossings are called PoE, or Points of Entry. There are multiple crossings up along the border and from what I have seen, especially in the towering mountains in the north where I have watched ground surveillance radar at night with the Tennessee National Guard, the border is “impossible” to seal.

[Evidence of days gone by.]
[Road from Iran to Basra: construction on the Iraq side.]
[Police corruption and infiltration are serious problems.  The police in Basra are known to take part in attacks against Coalition forces.]
[Enemies in Iraq are notorious for using black BMWs.]

In reality, we could probably put the entire Coalition on the Iraq-Iran border, and the area would not be sealed. Perhaps the only way to stop lethal aid coming in from Iran is to make the activity not worth engaging in for the government of Iran.  (We do not catch the shipments.)

[Australian CPT Bret Grosser with Iraqi officer at Shalamcha.]

At the border were British soldiers, an Australian captain named Bret Grosser, and three Americans working for Dyncorp. One of the Dyncorp employees mentioned that the x-ray machine was not being used, that its motor had about 500 hours on it from running an air conditioner, but the machine had only taken about 60 images. Word came, too, that Iraqi officials had told all their people to tell the Coalition that no lethal aid was coming through the border. However, some Iraqis admit that it does, including the material being taken by boat down the Shat al Arab River toward Basra.

The Iranian side of the border crossing looked much better than the Iraqi side. The change reminded me of the United States; crossing a county or state line, the difference in government hits like a bolt, as one road goes from pot-holed and trash-strewn to smooth-sailing and litter-free greenery. At the Iraq-Iran southern crossing, there were big electrical lines on the Iranian side which supply electricity to the Iraqi border crossing. Both the Iraqis and the British told me that the actual border was at the middle of a bridge just a few minutes’ walk in front of us, but that the Iranians had pushed their flag over the bridge and in fact, it was flying just near the Iraq crossing, close to the Iraqi flag.

[Iran moves its flag up to where Iraq placed its own.]
[The border.]

British soldiers who have been operating in the mostly Shia Basra for several months were not accustomed to women waving at them. The young soldiers call the Shia women “ninjas” because of the black garb and head coverings. The ninjas never wave and in fact often turn away. In other parts of Iraq, the women frequently wave at soldiers and sometimes even blow kisses. I’ve seen this in Baqubah, for instance, where Sunni women can be quick to smile. What surprised the British soldiers was the open flirting coming from some of the attractive Iranian women crossing into Iraq. Of course there were the requisite jokes made that we invaded the wrong country.

[Iranian memorial for 1980-88 war.]

On 30 September 2007, we were back in a new desert base camp after a very long day in the heat. I was exhausted. Camp was already folded but there were hours to go between the sunset and midnight movement, so I rolled my sleeping bag out into the deep desert dust. One soldier would soon be evacuated by helicopter because of an insect bite of unknown origin. The heat and fatigue were causing me to think odd thoughts. I lay down wondering if there is a Hindu god for minefields. If so, I imagined, he was probably a monkey figure juggling a hand grenade and a scorpion. Scorpions, those little spear-tailed bastards, they crawl around at night trying to sting you in the eye before laughing and going back to the monkey god.

At about 2200, a Merlin helicopter roared, blacked out but silhouetted in the ambient light, is it circled and landed. Out came Daniel Ord who had just been on leave. Days earlier in south London, he had been holding his newborn son, and was now in the middle of mines and unexploded bombs next to the Iranian border. The platoon crowed around Daniel, whom they call “Disco,” and were ecstatic to have him back. Disco was well-liked, and I’d heard some stories about him. During the first days in Basra, he’d been close to some serious fighting, seeing the things associated with death and dying that good people should never have to witness.

[One of my favorite soldiers: “Disco.” His wife just had a baby boy and he can’t wait to get back.]

He went through a normal period where it can be hard to go on missions. Some poor souls never “make it back”; they don’t return to the fight or they become timid. I’ve always felt for those men who have found their limits, hoping they can get it behind them and move on at some point. Then there are others who buckle for a time, but manage to stay on the wild bull, and return to the fight.  The platoon loved Disco because he overcame. Over the next couple of weeks, Disco became one of my favorite soldiers. Everyone knew they could depend on him, and he made everyone laugh. For me, as an American, his south London accent sounds just like Ali G. Respek!

After midnight we moved out to a new base that had been recon’d. We had to keep moving FOBs to make it difficult for the enemy who, based on specific information we received, was trying to get a fix on us for a rocket attack.

Rocket attacks are impressive affairs but, like triple-stacked anti-tank mines and bacon-double-cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur, they are to be religiously avoided.

The mines and UXO can be hard or impossible to see. We drove into the new base camps with the armored vehicles, and then walked in their tracks whenever possible.

Those “sidewalks” made by the tracks can make for some long journeys.

[British explosives specialist using a tiny shaped charge to destroy mortar round found at Shalamcha border crossing.]

As we moved out in complete radio silence, everybody with a cell phone was ordered to take out the batteries since cell phones can be tracked even when they are off.

Even at midnight, the backs of the vehicles are sweltering. The driving is treacherous and sometimes the mines seem like only a minor threat. Driving without lights, the “cylums” (chemlights) on the vehicles ahead can sometimes be nearly impossible to see through the heavy thick dust. Collisions between armored vehicles were at times narrowly missed. The sides of the roads can be embankments where vehicles can and do fall over. Many soldiers have died in Iraq simply from a vehicle that slips off the road and rolls over.

And it happened: a Bulldog ran off the road. But it did not flip. It was stuck, having barely missed an antitank mine, but there were anti-personnel mines around it. Pure luck. But the night, the mines and the radio silence combined to cause long delays in what otherwise would have been a minor recovery. Instead of using radios, runners were dispatched up and down the line of about four dozen vehicles. As the dust cleared we spotted mines merely a foot or two off the road.

Later, another Bulldog broke down and the soldiers towed it with two cables. A moped was spotted following the convoy from a distance, and while this was going on, one of our tow cables snapped. I thought we were about to roll, so I threw my hands on the ceiling and braced to be trapped. The back top hatch was open, and I didn’t want to fly out and get crushed. After a few hard jerks on the vehicle from the one cable that was still attached to the Bulldog we were towing, we stopped and soldiers replaced the broken cable.

Another long night. The goal was to make it to the new FOB well before sunrise, but the normal difficulties of nighttime convoys through darkened, dusty minefields would have us arriving closer to daylight. But now in the darkness, not one light or sign of other human habitation could be seen. This was a giant, heavily mined, Arab Death Valley.

Everyone was tired and dirty, but British morale was high. Like American combat soldiers, their morale increases with adversity, as long as there is a purpose that forms a center that holds the group of men together. Soldiers immediately began putting out machine gun positions and sketching range cards, while I helped the Recce platoon put up the camouflage screen. Even though I’d only known them for a few hours I already felt at home with these (obviously) veteran soldiers.

[Pulling security on an old Iraqi defensive berm.]
[Setting camp.]

Clothes were dirty and the normal battle of the grunge was in full swing. We were permitted to use a couple of bottles of water to wash clothes and to shower. Soldiers took turns standing naked in the desert washing, but the mud that would form on your feet was like desert-cake sandals, and difficult to scrape off.  We stood on cardboard to wash, but still sometimes the mud would get you.

[Hanging shower on 30mm cannon. Most of us just used a bottle or two of water and stood in the desert.]

Cots were unfolded and small “mozzie nets” erected, but the place is so dry that a mosquito would likely turn to dust within fifteen minutes. The sun rises quickly, chasing away the shade. Although most soldiers were permitted time to sleep that morning and afternoon, they woke up completely dripping with sweat as if they had been swimming. Some of them snored; most lay about with only shorts and no boots. Legs, arms, backs, chests and necks were covered in all manner of tattoos. Most of the men are ripped and lean and look like they’ve been doing ultimate fighting.

[Few men are ever as tough as they look but these men are all that and more.]

American soldiers play rough, but British soldiers are brutal at play. I’m still amazed that nobody has yet broken a bone in front of me while wrestling. Hardcore flips onto their ribs, hard punches to the stomach, legs and ribs (never to the head so far as I have seen), eye scrapes, brutal choke holds. Our guys choke each other into unconsciousness, but the Brits practically break each other’s necks while doing it. Then they get up, laugh for a minute or two and go about whatever it was they were doing before.  These are the men you want protecting your borders.

Each day they distribute rations. One of the more quiet soldiers filled 3 powdered milkshakes into a 1.5 liter bottle (for nearly 1,500 calories). Recce platoon cheered for him to finish the whole bottle, which somehow he did. One Recce soldier asked me, “Do American soldiers do shit like this?” They always want to know what American soldiers are doing.

“All the time,” I answered. Young British and American soldiers can be relied upon to abide by high levels of professionalism when they are on duty, but five minutes after they are off duty, anything goes. The soldier downed the three milkshakes, and then staggered toward his cot, as the rest of Recce whooped, hollered and gave wide applause. However, “B,” our milkshake commando, had been wounded. About 20 minutes later when his body rejected the milkshake he made the famous pea soup vomit scene in The Exorcist look like a burp. “B” vomited violently for about five minutes—the most violent I have ever seen—but for Recce platoon, it was greatly entertaining.

LTC Sanders and others have told me time and again about the 4 Rifles sniper named Rifleman Irvine. He’s killed a few enemy, including the time three men were lying an IED on a bridge. One man was placing the bomb, so Irvine killed him. The other two did not see him fall.  Another was on a phone, so he got the second bullet and fell dead. The third finally realized something wasn’t right, and he started to run away and got the next two bullets. It happened so fast.  Three killed in seconds.  The commander told me that the sniper Rifleman Irvine once said something like, “I still prefer just shooting at targets.”

These men have seen much. It’s easier for soldiers to talk with me when they know I have seen it too, and that I will ride with them and give a fair shake. That’s all they want. The British have that in common with American combat soldiers. They don’t care about my sharing the details of their vomit game. After all, it’s boring in the desert. But when I asked about combat, I heard many stories, and they were told in such a way as if telling them buried them in the desert.

The desert is so dry that you can go to sleep with a bellyful of water and still wake up with a dry mouth and headache. You pound water as quickly as your belly will hold, and still rarely need to urinate. There simply is no way to escape the heat. Even though I was very still, the green canvas of the cot was stained through with my sweat.

[No way to keep cool. The best you can do is be less hot.]

At this place and this day, the soldiers stirred occasionally, but the desert was mostly dead. No hint of a bird, mammal or reptile. There were no rocks. Only fine powdered dust and caked dust that hardened and cracked in the sun. Only a cupful of water turned it into gooey mud. A liter of water could make a tiny patch of quicksand that sticks to your boots for a day or more.

There was little to do. Too hot to concentrate on a book, sweat dripping over the pages. Are there no insects here? After five minutes of watching the ground around the cot, I could not find a single insect. The only life visible was one type of scrub bush that must have made a pact with the devil to survive here. I called them devil bushes. Devil bushes dot the area, growing about 18 inches tall with no normal “leaves” and seem to be the only things to survive out here without bursting into flames.

The Iran-Iraq War.

The war may have ended in 1988, but the principle terrain features remained: hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles of berms, trenches, and rusting barbed wire, and sun-scorched human remains. There were tank positions by the thousands, many of them maybe 30 feet tall so that the tanks could fire long distances over the flat ground. These fighting positions had been manned for years. Mustard gas had been used on people who dropped like insects in the acrid fog. Iraqi helmets dotted the landscape.

I remember talking with many Iraqis up north, who spoke of relatives who went off to fight this war, and were never heard from again. They have no idea what became of their relatives. One can only imagine the stench of gangrene and misery that must have permeated these killing fields. Hundreds of ships were attacked out in the Gulf just nearby. Jets streaked over Iraq and Iran. Missiles and artillery rained down as we all sold them weapons. This was a time when America did not want Saddam to fall, yet we sold weapons to Iran to fund our Special Forces/CIA war in Central America. Ollie North was “born.” Shredded documents. Iran-Contra. Senate hearings. Secret deals. The uncomfortable truth about our complex involvement with the history of this place hangs over the desert landscape like a buzzard. 

At about midnight as we faded into 2 October, the vehicles lined up for another convoy to a new FOB. The roads were treacherous, and at about 0400 a container truck rolled off the narrow road, trapping the driver.

The medics and others worked to free him, and after maybe 30 minutes, got him out. He only had minor injuries, but the truck was stuck, and filled with ammunition such as mortars and Javelin missiles. Meanwhile, four Bulldogs drove off in the wrong direction and were somewhere out in the desert but we were on radio silence. By about 0500, the moon was straight overhead, and the British officers were calmly treating the situation like a chess problem: slow, methodical decision-making.

[Removing the ammunition from the wrecked truck. Soldiers carry a Javelin missile, which British soldiers have used to serious effect during mid 2007.]

No voices ever raised a notch, even during the rescue. I was talking with LTC Sanders as the sun rose over the vast desert that seemed to stretch all the way to Hell, but stopped at Iran. During the recovery of the vehicle, I saw a soldier crush his arm. A helicopter was called in to extract him.

[The wounded soldier flew away and we continued.]

On 3 October we were told the Iraq-Iran border was closed due to some religious holiday in Iran, yet we saw foot traffic going in and out. Many Iraqis were coming home with loads of toys from Iran.

I posed the question to one Iraqi border guard about Iraqi unity. He told me that Iraq is a united country, and that now most Iraqis realize that al Qaeda was trying to start a civil war.  It’s backfiring. I posed the question about Iraq unity different ways to different border guards, and each time I elicited the same emotionally charged response: Iraq is ONE COUNTRY. They are Iraqis first, then Moslawis, or Baswaris, or Arabs or Kurd or Sunni or Shia and so on.

There was talk then in America about dividing Iraq. The Americans who are talking about this are probably well-meaning, but this will not work. Iraqis love the idea of Iraq. Talking about dividing it is fightin’ words.

On 4 October we were on the Iraq-Iran border at the PoE, when there were some booms. Mortars had been fired at the COB, wounding several British, and the British 155mm cannons had counter-fired. There were meetings on the border, including LTC Sanders meeting with the commander of the border crossing, Brigadier Khalid, over reconstructing the Iraqi side of the PoE. The funds were to come from the Iraqi government.

Moqtada al Sadr was supposed to be crossing the border soon, and the British soldiers were cautioned to make sure it went smoothly. His entourage is known to be heavily armed and trigger-happy, so it is considered best to give them a wide berth rather than risk an accidental firefight.

On 5 October, CNN was out there with Nic Roberston. Unlike many mainstream reporters, Nic has a good reputation among soldiers for giving a fair rendition, and he toured around with CPT Bertie Basset. The Brits were happy later when they saw his report. Nic and CNN got creds for being honest.

[CNN’s Nic Robertson looks on while British soldiers prepare to destroy munitions with plastic explosives. When this exploded, we were far away in an armored Bulldog, and yet when the detonation occurred I pulled deeper into the vehicle.  WHACK!, a projectile hit the Bulldog.]
In the evening back in the desert camp, the Intelligence officer named Andy said there were steady reports that splinter JAM groups were trying to track and rocket us.

Major Steve Webb from the Royal Welsh talked about how his section had come across a man with a hoe out on one of the desert roads we were using. This man had been spotted before. People remembered him because he had a moped with a crow on the back. A crow, as in a big black bird, riding with him on a moped: so he was easy to remember.

“Why are you in the middle of nowhere with a hoe next to a road?”
“Looking for scrap metal,” the man said.
“Why do you have a crow?”
The man replied that he starved the crow and agitated him to make him angry (a moped ride around a desert with a crazy man not being a sufficient irritant, perhaps). Then he stakes the angry bird to the ground. Then he takes two other small birds and stakes those to the ground just next to the crow. The locals take bets on which bird will survive—or which will be eaten.  After some Red Baron type aerial combat, the crow eventually catches one of the little birds and has lunch. I wondered if Lawrence of Arabia ever bet on such a game?


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Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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