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Raul Correa

Hilla Jamilla
(Hilla is Beautiful)

 

It’s this piece of watchband. Just two charred and melted links. It’s where to begin. Not the first trip to Afghanistan where I parachuted into the center of Kabul. Not the second either, when I returned at the behest of a strange couple in Dubai who asked me to find out whether or not their bodyguard had indeed executed two Afghan nationals at the Intercontinental Hotel. It’s not the endless hours of uncontrollable sobbing in the mansion at Yaddo, an artist colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. It’s not having gone crazy, though all these things have something to do with how I went from being a one book novelist and Columbia adjunct professor to professional soldier. I think.

It’s not the documents on the living room table which I can’t read, but say I’ve converted to Islam. Converted to Islam in order to marry the twenty-year old Palestinian/Ukrainian woman asleep in my bed. It’s not her, but it could be. Amman, Jordan is where I met Lily, and the Dahit Al Rashid area high above the city is where we now live. Many stories begin in Jordan, but not this one.

It’s the piece of watchband.

My team, T-4 (Training Tomorrow’s Terrorists Today), had been in Hilla, Iraq for two weeks before the piece of watchband came flying over the wall of the Babylon Police Academy. We were there, under the dozens of too tall date palms, to provide force protection for the Academy, one of the few successful police academies in all of Iraq. The day after we arrived there was a class of over 400 cadets graduating and we became a PSD (personal security detail) for all the U.S. and Iraqi dignitaries attending the brief ceremony. Kitted out with an old Falluja buy-back AKS rifle, Browning High Power pistol in the drop holster, and10 mags of AK ammo hanging off the Paraclete level 4 multi-hit body armor, I was seventy pounds heavier and posted to the rear of the formation of cadets. I was told to move around so that my view of the podium was never obstructed, and it was then that I had my first sustained contact with the people of Iraq. The cadets, proud, excited and ragged in their blue uniforms with various types of worn out black foot wear, no socks, had been held in formation for over an hour waiting for the graduation to begin and were roasting under the December sun. To glance over their shoulders or to attempt conversation amongst themselves was to risk the attention of one of the academy’s instructors and this meant either a rock or a sawed off pool cue depending on how deep into the formation the offending party was. Despite this they came. Every few minutes a cadet would turn his head, smile, and say, "I love you." One of my teammates, V, a twenty-two year old former marine and six foot two Mexican American who had only left active duty and Iraq fours months prior was, out of boredom, straying over towards my position when he caught one too, I love you.

I couldn’t hear him, but saw his mouth move as he turned on his heels and headed back towards his area: " I love you too motherfucker, shit."

We heard "I love you" a lot. We also heard over and over that there was no "Ali Baba" in Hilla. Neither was there any "Whabi", or "Mujahid" or "Harami." We were assured this by everyone at the Babylon Police Academy. From the Iraqi Police instructors, from the Iraqi Police security who were either too old or too young for regular police work, from the Iraqi security forces who were all ex-army and under our direct command, from the Iraqi S.W.A.T cowboys who were tear-assing in and out of the academy regularly with their tricked out Hi-Luxe pick ups yelling "SWAT! Whiskey!" from behind the mounted PKC machine guns, from the maintenance crews, the barbers, the learning disabled kitchen workers, from the U.S. Army MPs, from anyone who ever seemed to have set foot in Hilla we heard different versions of the same thing, "No Ali Baba Hilla."

Even in Iraq if you hear that and "I love you" enough times you might begin to wonder if anything is ever going to happen. I’m not saying that we felt as safe as our guest’s pride needed us to feel, and it’s hard to put your guard down when the Polish and Mongolian troops shoot over your head nightly from their towers which almost abutted our northwest wall, but soon there was an almost palpable air of disappointment within T-4 that maybe nothing is going to happen.

A month to the day of our arrival in Hilla something did happen. I had just come off guard duty at the entrance of the academy and was in the process of dropping my kit –detach the AK’s Wolf Clip, untape the radio earpiece, unwrap the shamall, and remove the sunglasses first before lifting the Paraclete overhead—to the floor of the caravan in the room I shared with CB a thrity-two-year old former M.P. who was the second youngest and least experienced member of T-4. We had become close during the last weeks of our two month delay in Amman, as we had both hooked up with women who worked at the Bristol Hotel, otherwise known as "Mercenary Central," and had spent many nights wandering Amman’s Bilat, the area everyone told us to avoid. It was his first time out of the states. I remember asking him if he needed some more time alone with his computer and from his rack he said, "Very funny." It was 11:17 in the morning and the amplified prayers from four different directions had just ended.

I swear I felt the explosion in my chest first, and then came the rattling of the caravan, the sides and under my feet. CB shot up off his rack, and later told me that it had come like a punch to the back of his head. "Car bomb," I said, not yet used to the term VBIED (Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Device) and then our radios, mine on the floor and CB’s in the charger, in opposite ends of the room, sparked to life. "It’s a hit," said the voice of Stryker our team XO, followed by Hodad the CO

"T-4, move to the assembly point."

All I thought about was all that I had been truly worried about ever since we’d been issued our gear back in Washington, DC: If something happened, could I get all this fucking shit on in time? I’d been out of the military for over twenty years, hadn’t touched a weapon in all that time, and yes, I’d recently trained with the Newark S.W.A.T team and with an ex-Special Forces nut in North Carolina who had Hate and Kill tattooed on his knuckles. But that vest, that fucking Paraclete vest with the belly band, two side closures, and a front zipper was what kept me up at night. This day it went on smooth, even the front zipper and I remembered to tape the radio’s earpiece securely to my elf ear. We didn’t know what would be waiting for us outside, insurgents coming over the walls of the academy, mortars, poorly vetted academy employees praying and spraying, but having already faced my worst fear under pressure—the vest—I was full of self-satisfaction and ready. I’m not stupid; I know what this means: that I’m more worried about embarrassment than death. But fear and narcissism, while central to this story, will have to wait.

CB had beaten me out the door and was running back and forth between the team’s caravans yelling "Come on, guys. Come on, guys, let’s go!" V, the two time combat veteran, who had watched half his platoon killed, ripped apart, by our A-10 flying tank killers not six months before, took his time, enough to have a look out his window, and then a laugh at his pal CB still urging us on. Gunfire was heard from all directions. We assembled just outside the perimeter of caravans, while Hodad our CO and Stryker the XO (ex-Special Forces and ex-Marine Force Recon respectively) screamed at the American construction manager to stop taking pictures with his phone and stay the fuck in his caravan. By all estimates it had taken us three to four minutes to assemble and still, on one knee, facing the North wall of the academy and the deep black plume of smoke rising above the Babylon Sports Center 150 meters away, we felt small pieces of debris falling on the bills of our ball caps. What was pelting us was light, papery, like tiny pieces of crumbled damp paper. Hodad gave the command for T-4 to move out towards the small, gated door across the academy and as we trotted over in a modified wedge formation sirens could be heard and the gunfire increased, not just from the Sports Center but from the Mongolian and Polish guard towers as well. At the North wall, the gated door was open but crowded with kitchen and maintenance workers. Hodad, who usually acted like the SoCal surfer he’d once been, began to toss Iraqi’s out of the way, and for the first time that day I heard him threaten to shoot someone. In this case, anyone who came through that gate. I too put my hands on these Iraqi men, boys really, and yelled, and shoved, and cursed. Maybe for their safety, and maybe because I didn’t want to face the two mangled cars still burning, or see the naked men trying to out run their burning flesh.

Soon, Hodad and Stryker, placed each of the team in order to cover the avenues of approach. Facing west down the street with my AK locked and loaded, and off safe, I stole a look over my right shoulder towards the chaos in front of the Sports Club and thought of Chechnyans. There were Chechnyans in Iraq running teams of insurgents and this kind of melee, no security by the Iraqi’s, just the need to run towards the explosion, the gunfire, the trouble, was just what they hoped for. It is the desire to help, to do what one can for their fallen brothers, but it is also the incredibly stupid macho need to be seen, to be known as unafraid. This disregard for basic tactics--and the ever growing amount of intelligence coming down that the insurgents were the ones employing simple, simple, tactics such as lengthening the kill zone with roadside IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), using one VBEID to gather a crowd and then sending a second and even a third—I was to witness on varying levels. At first, I was as disgusted and amazed as the rest of my team, but the reason I was able to come to peace with was that after over twenty years of war and Saddam, the collective synapse of the Iraqi people were fried. What remained did not include perimeter security or caution against diversionary tactics. What remained was faith in God’s will competing second by second with the continually compounded practical application of the fact that life and death are very, very random. It’s what’s left after a life of being afraid. Born afraid.

We held our positions. Hodad’s voice coming across my earpiece every few minutes, "T-4, watch your sectors." I pointed my weapon at my first person, then a second and third, and so on. I pointed my weapon at the driver of my first vehicle, who turned out to be an IP Captain. Once he felt the threat of another VBEID had passed, Hodad pulled us back and dispersed T-4 around the academy, but not before sending the kitchen workers to the ground. They hadn’t heeded his warning about the gate but he didn’t keep his promise to shoot them.

At the front gate, we tried to control the flow of local construction workers as they attempted to flee the academy. Hodad, made his second promise to shoot anyone who tried to leave before being cleared to do so. Despite having heard his first death threat go unfulfilled I still believed him and so it seemed, did they. I took a position overlooking the small park to the left of the academy’s entrance and in between two Iraqi security guards. It wasn’t until I caught myself staring at a small plane--really small, not much bigger than a model airplane—circling overhead that I took a deep breath and realized that I hadn’t "tunneled." In other words I hadn’t done what I should have been most worried about, indeed what most soldiers are worried about. I hadn’t frozen or freaked out. Hodad’s voice on the radio, "T-4, smoke ‘em if you got ‘em." After chastising the guards for talking, I bummed a Pine from one of them, ripped the filter off it, signaled I needed a light too, and clicked my AK up to SAFE.

Index, end of mission, was soon called, but not before looks I think we all would come to regret, were exchanged between all eight members of T-4.

Something happened.

The fire pit was lit early, still daylight, and we were quiet as one by one we took turns with Hodad’s Sat. Phone, calling home, not saying to watch the news, just "If you happen to…." We’d taken a team picture and sent them out by e-mail as Christmas cards only two weeks before. At the top of the photo it read:

Merry Christmas from T-4

Babylon Police Academy

Hilla, Iraq

Folks knew where we were.

The death toll was given at somewhere between 20 and 30, and the ex-spooks in D.C., executives in one of the many companies included in the matrix of companies which we worked for, told Hodad that they’d seen us on CNN, lying in the prone, guns out, good job.

The ODA guys came by. Their team leader, a Captain, had been a sergeant under Hodad’s command when Hodad had been a Special Forces team sergeant so they looked out for us pretty well. The ODA were advising the El Salvadorian Special Forces at the Logistics Base run by the Polish just north of the academy. They went out on "hits" regularly—going after the homes and hang outs of suspected insurgents. The Captain had five or six of his guys with him, mostly New York Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans, as well as Californian Mexicans. Special Forces guys always surprise me with how they look, act, never like you’d think, but seeing this particular bunch was more of a pleasure than usual. They seemed like the stalwart, focused, student athlete, teenagers I’d known in every New York City neighborhood I’d ever lived in, Spanish Harlem, Lower East Side, Hell’s Kitchen. See them on the bus and subways with their books and that look, "Go ahead White Lady. Look down at me. I dare you."

Latino Special Forces A-Team in Iraq. Air-fucking-borne.

They stood around the fire with us a bit, told us that they’d sent up the UAV (the small plane I’d seen apparently loaded with high-tech cameras and remote operated by a hand held toggle) and saw us all down in the fetal position sucking our thumbs so they’d figured they better come over to see how we were. We laughed knowing that they’d QRF (Quick Reaction Force) for us before we even knew we needed them. They’d know, as I would soon learn, the severity of a situation by the sound, the blast, the gunfire. By the time I would leave Hilla, if the rounds being fired did not number at least 3 or 4 sustained bursts from at least two different weapons, I wouldn’t break stride or put down a cup of coffee. We had a good one for the ODA, the fucking Polish and Mongols had fired into the academy at the construction manager who’d been told to stay in his caravan. Rounds came within 5 yards of him and I’m still not sure if he ever put his camera phone away let alone stayed in his trailer.

As soon as the ODA left, the Iraqi instructors T-4 had become closest with joined us at the fire pit, heads down, silent. We asked after their friends. Did they know anyone? "Yes," they replied, "and you too." There was a captain killed who we all had seen around the academy, eaten with him at the big table in the dining hall. There were others, as well. Ali translated the descriptions of the men who died, the one’s we had known for Manar and Arkan who spoke over each other. "Habibi" was the word they seemed to use like a verbal hot potato—My friend. We stood and sat, trying to help them as they tried to describe the dead men that we knew.

"Oh, big moustache, always walked like this?

"Yes."

"Wait, the tall guy. Funny, always singing that Portugala song?

"No."

"Oh."

This was too awful to continue so we asked if what we’d heard had been true. About the Sports Club.

"Yes."

A recently graduated class of police officers had been doing martial arts in a large formation outside the Babylon Sports Club. I’d heard them out there, over the wall, even by the front entrance when I had duty. I heard them Kiii-aaaaing! in unison all morning. Stupid. With a walled-in police academy just across the street with plenty of open space, a parade ground.

The Americans around the fire were thinking it, maybe loud enough for the Iraqis to hear, and suddenly the fire itself seemed a bad idea as our friend’s gaze bore deeper and deeper into its center.

We all drifted away from the pit. Guard shifts were doubled, more phone calls were made, and a few members of T-4 wandered the academy grounds. Later, those who weren’t on guard went to visit the security guard quarters to visit the guard who had blown out of his tower by the VBEID. Instead of in a hospital, he was in his bunk with a blanket over him surrounded by his friends. He had massive contusions along one side of his body, and we heaped praise upon him for climbing back into the tower and refusing to leave his post, which he appeared to both except and wave off. I think he just wanted us to leave so he could go back to sleep.

Clothes were slept in that night, and AK’s shared our beds. The next day I heard that the Iraqi’s had buried many body parts right where they had been found as per Islamic law. Still, all of T-4, besides my self had found something: a head, a piece of jaw and various other body parts which had landed in the academy grounds. Some came right out and said that they were going out to see what they could find. Others, as I later would do, simply wandered off, unable to say it, but also unable to leave the dead, the pieces of them, alone.

We weren’t the only ones, the dogs, three of whom were always together (Hondo named them Winkin’ Blinkin’ and Nod) had dug up what had been buried the night before. I did find the gnawed-up remains although I couldn’t tell you what section of the human anatomy they belonged to except for the pieces with teeth. Also clumps of hair attached to the parts limit the possibilities. I also found assorted car parts, a blackened spring, and a round corner of the bottom of a 105 Artillery shell. Never found out if that was indeed the source of the blast but what I found next, and last, needed no confirmation. The two blackened links of a steel watch band. Enough.

I picked it up and let the links play over my fingers, its weight no more than a half dozen penny nails. Someone bought this, maybe because of the band, bold and simple. Or maybe it had been a gift, bought, wrapped and hidden away on some high shelf until a birthday. Maybe they too had admired the band and thought how fine it would look around their loved one’s wrist. I remembered what someone had once told me about how to get out of a bad mood while riding the subway: Look at someone’s feet across from you and imagine them buying their shoes.

It works. Sweetens the people.

But this also led me to Auschwitz and the piles of shoes. How that image, more than any other, burned its way into the mind and memory of one of the liberators (NOTE: Is it an author? Check this).

I put the links in my pocket. Something had happened.

Two weeks later an American woman who worked at the P.X. at the Logistics Base gave us a disk. "Not sure if you want to see this but is was right over by y’all."

It was of the car bomb, and begins with gunfire and naked men running along the academy’s wall, wisps of flames stubborn on their shoulders and genitals. The cuts are fast, professional—Who got there with a camera so fast?—a man, his face charcoal, skin, green-yellow falling off him, and flapping his arms at an I.P. who can do nothing but shrug. A body still smoldering in the driver’s seat of car, just the seat, but a bone white spleen is the only thing that says, This was a man. Another man, twitching and looking like he is attempting to perform a sit-up before he dies, burns to death. Enough.

This is what we didn’t see as we watched our sectors. Everyone in T-4 saw the video, and everyone got a copy, but no one talked about it beyond, "Did you see it?"

Sometimes the only place for shame to go is quiet.

We’d taken the car bomb as our initiation, no Blackwater or Dyncorp guy could ever bust our balls, "Boy, I smell BIAB (Baghdad International Airport) all over you," and we’d have our own stories because we’d been there. Hey, nobody in T-4 Tunneled, and damn if we didn’t get kitted up quick.

Something happened. Something has been happening to Iraqis since they day they were born and on the day of a car bomb at the Babylon Police Academy we took the loss of 24 men, their stink in our noses, as our stripes.

Standing by the wall of the academy and fingering the piece of watchband had brought back everything I knew before I came to Iraq. That Muslims were killing Muslims, funded by who knows, in a country my country had invaded without provocation. I tried keeping it in my pocket, but after the video, and after a ceremony for the dead officers at the academy where the children were given fuzzy pastel stuffed animals and board games too big for most to carry, I put it up in my wall locker. Now it sits beside me on my desk in Dahit Al Rashid.

It was a long serpentine journey which took me to Iraq—someone else’s backyard—and it was sparked by a piece in the New York Times which said there were over 20,000 private security contractors there. The name has morphed, professional soldiers, security operators, with mercenary used only by far left blog sites and among the 20,000 themselves. "That can’t be right," I thought, followed by "I wonder if I…."

The temptation, now that I’ve been at the desk, and spoken by phone to friends and family in New York City, is to be longwinded here. About who I was, but it can wait.

I’m a professional soldier now. One, who when the subject came up among those in T-4, those other professional soldiers we worked with, the ODA, was always included on the list of operators who will continue to this work. I had an offer from Dyncorp to work PSD for the Embassy staff in Baghdad, from the big daddy of security firms, Black Water, and from the British firm Erinys, to run convoy from Kuwait to Baghdad. My last night on guard I stuck my weapon in the faces of eleven people because I didn’t like the way they were driving. Either too fast or too slow. This while the IP (Iraqi Police) whispered in the dark, Good Raul. Good.

T-4 got pulled out of the academy early due to problems between our matrix of security companies, the Jordanian construction company tasked with building academies across Iraq, and the Capt. Bassim the no nonsense commander of the Babylon Police Academy.

That last night on guard my self and the Iraqis, 4 IP Instructors, 6 IP security and 5 security guards performed imitations of each other and the rest of the academy staff. Lit by the fire in the bent and blackened olive oil can with small pots of chai at the corners, and a fat moon, we moved and twisted our faces like each other. From the circle those not yet imitated waited anxiously. Know me. To be imitated is to be known. To be known is to exist.

We’re going back.

CB called me from California four nights ago. Did you see? There had been another car bomb in Hilla with 140 killed. It was the largest number killed since President Bush declared the end to major conflict in Iraq. Ali Baba is in Hilla. He told me that he got a call from Ali, who asked him if we were going to keep our promise and return. Our promise. Americans being asked if we would keep our promise.

I asked CB if Ali had told him that he loved him.

"Yep," he replied.

I was happy in Hilla. I didn’t know it until it came time for the imitations of me that night. Someone had cried out "Raul!" and all 15 Iraqis gripped their AKs tightly, arms swung out from their shoulders, heads back, smiles wide and yelled "Hilla Jamilla!"

Unhappiness is often complicated, happiness is not. Not then, or now, as I understand that I was in Iraq, like every other foreigner, to take. There is happiness in hard truths.

Twice the steel links, melted and blackened, once in the airport in Jordan (there are wild owls flying outside its entrance) and once at BIAP, will drop from my pocket to the security workers grey tub before boarding.

We return the day after tomorrow.


Raul Correa is the author of a novel, I Don’t Know But I’ve Been Told.

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