Letters from a Santa Barbara Soldier in Iraq
Another Day on the Moon
Tim, my son, had just recently arrived in Baghdad when he sent me this report:
They have a new kind of explosive device here that cuts through our armor. In my armor, I am a tight fit in my truck, and as we are driving down the road, I find myself very conscious of where my arms are. These new devices always take off some part of you, usually a leg or two. The other day, a driver lost both legs above the knee and an arm. So, there you are, driving down the road, trying to figure out how to reduce the number of appendages you will lose when the bomb goes off. : I deal routinely with Iraqi leaders who run the gamut: from your favorite third-world general stereotype (we have a 100 percent confession rate!) to others who love to talk about barbecue. Either way, the work load is crushing right now, the days long, and the reward only a promise. -Tim
From October 2005 to September 2006-a year’s tour-the reports kept coming to family and friends. We all strained so hard to understand, to see, to feel what he was feeling, but of course, we couldn’t. A Santa Barbara carpenter and part-time citizen soldier activated from the California National Guard, 41-year-old Captain Timothy Fessier, who, as fate ordained, had been dropped directly into the center of the maelstrom, was assigned to the 49th MP Brigade (not long after a year in Kosovo) and, in turn, attached to the Iraqi police’s Major Crimes Unit in a land that seemed at times nothing but major crimes.
A good man, Tim’s primary characteristic, I’d say, was a ferocious work ethic; he also had an imperishable sense of humor that would serve him well within the Iraqi madness. This is the same oh-so-hard-on-himself S.B. High School distance runner, the UCSB demon rower, the guy whooping down Tunnel Road on his mountain bike. What would his single-minded dedication to a challenge mean in Iraq? His modest assignment was to: (a) do the job (“mentoring” the Iraqi police), while bombs burst and body parts flew, and (b) come home alive and somehow remain sane (for my money, the greatest challenge of all).
The reports arrived from an army trailer in a corner of Camp Victory in Baghdad (the city once known as the “abode of peace” for its once magnificent gardens); the camp was nestled among a scattering of cheesy palaces once owned by the cruel son of a certain departed dictator. Tim’s emails were sent to his wife Nina, mother Patricia Ruja, brother Peter, friend Ted Bruckner, and to me, whose idea it was to share them with his hometown readers. These reports, unfiltered by CNN or Fox News, convey a valuable authenticity not found elsewhere. Reluctantly, Captain Tim ultimately agreed, though wishing to make plain he did not feel special and didn’t want to be made so, noting the uncelebrated sacrifices of so many, right here among us in our sunny, peaceful corner of the world.
For us at home, it was of course the moment-to-moment fear of the late-night phone call, the two-man notification team at the front door. And yes, there was such a phone call, but it concerned a man in Tim’s unit who died [the army policy must notify all families in a unit where a soldier has been killed]. And so goes another family’s terrible misery.
Anyway, herewith are excerpts from a year’s worth of emails. As they say down at the multiplex, parental guidance is advised.
December 3, 2005
Just some anecdotes from behind the curtain of madness: On Thanksgiving, I was working on a message to the family, and as I was composing this positive message, I was listening to the reports coming in from a patrol that had just hit an IED [improvised explosive devise] : two dead, one female soldier whose leg had been taken off from her by some misguided patriot :
The other day, I took a kidnapping suspect into the Major Crimes Unit in Baghdad. The Iraqi investigators were drawn by this unique event : so there I am, with my cuffed and blindfolded villain. One of the investigators comes up to me and, in broken English and supported by my interpreter and using hand gestures, assures me that after a couple days of beating the crap out of this guy he will get a confession out of him. After the statement, he beamed contentedly at me. I looked at this guy and said no, no beating the crap out of anybody, don’t tell me about hitting. He in turn looked at me for a second and then went into an elaborate pantomime of kissing an imaginary prisoner, wherein he then explained how he would in fact not beat a confession out of the prisoner but would instead kiss the prisoner who would then, out of a real sense of goodwill, confess. I looked back at him and said that if that worked, have at it. Then we just looked at each other before moving onto the international language of who has the coolest weapon. Mine has a laser on it, so I win :
The army has a new badge (the combat action badge-the “cab”-you get to wear if you are shot at or blown up). : Blown up is the term we use for when an IED goes off around your vehicle. : It is not uncommon for soldiers to get blown up four or more times in a tour.
Hope all is well in the respective camps.
December 6, 2005
At any rate, because the doctors would not go on record with a cause of death and because you never know what might happen to the evidence [body], I found myself in an Iraqi morgue inspecting a corpse, surrounded by other corpses. The bodies were all fully clothed. My guy had the least violent death. We think he died from a beating that happened a couple months ago. [The team was investigating a case of possible detainee abuse in its Iraqi unit.] The other bodies were all the results of gunshots and were not only clothed, but still covered in blood. We had not anticipated this part of our task and so did not have gloves. We had to ask three times before an Iraqi attendant went to the kitchen and came back with food-serving gloves. Armed with these flimsy lines of defense, we manipulated the body and, using our flashlights, inspected for signs of trauma.
The doorway to the morgue was filled with Iraqis and I am sure we looked very impressive as we conducted our inspection and talked knowledgably about the presence and/or lack of indicators of abuse. We concluded our investigation and moved outside the morgue. Once outside, we asked where we could dispose of the gloves. The Iraqis gestured that we should just throw them on the ground. And sure enough, the ground was littered with gloves and other medical supplies, so, when in Rome : Either way, another day on the moon.
January 2, 2006
I have been in the same surreal existence : one night, I am raiding a house and searching for evidence of evil deeds done. The next day, an Iraqi general is asking me to help him move 450 prisoners across Iraq to detention facilities he had been begging me to help empty the week before. The other day, an Iraqi patrol reported a suspicious vehicle outside the post; the QRF [Quick Reaction Force] was sent out to investigate. They did not find a suspicious vehicle, but what they did find was a very large pile of booze. Gin, scotch, etc. Now, there are a couple of really promising explanations for this. The first, and my favorite, is this was a failed Trojan horse strategy. In this scenario, the insurgents give us a giant pile of booze. We take it inside our fort and get drunk off our nuts, [and then] the forces of evil walk through the gate and over the passed-out bodies of drunken Joes-insidious : evil-minded bastards. The second possibility is that some good-hearted merchants pooled resources and left us a gift as a measure of their gratitude for what we are doing for Iraq. They did it anonymously to avoid any repercussions from the insurgents. Neither scenario could prevail against our pious American self-discipline, so the booze is sitting in the MP evidence cage (minus some minor pilfering, I would guess) and we stood the New Year with soda pop and assorted juices. We are, you understand, dry.
January 9, 2006
As for my Iraqi generals’ contacts, I see them in their places of work, sometimes in other places. For the most part, the guys I work with wear suits, though sometimes they are in uniform. As for the location of today’s attack, I go there about once a week. Not today, though. Today I worked on finding an American journalist who could not see the folly in meeting bad people in bad places. Journalists must be the biggest danger junkies in the world. Tomorrow, I have to go to a bad place to gather information on hercase; her decision to go to that meeting is just the gift that keeps on giving. That said, I feel the draw to dark alleys myself, so who am I to judge. : You know, it’s funny-I find myself looking up past emails I have sent to read them. It’s strange, but writing these emails is like pruning a bonsai tree, a sort of exercise in focus, almost a meditation.
February 16, 2006
The other day, my patrol was in the rural suburbs south of Baghdad. We were winding our way through the back roads and alleys, driving through villages and fields in an effort to outsmart the forces of evil. The direct route has too many limb-shearing explosive devices [for safe traveling] if you do not have to. As we drove through the villages, the men (many, many, idle hands) would stare at us, sometimes smiling (the smiles were more leers and it took great restraint not to get out and find out what the fuck they thought was so funny). The women would look on or ignore us, but the kids-you would have thought we were Patton liberating Palermo, with citizens reacting joyously. Little kids were bouncing, smiling, yelling, waving, etc. It took me a while to figure out the true formula for our popularity. In Baghdad, we pelt tomorrow’s insurgents with Beanie Babies, but we had not brought that kind of ammo for this trip. So, it turned out the lead truck gunner was tossing out handfuls of candy like rose petals in front of Caesar. Here we are-armored to the point of near immobility, grim-faced through our fierce sunglasses and anonymously tinted goggles, bristling guns and restrained violence-driving through Iraqi villages with sewage running in the streets, confronted by grim-faced adults willing us to get the fuck away, and tossing candy to the children in our desperation to be liked.
February 22, 2006
Oddly, the insurgents are a very small part of our problems here. It is the devil within that we fear, the infiltration of militias into the government and their agendas. Some of my Iraqi counterparts have described the development as more dangerous than Saddam Hussein. I will elaborate when I am home. My unit’s mission is to train, mentor, and equip the Iraqi police. In terms of who was responsible for most of our casualties in Baghdad, the militias, mostly Shia, are our biggest problem.
February 23, 2006
The level of desperation in the security forces is palpable. The sense that the country is existing in a form of organized anarchy cripples these guys. Some of them are starting to make statements to the effect that even under Saddam Hussein there was more justice. I speak of dead bodies; hundreds of them show up daily. People taken from their homes and executed. Families too afraid to claim the body or lodge a complaint. And don’t let the media fool you; the devil doesn’t care if you are Sunni or Shia-he just wants your blood.
Iraqi officers, who just a few months ago were lecturing me on all the things we have done wrong, are now telling me that if we leave Iraq it will be anarchy. They have no confidence in their leaders and fear the militias. My unit is a mix of Sunnis and Shia. For the most part, they work well together and want the same thing for Iraq. As nationalists, they do not want us here, but in practical terms, they do not believe the country will survive the near future without our influence and mediation.
The current government here has been fully infiltrated by the forces of evil, the heart of darkness. Colonel Kurtz could not swim in this pond.
Ever see a man with his Johnson cut off? Ever see a face that someone has dedicated a club to modifying, all rationalized by men who say they are the pillars of morality, the voices of God? : Must go; I hear the forces of evil at the door.
March 18, 2006
Some of the friendly faces are very dangerous. With these folks, you have to be constantly vigilant, assessing their motives: Does it make sense for them to be happy to see you? Some of my favorite Iraqis were not fawning or even welcoming at our first meeting. They care more about doing their jobs than blowing smoke at me. These guys, if they survive, will rebuild this country.
I have interviewed some really bad men here, men who have killed or tortured other men with no hint of remorse. I have even found something to like about these guys, some redeeming quality. They saw something in me as well. It was apparent.
That said, I would kill them if I had to and not feel anything but a removed sense of curiosity at how little I felt about it. They, in turn, would not even burn those calories if they were to kill me. Life is so cheap; death is a bump in the lives around you.
March 21, 2006
The Mahdi Militia are Sadr’s boys-a blindly loyal, sort of dumb animal that appears to do wildly violent and barbaric things under the guise of religious authority, despite the surveys that indicate money is the leading enticement for recruits. The mission I was on was tracking down the bodies of 15 individuals who had been strangled to death and left stacked like cordwood in an abandoned vehicle by the side of the road. Today, I was at a sewage-pumping station investigating 11 bodies that have shown up there in the last two days. Tomorrow, I will be tracking down some of those bodies and five more that showed up tonight someplace else. I work with experienced investigators, so the fate of Baghdad’s Major Crimes Unit does not lie in the hands of a Santa Barbara carpenter : ironically, I am effective at implementing programs to train investigators and to get them to organize cases. As for civil war, one Iraqi I know said recently that the civil war has been going on for a while and that it is just becoming more apparent. I do not think civil war is a fair term; I do not think the population is as polarized as it appears. : If the government can be reformed, all-out civil war can be averted. Even if this happens, though, it will not be pretty. Got to get some sleep.
March 23, 2006
Today, I was at the Major Crimes Unit in Baghdad when a suicide bomber detonated at the gate. Most of my team was away from the blast, though we did have to dodge truck and body parts. My team had one minor injury. I was not hurt. We provided support with the dead and wounded, as well as secured the scene against a follow [-up] attack. We lost a couple friends today, and saw some pretty horrible things. One of my soldiers was getting out of his truck to carry some Beanie Babies to a couple small children waiting to visit their father in jail when the blast happened. All that is left of the children is a pair of tiny shoes where one of them was standing. I won’t describe the rest here : one of my soldiers got a call from his mother while we were trying to get the madness under control. She asked him if he was okay because she saw the attack on TV. The blast occurred during visiting day for the inmates’ families. At least 20 of these visitors were killed, most of them women and children since visiting days are segregated by gender and age (small children come with their mothers). The bomber detonated next to the line of women and children. If a silver lining could be noted, it would be that the attack occurred on a light visiting day.
I have to get some sleep and clear my head (again, without the aid of a good whiskey or beer).
March 24, 2006
You are the lucky one who gets to receive the details of that day; it is part of my processing to write it out, to work it out. When the explosion occurred, I had two trucks within 10 meters of the blast [and] I had two more trucks in an inner courtyard about 30 meters away. Most of my team and I were in that inner courtyard. I had just walked away from the location of the blast, going to my truck to get a phone. I was not wearing any armor. It is hard to describe the severity of the blast when the truck exploded : we were showered with parts of the truck that delivered the bomb, and body parts. The world then exploded in small-arms fire. I remember shouting to my men to get their armor on and grab their M4s. We dove for our gear and took up positions to defend against the ground attack we thought was going to come into the courtyard. Once I had a couple guys with me, I led them out of the courtyard to push the fight back toward the front entrance : it felt like the last scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as we worked our way to the gate. The amount of small-arms fire and the screaming was like walking to the gates of hell. It is funny; my only instinct was to run to the fight, to get to the fuckers. As we came around a corner, I could see the truck closest was intact. I could see smoldering masses (what turned out to be bodies), debris, and smoke at the gate. My sergeant major and I ran to the guard tower overlooking the gate and sprinted up the steps. I had to hang off the tower to let some of the wounded guards pass. We took up firing positions (attacks on a facility like the HQs have involved a ground assault in the past). I looked down from the tower to the street; it was a vision into hell. The first thing I saw was a blackened torso smeared into the street about 30 meters away; the screaming really came through then. I could see total confusion in the street, more bodies or at least the larger pieces of them. I ran down the steps and into the gated area. The ground was covered in meat and blood, torsos, missing limbs, a pile of intestines, chunks of flesh on every surface, pieces of the truck that brought the bomb. The ground was strewn with oranges a family member had been brining for a prisoner relative (many of the victims were ironically the family members of inmates, many of whom are terrorists). I saw : fuck, I don’t know what I saw; some bodies were identifiable, others were smoldering masses of blood, meat, and bone. :
April 5, 2006
Today, we attended an informal memorial luncheon for the Iraqis who died in the attack on the HQ. We arrived too late for the most interesting part of the service but were there for the food. The officers bought three sheep and killed them in the three locations they lost cops; this was followed by a prayer. The sheep were then dressed and sent to a local restaurant to be prepared. The meal was the lamb on giant beds of rice mixed with potatoes and golden raisins. The Iraqis issued us spoons, and then told us real men do not use utensils. As it is crucial that my Iraqi brothers see me as a real man, I had to forego the spoon. As it happens, real men eat greasy rice, potatoes, and lamb with their hands off the same plate. They scoop and shovel with grease running down their arms. I could not master the necessary skill to do this efficiently. The thumb has a role in the correct approach that escaped me. One of my Iraqi brothers felt I was missing out on the best parts of the meal, and so he kept pushing balls of lamb fat and pieces of meat on me with the same fingers that had been in his mouth seconds before. I bowed out of the fat and spinal cord :
April 20, 2006
Today we met Cleetis, the dysfunctional bomb dog who was aggressively introducing himself to the team at the Al Sadeer Hotel this morning. Evidently, Cleetis is all about the love; the job is just a living, not a passion. : Finally, there was the unnamed corpse this afternoon that had his face gnawed off. I am hoping the expression of horror and panic was either from the method of execution, or just how the jaw and eyes looked after the cheeks and neck were pulled off, and not because he could not defend himself as the dogs chewed off his face.
Today I had a meeting with an informant. I had met with him before; he has a pregnant girlfriend, [and] this causes him a significant level of anguish since his family will “kill him” if they find out. Funny thing about Iraq is a statement like that should be taken literally. During the course of the meeting, I asked him how far along she was and suggested he marry her before she shows. He responded in an easy fashion that he had tried everything: He had beaten her, he had hit her high and hard like you are supposed to do; in fact, he had hit her in the exact same way he did when she was last pregnant, all to no avail-she was still pregnant. He looked at me with the tired look of a man who just cannot get a break. I casually looked over at my partner. He could not contain his shock. I just changed the topic and closed the meeting. I am not certain anything human beings do can throw me off my game after this. He was giving us info on bad men doing bad things, though, ironically, they had not done anything quite that callous as far as we know, and, even more ironically, they still pose a greater evil to the country.
June 6, 2006
Yesterday was a bad day. One of my soldiers was killed. I won’t write the details; I cannot do it yet. I was not with him and I honestly do not know if I should be grateful or feel bad. I guess the smart money should be on grateful. He was not cast to die here. It was his third tour in Iraq; he was a bright man and the fastest guy in the HQs. The real epitaph is more complicated, but again, I am not ready to write that chapter yet.
Today my team went out and the bastards tried to blow us/me up. A bomb went off in front of me, maybe 15 meters [away]. My truck was damaged, as well as was the truck in front of me. My driver had two shrapnel impacts to the windshield where his throat and face were. They appeared as if delivered by the angry jabs of an evil finger trying to get at him.
It is so sudden. One minute you are fighting the malaise of numb routine and the next minute the sky is falling. My truck was enveloped with a thick cloud of smoke and dust. The truck behind me caught it on film and it was odd to watch. I remember my thought process and decisions as if they took a couple of minutes : the tape shows them to have been partial seconds. We pushed through the explosion and rolled to a safe place to inspect for casualties. My gunner missed a piece of shrapnel in the face or throat by inches. We had just told him to get down in the turret, [and] the shrapnel took out his rifle. I got out of my truck and saw a group of Iraqis looking at us. I raised my rifle in the air like the Sand People in Star Wars and, like them, challenged the gods and the Iraqis to try it again. I don’t think I said anything, just a roar. I doubt they had any knowledge of the attack; I did not care who got my message. I just needed to show somebody I was ready for the next [one]. I don’t want to use my rifle. I want to use my hands on the bastards; to paraphrase the great man: Never have so few fucked it up for so many. Fuck. It was 115 degrees in hell today. Hope all is well at home.
July 15, 2006
Today, one of our soldiers from a subordinate BN was killed. He died in much the same way the sergeant from our nuclear family died. It’s funny-a death like that is actually more poignant now than it was a year ago; now I know exactly how it happened, I can see the injury. It is funny because you would think I would be more accustomed to it. Yesterday, my team participated in a raid on a house in Baghdad looking for hostages. We did not find them; they were probably moved a couple days before. Another thing I cannot get used to is going through other people’s things. The people who lived at the house were not there when we came in, so it felt even more awkward to go through their house. We looked for evidence, indications they had been buried in the backyard, etc. One thing we did find was the smell of death in one part of the house; my team knows this smell well. We all identified it independently. We ended up tearing up part of the floor, but no coagulated blood, decaying corpses, etc. The whole time we were there, the local mosque was putting out some rantings from the tower. I don’t know what they were saying. Since it was a Friday, I am sure it was their version of a service just put out over giant loudspeakers. These services are a good barometer of the local mood or at least what the local Iman thinks the mood should be. For me, though, it sounded like a lunatic was screaming, “The Americans are in Achmed’s house going through his shit; grab your AKs, grab your grenades, go after the fuckers.” Iraqis are not quiet by nature-they are challenged when it comes to the art of quiet conversation-so the Iman could have been saying, “Love your Shia neighbor, ask the Americans about their cheeseburgers, they’re delicious,” and it just sounded like rantings. Either way, we left the house with a shattered front door and holes in the floor. We could not secure it. So we ugly Americans left the house open to the thieves. Insha’Allah [God willing], that is the worst thing weighing on my conscience when I leave here.
July 16, 2006
The Iraqi army had set up a temporary checkpoint 30 meters from a police checkpoint : [and] a young lady with her mother and kid were trying to get through when, for reasons we will never know, the Iraqi army guys started beating the woman and her mother with batons. The two women got through the flurry of blows and chastised the police for not intervening. The police defended themselves by saying they had no authority to interfere. Nevertheless, the IPs [Iraqi Police] and the IA [Iraqi army] started arguing. This always leads to weapons being pointed at each other. Then a little traffic cop reached over and smacked an IA guy up the side of his head. This drew the equivalent of “Oh no, you didn’t” in Iraq-everybody running for their bigger machine guns in this instance. Then the shooting started-hundreds of rounds fired at close range. This is the punch line: Only a mother and her daughter away from the fight got hurt. But so many rounds went into the neighborhood that it is very possible there were casualties we did not see. The mother and daughter were evacuated before my team could provide aid so I do not know their condition. Where are those damn ruby slippers?
September 10, 2006
I went out with a bang, or, actually, two bangs. We were driving into a small base in the middle of Baghdad when we saw, heard, and felt a large explosion to our front. The blast was near our normal place of work, near our partners in this nightmare. We were the only coalition unit in the area so we rolled. It was a suicide bomber. The fucker drove his bomb up to a line of IP trucks. It was an industrial area with homes above businesses. The bomb killed 12 IPs, 14 civilians, and injured more than 20 [others]. As we drove up, a civilian missing his foot was helped past us to an ambulance. At the blast, it was the familiar scene of torn bodies and mangled vehicles. One of the dead had most of his clothes blown off. One of the guys described him as a shark attack victim because it looked like a shark had worked him over. It was the belt buckle, though, that struck me. It was a large rodeo-type buckle. Was it a present from one of our guys? Did he have a passion for westerns? Little things like a belt buckle give the mangled shells of what had been humans the suggestion of personalities. The buckle will stay with me, taking me back to the severed shoulder and gaping chest wound. As we arrived, the fire department arrived; after we had been there a couple minutes, they started hosing down the burning vehicles.
Went to the Turkish tailor and commissioned a suit after the mission; picked out the material, got measured, will pick it up in a week. It may seem odd to end a day like this in this fashion, but I was running out of time and I couldn’t leave Iraq without a custom suit. Glad to be off the road; I wish my team was leaving with me (most of them have a couple months to go).
Be home in a couple weeks. -Tim