OURS FLEW IN AROUND THREE IN THE MORNING, and many of my soldiers met them at the helipad to help them unload and bed down for the night. I was awakened by the sound of the rotors as they landed, and I remember smiling and having a warm feeling in my heart. Then I rolled over for a couple more hours of shut-eye. The official name for the replacement exercise is RIP/TOA (relief in place/transfer of authority). I woke up a few hours later, and we began the ten-day process. There is really no way to get them squared away in that amount of time, but you go with what you’ve got and make the best of it.
For the replacements, it was the beginning of what would be an extremely challenging month or so. The knowledge my team had was acquired over a long period of time; now that learning had to happen all over again. My goal was to get the new guys outside the wire and onto the highways and byways as often as possible. The first time we rolled out, my team held the reins and I became a tour guide. “Over here we have the shrine of the Imam Ali, and here is the mosque where Muqtada al Sadr likes to talk trash. Be careful around that one; it can get a little tricky.” The guys were caught off guard by the traffic, but I reassured them that they owned the road—though they had to own it respectfully.
Upon our return from the first venture into town, the new guys reminded me of a group of kids just getting off the coolest ride at Six Flags. They were sharing their stories about this or that thing they’d seen, and all I could think was how I understood their excitement but didn’t share it. I wondered if the fact that I felt absolutely normal meant that I had changed in some way. The guys were full of questions, most of them good. They commented on how they had been trained to look out for piles of dirt, animal carcasses, and heaps of garbage while driving, how that was where the terrorists hid IEDs. They were put off by the fact that those things were everywhere. I told them that it would be a long year if they stopped every fifty meters to check all that out and that eventually they’d become numb to the possibility of being blown up by every piece of stray garbage.
During the RIP there was a bad IED in a town between Najaf and Baghdad. Two soldiers who were due to leave Iraq in less than a week were killed, as well as one who was part of the replacement crew for that sector. We all decided that it would be worse to get killed in your last week in the country, but not by much. It seems that being closer to getting home makes the loss greater. After that happened, the tension among the new guys must have doubled. Fortunately, the team leader who replaced me is a pretty cool character, and I had faith that he would carry on without a hitch. (We spent a lot of time together, and in fact, he’s only e-mailed me once since he took over. That’s more than I can say for the other guys; some of my friends are still getting questions from their counterparts.)
In addition to teaching our replacements how to get from point A to point B, we tried to teach them the rules of the road: when and how to escalate the use of force, which public officials we think are corrupt, which contractors are dependable, and how to fill out the proper paperwork necessary for leaving the forward operating base. Then we held classes on the contractor payment system, and I believe that must have been the hardest part, because I still don’t completely understand how it works. Luckily, teaching that class wasn’t my responsibility.
I’m not certain how, but I imagine that the dynamics of the team’s mission are going to change over the next year. With the formation of a new government, and the potential for the Iraqis to gain some momentum, it seems that greater things are now possible. In my mind, it all hinges on whether the different sects can put aside their attachment to a divided existence and latch on to the possibility of national unity instead. I imagine that it will depend on how effective the government becomes at dealing with the security threats. At the end of World War I, the British tried to establish a monarchy in Iraq, but that, and the military regimes that followed, eventually failed. The difference now is the stance on the form of government; a democracy has a greater chance of earning the support of the people. But the argument between the Shias and the Sunnis is about 1,300 years old, so it will take a rather large adjustment on their part for things to work out.
I had learned earlier that being a tour guide is easier when you’re the one behind the wheel, so I did the driving the last few days. The rest of my team didn’t come out on the last ride. So it was me, my replacement, and his team on an isolated route headed west. It was my last convoy, so I had prepared a little treat for myself. I brought a can of Coke and put it under ice in the cooler in the back of the Humvee. As soon as we hit the point where I felt like I was truly seeing Iraq for the last time, I asked the gunner to hand it to me. It was ice-cold, and I drank it in celebration of being on my last patrol and making it out of that place alive. I said a prayer of thanks, and then I started counting the days until I was on an airplane