The streets of Iraq had a look of war-strewn desperation to them that was hard to stomach. Everywhere I looked, I saw Arabic language that I couldn’t understand. The roadsides were littered with abandoned fighter vehicles that the Saddam loyalists had used in their futile attempts to defend themselves against the American invaders. Small, brown Iraqi children would come out of nowhere sometimes, running with and waving at the tanks.
We were moving slow enough in the 15- to 20-vehicle convoy for them to keep up with to a point. They wore tattered pants, and T-shirts with logos and brands from them that were distinctly from the 1980s. Their high voices were filled with joy and hope as they chanted, “America! USA!” with bright smiles and hands extended in the thumbs-up position.
Many times they were alone, but sometimes older, hardened Iraqi men who looked at us with contempt and distrust joined them. I smiled and waved at the children. They were ignorant of the fact that I was doing so with a semi-automatic weapon positioned directly in front of me.
When I saw the faces of the adult men I gripped my weapon just a little bit tighter. I pressed the butt of my weapon deeper into my shoulder in case any unforeseen events required me to have it in position immediately. I would look each man in his eyes above the heads of the small, simple children they were protecting. I matched the contempt in their eyes with steely resolve in mine. They needed to know that I wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger in case they wanted to try anything. I found myself locking eyes with most of them until we were safely out of view.
(RELATED: Read an earlier account about Smith's experiences at bootcamp)
I wondered what they thought of us, American infidels, who’d come to violently overthrow the regime. I saw a lot of children and a lot of angry Iraqi men during those days on the convoy. I thought a lot about how I would feel if the situation was reversed. What if my country had been bombed into submission for reasons that were still murky? What was it about America that determined we were always right in using force? If we were to listen to what was told to us by the government and our leaders, Saddam Hussein was a bloodthirsty tyrant. He was out to unleash weapons of mass destruction onto an unsuspecting American public. I just couldn’t allow myself to be convinced. Were the 9/11 attackers not based in Afghanistan? The shift from talking about Afghanistan to focusing on Iraq was so swift and smooth I didn’t even realize it happened. All I knew was that after returning from the first six-month deployment in Kuwait in mid 2002, all talk had suddenly shifted to Iraq. I wanted to trust what was being told to us, but the questions in my head wouldn’t allow me to do so fully. Was blind trust a prerequisite to serving the country, or does it just make it easier to do the job?
My days were spent asking a lot of those questions in my head. Being in Iraq had turned the mood sober for all of us. I looked into the faces of my fellow soldiers and could tell they were lost in their own thoughts as much as I was in mine. After four days of convoying through the cities and fields of Iraq, we finally arrived at our first destination. The small city was named Samarra, and we came right on the heels of a firefight that was happening between marines and Iraqi insurgents in the city.
As my squad members and I dismounted our vehicle and walked into the city, there was a faint air of chaos around. I knew that we’d just missed a hell of a battle. We gathered up as a platoon right outside of an abandoned building that had been taken over just hours before. We were briefed on our first mission. The company had received reliable Intel that the insurgents who were responsible for the attack we’d just missed were holed up in a mosque on the outskirts of town. We were going to attack right after dawn. As the company commander briefed us, he motioned to a mosque just behind him in the distance. I could see the roof of it against the backdrop of the hazy Iraq sun. It looked a bit like the white capitol building, only with a purple metallic color and a very distinct point coming out of the roof. That building was where it was going to happen, our first mission.
We pulled the platoon’s vehicles and equipment into the area we were to sleep in. It was an abandoned, bombed out building that was rumored to once house a private school for the children of Samarra. I walked to the gate for my first guard shift with Howard, still my only true friend in the platoon. We stood on either side of the concrete double-doors, hearing the faint sounds of the life that went on in the city, as we were in the planning stages of executing an attack on it. We could hear the faraway sounds of children laughing, and of mothers admonishing their children in the Arabic that neither Howard nor I spoke. I could feel the tension between us as the gravity of what we were to do in just eight short hours sunk in. We were scheduled to get up at 4:30 a.m. to execute our attack. I looked over at Howard, who wore a grim, frightened expression on his face.
“Are we gonna die tomorrow?” I asked nervously.
He looked over at me cautiously. I realized in that moment that I didn’t want the truth from that question. What I wanted was for him to reassure me that everything was going to be all right, and that nobody was gonna die here, least of all the two of us.
“I don’t know,” he said.
This was an excerpt from Rob Smith's book Closets, Combat and Coming Out.
ROB SMITH is a gay Iraq war veteran, journalist, lecturer, and LGBT activist. He served for five years in the U.S. Army as an infantryman, earning the Army Commendation Medal and Combat Infantry Badge. His memoir Closets, Combat and Coming Out (Blue Beacon Books) is available on Amazon.com and wherever LGBT books are sold. For more information on Smith, visit RobSmithOnline.com, or follow him on Twitter @RobSmithOnline.