Hidden Baghdad: Paratroopers Find City on Mend During Patrols
December 31, 2007
BAGHDAD (Army News Service, Dec. 31, 2007) - Sgt. Nicholas Hardebeck's platoon was about midway through their afternoon patrol when the sound of explosions began echoing from a nearby street.
Sgt. Hardebeck cocked his head to listen for a moment. "Fire crackers. Just people celebrating," he said casually.
At the beginning of their deployment, the sergeant and the other paratroopers from his unit, Company A, Special Troops Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, might not have reacted as calmly. But after almost a year on the ground, the paratroopers are accustomed to the sights and sounds of Baghdad. What was once alien and strange - and liable to cause overreactions - now seems commonplace.
"We know when something's not right. We know when we need to react and when it's just an everyday occurrence," Sgt. Hardebeck said.
"This is almost like a second home in some ways," said Staff Sgt. Eduardo Ojeda, a squad leader with A Co. "You learn how to operate in your sector just like your city back home."
The hard-won knowledge gained from hundreds of daily foot patrols allows the paratroopers to see a side of the city most Americans don't see on the nightly news.
Staff Sgt. Ojedo described going home on mid-tour leave and having to answer crazy questions about what life in Iraq was like.
"People think it's a day-in, day-out, in-your-face battle all the time," he said.
The reality for the paratroopers of A Co is both less dramatic and more complicated. Several times a day, every day, they roll out of the gates of their base on the Tigris River and head into Suleikh to conduct patrols. When they first arrived, they concentrated on raids and making arrests, but over time, as the security situation improved, their focus shifted. Now they spend most of their time engaging the population, trying to help the people in their area find solutions to the multitude of problems that life in Baghdad presents.
"It's put more of a human side on the Iraqi people for me," Sgt. Hardebeck said. "You realize they want all the same things we want."
A patrol conducted Dec. 21 was typical, although it began on an unusual note. It was Staff Sgt. Ojeda's birthday, so the platoon sang happy birthday for him during the pre-mission briefing.
Once they were out on the street, the platoon began conducting what's called a "soft knock" operation. It's where the paratroopers go door to door, politely asking if they can come in to look around and talk with the owners.
Staff Sgt. Ojeda took his team into one house. It was owned by a woman who lived with her sister and her sister's three children. When he saw the kids, Sgt. Ellis Catchings brought in a large box of candy from his vehicle. Sgts. Catchings and Hardebeck watched laughing as the kids rummaged through the box and taste-tested all the candies and lollipops inside it.
"Sorry. They're probably not going to sleep for days now," Sgt. Catchings joked.
In the other room, Staff Sgt. Ojeda was talking to the woman who owned the house. He was asking her about the family's circumstances. In a roundabout way, it came out that her brother-in-law was living with another woman, and had basically abandoned her sister after the kids were born.
In the next house down, they found an old man and his grown son sitting in their frigid house next to a space heater - a few red coils providing the only warmth - surrounded by shelves holding old photographs and mementos from Iraq's history. The entire house was decorated with heirlooms and antiques. The old man said his father had worked for the king of Iraq, back when Iraq had a king.
His granddaughter started a pot of tea, but the paratroopers had to leave before it was ready. He had been just about to tell a story about the king, and looked upset that they had to leave suddenly.
"You can't stay'" he asked. Briefly he seemed disappointed - he hadn't had visitors in a while - but he quickly hid his disappointment behind a dignified smile.
"Yes, yes. Thank you. Hello," he said as the paratroopers filed out past him.
The Soldiers moved back outside and continued their patrol up the street. At an intersection, their path was blocked by a wedding procession. Cars garlanded with pink and red flowers crept slowly past, with people hanging out the windows waving their hands and throwing confetti. At one point, the cars stopped moving and everyone got out and started an impromptu dance, banging cymbals and drums and blowing trumpets.
Pfc. Alexander Cesario moved into the crowd, shimmying and boogying around to the delight of the partiers. The other paratroopers shook their heads at his antics, but couldn't keep the grins off their faces.
By that point the paratroopers had been out for almost five hours, and it was time to head back to base. Later, Staff Sgt. Ojeda wondered what all the interactions added up to. He thought they meant something.
Young couples getting married, an old man remembering the past, a woman worrying about her sister's love life - these everyday human experiences reveal a city on the mend, as life in Baghdad returns to normal after years of out-of-control violence, Staff Sgt. Ojeda said.
"People back home don't see the milestones that are being set," he said, "but we get to see the progress. Here it is, right in front of us, right now."
(Staff Sgt. Mike Pryor serves with 2nd BCT, 82nd Abn. Div. Public Affairs.)