This article is the second of three excerpts drawn from Owen West’s book, The Snake Eaters: An Unlikely Band of Brothers and the Battle for the Soul of Iraq.
Only the flies stirred on Market Street. It was June 2006 and downtown Khalidiya was deserted. The summer heat had come in with the wind, as if the door of a giant oven had opened. Average high temperatures reached 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the afternoon, with occasional spikes to 120 degrees. The withering sun drove most people into the houses of wealthy friends with air conditioning—people in legion with insurgents.
Market Street was one of the most heavily mined alleys in Iraq. The going rate was $70 to plant a mine, double that if the bomb killed a jundi or American. Staff Sgt. Robert Blakley wasn’t worried about bombs as much as snipers. Five months earlier, just down the road, he’d felt a dull thud in the trapezius muscle above his collarbone.
Some kid hit me with a rock, thought “Doc” Blakley, the team medic. Odd. Kids like me.
An insurgent shooter nicknamed the Sadiqiya Sniper had tried to turtle him, aiming for the gap between his helmet and body armor. The bullet burned clean through his trapezius. Blakley had refused evacuation. Jundis crowded around to watch him stick a Bacitracin-laden Q-tip through the wound when he was dressing it. They clucked their tongues when he pretended to faint.
Doc Blakley was the most popular man on the American adviser team. The Iraqi officers sought his advice in their own subtle way, like drunken partygoers approaching a surgeon at a cocktail party. But the jundis approached Doc at all hours, queuing in front of his door morning and night as if waiting for an autograph. They raised their shirts, and hacked, and held their eyelids open even as Blakley trudged back to the outpost after an exhausting patrol. One fragile jundi the advisers called “Mr. Jeebs”—who looked either 15 or 50 depending on the light—grew dependent on Doc Blakley, complaining of daily migraines that Doc eventually cured with Tic Tacs.
“You are like my father, Blakley,” said Mr. Jeebs.
“But you are older than I am,” said Blakley.
“A father in my heart, I mean.”
With more than a hundred patrols since the shooting, Blakley still hadn’t regained all the strength in his shoulder. The dime-sized bubble of scar tissue was no match for the heavy bulletproof vest. He looked like he was dancing as he walked down Market Street, shrugging his shoulders uncomfortably, wobbling his head.
Part of the gait was explained by the Sadiqiya Sniper. Doc didn’t want to make himself an easy target, like the poor bastards on the snuff clips the enemy posted all over YouTube. The doomed Americans always looked lazy in their final moments. And it was June 6, 2006—666—which Doc considered evil and unlucky. But after five minutes of dodging the heat, Blakley walked straighter. His back was inflamed. It was just too damned hot to dodge bullets. Sweat spilled down his body, pooling in his trouser cuffs before welling in the bottom of his boots.
Doc Blakley wore a helmet, a water bladder, a massive first aid kit, a long-sleeve camouflage uniform thick enough for winter, fireproof gloves, kneepads, an armor-plated vest decorated with magazines, grenades, flares, and a radio. A Kevlar crotch flap dangled between his legs. A heavy throat protector turtlenecked his vest. His desert boots were thick enough to ford snowdrifts. Altogether his kit weighed more than 50 pounds and added 15 degrees. Blakley’s torso was being slow cooked at 125 degrees.
Walking up the blistering street with a group of skittish jundis, Blakley looked like a mountaineer. He felt like he was scaling a peak built out of running hairdryers. His thighs were burning under the strain and the sun. The jundis dashed from one shaded strip to another to avoid snipers. Rows of squat cinderblock houses with high concrete walls provided intermittent shade. Each house had barred windows and a tiny courtyard ringed by stout walls, the equivalent of urban fortresses. The rumble of individual generators and the radio static acted as white noise, but it was not soothing. Potholes from previous explosives dotted the scarred road, some deep enough to swallow a small car.
Blakley tried to keep up, drawn by the smell of freshly baked Samoons. A few shops had recently opened on Market Street. Doc took it as a good sign, but the other advisers were skeptical. To them, Khalidiya was the world’s worst city, but ranking Anbar’s towns was like choosing the ugliest camel spider. Every town was lethal. It was true Khalidiya had recently shown the glimmers of sanity. The Iraqis had developed a decent source network. The sheiks were flirting with Iraqi generals. But just when you thought you were breaking through to the people, the insurgents assassinated an informant or goaded coalition soldiers into a fight right next to a mosque you were supposed to avoid.
The heat and equipment load together wore the patrol down in 15 minutes. Sprints became shuffles became trudges. When the helmet weight became too much, their darting eyes compensated for their stiffening necks. Eventually they knelt every block, scanning the rooftops while they fidgeted with their kneepads, sucked the surviving droplets out of their Camelbacks, and stretched their sopping cotton T-shirts up out of their putrid vests and across their brows.
A smiling street vendor holding some warm bread waved them over. Doc was so popular in town that he didn’t have to pay for food, but he always carried a few dollars along with his boxes of Pop Rocks that he doled to local children. The other advisers kidded him, but with respect. If they represented America’s power then Blakley, like most medics, represented its conscience. The medic carried an M-4 carbine. But an Iraqi lieutenant once told Blakley that his real weapon was his medical kit, because he and it exposed what the local insurgents did not have and would never be.
Doc Blakley’s eyes searched the streets for familiar kids. He liked to check their teeth and eyes. He shouldered his rifle and glassed the intersection. In the four-power scope he saw a few boys dart across his sight picture like deer, leaving only heaps of trash shimmering in the mirage. Then a bullet snapped into the wall a few feet from his face. He ducked, but the angle favored the shooter. The second bullet ripped through Blakley’s neck and plunged into his chest.
He lay on the street with Joe, his Iraqi interpreter, shouting “Blakley! Blakley! Oh my merciful God, it’s Blakley!” to the wild-eyed jundis who asked, “Who is it, who is it?”
Blakley exhaled and was gone.
Americans tended to brood after a fellow soldier’s death, plotting revenge and then quietly seeking solace with one another. The Iraqis just unbridled their emotions and rode them until spent.
Capt. Haadi, an extremely religious officer who had recently joined Iraqi Battalion 3/3-1, ran in a large circle and then fell to his knees on the sidewalk, reaching skyward in prayer. Blakley was his favorite adviser. All around him jundis were crying.
In the Iraqi radio room at the outpost, Haadi’s high-pitched words ran together like a scream. The old Iraqi radioman, the hypochondriac Mr. Jeebs, burst into tears and rolled on the floor like a wounded animal. He crawled out into the sun and curled up on the fresh bed of rocks that he had recently positioned in front of the door to knock the mud from the boots of soldiers entering the radio room.
“No! No! No!” Jeebs wailed.
At home, Mike Troster was a DEA agent. In Khalidiya, he was the adviser team leader. He was inside his hooch when the radio came on.
Outcast Six, got a man down. Sniper fire, over, the radio told him.
Troster was off and running, his armor flying behind him like a kite. He thought that a jundi had been shot. He arrived at Market Street a few minutes later. Joe held his face in his hands, as Mark Gentile, the unit’s mechanic, was shaking. Troster instinctively knew Blakley was dead.
“Blakley’s gone, sir,” said Gentile.
Troster’s face tightened. He looked at his medic. No, no, no.
“Call the other guys on the hill and tell ’em to get down here,” he said softly.
Capt. Haadi was slumped in the street with his helmet off, crying.
“Get yourself together!” shouted Troster.
“Doc Blakley is dead!” Haadi cried in response.
“More people are going to die, if you keep sitting there like that.”
One by one, the rest of the advisers arrived on scene to say goodbye to Blakley. The Iraqis wondered aloud why the Sadiqiya Sniper had shot the American doctor. Hitting a medic who treated the people in town hurt their cause. The advisers stayed quiet. They knew why the sniper had shot Blakley and they knew the Iraqis knew, but as seasoned hands they also knew that sweeping moral judgments about the enemy were best digested alone, like bitter pills.
The advisers took Blakley to the hospital. The last they saw him was on a gurney with piles of clumpy sand in the undercarriage used to absorb the blood. The duty surgeon said, “The bullet entered at his collar. Men, it wasn’t survivable. Unluckiest shot I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot. He was hit before in the same region. Are the shootings related?”
“In this war we’ll never know,” said Troster.
Troster’s boss met the advisers at the hospital. He pulled Troster and his deputy, Walter Roberson, an active duty combat replacement, aside. “Anything I can do?”
“If anyone has information on the son of a bitch who did this, we want in,” said Roberson. “I don’t care if it’s Superfriends or the CIA. We go on the raid, and somebody dies.”
* * *
A week later, Capt. Haadi discovered the supposed identity of Blakley’s killer while rifling through letters written to a 16-year-old daughter of a sheik known to harbor transient insurgents known in Khalidiya as “commuters from Hell.” Kamal Humadi, a 16-year-old brother of the suspected Sadiqiya Sniper, Ahmed Humadi, had bragged about the shooting. The SEALs were the experts in nighttime raids. At midnight, Roberson joined Lt. Rorke, the SEAL platoon leader, and his prisoner snatch team in their blacked-out gun trucks, rolling quietly under an F-18 fighter plane that was scanning the route with thermal scopes and a powerful magnifier.
Roberson stared at the outline of the housing block in the moonlight. Tonight they would put a terrorist in the ground. He and the SEALs were into the houses before the echoes of the door-breaching explosions faded. Every screaming face got blinded by barrel-mounted flashlights and pushed into the cement floor. Every room, every cupboard was searched. Kamal was gone.
The F-18 pilot radioed Lt. Rorke. Got a single squirter moving across the rooftop, heading west fast.
You’ve got to be kidding me, thought Rorke. He had led dozens of kill-or-capture missions, and only one other suspect had tried to run away, or “squirt.” Even hiding in closets was rare.
Whoever he is, he’s guilty, thought Rorke.
Rorke and Roberson raced up to the rooftops to join the search. The squirter control unit, which prevented fleeing suspects from escaping the perimeter, had locked down the apartment block. Now it was a matter of finding the snake hole.
Any sign of him? Rorke panted into the radio.
Negative, radioed the F-18 pilot.
The senior chief petty officer in the SEAL platoon was first up on the rooftops. He knelt next to a water tank and listened. Nothing. He stood up and scanned the rooftops with his night vision goggles. Nothing. He removed his goggles and stared into the black slick of the open water tank, concentrating on his hearing. A stream of bubbles rippled the surface. Kamal came up out of the water sucking air but instead met the chief’s iron grip. The wanted boy was yanked free and slammed on the concrete deck.
“Ismak!” shouted the chief, asking for his name.
Humadi slapped helplessly at the chief’s thick forearm. The SEAL straddled him and went to work, binding his prey like a spider immobilizing a fly. In the Marines, medics came from the Navy, and the chief assumed Blakley was Navy, like him. It was a long journey down the stairs to the Humvees for young Humadi.
The jundis on the raid asked the Americans to leave the target site so they could end the matter with a club. Kamal began to babble. He knew the Americans had a capacity for mercy that the jundis rarely harbored. With his wrists flex-cuffed behind his back, he threw himself on his knees and banged his head against American boots for mercy.
“America good,” he said. “George Bush!”
Roberson was disgusted. Kamal had the body of a 14-year-old girl, but it had taken only 7 pounds of trigger pressure to kill Blakley. Roberson told the Iraqis to blindfold him. There would be no revenge killing.
The jundis protested.
“They say this kid will be out of Bucca in under 10 years,” an interpreter with the SEALs said. “Better to kill him now.”
The Iraqis were wrong. Kamal was set free a few months later.
* * *
In mid-June, the Iraqi battalion organized a memorial service for the fallen adviser. It was the first service in the entire brigade to be held at an Iraqi outpost. Blakley’s rifle was jammed between his combat boots into some gravel the Iraqis had scrounged from an insurgent construction business—in Khalidiya’s case, that meant any shop open for business.
Blakley’s dog tags dangled from the pistol grip of the rifle. The American flag snapped the silence between each sad speech.
A year later, the tiny group of American advisers couldn’t remember their own words, but they remembered those of the Iraqi battalion commander who spoke in Arabic and then English.
“The Third Battalion thanks you for coming to pay respects to one of our fallen brothers. We share the same blood and the same fight. When Staff Sgt. Blakley gave his blood, it’s my blood too. When he died, I died too. We will never forget him. You advisers are our brothers forever.”
Tomorrow: How the Snake Eaters Learned To Take Charge