The Dog That Followed Me Through Baghdad

The Sandbox

The Dog That Followed Me Through Baghdad

The Sandbox

The Dog That Followed Me Through Baghdad
Military analysis.
Oct. 31 2007 7:19 AM

The Sandbox


In summer 2006, Slate's partners at, Doonesbury creator G.B. Trudeau and editor David Stanford, launched a milblog called the  Sandbox. Publishing dispatches from soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, returning troops, and home-front wives and parents, the Sandbox very quickly became a home for some of the best war writing on the Web, or anywhere else. This week, we are publishing excerpts from a new collection,'s The Sandbox: Dispatches From Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, edited by David Stanford.

Today's excerpt is "The Dog" by Owen Powell (aka Sgt. Roy Batty).


"The Dog"
By Owen Powell (aka Sgt. Roy Batty)
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Yellow Springs, Ohio

So it is a new year, and once again I am disappointed that we are not all zipping around the skies in shiny silver jet packs. I thought we would be there by the impossible Year of Our Lord 2007. But no, here we are in freakin' Baghdad, watching Mesopotamian hillbillies waste each other with assembly-line machine guns designed in 1947 and trying to relearn hard-won lessons from a bitter little war 40 years behind us. It's all a bit depressing.

I could deal with all that, though, if it weren't for the mud. We enjoyed a week's respite while the clouds held back their torrents, and a weak and impotent sun slowly transmogrified the mud back into its usual tan-gray talcum-powder form. Now it's returned with a vengeance, like some monster Jell-O from a cheap 1950s sci-fi horror flick. Revenge of the Chocolate Mousse. Bride of the Mocha Blancmange. Or my personal favorite: It Came from the Porta-Potti.

Rumor has it that last week 1st Platoon lost a soldier to it. One moment he was walking to the latrines; the next second he was gone. All they found was his boonie hat lying on top of an innocent-looking mud hole, a few air bubbles plopping around it. No one's seen him since.


Mud victims or no, life goes on pretty much as normal, if such a word can be used on whatever twisted planet Baghdad rests upon. Midway through our deployment, and we have all gotten used to the routine. Admittedly, said routine is pretty easy here at FOB Shield. Too easy, if you ask me. We go out for a few hours every couple of days and spend the rest of the time either playing Xbox or languishing in the Motorpool of Lost Souls, trying to make torque wrenches out of commo wire and the remnants of ammo crates, since the mechanics (a) flatly refuse to actually work, and (b) won't give us any of their tools. The other day I managed to take apart a steering gear box and change the MWO with my Leatherman and a P-38 can opener.

Today we have a new mission, an interesting one. We are going to an IP station on the fringes of Sadr City. Up until now, it's been left out of the whole training and assessment thing we have been pretending to do with the other stations in town, since we were pretty darn certain that the entire staff was Mehdi Army. Someone higher up has decided that we will single-handedly convince them to turn their backs on their sectarian buddies and embrace the cause of democracy through the combined tactics of giving them the occasional case of drinking water and maybe a bullet or two. Giddy with the success of winning previous counterinsurgency wars by handing out free shit, we are going to have a go with these guys.

But first we have to do PT. So I wake up at 0730, trudge to the latrine for the morning tinkle, only losing one shoe to the morass outside the front door, then present myself to the MWR gym. The gym is tacked onto the back of the strange structure we live in. I say strange because it was clearly something else back in the days when Saddam Hussein first raised it out of the desert sand. Its commonly accepted name is the "D-cell," MP lingo for detention cell. Civilian translation: jail. The back half is a vast, dark, echoing cavern where the infantry stay during their occasional sleepovers at Shield. We call it the Thunderdome.

The gym is hidden away inside its bowels. Most of the rooms have tile walls, vaguely stained, which suggest that it was either once a series of showers, or one of Hussein's secret gas chambers. The floor is made up of those funny foam segments that you see in kindergarten classrooms, linked together like a huge puzzle. The pieces are uniformly black-gray, though I suspect at one time they were cutely pastel. The rooms are filled with a variety of aging cardio machines, pieces of weightlifting equipment, and a surprisingly imaginative series of entertainment rooms, including a video game room, billiard room, and two phone/Internet chambers. With some hard work and ingenuity, someone has made the most of a bad area.


I spend half an hour on a creaking, mutinous cross-trainer machine, followed by 20 minutes on a treadmill, and am surprised that I feel good. Really good. Like a million bucks, that kind of Tony the Tiger enthusiasm that seems to get more and more rare the closer you get to 40. Even the bracing thrill of the ice cold shower afterward does little to daunt my good mood—in fact the screams of my comrades around me freezing their balls off just increases the grin on my face.

An hour later we are rolling out of the mud-strewn gates in our trucks. I am appropriately fortified with nicotine and caffeine and looking forward to the tawdry sensations that only Baghdad can offer. Our convoy is particularly full today, with three International Police Liaison Officers (IPLOs), their translators, and some pudgy Military Intelligence dudes and their interpreters. The MI guys have become a bit notorious with us lately, since they seem unusually incompetent, at least when it comes to preparing for missions.

The other day we were late for our SP (start point) because they had not done maintenance on their truck, which promptly went dead just as we started to move out. Once they got that fixed, it turned out that they had not changed the fill on their SINCGARS radios. Once they got both of those problems taken care of and we were finally on the road, they realized they had not written down our frequencies during the OPORD brief. "Lost in the sauce," as we say. Today we cut through that problem by stuffing them into our own trucks, despite their objections.

We didn't have to wait long for Baghdad to offer up something unusual. As soon as we had driven out of the gate, I noticed a column of dark smoke a block away. It looked a bit like the smoke from a VBIED, or car bomb, but no one had heard anything. It could have been just another trash fire in a city that seems to breed trash fires, but it was not in a usual spot for one and seemed just a bit too big and a bit too black. It looked like it was along the route that we would be traveling; maybe we'd get a look.


Sure enough, a few minutes later we emerge from a mahallah side street and there it is; some sort of vehicle in the middle of a major road, fully engulfed in flames. A HMMWV is parked in front of it, blocking one of the lanes. We wheel around to check it out.

Turns out the HMMWV belongs to the Iraqi Army, and a number of IP trucks pull up at the same time we do. A ragtag crowd of people has already formed around the burning vehicle, pointing and gibbering and moving back and forth with sudden flares of movement, the way crowds do. People lean over the balcony railings of nearby buildings. Kids stand around with open mouths, their attention moving from the popping and blazing wreck to us, then back again. Traffic clogs up around us, drivers cautious not to get too close to all of these men and their guns.

I get out of my truck and direct Nix to park it sideways across the street, providing more cover to the guys in front of me. I usually have the last truck in our convoys, so we are responsible for the rear security. I direct my gunner, Cooper, to watch the traffic behind us and to scan the rooftops for snipers. I join him, standing at the back of the truck, using its bulk as cover, and scan the balconies and windows in the buildings behind us, peering through the telescopic sight on top of my M4. The chubby MI guy gets out of his rear passenger seat and takes up a stalwart position at the front of the truck, chewing his bubble gum and watching the car burn in the middle of the road.

We have new, high-speed radio head sets, so the team leaders can talk to each other and the squad leader when dismounted, and through it I pick up what has happened, in bursts of static and bits of conversation. SSG Huhn is up at the front of the column, conferring through his interpreter, Sam, with the Iraqi Army and police on the scene. Seems that the Iraqi HMMWV came across a kidnapping in progress. The IA guys shot at the kidnappers, who took off, leaving their car behind, and the locals torched it in retaliation. These kidnappings are the newest fad in Baghdad, and there's been an explosion of them in the recent months. Anyone and everyone can be a target, as long as they have money. Ransoms can be hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes millions, and hostages are often killed or simply never seen again. It seems that this time, for once, the bad guys lost.


"Meester, meester!" I turn around, and there are a cute little boy and his sister standing in the middle of the road, wrapped up in thick bubble jackets against the winter cold. He wants some candy but has chosen a bad place to make his pitch. I try, not unkindly, to shoo him away, doing a fair exploding-car charades bit with my hands.

"Boom! Go 'way, kid, it's not safe here."

He really wants some chocolate and ain't budging—but his sister picks up on the message right away. I return to my search for snipers and RPG gunners, but I can hear her behind me, tugging at him.

"Imshee, imshee." Let's go, let's go.

As is normal for Baghdad, everyday life goes on around the spectacle, as if nothing were happening. Men walk down the street carrying groceries and seem surprised when I suggest to them, via the pointy end of my rifle, that perhaps they should not walk near my truck. A hefty woman draped in traditional black robes walks right past me, coming from behind, lugging a massive plastic gas can. After she passes, I suggest to the MI guy that as long as he is going to watch the front of the truck, I would appreciate it if he did not let anyone get near it, particularly if they are carrying large amounts of flammable liquid. He pops his gum and nods.

There is not much more for us to do. The police and Army are here, but oddly no fire department. The truck continues to crackle and burn merrily, to the satisfaction of the crowd. As usual, a couple of knuckleheads try to inch around the backed-up traffic and roll up on our blockade. There's always someone who thinks they are special. We have another job to do, so SSG Huhn radios to the team leaders, and we mount up and head on down the road.

Away from the burning car, traffic is fairly light. I ride in the TC seat, toes tapping as we go, with the hand mic for our internal freq jammed up underneath my Peltor headphones. Between the SINCGARs and the headset radios, the airwaves are full of convoy chatter. Nowadays, we always go out with at least six vehicles, for security, and everyone is going on about something. Cracking jokes on their mates, sending out tactical info on the movement of traffic, pointing out potentially suspicious bits of junk on the road, or relaying info from the various maneuver elements that are trolling around the city. I send up a steady stream of comments, letting the squad leader know the status of the convoy as we clear various obstructions—intersections, turns, checkpoints. We want to make sure we all stay together.

The weather is at odds with my good mood—dark gray, raining off and on, and bitterly cold. For most of the year, Baghdad is solidly tan, but in the winter it is a depressing combination of slate gray and shit brown, glazed over with subfreezing temperatures at night, sulkily rising to the high forties or low fifties in the middle of the day. The palm trees look completely out of place in this weather, as if they have been trucked in as props on a movie set. In fact, if you want to know what Baghdad looks like in January, watch Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. All of the scenes in the last half, set in Hue City during the Tet Offensive, were filmed in the docklands of London. The combination of half-destroyed buildings, black plumes of gasoline fires, and the unremitting gloom of Great Britain in soggy wintertime do a pretty good job of sketching out this place. Just add the mud, some raw sewage, and about ten years of garbage.

We make it across town to our delightful new police station, which is pretty much the same as all the other police stations in Iraq. A blue concrete fort, with cement guard towers on the corners—sort of a post-nuclear-war Beau Geste. Burned-out hulks of cars rusting in the middle of trash in the front. Wrecked police pickup trucks in the back, one with a corpse lolling around in its truck bed. Guys standing around with AKs and no discernible uniforms. The smell of cheap cigarettes and fake leather. Suspicious looks. Saddam mustaches. Same old same old.

I'm in charge of setting up security, so I put two trucks in the back of the compound, two in the front, and our big ASV blocking the only gate in. The IPLOs, MI guys, translators, and our squad leader go inside to do their thing. I grab two soldiers and take them up to the roof to do counter-sniper watch. It's raining again, and a steel wind blows it into the guard towers. Fogged-over water bottles and the remains of unidentifiable meals lie resentfully in the corners. The place smells like an old castle—crumbling stone, rusting metal, and the thin, unavoidable odor of urine.

The perimeter wall has its own set of guard towers in addition to the ones on top of the station house—flimsy little sheet-metal things, but the IPs here do not seem too concerned about security. And why should they be? They are Shia police in a Shia part of town, right next to the holy Shia capital, Sadr City. No one is going to attack them here. Probably. One of the little towers has an occupant, but he is sitting down, facing the inside of the perimeter, and apparently asleep. Another IP sometimes wanders out to his tower, a big guy wearing a tan jacket and a balaclava. He looks like one of the thugs who led Saddam out to his gallows. They don't fill me with confidence, and it is an unspoken certainty that while they may be safe here, we are not.

I scan the rooftops with my sniper scope and try to keep the soldiers' minds on the task at hand. Nobody is visible, which is hardly surprising given the horrible weather, and it is more likely that we would get hit leaving than while we are in the station. Still, it pays to be vigilant. Just once I would love to find a sniper crouched over his Dragunov in a window … first.

After a bit, I trudge downstairs and make my rounds. Check on the guys inside the IP station who are inventorying the police arms room and going through various records with the police chief. Trudge through the mud outside, making sure the gunners are OK in the HMMWVs and still awake. Arrange with the other team leaders to have soldiers relieve the guys on the roof in a little bit; they won't last long in the rain and the wind. Take a break for a few minutes in my truck and read some more of the massive Stephen King book I have been working through for the fourth time. It is eerie to read about the end of the world while in a city that is as postapocalyptic as it gets. Sometimes I look up from the book half expecting to see Randall Flag striding across the rubble-strewn landscape toward me, his dark grin twisting his face. He would feel right at home in this place. After all, he and his cronies created it.

As if the Dark Man heard his name and is answering, I hear gunfire outside—not right outside, but not too far away either, and I head back to the roof to investigate. Nix and Arballo are in one of the corner guard posts, looking toward the northwest. We can hear AK fire, a bunch of it, and then some answering bursts—PKC, by the sound of it—and then the unmistakable crunk-crunk-crunk of a Dashika 12.7 mm, the Soviet version of the .50 caliber. I report it to SSG Huhn over the radio headset and add that I think Checkpoint 4V is getting attacked. Again. Happens almost every day.

This time it sounds like it's a pretty good one. The distant gunfight goes on for a good half hour, as both sides pound away at each other. The fighting doesn't come any closer to us, and no one directs us to go and support them, so the IA must be doing OK. It is interesting, though, since we will be driving through there in just a little while. I go back to my rounds, glancing occasionally at the perimeter wall when a particularly energetic burst catches my attention.

That's when I come across The Dog. I call him "The Dog" since he doesn't seem to have a name, at least not any that he answers to. The Dog has some history with our squad, which he seems to have adopted in a strange, protective way. The other IP station that we go to is four or five miles away. We first started visiting it a month ago, and The Dog was hanging out there with a bunch of other mutts, one of whom was nursing a litter of bumbling puppies.

Baghdad is teeming with dogs, tons of them, most of them half wild, feral, and a fair number infected with rabies. We came across them all the time when we were on the checkpoint missions, particularly at night. A pack would come rushing out of the darkness, barking madly, chasing our HMMWVs, nipping at the tires. We'd swerve at them, and they would back off, and then come charging back in, just behind us.

Supposedly Arabs don't like dogs, but someone must have imported them at one time. There are all sorts: border collies, black labs, golden retrievers, although barely recognizable with their matted pelts and wild eyes. Just more lost souls trying to survive in the broken city.

These dogs at the station didn't seem unusual, except for the fact that the IPs allowed them to hang out in the walled parking lot. With hours to kill and nothing to do but scan for snipers, we would pet them and try to play with them. Our IPLOs started bringing scraps for them from the chow hall, and that got their interest. But they must have been pretty well fed. I've never seen a dog refuse anything, and these guys were pretty picky, occasionally turning their nose up at suspect infidel grub, like corn dogs or egg rolls.

The Dog is not the cutest of them, or the friendliest, but he has personality. The first thing we notice is that he really doesn't like kids. As any soldier who has spent time outside the wire in Iraq will tell you, the kids are everywhere here, and they always cluster around your trucks begging for water or candy or anything. It's cute at first, but it gets annoying after a while, and it's also a security concern. We've seen UAV footage of kids burying IEDs and heard intel stories of kids attaching magnetic IEDs to HMMWVs. But mostly it's just really annoying, since you cannot get them to leave or even just shut up for a minute, except the way the IPs move them, which is by hitting them, and we don't do that.

Anyway, The Dog doesn't dig 'em. He'll bark and charge, driving them out of the police compound, although he will never actually bite them. He'll veer away at the last second, or suddenly stop, turn around, and stalk back to his resting spot, looking carefully over his shoulder at them. I can only imagine what the street urchins here do to dogs, and I assume he has had some bad experiences.

At that IP station there was a funny kid who would bring chai tea for the IPs and eventually for us. A nice lad, with an easy smile, especially when charging you double the going rate for a thimble full of chai. T.D. hated him, too, and would trap him for hours inside the station. At first we were worried that he would bite the poor boy, and had long, earnest conversations with The Dog about his antisocial behavior, shaking our fingers at him. He would just sit there, looking straight ahead, occasionally blinking, but never taking his eyes off of the doorway. As if he was just putting up with our sermon. "Yeah, yeah, I hear ya, Mac." And then he'd charge again as soon as the chai kid emerged. You just can't get through to some people.

The Dog provided some entertainment on particularly boring days but was not really anything that unusual. Just another vaguely golden retriever–ish mutt in a bad part of town. Until last week.

I was on mission with another squad at the time but heard about it later. The guys went to the MP station as usual, and there was The Dog, as usual. But when they left, The Dog decided he was going to come along and left with them, running down the street, zigzagging between the trucks, sometimes falling behind, and then catching up at the intersections. For five miles. All the way to the next IP station.

And he'd been here ever since, waiting for us to come visit him. Facundo hooked him up with an MRE, which he gratefully wolfed down. We all clustered around, scratching his ears, petting him, glad to see a friend in this decidedly unfriendly part of town.

When the IPLOs and MI guys finished up their business inside, it was time for us to go. We had to do a quick assessment of one checkpoint right on the northeastern edge of town, about six miles from the station. So we loaded up the trucks, checked the radios, and lurched out into traffic. And The Dog came with us.

It was exactly as the guys had told me. He kept right up with us, sometimes running point just in front of our lead vehicle, sometimes crisscrossing in front of the other trucks or falling just behind my vehicle, but always somewhere in the convoy.

Apparently he decided to take on the responsibility of providing flank security as well. He would swerve wildly off to the side at the sight of any kid over the age of ten, barking ferociously, and charge them, tail swinging madly in circles, making sure they stayed away from the convoy. I watched one kid jump out of the way at the last possible second, and The Dog, in a failed attempt to adjust fire, face-planted hard in the slick mud. He was not discouraged, though, and quickly regained his footing and returned to his slot in the convoy, a long doggy grin plastered on his face, as if to say, "Yep, meant to do that."

We laughed hysterically, until tears shone in our eyes. The Dog was all right. Soldiers in the trucks started radioing back and forth to each other.

"Is The Dog still with us?"

"Roger that! Still going strong."

"Where's he at?"

"Just on the right rear bumper of CPL Glessner's truck, over."

"Whoa, there he goes again!"

We could hear his barks, muffled, through the armor of the HMMWVs. He was off like a shot, barreling straight for a kid who was walking the other way, oblivious. He homed in like a missile on his target, and we braced ourselves for the impact, holding our breath with that delicious half-giggle you get when something both funny and tense is about to happen. The kid jumped in shock at the last minute, leaping to the side, and The Dog zoomed by him, curving back to us like an F-15 pulling out of a bombing run. It wasn't about hurting anyone. The Dog was just counting coup. Getting some payback.

Then we started watching out for him, the same way he was watching out for us. A couple of times neighborhood dogs, understandably uncool with this intruder on their turf, came charging out of dark alleyways at him, very serious about it. They were going for his legs and no doubt his throat if they could take him down. We'd swerve our trucks at them, scaring them off. The Dog would dig down deep, sprinting forward, glancing at us, that big grin on his face. It was all one big game for him. I called up to SSG Huhn on the radio.

"Can we keep 'im? Take him back to the FOB? Pleeeze?"

SGT French chimed in, "I second that!"

Other voices joined in on the freq, thirding the suggestion, fourthing it. SSG Huhn wasn't too hot on the idea. We all knew the medical advice about strays—diseases, fleas, parasites, etc. Lord only knows what our platoon sergeant would do or say if we showed up with this muddy, dirty, stinking mutt in the back of one of our trucks. I'd gladly put him in my HMMWV, but I had the MI guys taking up space. Hell, given half a chance, I'd dump Fatso and take the pooch instead. The Dog would probably be more useful in a firefight anyway.

"Hey, we could put 'im in the ASV. They have enough room to carry him!" I offered.

"Uhhhh, I dunno, man. The PSG would have my ass."

Then the radio chatter turned to the subject of an appropriate name for The Dog. Since I'm on a Stephen King kick, I tried to think of the name of the junkyard dog that chases the group of boys in one of his novels, but I couldn't remember it, or the short story and subsequent movie that came from it.

"Hey, what's the name of the dog from that movie with the kids, where they get chased, y' know? In a junkyard? And they have to climb a fence to get away from it? Chompers? Gnasher?"

"Oh yeah, yeah, from The Sandlot, right?"

"No, that's not it. Stephen King wrote it. Remember, the junkyard guy tells the dog something like, 'Chompers, balls! Sic 'em!' And the dog chases the kids?"

"Hercules. The dog's name is Hercules."

"Hercules, Hercules!"

"No, that's The Nutty Professor."

"What movie?"

"The one with River Phoenix. Bunch of young guys, get chased by a dog … "

"Oh, yeah, that's …  that's … oh, man, it's right on the tip of my tongue."

As usual, SSG Huhn got it. Stand by Me. He and I are the biggest movie buffs in the squad. But neither of us could remember the dog's name.

Meanwhile, we are sloshing our way up a particularly unpleasant side road, coming up to Enduring 7, our checkpoint. We don't like this road, since even in dry weather it is full of festering pools of liquid sewage. Now it's indescribable. We take it because we figure only a really die-hard terrorist would bury a bomb in the middle of this reeking gunk. None of which fazes The Dog, who launches himself into and through the shit pools with the tongue-lolling jubilation that only our canine brethren can enjoy.

We churn through the liquid excrement and lurch up to the checkpoint, reeking of garbage, mud, and Lord knows what. The Dog is waiting for us as we dismount, sitting patiently, panting as if he is thoroughly delighted with the morning exercise. We crowd around him again, all of us, the civilian IPLOs, the MI guys, and all of us MPs, congratulating him on his hard work. He is absolutely filthy, fur matted down with brown goo, but we don't care. He has affected all of us and is a Good Dog, much the same as you would comment on a stand-up guy in your unit—he is Good People. We gotta take him home.

SGT French and I have a plan. We open up the side doors of the ASV and prepare a spot for him. SGT Nasholts, the ASV team leader, says it's OK with him, as long as SSG Huhn gives us the go-ahead.

"Sure, sure. He said it's OK, thinks it's a great idea."

To hell with orders. Problem is, The Dog won't cooperate. We coax him over to the great hulking armored vehicle, but he just won't get in. It's not that he seems distrustful of us, or unsure of our intentions. He just isn't interested, even with the offer of another MRE. He wanders past us, unconcerned, and pads off across the road to sit on the sidewalk and watch the distant houses. We call to him, trying all of the names we have come up with.

"Hey, Hercules! C'mon, boy, come here!"



"Renegade!" Renegade is our platoon name and pretty fitting for him.

The Dog just sits and contemplates the landscape, his back toward us, his head still, facing the mahallah. Maybe his English is not that good. Maybe he is meditating on the state of affairs in the war-torn city. Perhaps he is on counter-sniper watch. But he is not getting in the ASV.

I come to the conclusion that The Dog is simply his own master. He does what he wants, with no explanations to anyone. He's not going to trade his independence for "three hots and a cot." You gotta respect that.

Still, when it comes time to leave, he is on point again. This time he has learned some more of our TTPs, as we find out after a bit, when he takes up position just behind my truck. If any civilian cars enter the 100-meter bubble we like to keep around us, he cuts them off . He is as good at rear security as he is at securing our flanks.

After a couple of blocks, though, it starts becoming apparent that the day's exercise is taking its toll. He starts falling farther and farther behind. He almost gets clipped by a car coming through an intersection, as my gunner relays down to me. I tell Coop, in reply, that he is authorized to open fire on any Iraqi vehicle that gets too close to our buddy. And then have to tack on a reluctant, "Just kidding."

By the time we roll up on Checkpoint 4V, about a mile and a half down the road, The Dog is gone. Tuckered out, he has stopped somewhere for a cold drink and a cigarette and is nowhere to be seen. I radio up to SSG Huhn that we need to pull a security halt at the checkpoint so he can catch up with us, but, no joy, we don't have time to stop.

It could be, though, that The Dog knew something we didn't. We roll up the bridge that Checkpoint 4 is on, and past the IA and IP guards, and down into the section of Adhamiyah on the other side. On one side of the bridge it is wall-to-wall traffic, as usual. On the other side, it is a freakin' ghost town. Nothing. Nobody.

That part of MSR Dover is really wide open—four lanes, big median, open sidewalks. It's normally a chaotic crush of cars and trucks. Mayhem. Now, there is absolutely nothing. Bad juju.

Just past the checkpoint, we cross an intersection covered in brass shell casings of all calibers. Obviously there was a pretty big firefight here recently. And then I remember the gun battle we heard from the IP station. A quick check and it is confirmed that this is the place, and that there is still fighting going on in the area. We can't hear any gunfire, but the sudden emptiness of that long space is more than slightly unnerving.

The earlier hilarity is instantly gone. The radio is silent, except for SSG Huhn telling us to watch the rooftops and windows. TCs occasionally relay info to their counterparts—a suspicious box, a lump in the road, a car abandoned by the side of the road. This is the same street that our other squad got hit on, with a car bomb, just a few days before Christmas—with no real injuries, thank God. Still, there are plenty of guys in our convoy who were hit that day, and the memories of that sudden fireball are all too fresh in their minds, in all of our minds.

Nix starts swerving the truck back and forth randomly; a tactic designed to make it harder to target us with rocket-propelled grenades. My eyes flit from side to side, up and down. I'm checking everything; garbage by the side of the road, windows, balconies. Everything. We pass a single small bonfire on the left side of the road and eye the old, kaffiyehed man standing next to it with his grandson. It's a pretty common sight in Baghdad in the wintertime—people trying to stay warm while they sell what few wares they have. These two are the only people along the whole stretch of road.

In my rearview mirror, I see them dart indoors after we pass. Maybe it's because we are rolling six vehicles deep. Maybe it's because we are obviously alert and ready for trouble. Maybe it's because there is nobody bad watching us from the dark windows above us, but whatever it is, nothing happens. We enjoy a few tense minutes, a couple of blocks of holding our collective breath, but there are no sudden booooms or flares of tracer fire. We finish the last few miles of our patrol without incident, and then we are back in the endless mud sea of the FOB.

My day ends where it began, sitting on our frigid front porch, smoking cigarettes and discussing doghouse construction plans with SGT French. One of our Iraqi interpreters is sitting on the table next to us, playing his guitar. He has come up with an impressive riff, which starts with an acoustic rendition of AC/DC's "Thunderstruck," then segues into a Spanish flamenco piece, followed by occasional forays into Led Zeppelin, the Indigo Girls, and Pink Floyd, all tied together with more classical guitar. Somehow it all works, cohesively, without pause or break, and the sound of it is pure magic in the cold Baghdad night, even with the sound of the fighter jets somewhere overhead, beyond the clouds.

This is Iraq in a nutshell. It varies from boredom, to hardship, to hilarity, to violence, back to boredom, into tension, and occasionally it trips across wonderment along the way. Gotta love it.

Tomorrow we are going out again, same as always. Ostensibly, we have to go back to one of the IP stations for more assessments, but really, we are going to look for The Dog. He's out there somewhere, probably on a recon mission. Probably has a higher body count than us, to boot. They don't like us here, and we have to look out for the few friends we have.