The Seattle Weekly, October 6 – 12, 2004
Lionesses of Iraq
In the dangerous Sunni Triangle, female GIs are volunteering for dangerous duty. As one reporter discovers, it’s work no man can do.
by Erin Solaro
Washington, D.C., to London. London to Kuwait. Kuwait to Al-Taqqadum Air Base, 35 miles west of Baghdad.
Maybe it is the jeans and peach polo shirt that attracts attention. Or maybe it is the fact that I am a woman alone, a journalist traveling without an entourage and an attitude. A Marine asks me if I know what I am getting myself into. I look into his eyes. “Yes, Major, I do.” I don’t know what he sees in mine, but I think he likes it because then we have a serious conversation about the war. Funny, I think. For months, I’ve wanted to have serious conversations about the war. I have to go to Iraq to get one. It will be the first of many.
Same jeans and polo shirt the next morning, when after a lengthy wait for a helicopter flight, I stagger into Blue Diamond, the headquarters of the 1st Marine Division just across the Euphrates from Ramadi, one of Iraq’s flash-point cities in the Sunni Triangle. Packed in my bags are four pairs of trousers (two tan, two khaki) and four shirts (two tan, two light green), all from Sierra Trading Post, which sells wonderful gear at a discount, and broken-in desert boots. I will live in those clothes for the next several weeks. I wear my hair, which is very long, either pinned up in a bun or braided down my back, in deference to military sensibilities, and no makeup at all. I’d been told to bring a vest and helmet, and I wear them. I have too many bags, having spread the load in case British Airways decided to lose anything, but I can carry everything myself in one trip, although every Marine and soldier who gives me a hand has my thanks.
My host unit is the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One, commanded by Col. Arthur W. Connor Jr. After breakfast, I am met by Capt. Joseph Jasper, a cavalryman serving as the brigade’s public affairs officer. We drive across the Euphrates on a bridge that makes every soldier who has to use it nervous, a few miles inland to the brigade’s base, Camp Junction City, a former Iraqi Army Air Defense base. He finds me a place to sleep for a few days with five female maintenance soldiers of the 101st Maintenance Service Team, then moves me to the 1st Engineer Battalion, the Army’s oldest and most decorated engineer battalion. There, I share a barracks room with Capt. Anastasia Breslow, a signals officer and a second-generation soldier. By ancestry, she is half Russian, half Chinese. By conviction, All-American. She wears an 82nd Airborne Division combat patch from the Afghan campaign.
Any military unit engages in whatever combat comes its way. That includes units with women, who are barred from most of the combat arms: the infantry, the armor, and the artillery, but not aviation, nor the Corps of Engineers, whose branch motto is “Essayons” (“We will try”) but ought to be, “First we dig ’em, then we die in ’em!” The 1st Engineers are commanded by Lt. Col. W.D. Brinkley, who understands the necessity of women soldiers interacting with Iraqis. He makes available to other units within the brigade his women soldiers, who quickly earn the honorific of “Lionesses.” Their specific function is to attach to the all-male combat units they are barred from to interact with Iraqi women and children on combat missions. Their presence reassures Iraqi women and men alike, none of whom can fathom Iraqi soldiers searching their homes without raping them, that any violence visited upon them by foreign conquering soldiers and Marines will be a matter of military necessity.
Some women volunteer for Lioness missions. Others don’t. No woman feels free to decline because it means someone else has to do her work. And if that someone else is a man, the mission will be more dangerous than it has to be. The presence of women and children normally inhibits an aggressor, but when it does not, the meaning of the violence escalates from political defeat to cultural annihilation. Killing fighting women is one thing. Killing noncombatant women and old men, much less children, is something else again. The job of the Lionesses is to help keep the violence in the realm of political defeat. As soldiers, that means they have to fight, if necessary. And they have.
On June 19, 2004, after two days with the engineers, I go on my first mission with the Lionesses. One Lioness is my roomie, Breslow; the second, one of her soldiers, Pfc. Jennifer Acy—young, small, still not quite confident. Acy’s first Lioness mission involved a firefight at a traffic control point, where she couldn’t fire back in self-defense for fear of hitting Marines. So she and Breslow did what they could to keep terrified Iraqi women from bolting into the fields of fire and being killed. It was, Breslow told her to stiffen her, an experience very few American men and still fewer American women have had.
Two experiences, actually. Combat and the subsequent realization of how much can go wrong so very fast. Yes, you get better at it. But it never gets any easier. Shakespeare wrote that the coward dies a thousand times, the brave but once. Hemingway administered a needed corrective. The brave dies two thousand times. He—or she—just doesn’t talk about it. Still, words of encouragement and validation from a fellow warrior can be precious.
We join Lt. Col. Michael Cabrey, commander of 1-5 Field Artillery Battalion, and his Alpha Battery. Cabrey is a West Pointer, not tall, with a wrestler’s stocky, powerful build and speed, green eyes, and an aura of boldness and honesty. He’s planning a “knock and greet” at the home of a man he’s received information about. Supposedly, and “supposedly” has real meaning in Iraq, where most information is motivated by the desire for either money or revenge, the man had sold a vehicle to a maker of vehicle-borne IEDs, or improvised explosive devices. They cause horrendous damage. A VBIED, in the military’s parlance, can be hidden amongst one of the many, many abandoned cars that litter the streets of Ramadi and its suburbs, including this one of Tamim. Hidden, waiting, and command-detonated when an American patrol or convoy rolls by. Sometimes the bomb makers add a final touch of gasoline so they can have the pleasure of watching Americans burn to death.
Except for a few modern amenities like cars and electrical wires, the area looks like something dug up from thousands of years ago in Sumer. Low, square buildings with thick walls of dun-colored bricks, often with a walled courtyard fronting them. A poor neighborhood has been made worse by the damage of tyranny and a dozen years of sanctions, during which the United Nations systematically looted Iraq under the guise of the oil-for-food program, and the Iraqis’ resolute refusal to pick up after themselves.
The yard is littered with car parts and what looks like children’s feces. There’s an old blue Volga sedan. There are two men, the homeowner’s son and his cousin, plus the owner’s wife and their daughters and grandchildren. The Lionesses are a little slow going in. They are never first in the “stack,” or column of soldiers, because they do not have the extensive training combat arms soldiers get. As soon as the Iraqis see the women soldiers, men and women alike visibly relax. Americans are armed foreigners (they do not make the mistake of thinking the women don’t fight), and the Iraqis are angry about this. But the presence of women reassures them that any violence will be military, not criminal. Breslow and Acy are very gentle with the women, giving candy and pens to the children while listening to them and watching them. Are they murmuring among themselves? Are they hiding papers or ammunition? Armed, modest, interacting easily with their male comrades, they fascinate the young girls.
A search turns up four magazines for an AK assault rifle, an SKS carbine, and RPG sights in a safe that belongs to the cousin’s wife. She will be reimbursed for the lock the soldiers cut off the safe, as well as for the RPG sights. The son tells Cabrey that the AK assault rifle was sold to finance home construction, although there is no look of construction. And his father, who supposedly sold the car, is in Samara for three days for his daughter’s wedding. Since each family is authorized one weapon per adult for self-defense, the carbine is left, along with three of the AK magazines. We’re leaving as the father pulls up in a white Volga. The patrol reacts promptly, swarming the Volga before the father can get out and coordinate stories with his son. The condition of this car, including the filth, is unimaginable.
The father is straightforward and honest with Cabrey. “I wasn’t in Samara, I went to a mechanic to get my car fixed. You can talk to him.”
Cabrey, who is an artilleryman, not an intelligence officer or a policeman, resumes questioning the son, who lies and tries to change the subject. The lies do not add up, but contradict both each other and the father. Carefully, courteously, Cabrey boxes him in, using just the right amount of pressure. They go back and forth. What kind of car, what colors, to whom did you sell it, where does he live? Cabrey says politely, “Don’t lie to me. There’s no reason to lie.”
The instinctive courtesy of this man, who disposes of enormous firepower and is visibly exasperated, breaks the son. “I sold the car for a hundred dollars.”
“What color is the car?” Cabrey asks again.
“Taxi colors, white and orange. It’s a Toyota Cressida. I sold it to a guy. He sells black-market fuel.”
Telling the truth did not pay under the former regime; lying is a habit born of moral degradation. A Russian émigré to America, asked what it was like living under communism, replied, “You said one thing. You thought something else. And you did something else.” In Iraq, this was also the way of life under Saddam. It still is.
“Where does he live?”
The son starts to give directions, then says, “I’ll take you there. Just follow my car.”
No one in my line of sight says a word. No one fidgets or even adjusts a rifle sling. And yet we might as well shout what we think. Ambush! What if the man has a cell phone? This man, to whom we are to be taken, is someone Cabrey had wanted to talk to about weapons in a few days. We may well die blown apart and burning: This is the Sunni Triangle, and Fallujah is not far away. We mount up.
It turns out there is no ambush. Did the son run the risk of being seen as a collaborator because, just once, a man in authority treated him with courtesy and dignity? It is not a far-fetched supposition.
This time, the Lionesses are second in the stack, so they can immediately put the women and children at their ease.
The house is unbelievably squalid. The walls have not been painted, or even washed, in years. There’s a pot of rotting tomatoes on the stairs. Garbage, parts of . . . things . . . are everywhere. There are no books. There appears to be no electricity, and don’t blame it on the Americans for not providing power. The Iraqis maintain their own power stations, with a lot of money from America. I see no light fixtures or wiring; the Iraqi practice is to run the wiring on the outside of walls, rather than hiding it inside. No candles, no oil lamps. This is not poverty but despair. Turn it over to a squad of soldiers and the place would soon be neat and clean.
The husband is not home, but a thorough search turns up three rifles. Also the usual assorted women and children, including a teenage boy, clearly the eldest son, sitting in the courtyard under a lean-to of some sort. Breslow and Acy again watch them closely without staring at them, under the pretext of talking to them about education and voting. The soldiers live in a different moral universe than the Iraqi women, a universe where women are citizens, not virtually lifelong minors, property first of their fathers and then of their husbands.
Cabrey asks to speak to the woman of the house. The presence of the Lionesses notwithstanding, she comes out terrified and wringing her hands. What else could it mean but that he was going to rape her? I step up to listen, smiling at her, put my arm around her daughter, who has come up to me to keep an eye on her mother, to do for her what little she can. Because I’m a woman, and even though I’m also part of a foreign—and to many, an enemy— occupation, she puts her arm around my waist. I make certain I know where her hand is, in case she starts to feel for my knife. I stay relaxed.
The colonel goes much further with her mother. He takes off his helmet, then his ballistic goggles, then kneels before her in the courtyard, ensuring that his weapon is pointed down, making gentle small talk, asking about her daughter, until she relaxes and begins to talk to him. During Cabrey’s careful, polite cross-checking, her husband comes home. It turns out that the father had indeed bought the car for his son to use to sell black-market fuel. He himself sells vegetables, as well as black-market fuel. Cabrey admonishes him that his son needs to be in school, along with his sisters, who must certainly be educated. He then asks him which weapons he’d like to keep. “Pick two. One for you and one for your wife,” he says emphatically. “So you can protect your family.”
In short, a dry hole. Time for bed.
Two days later, four Marines are killed at an observation post in Ramadi, sending rumors flying around Camp Junction City. The base communications package is promptly shut down so that their next of kin can be properly notified. I coordinate to go out with 1-5 again, this time seeking someone who is suspected of providing a safe house for foreign fighters, likely Syrians. This is not to be a knock and greet, but a raid. The original plan is for me to travel with the Lionesses, who will go in just behind the lead vehicle. Here is where different unit styles come into play. The artillery wants two-woman teams because searching people takes two soldiers, one to search, one to cover, while the infantry keeps the women separated, so that if they lose one, they can still carry out their mission.
I am extremely nervous.
Whose fucking idea was it to go off to a fucking war zone without a fucking weapon?
But many of the soldiers are just as nervous. Those were good Marines who were killed in Ramadi, and the fact that Marines put into words the way all the U.S. troops I saw behave—no better friend, no worse enemy, do no harm—makes their deaths even more egregious. The enemy is not soldiers, but a mélange of foreign jihadis and adventurers, former regime elements, criminals, and the poor paid by the rich with a vested interest in instability. They hide among civilians, whom they try to provoke the U.S. into killing.
I rehearse with 1-5, and it occurs to someone that I don’t have a weapon, so I’m shifted back with Cabrey. My door in the back of the armored Humvee refuses to open from inside. Part of the rehearsal involves him letting me out. I’m a strong woman, but I can’t budge the door latch.
Spc. Key, his driver, says, “The colonel ripped his hand trying to get out.”
I stop fighting the door latch and eye the radios between me and the front seat. There’s enough room for me to crawl over them.
Cabrey lets me out. “Thanks. The idea of being trapped . . . ”
“I promise, if the door doesn’t open, I’ll pull you out over the radios.”
“Perfect.” I plan to push with my feet.
Other parts of the rehearsal involve troops getting shot and evacuated to the rear. At one point, a stretcher bearer goes down with such force, making such noise, that I think he’s broken his ankle. The medic, a small Hispanic man, very emphatically tells the soldiers, “Take a few seconds. Do not re-wound my patients! If you drop them, it will only hurt them more. If the difference between their living and dying is five seconds, there’s nothing I can do to save them.”
The emphasis on speed and force is Cabrey’s. He doesn’t want to give whoever is in that house any time to think about fighting back. If they don’t fight back, you don’t have to kill them. He has mounted 30 such raids in which no soldier has had to fire a single round.
After rehearsal, I spend a few hours catnapping, sleeping lightly for an hour, checking my watch, and napping again. It is an easy sleep. At 3 a.m., I wake and dress, trying not to wake Breslow, then head over to 1-5 with the Lionesses, Spc. Michele Perry and Spc. Rebecca Nava. Both are married, Perry with a son. Neither of them looks like a woman who thrives on this kind of work, especially tiny Nava. But they do.
The objective has been under continuous observation. Mounted up, Cabrey learns that there is no one on the roof of the house, no cars parked before the gate. Good news. I hate being unarmed. And I wonder what’s waiting in the house.
We go in hard, breaking down the gate, and I am jogging beside Cabrey to keep up as he heads to the front of his column of vehicles. The two most dangerous words in the English language? The infantry motto: Follow me!
Artillerists and engineers alike, this is pure infantry work. I tuck up against a wall beside Perry and Nava. We hope it will provide cover if this thing goes bad, and try to keep our feet out of the sewer.
The clearing team goes in and comes out with seven men, including two who are neither related nor extremely close friends of the family. They are cuffed, blindfolded, and kept silent, kneeling against the wall. But they are handled gently by the GIs, more gently than they practiced on each other. Only a few hours ago, four Marines were killed—murdered, to be honest. And yet these troops submit themselves willingly to a rigorous discipline, maintained not by fear of punishment but by self-respect, self-interest, and not a little empathy for those who have lived through the unimaginable.
There are also women and children: the mother, two of her daughters-in-law, and what looks to be a granddaughter and two babies. One is left up in his room, which has the women extremely upset. A male soldier brings the infant down, holding him gingerly, afraid of hurting him, calling for a Lioness. Perry quickly hands the child to his mother. The tension drops immediately.
Still, the situation is extremely unnerving, this having unrelated, stranger males of fighting age in the house. It’s a warning sign and would be in any culture. But in Iraq, where women are segregated from the larger, male world, it is even more deeply unsettling.
I am very careful to stay out of the GIs’ fields of fire, to let them know when I’m entering a room, to be no more than a room away from them, to let them know when I am using a flash. Except one time I didn’t and found myself thinking, “This is how reporters get shot.”
At least I remember to stay off the rooftop. Unlike the soldiers, there is no glint tape on my shirt or helmet cover, and we have guardian angels (typically snipers providing observation and, if need be, fire on the objective) overhead.
I come down. Our interpreter, a Palestinian-American citizen with a security clearance who took a pay cut to come to Iraq because he thought the U.S. military was Iraq’s best hope for civilization, asks me to accompany him. He needs to return a purse to the woman of the house, and a witness to verify that he stole nothing.
There are several $100 bills in it, and the older woman is more worried about it than she seems about the young men in the house; one is her son. She is constantly muttering in a querulous tone—it doesn’t take much imagination to guess what she’s saying—and yet it doesn’t ring true. I’ve seen many more women who are genuinely frightened make less noise. And her daughter keeps saying to her, across the interpreter’s questioning, “We’re women, we don’t know anything.” The interpreter asks the younger woman to let the older answer for herself, but she doesn’t. The Lionesses offer their thoughts on the women as well.
The first car into the driveway, deepest in, was supposedly driven up from Baghdad that day, but it is coated with dust and they can’t find the keys for it. Even given the Iraqi propensity for jumbling things together in no order, this makes no sense. We find a little cash and some gold jewelry, which are returned, and one chrome-plated pistol, when most houses have at least one automatic rifle per adult or at least per adult male. There’s also an address book with Syrian phone numbers in this house that shelters unrelated men among the women.
We are home by breakfast, and afterward I talk with the brigade personnel officer, Maj. Thomas Trazcyk, a powerfully built infantryman, very freckled, like Cabrey a man whose longing for his family is stamped on him. Our conversation ranges from casualties and retention to how the Army likes to develop its infantry officers (light infantry first so they develop the physical and interpersonal skills before they have to deal with the tactical speed and logistical complications of mechanized infantry). I ask a polite yet pointed question. “It must feel strange that there are women who have more combat time than you do.”
He gives me a wry smile. “It does!”
And so it goes, the rest of my time in the Sunni Triangle. The small change of soldiering. Patrols and raids, always wondering when you’re going to get hit. Straight-up infantry work, military operations in urban terrain. Women medics patrolling with combat units, women second in the stack not only for a knock and greet but for a full-on raid. Doing it with less training and indoctrination than the men they’re working with and with less recognition.
And doing it well.