IT WAS TIME for the patrol’s main event. I had been curious about the “amusement park” label on the map since first noticing it days before. Most Americans thought of deserts and torture chambers in Iraq, not merry-go-rounds and roller coasters. Reports that the fedayeen were operating from the grounds of the park and that the same spot might include one of Saddam’s palaces only fueled my interest. Six hours of daylight remained, enough time for us to answer the battalion’s initial questions and plan aggressive foot patrols for that night. But, of course, the plan changed. After we left Qalat Abd al Jasadi, the battalion ordered us back to the power plant no later than EENT, or the end of evening nautical twilight — the true darkness that arrives an hour or so after sunset. I slammed my fist on the dashboard but radioed back a calm acknowledgment. Accounting for driving time back to the power plant left less than five hours to recon the amusement park.
Rushing was not an option. To rush is to risk being sloppy and making potentially deadly mistakes. We would approach the mission as methodically as we could. Given the daylight and crowded area, I decided it would be pointless to try to sneak up on the park. Better to drive right to it, pick a safe spot, and observe it for a while before deciding on our next move.
A man-made lake nearly a mile long separated the park from the road. To enter, visitors crossed a concrete bridge near the midpoint of the lake. Since marshland bordered the amusement park to the north and south and the Tigris flowed to the west, the park was an island of sorts, separated geographically and psychologically from Baghdad. A tower dominated the park’s skyline. It looked like a smaller and poorer Seattle Space Needle, a wonder of the early 1970s slowly falling into disrepair. Promenades and amphitheaters surrounded the base of the tower. The wooden frame of a roller coaster stood above the once-manicured shrubs and palms. Everything was dusty brown, colored with peeling paint and fading murals of pirated Disney characters. Through binoculars, I imagined crowds of people and colorful balloons. I couldn’t decide whether it was the most hopeful place I’d seen in Iraq or the saddest. Eventually, I settled on the latter.
The platoon spread out along the lakeshore, glassing the park with spotting scopes, binoculars, and rifle sights. I planned to watch for an hour. Gunny Wynn and I were discussing the wisdom of entering the huge park with only twenty-two Marines when a battered red Volkswagen chugged up and stopped near our position. Ten rifles trained on it immediately. I turned to watch, but we continued our conversation.
“It’s a deserted island. They can cut us off. We need to plan for that,” Wynn said. He wasn’t against going into the park; he just wanted to make sure we thought it through in advance.
“What about putting a sniper team up in the tower?” I asked. “They could overwatch us everywhere and coordinate air.”
“Bad idea, sir. They’d be vulnerable up there, and we’d have to drop a team just to secure the base of the tower. Then we’d be down to fifteen guys. Better to stay together.”
I wasn’t about to contradict Wynn on sniper tactics. Before every mission, I’d float a dozen ideas, and he’d shoot down eleven of them. Then he’d suggest a dozen refinements, and I’d turn away eleven. The winnowing process helped us come up with the best plan.
“Sir, Gunny, better get over here,” Doc Bryan called from his position next to the car.
A middle-aged woman sat in the driver’s seat, waving both hands helplessly through the window. Behind her, I saw a man sitting impassively in the back. I walked toward the car and smelled the infection.
A teenage girl, about thirteen, reclined in the front passenger seat. A cast covered her leg. She smiled stoically, almost coyly, but her lips trembled, and pain shone in her eyes. Mish said her name was Suhar. She had been wounded by a bomb more than a week earlier. Iraqi doctors had slapped a cast on her leg, but she hadn’t received any follow-up care. Her parents hoped to run the gauntlet of American checkpoints to find a hospital, but they saw us on the side of the road and decided to stop.
I looked at my watch. Four hours till we had to return to the power plant. “Doc, you’ve got fifteen minutes,” I said.
Retrieving his med bag, Bryan sliced open the cast and peeled it back from her leg. Suhar screamed. Flesh peeled off her leg in strips, and the bones beneath were clearly broken. Green and yellow pus oozed from the holes in her skin. The smell nearly knocked me over. With the cast off, Suhar settled into choking sobs that racked her body.
I knelt in the dust next to her mother. “Mish, please ask her name.”
She looked at me and said, “Mariane.”
“Mariane, we will do everything we can to help Suhar.”
The parents watched Doc as he worked, and I watched them. I couldn’t fathom their emotional cauldron. Their child was grievously wounded, probably by Americans, but her life depended on the charity of other Americans. They had to hate us. If the tables were turned, if I were that father watching my daughter suffer, I’d be plotting the deaths of the people who’d harmed her.
I swore under my breath. Our mission was to recon the amusement park. My commanders wouldn’t think kindly of us getting sidetracked to help this girl. The night before, I had rejected the personal pleas of the villagers to protect them from thieves. When the shooting orgy had erupted all around us, that decision had been confirmed as the right one. With Suhar, I faced a similar choice: stick to the mission and hope we’d be serving the greater good, or be distracted by a personal side-show. The very concept of “greater good” was fading into fantasy. All we knew was what we saw. In training, this would have been a slam-dunk scenario — turn the girl away and focus on the mission. But the past month hadn’t been training.
Suhar’s parents watched with great dignity as Doc Bryan scrubbed and prodded at their little girl. When he glanced at me, I asked for an update.
“This infection will kill her. She’s a heartbeat away from septic shock. Sir, we have to get her to a hospital.” Doc had turned away from the car and spoke quietly. “I understand the choice you have to make, but you should know that without care, she doesn’t have a chance.”
Calling the battalion, I asked to speak to Dr. Aubin. Bryan took the handset from me and relayed information on Suhar’s wounds. We waited while Aubin checked to see what resources were available in Baghdad.
I fought not to sound bitter. “Resources in Baghdad? How about the whole fucking U.S. military? They better give us something.”
Finally, Aubin called back. “Hitman Two, there are no American aid stations set up yet for Iraqi civilians. We have locations on a few Iraqi hospitals, but none of them have any supplies. Do your best to buy her time so her parents can locate another source of care.”
I was livid. Aubin was a good man. He had proven his guts and dedication ten times over at Qalat Sukkar, and I knew the situation angered him as much as it did us. He had done all he could. I thanked him and turned back to Doc Bryan, asking for options.
“I can clean and irrigate her wound, then pump her up with antibiotics and check the infection . . . for now. I can wrap her with a clean dressing. We’ll give her parents a supply of dressings and antibiotics and instructions on how to use them. But without proper care, the infection will become systemic. She’ll die.”
“Do your best, Doc. Give them all the supplies you can spare without compromising the safety of the platoon. Let me know when you’re finished.”
I walked away to sit in the dust with Gunny Wynn. “Can you believe this? We’re supposed to be the power here. We can’t even get a doctor for a teenage girl,” I said.
Wynn suggested that we give the parents directions to RCT-1’s headquarters. We knew its exact location, and they had to be better equipped than we were. I agreed and bent over the hood to write out a note in clear block letters:
THIS GIRL, SUHAR, HAS BEEN WOUNDED BY AN AMERICAN BOMB. WE PROVIDED BEST MEDICAL CARE AVAILABLE AND
SENT HER FAMILY TO SEEK FURTHER TREATMENT AT HQ INCHON. PLEASE RENDER ALL POSSIBLE AID. SEMPER FI. BRAVO
TWO, 1ST RECON BATTALION, MC 3937 0063, 14APR1130Z2004, 1STLT N. C. FICK, USMC.
Mish gave the note to Suhar’s parents, along with directions to Inchon, the call sign for RCT-1. When Doc finished cleaning and re-wrapping the wound, we watched the Volkswagen speed off down the road toward Baghdad.
“If they don’t get killed at a checkpoint, they’ll probably just get laughed at by Inchon,” Bryan said, spitting in the dust with all the disgust I felt.
It was late afternoon by the time we crept slowly across the bridge into the amusement park. Tending Suhar had cost us two hours. On the hundred-meter span across the lake, the platoon made the mental shift back to combat mode. Tenderness gave way to aggression. We turned right at the end of the bridge and made a slow counterclockwise sweep through the abandoned walkways and parking lots. As in the rest of Baghdad, looters had been a step ahead of us. Broken glass lay everywhere, along with random pieces of furniture discarded by thieves in midflight. The incongruity was surreal: Humvees passing a carousel, and Marines poking rifles into the Tilt-A-Whirl’s teacups to make sure they were empty. Everything was empty. The park was not only deserted but assertively so. Doors swung on their hinges, and paper trash tumbled by in the wind. It was Hollywood movie set empty. The part of me still untouched by the war wanted to sit down at one of the picnic tables and read in the sunlight.
The platoon leapfrogged through the park, with teams alternating security and kicking down doors to search buildings. We found a movie theater, a snack bar, and administrative offices, but no signs of fedayeen. With the sun quickly sinking, I urged the Marines forward. I wanted to reach the northern tip of the park, where my map showed the large building identified to us as a “suspected regime palace.” We approached it more warily than we had the other buildings but repeated the same drill of posting two teams on the perimeter and sending two teams inside. The building was a single story, sprawling along the lakefront.
I followed Sergeant Espera through the door and into a large room. The Marines moved in stacks, rushing along the walls with rifles at eye level. My weapon was a digital camera. A piano stood in the corner next to a long wooden bar. The glass cabinets had been emptied of alcohol, and broken glassware crunched under our feet. We moved through a ballroom with an inlaid floor and shattered chandeliers. Decorative ceiling panels hid recessed lighting, and unbroken windows opened onto a pool in the courtyard outside. Flashlights mounted on rifles cut beams of light through the shadows. Following a hallway, we opened a door. A king-size bed and a large bathtub filled the room. The next door revealed the same layout.
The “palace” was a hotel. It was opulent, more opulent than anything we had seen in Iraq, but certainly not one of Saddam’s residences. The amusement park had been a weekend getaway spot for midlevel Ba’ath Party officials. That conclusion made a fedayeen presence seem even more likely. I snapped a dozen photographs to pass on to the battalion’s intelligence officer before continuing our sweep through the park.
We moved south along the Tigris. There were fewer buildings there, only a shady field filled with picnic tables and a scenic walkway overlooking the river. We rumbled down the sidewalk, scraping past benches and an ornate railing. I looked to the right and felt a cold shot of adrenaline in my chest. Bunkers and trenches honeycombed the mud flats at the river’s edge. Armored personnel carriers, large generators, and antiaircraft guns sat along the banks. Four machine guns simultaneously swiveled and depressed to aim down at the fortifications below us. Through my binoculars, nothing moved.
Since the positions all looked deserted, I split the platoon in half to save time. Wynn took two teams down the slope to investigate the bunkers along the river, while Sergeant Lovell’s team and I remained behind to check inside another building. It was a trailer, like a mobile home, and it sat separate from the rest of the park. It looked out of place. Lovell shouldered the door open, and we entered the single room. Papers cluttered the floor, but I hardly noticed at first. I stared at the maps hanging on every wall. They were Iraqi street maps of Baghdad, with the eagle crest of the regime on each sheet, and I recognized them immediately. They looked like the maps I’d been studying in the ROC. Most of the American positions in Baghdad were drawn on the sheets in red pencil. They were out of date, but only by a few days.
“Holy shit, Lovell, check this out. They know all our positions.”
“Yeah, and these filing cabinets are filled with more.” He kicked open a drawer, and reams of maps and papers spilled out. “Looks like we found the fedayeen headquarters.”
We gathered up large armfuls of papers to take back to the intelligence shop, giving priority to the annotated maps and anything personal — identification cards, operations orders, and whatever else we could guess at without reading Arabic. Lovell’s team piled the rest of the papers on the pavement outside the trailer and doused the stack in gasoline from a spare fuel can. It burned quickly, sending ashy flakes floating across the picnic grounds. I radioed down to Gunny Wynn to let him know we had a fire going.
“Lots of stuff down here, too — gas masks, atropine injectors, MOPP boots and gloves. Looks like they were ready for a chem attack. No signs of life, though.”
When the Marines climbed back up to the Humvees, they brought Iraqi military radios and two sets of night vision goggles. The goggles were older than ours, and much more primitive, with Cyrillic writing stamped into the metal. We had heard the secretary of defense’s accusations that Syria had been exporting night vision equipment to the Iraqi army during the first week of the war, and we wondered whether we’d found evidence to support his claims. I tucked the gear in with the maps, looking forward to the mission debrief.
We were racing the daylight and continued moving south to the far end of the amusement park. I called the battalion to update our position and received a pointed reminder of our expected return time — no later than EENT, less than two hours away. I wanted to finish our search of the park before returning to the power plant and hoped the southern corner would have fewer buildings to comb through. Marines walked alongside the Humvees, searching through sheds and empty offices. We reached the final hundred meters before the southern edge of the park.
Cresting a small rise on a paved path intended for golf carts, I saw a row of warehouses through the trees. They were low and windowless, with padlocked doors. There was no way we could search them and still make it back to the power plant on time. I called the battalion and requested a one-hour extension to complete our search. It was denied. We drove past, hoping they were empty, or perhaps filled with lawn mowers and other maintenance equipment for the amusement park. I photographed the outside of the warehouses and noted their location in my patrol log, adding that we hadn’t searched them owing to time constraints.
Fifteen minutes before EENT, I requested permission to reenter friendly lines. We rolled slowly through the gate and stopped at Bravo Company’s warehouse. As the platoon started brewing coffee and cleaning weapons, the team leaders and I walked to the ROC for debrief, lugging everything we’d collected over the past two days. We pulled chairs around a desk in the brightly lit room and cracked open cold Cokes from a cooler in the corner. After thirty-six hours on constant alert, I needed the caffeine. I summarized the information collected by the platoon, and each team leader elaborated on details specific to his team. The debriefer scribbled furious notes as we poured out the results of two days of nonstop observation. Despite the maps, the photos of the hotel, and the night vision goggles, the patrol’s defining feature became our failure to search the warehouses.
The next morning, another recon platoon was diverted from its mission and found dozens of surface-to-air missiles in the buildings we’d bypassed. There were signs that others had been removed, possibly the night after we were in the park. Over the coming months, when insurgents downed Army helicopters, killing dozens of soldiers, I couldn’t help but wonder if the weapons had come from the cache at the amusement park. Treating Suhar had been a costly decision. I was learning that choices in war are rarely between good and bad, but rather between bad and worse.