By Tyr Symank
“Are you fucking with me?” Opening a door, or “breaking the seal,” out here was not taken lightly. If someone in the motorcade cracked a door, shit was either going down or it was about to. Shark said: “Fuck this armored car bullshit,” and escalated quickly from sign language and shouting through thick level-seven glass to a quick net call: “I’m poppin’,” thereby bringing the pantomime within fuck-you distance of the AK-adorned Iraqi guard.
Shark was a SEAL in his former life. Not the kind who writes books or has books written about him (Yes, I see the irony. Good job. Keep reading.). He was from the old breed. A tough slender man in his 40s, a beard and dark glasses hid his face and intentions. He had the kind of sinewy build that anyone who has ever had to scrap for a living knows he can probably take, but it’s going to cost dearly. He was built like white Jesus, but he was a SEAL. SEAL Jesus. He was a quiet, tough, New Englander. The sort of man who used words as a commodity, not a sweetener. When he spoke, it was with deliberate intent. When he raised his voice, it brought with it the fear of the Father, or in this case, Allah.
This wasn’t the first time Shark used this voice in the fight against terrorism. Just a few months prior, Shark had taken leave from Baghdad and gone home to relax in Maine. His normal activities took him near a mosque. Whether it was the hyper awareness that comes with spending your days and nights in a combat zone, or just the uniqueness of a mosque in Maine (at the time of this writing, there are three in the entire state), Shark noticed unusual activity. Men were hauling large mail sacks from the mosque and loading them into vehicles. Shark quite literally lived by his instincts.
Something did not feel right. Rather than resting from the stresses of war, Shark staked out a mosque. Over the course of several days of surveillance, Shark deduced that the bags were filled with cash. Suspecting that this cash would fund the very insurgents that were trying to kill us overseas, Shark reported the activity to the local post office and resumed surveillance. He observed another suspected shipment. Not satisfied that the federal government was taking action, Shark emerged from his vehicle and pointed aggressively at the suspected financiers. “Hey! I know what you fuckers are doing!”
“JEFF! Get back in your car and go home.” Jeff couldn’t discern exactly where the voice came from, but it rang distinctly authoritative and definitely from a vehicle-mounted PA system. Jeff holstered his finger and drove home. The voice followed up with him later. It had been the FBI.
Here in Baghdad, surveillance of suspected ne’er-do-wells was less of an option. Every time we left the Green Zone, it became the job of the entire team to look for threats. Not money laundering, not petty crime, but active threats against us or other coalition forces. Everything else landed on someone else’s desk.
It was not uncommon for us to observe a crime in process. Stuck in traffic one day, we heard gunshots ahead of us. It was a group of Iraqi police firing their US-supplied Glock pistols in the air as they exited a bank holding bags of cash, like Keystone Cops, if the cops were the robbers.
Our small team consisted of mostly special operations personnel selected for flexibility and calm under pressure. We used low visibility tactics and techniques developed by intelligence agencies to conduct reconnaissance and discreetly provide close protection to high level embassy staff. At the end of the day, we were still pretty much white and black burly Americans in the middle of crowded Baghdad streets. If we could fool the crowd around us for thirty seconds, it would be too late for anyone to do anything about it before we disappeared into the next crowd, the next neighborhood. Success.
Today, we had no crowd to blend into. Our dusty armored Mercedes and BMWs with their local dash trash and counterfeit license plates were the only cars on the road in this neighborhood. In any other neighborhood, this would have been a Han Solo “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” moment. But this was Karada, where the rest of the world came to conduct diplomacy in Iraq. Nation building took a back seat to security in Karada. The security in Karada was not Iraqi Police (mostly corrupt) or Iraqi Army (partially corrupt), but Peshmerga, imported from Kurdistan (not corrupt here). Even with the absence of locals to blend into, this was considered a milk run, an easy mission. At least until one of the Pesh stepped in front of the lead vehicle.
“Are you FUCKING with me?” The Pesh guard, standing his ground in front of Shark’s Beamer, didn’t appear to be making an immediate threat. His AK-47 hung casually from his neck. The other Peshmerga guards did not appear to be nervous or agitated. The guard made a flip-flop motion with his hands, like a dad at a grill forming a hamburger patty. Shark mimicked the motion through his armored windshield, followed by a “what?!” upward motion with his hands. The guard made the flip flop motion again, this time with more vigor, his AK, bouncing off his chest with the motion. “I’m popping” and before our team leader could protest, Shark was out of the protection of his vehicle.
“Swank, get ready,” the team leader told me. I didn’t need any clarification. Any day that we weren’t conducting a mission, we trained. The vehicle most likely to be compromised or take contact was the lead, Shark’s vehicle. In the event that things didn’t go as planned, the follow-car back-seaters, my partner and I, had the assignment to cover their retreat and/or eliminate the threat. I tightened the grip on my M4 and removed the shemagh barely concealing its shape. I positioned my body to rapidly exit the vehicle and put the weapon into action. From my vantage over the TL’s shoulder, I could see Shark within combative distance of the guard. I checked my six and scanned the rooftops for a potential ambush. We lost Bear and K2 in a situation very similar to this. This milk run was starting to sour. Eyes scanning everything, the nystagmus of hypervigilance, my eyes moved from open spaces to shadows and back to Shark. I saw him make the hamburger patty motion, standing within a few feet of the guard. His agitation was obvious in body language and tone of voice. I wondered if the other guards would keep their cool. I know Americans wouldn’t. The guard made a small, non-threatening hamburger patty motion and then motioned at the front license plate of Shark’s beamer. I forced my eyes back to scanning for threats. The next few moments would be critical in the Choose Your Own Adventure books of our lives. My back ached from its corkscrewed position in the backseat. I mentally checked the readiness of my kit while resting my thumb on the selector lever of my carbine. We were in Tombstone, waiting for the Cowboys to throw down.
“The plates.” Shark’s voice came over the radio, tearing the tension in half.
“The fucking plates, man. They’re fucking upside down.”
The laughter started as a muffled chuckle at first then consumed the inside of our vehicle as the realization that this standoff was not a standoff at all. It was a helpful Kurd pointing out to the badass super-secret commandos that we had mounted our super-secret Jason Bourne counterfeit license plates upside down. To quote Maverick, “We were inverted.”
I relaxed the grip on my weapon and sat back in my seat. “Hey boss, maybe next training we should learn to read Arabic numerals.”
“Yeah Swank … yeah.”
I missed a phone call from one of my teammates last week. I saw the call, but I was in the middle of something from this life and not up for stepping into the time machine. A text followed the missed call. “You need to call me.” The all-too familiar pit in my stomach appeared out of nowhere like the old friend that shows up and drinks all your expensive bourbon with coke, cusses in front of your kids, and threatens to fight your neighbors. I hit the phone button and steeled myself for the news I already had. “He’s gone.” I didn’t need to ask how. It’s an epidemic among my people. I was well practiced at this. “Where? How’s his family? When are we getting together?”
The group texts and phone calls spiked for a few days as we remembered, mourned, and checked on each other, making sure the virus didn’t spread in its most contagious period, then gradually declined as we settled back into the daily routines we had set for ourselves. Milk runs. We’re all just driving around with upside down plates, killers thinking we’re blending in.