The Men in the Dark

• Watch Steve's reports from Karbala 

I never liked loud noises and I never liked big machines. So I didn't like standing in what was called the motor pool. It was a giant dirt field, loose dirt, like dirty sand where it was hard to walk, churned up and made loose by the giant machines. It was where you got inside the armored vehicles to go out on patrol. You'd head over around 8 pm for a mission that would finally leave three hours later. First, the tanks and the Bradleys had to get in line — like giant animals they were led by a private on foot, walking a few feet in front of one with no leash, the weak rays from the headlights on the Bradley bouncing up and down as it jarred forward — so loud, so big, dwarfing the men on the ground. How could we tame these? Both the tanks and the Bradleys moved on tracks but the Bradley was taller, the tank lower to the ground with a bigger gun. In one of the hotels before I got there the first few minutes of the movie "The Terminator" was on, where a soldier moves through the wreckage of a dark battlefield filled with giant machines, and that's what I thought of. I did not feel like I was in a real place. But it seemed to me all the men there were used to the noise, the darkness, the machines.

I found the Bradley I was going to ride in with 8 soldiers. Pete [FNC cameraman] would go in a separate one. I couldn't see anyone's face in the dark. They all had on uniforms, different from mine, and they could see eachother well in the dark and I couldn't. A captain got down to show me how to open up the back door. He pulled a giant metal lever down with all his strength. It was dark and I couldn't really see that well. There was also a hatch to open on the top, but it could only open if the gun was pointed a certain way. I wasn't sure which way. Even the captain had to bang for a while to get it open. They moved the position of the gun and tried again. It appeared maybe something was broken, but then my lesson was over.

The men stood in the back of their vehicle and smoked and talked. The talk was usually about who had gotten killed or wounded. One guy had lost his eyes. The guys dropped their voices when they said that, and slowed down the phrase to bring out what had happened: "He lost...BOTH...of...his...EYES."

None of the men had their helmets or vests on yet. I had both mine on and was already sweating. Wearing a kevlar helmet makes your head ache after a while. It took me a little while to put mine on correctly in the dark with the back neck strap in place, so once I put in on I left it on.

Men walked over to the side of the armor or a canal ditch to urinate. The sniper in my Bradley went several times. He said, "I drank so much damn Gatorade." Maybe he did.

The sergeant who was driving came back and talked to a guy next to me. He had a laminated map.

He spoke slowly.

"Now if I get hit," he said, "I want you to go here," and pointed at a place on the map with a dirty finger.

The other man nodded without saying anything. What could you say? The guy who was driving would in an hour or two be driving in a place where people would be trying to kill him. And everyone knew it. So they spoke rationally, like one man giving directions to another, instead of screaming, “I could die, they are going to try to kill me, and if anyone does get killed on this track it's likely to be me, in the front, driving.” The man listening gave his full attention and nodded, but he didn't say anything. He couldn't say, “Don't be silly,” or, “You're crazy.” So it was just two men giving directions, the one who might get killed and the one who might have to take over — whose job it would be to keep the armored vehicle going, who had to continue the job, even if the sergeant did get killed. The mission was more important and would go on. And they all knew that. And they accepted that. And they spoke rationally about it.

I was trying to lean against the front of the Bradley behind us in line. I was trying to rest the back kevlar plate of my vest on the armor, to ease the weight. Sometimes I pushed my helmet up off my head, with the straps still fastened. Not only because it was heavy, but because I couldn't take any of it off. And even though the mission was still two hours away, you never know, maybe I would have to put it on in a hurry, and maybe it would be hard to do so in the dark.

One guy came up to another guy next to me in the dark.

"My numbers," he said, and paused, because he knew he didn’t need to say it since he had said it so many times before on so many missions, every night for a year before getting into the armor. They both knew it, but he completed it anyway out of ritual.

"My numbers," he said, slapping his backside with his right hand, "are in my back pocket."

Harrigan's Blog Archive

Steve Harrigan currently serves as a Miami-based correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). He joined the network in 2001 as a Moscow-based correspondent.