BAGHDAD, Iraq – They call themselves the "Earth Pigs," although they're perfect gentlemen to my crew and me. Captain John Lovin and his men don't have to take television crews with them on a mission, but they've loaded us into their Stryker vehicles, and now we're rolling around a Shiite neighborhood in West Baghdad.
This will turn out to be a routine patrol. Not every mission ends in a gunbattle or a roadside bomb blast. But there is always danger, and the Earth Pigs remain on high alert.
The first place we stop is a warehouse district. The Earth Pigs have never been here before. It's a chance to check for insurgents and make some introductions with community leaders. The people here seem more curious than hostile, although we see the telltale colored flags that show allegiance to radical militias.
Some the residents peer out from behind half-closed doors; others come into the street to get a good look at us.
One woman has a small stall at the side of the road, and she's baking bread. In another part of the world, under different circumstances, I'd be lured by the scent and would probably stop and buy some. But this is Iraq, a war zone, and we're not tourists.
After 20 minutes in the warehouse district it's time to move on, but instead of getting back into our heavily armored vehicles, we're doing it on foot. The streets are crowded; there are lots of people in minibuses, Iraqi men — Shiites — in long white robes. Everyone looks at us. We wear bulky blue bulletproof vests, helmets and dark goggles, and we're carrying camera gear. There's no possible way we could be more conspicuous.
I find myself constantly checking where my producer, Tiho, and cameraman, Pierre, are --and where the soldiers are, too. I'm worried about losing sight of anyone as we start to spread out. We all try to keep to the sidewalk, using walls and concrete barriers for cover — and never stand in the middle of the road for any longer than is absolutely necessary in case someone decides to shoot at us.
We come to a piece of wasteland that is swarming with people — maybe 200 of them — and about 30 white canvas tents. Captain Lovin talks to some of the people through his Iraqi interpreter. These are Shiite families who set up this refugee camp a few days ago.
Originally from north of Baghdad, one man tells me the families were chased from their homes by Sunni insurgents. This place is everything you'd imagine a refugee camp to be. A group of men stands around a barrel, scooping a cup of water and passing it around, each taking a sip. Women wearing traditional black clothing crowd around a Red Crescent worker who's trying to assess what the needs of each family are. Children flock to us, pointing at our cameras, calling out "One picture! One picture!"
Some of the refugees are wounded. One man lying at the entrance to his tent has two broken ankles. Peeking out the flap of the tent, his wife and three kids eye us warily. The Earth Pigs' medic gets to work bandaging up the man's ankles, trying to make him comfortable, as he tells me his story. His family used to live north of Baghdad, in a mixed Sunni-Shiite community. Then the insurgents and foreign fighters came. Some, he tells me, were from Syria, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. They threw him from a balcony, and that's how his ankles got broken.
It's difficult not to sympathize with the refugees here. But I have to remember that in Iraq, there's always more than one side to every story.
David Mac Dougall is a freelance reporter for FOX News in Baghdad.