BAGHDAD, Iraq – It’s the furtive little thumbs-up signs that always make me smile, but at the same time they hurt my heart.
During two weeks of patrols with the U.S. military in Iraq, kids chased after us everywhere we went. They peeked outside their gates, stood curbside and waved. But it's those little thumbs in the air that make me wonder: Do they know what's at stake? Or do they just like the "chocolata" candy and soccer balls? Are they attracted to the soldiers in all their gear?
Do the soldiers inspire hope in them, or are they too young to know better? Sometimes parents will hold their hands and encourage them, but other times not. I let them see my face, my blond hair peeking out of my helmet, and watch their surprise when they see a woman inside. They might not smile but they do get startled.
Most children are the same, everywhere. I like to tell the Iraqi kids that I lived in Beirut for five years and know "Star Academy," the Arab world's version of “American Idol.” It’s like telling kids in the U.S. that you live in the castle at Disneyland.
It captures their attention. Why not? Already I am a creature when I arrive in their neighborhoods, but it’s a joy to watch their face register something fairytale-like out of their realm of poverty, something vivid and colorful for their imaginations.
The cacophony of sounds in Baghdad can never be captured, even in video. U.S. soldiers like their music, but I'm surprised at the range of tastes.
The second week of the embed we stayed in fold-out cots on the second floor of an abandoned shopping mall, a new command outpost center. Sound echoed throughout the night in the windowless space. I woke up to the soldiers, cocooned row after row. I could hear the Beach Boys playing in the dark: "Don't worry baby. Don't worry baby. Everything will turn out all right."
Roadside bombs, especially the armor-piercing Iranian-made kind, scare everyone. Some soldiers try to lighten the fear with dark humor. One sergeant told me that he asked a soldier to take a picture of his legs just in case he needed something to remember them by if they're blown off.
The crazy-eights part of the engineering platoon of the 82nd Airborne at Forward Operating Base Taji lost their platoon leader to one such bomb just after they arrived in early February.
The soldiers I spoke to are all newly enlisted soldiers in their first tour of Baghdad. One young woman lost her cousin in the Twin Towers on Sept. 11.
Another woman, just 20, left a husband and two young children — a 1-year-old and 4-year-old — at home. I asked her what she told them when she called home, and her words ring in my ear still, the soothing repetitive: "Mommy's coming home, Mommy's coming home." She wants to go to sniper school next.
Very few soldiers I met complained. They gripe, they vent … but the deep-seated pride in their job and their sense of mission make their mark.
The 1st Calvary, 18th Infantry regiment also has its pride; they're the Vanguards, an identity and a literal badge of honor. Col. Glaze met us the first night of our embed for a chat. After a wary few minutes chatting about the media, the conversation relaxed and charged on for a few hours, by the end of which we even knew he is an avid Iron Maiden fan.
The most telling book on his coffee table in his office: "Profiling the Criminal Mind: Criminal Psychology and Personality Profiling." Reference after reference was made in these two weeks about the new role of soldiers in the security plan, to act as beat cops, to secure neighborhoods by getting to know the residents and the gang-like mobster extortionists who are terrorizing residents block by block in this city.
Halfway through the two-week embed, when we switched from the Vanguards to the 82nd Airborne, we stopped off at Camp Liberty to catch a flight. We were at the largest Private Exchange (PX), a virtual truck stop of soldiers and airmen plowing through to shop and refuel.
Monster-size trucks driven by hooting and happily hollering men in tan jumpsuits made me think the Air Force had arrived. They wore what I learned are flame retardant suits, worn by Marines. They had just driven in from the rough and tumble capital of Ramadi in Anbar province.
The song “Vans” by the Pack with its refrain "Got my Vans on, but they look like sneakers. Got my Vans on, but they look like sneakers" will be etched in my mind as will that short respite from the conflict, where young Marines break dance and cheer each other on in the Saturday sun of a mild February at Camp Liberty in Baghdad.