It was mid-morning, May 2004, returning from an Iraqi village school visit, my convoy, heading south on Main Supply Route Tampa, towards Camp Speicher. Riding in the lead vehicle, SGT Hernandez, my driver, spotted a red car with its trunk open, on the road’s shoulder 500 meters to our left front, north bound side.
Bent over in knee high weeds, was an Iraqi man dressed in a brown European style suit jacket with matching pants, white shirt and open collar, no tie- no need to be formal. I had no idea why he worked in the weeds. Not to stereotype; “he just did not look like an insurgent”; he only acted like one, maybe. The Iraqi man working in the weeds had too much gray hair and too well groomed to be a typical insurgent.
Noticing details are the difference between life and death, particularly his life or death.
The Iraqi man’s road side behavior concerned me; he was out of place- what was he doing, he did not belong there. After the April 2004 Uprising, attacks and ‘incidents’ as lesser attacks were called, against Coalition and Iraqi security forces increased from about 125 per month to eventually 125 incidents per day; not quite exponential, but a very rapid, steep and lethal increase.
Improvised Explosive Devise [IED] attacks were the most common and deadly incidents.
Fresh in my memory was surviving an ‘April Uprising’ Rocket Propelled Grenade attack while conducting a school assessment in Tikrit; I did not want some convoy to get ‘hit’ because I did not do my job and check out this Iraqi wading around in the knee-high weeds along a convoy route.
Guilt is felt for what we do and what we do not do. I did not want to carry that burden for the rest of my life. Maybe this unknown Iraqi man was an insurgent and was setting up an IED; maybe not. I erred on the side of caution and investigated our mystery man.
I radioed the mission change to the convoy. When leading a moving convoy in a combat zone, there is no time to discuss in great detail what to do. There is only ‘do’ time.
Our convoy passed the parked car, making a ‘U’ turn, crossing the median strip, changing direction from south to north. This was no ‘cowboy’ mission, beyond the scope of our limited talent.
I never took unnecessary risks; my team was my responsibility to keep alive; I knew our limits. SGM Gamache and I took our duty serious and avoided trouble. I felt my team could get close, look around and ask a few questions without assuming too much risk.
IEDs were usually emplaced over a few days; one step at a time: dig the hole, drop in the IED, wire it up and cover; wait, observe and attack a passing convoy. At this time, I figured there would be no attack.
I figured right.
Our convoy pulled over, 50 meters behind the Iraqi man, we set up the standard 360 degrees security: everyone out of their vehicle except the drivers and gunners in the HUMMV’s turrets.
I approached the Iraqi man, smiling and waving, my rifle hanging loosely by its sling to my front, my hand on the rifle grip and finger near the trigger, my Iraqi translator Abu Ali by my side. For security, two soldiers, were 10 meters behind me, I did not want to intimidate the Iraqi man with too many guns.
Counter-insurgent warfare requires a gentle hand and an iron fist. We were still in gentle hand mode; however, the iron fist was always ready.
Thru my translator Abu Ali, I greeted the Iraqi man, asked what he was doing; did he his car break down? did he need any help? I wanted to be courteous, show the ‘good face’ of the American Army. As I questioned him, I scanned his car’s trunk looking for tools of terror: explosives, wire, electronic devices and any clues that might help determine his actions.
I saw a trunk full of weeds.
He replied, “No”, he was picking weeds to make henna. I smiled, snickered and wondered: ‘What is henna?’
The Iraqi gentleman was a female hair stylist, collecting various plants to make henna dye. Henna tattooing is very popular in Iraq, other Arabic and south Asia countries, mostly amongst women, but sometimes for men, usually for special events such as weddings.
Abu Ali and I had a short laugh in disbelief.
We explained to Mr. Hairstylist the danger he placed himself by parking on the highway’s shoulder, working in the weeds with hand tools. Due to the increased attacks against US, Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces, he could be shot by Coalition forces thinking he was an insurgent, not a women’s hairstylist.
He was unaware of the danger he unwittingly placed himself. This is where henna was found and how henna was picked. Mr. Hairstylist always got free henna; for as long as he needed free henna.
I told him he might want to be careful, under different circumstances, picking henna could cost him his life; not so free now is it?
As a good will gesture, we gave him a case of bottled water for his time and troubles and wished him a good day.
Respect and generosity go a long way: I hope we made a ‘friend’, or at least an Iraqi who can say ‘not all American soldiers are monsters’.