The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness
"So we get started on this day, this one in particular," recalled Spc. Philip Chrystal, 23, of Reno, who said he raided between twenty and thirty Iraqi homes during an eleven-month tour in Kirkuk and Hawija that ended in October 2005, serving with the Third Battalion, 116th Cavalry Brigade. "It starts with the psy-ops vehicles out there, you know, with the big speakers playing a message in Arabic or Farsi or Kurdish or whatever they happen to be, saying, basically, saying, Put your weapons, if you have them, next to the front door in your house. Please come outside, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And we had Apaches flying over for security, if they're needed, and it's also a good show of force. And we're running around, and they--we'd done a few houses by this point, and I was with my platoon leader, my squad leader and maybe a couple other people.
"And we were approaching this one house," he said. "In this farming area, they're, like, built up into little courtyards. So they have, like, the main house, common area. They have, like, a kitchen and then they have a storage shed-type deal. And we're approaching, and they had a family dog. And it was barking ferociously, 'cause it's doing its job. And my squad leader, just out of nowhere, just shoots it. And he didn't--motherfucker--he shot it and it went in the jaw and exited out. So I see this dog--I'm a huge animal lover; I love animals--and this dog has, like, these eyes on it and he's running around spraying blood all over the place. And like, you know, What the hell is going on? The family is sitting right there, with three little children and a mom and a dad, horrified. And I'm at a loss for words. And so, I yell at him. I'm, like, What the fuck are you doing? And so the dog's yelping. It's crying out without a jaw. And I'm looking at the family, and they're just, you know, dead scared. And so I told them, I was like, Fucking shoot it, you know? At least kill it, because that can't be fixed....
"And--I actually get tears from just saying this right now, but--and I had tears then, too--and I'm looking at the kids and they are so scared. So I got the interpreter over with me and, you know, I get my wallet out and I gave them twenty bucks, because that's what I had. And, you know, I had him give it to them and told them that I'm so sorry that asshole did that.
"Was a report ever filed about it?" he asked. "Was anything ever done? Any punishment ever dished out? No, absolutely not."
Specialist Chrystal said such incidents were "very common."
According to interviews with twenty-four veterans who participated in such raids, they are a relentless reality for Iraqis under occupation. The American forces, stymied by poor intelligence, invade neighborhoods where insurgents operate, bursting into homes in the hope of surprising fighters or finding weapons. But such catches, they said, are rare. Far more common were stories in which soldiers assaulted a home, destroyed property in their futile search and left terrorized civilians struggling to repair the damage and begin the long torment of trying to find family members who were hauled away as suspects.
Raids normally took place between midnight and 5 am, according to Sgt. John Bruhns, 29, of Philadelphia, who estimates that he took part in raids of nearly 1,000 Iraqi homes. He served in Baghdad and Abu Ghraib, a city infamous for its prison, located twenty miles west of the capital, with the Third Brigade, First Armor Division, First Battalion, for one year beginning in March 2003. His descriptions of raid procedures closely echoed those of eight other veterans who served in locations as diverse as Kirkuk, Samarra, Baghdad, Mosul and Tikrit.
"You want to catch them off guard," Sergeant Bruhns explained. "You want to catch them in their sleep." About ten troops were involved in each raid, he said, with five stationed outside and the rest searching the home.
Once they were in front of the home, troops, some wearing Kevlar helmets and flak vests with grenade launchers mounted on their weapons, kicked the door in, according to Sergeant Bruhns, who dispassionately described the procedure:
"You run in. And if there's lights, you turn them on--if the lights are working. If not, you've got flashlights.... You leave one rifle team outside while one rifle team goes inside. Each rifle team leader has a headset on with an earpiece and a microphone where he can communicate with the other rifle team leader that's outside.
"You go up the stairs. You grab the man of the house. You rip him out of bed in front of his wife. You put him up against the wall. You have junior-level troops, PFCs [privates first class], specialists will run into the other rooms and grab the family, and you'll group them all together. Then you go into a room and you tear the room to shreds and you make sure there's no weapons or anything that they can use to attack us.
"You get the interpreter and you get the man of the home, and you have him at gunpoint, and you'll ask the interpreter to ask him: 'Do you have any weapons? Do you have any anti-US propaganda, anything at all--anything--anything in here that would lead us to believe that you are somehow involved in insurgent activity or anti-coalition forces activity?'
"Normally they'll say no, because that's normally the truth," Sergeant Bruhns said. "So what you'll do is you'll take his sofa cushions and you'll dump them. If he has a couch, you'll turn the couch upside down. You'll go into the fridge, if he has a fridge, and you'll throw everything on the floor, and you'll take his drawers and you'll dump them.... You'll open up his closet and you'll throw all the clothes on the floor and basically leave his house looking like a hurricane just hit it.
"And if you find something, then you'll detain him. If not, you'll say, 'Sorry to disturb you. Have a nice evening.' So you've just humiliated this man in front of his entire family and terrorized his entire family and you've destroyed his home. And then you go right next door and you do the same thing in a hundred homes."
Each raid, or "cordon and search" operation, as they are sometimes called, involved five to twenty homes, he said. Following a spate of attacks on soldiers in a particular area, commanders would normally order infantrymen on raids to look for weapons caches, ammunition or materials for making IEDs. Each Iraqi family was allowed to keep one AK-47 at home, but according to Bruhns, those found with extra weapons were arrested and detained and the operation classified a "success," even if it was clear that no one in the home was an insurgent.
Before a raid, according to descriptions by several veterans, soldiers typically "quarantined" the area by barring anyone from coming in or leaving. In pre-raid briefings, Sergeant Bruhns said, military commanders often told their troops the neighborhood they were ordered to raid was "a hostile area with a high level of insurgency" and that it had been taken over by former Baathists or Al Qaeda terrorists.
"So you have all these troops, and they're all wound up," said Sergeant Bruhns. "And a lot of these troops think once they kick down the door there's going to be people on the inside waiting for them with weapons to start shooting at them."
Sgt. Dustin Flatt, 33, of Denver, estimates he raided "thousands" of homes in Tikrit, Samarra and Mosul. He served with the Eighteenth Infantry Brigade, First Infantry Division, for one year beginning in February 2004. "We scared the living Jesus out of them every time we went through every house," he said.
Spc. Ali Aoun, 23, a National Guardsman from New York City, said he conducted perimeter security in nearly 100 raids while serving in Sadr City with the Eighty-Ninth Military Police Brigade for eleven months starting in April 2004. When soldiers raided a home, he said, they first cordoned it off with Humvees. Soldiers guarded the entrance to make sure no one escaped. If an entire town was being raided, in large-scale operations, it too was cordoned off, said Spc. Garett Reppenhagen, 32, of Manitou Springs, Colorado, a cavalry scout and sniper with the 263rd Armor Battalion, First Infantry Division, who was deployed to Baquba for a year in February 2004.
Staff Sgt. Timothy John Westphal, 31, of Denver, recalled one summer night in 2004, the temperature an oppressive 110 degrees, when he and forty-four other US soldiers raided a sprawling farm on the outskirts of Tikrit. Sergeant Westphal, who served there for a yearlong tour with the Eighteenth Infantry Brigade, First Infantry Division, beginning in February 2004, said he was told some men on the farm were insurgents. As a mechanized infantry squad leader, Sergeant Westphal led the mission to secure the main house, while fifteen men swept the property. Sergeant Westphal and his men hopped the wall surrounding the house, fully expecting to come face to face with armed insurgents.
"We had our flashlights and...I told my guys, 'On the count of three, just hit them with your lights and let's see what we've got here. Wake 'em up!'"
Sergeant Westphal's flashlight was mounted on his M-4 carbine rifle, a smaller version of the M-16, so in pointing his light at the clump of sleepers on the floor he was also pointing his weapon at them. Sergeant Westphal first turned his light on a man who appeared to be in his mid-60s.
"The man screamed this gut-wrenching, blood-curdling, just horrified scream," Sergeant Westphal recalled. "I've never heard anything like that. I mean, the guy was absolutely terrified. I can imagine what he was thinking, having lived under Saddam."
The farm's inhabitants were not insurgents but a family sleeping outside for relief from the stifling heat, and the man Sergeant Westphal had frightened awake was the patriarch.
"Sure enough, as we started to peel back the layers of all these people sleeping, I mean, it was him, maybe two guys...either his sons or nephews or whatever, and the rest were all women and children," Sergeant Westphal said. "We didn't find anything.
"I can tell you hundreds of stories about things like that and they would all pretty much be like the one I just told you. Just a different family, a different time, a different circumstance."
For Sergeant Westphal, that night was a turning point. "I just remember thinking to myself, I just brought terror to someone else under the American flag, and that's just not what I joined the Army to do," he said.