May 9: The open hatch of a Bradley fighting vehicle gapes before me. Sgt. Justin Lee, an Iraqi interpreter named Travis, two other soldiers and I are about to take off for a patrol. Sgt. Lee commands his soldiers:
"You squash up against Travis, I squash up against you, and you squash up against Anna.
"And you," he says to me, "squash up against that fucking thing up there."
"That fucking thing" is the fire extinguisher and the first-aid kit. I feel a little safer.
Bradleys were once thought to be almost as impregnable as M1 Abrams tanks, which were thought to be entirely unassailable. Then Iraqis started setting up EFPs, explosively formed projectiles that are elaborately made to penetrate armor. The Apache Company of the 4-64 Armor Battalion of the 4th Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, has lost five men to the projectiles since March. All five were in Bradleys when they were killed. Four of them were from the platoon with which I'm going on patrol today. Their charred bodies were found pressed against the hatch in the back of their Bradley, trying to get out. The mechanism that allows the hatch to open had melted into the body of the vehicle during the explosion.
I think about that as the hatch of the Bradley I'm in closes. Sgt. Lee mouths a prayer. As the Bradley begins to rattle out of the combat outpost where Apache Company is stationed, he yells at one of the soldiers over the roar of the engine: "Did you pray?"
Outside the sunlight is almost blinding, but inside the Bradley it is dark. Very little light seeps in through three tinted windows, each the size of a Coke bottle. The windows are too high for me to see what's outside. I guess our direction by the gentle pitch left and right of the track.
Because we can't see out, when the Bradley comes to a stop and the hatch opens the soldiers run out of the vehicle holding their M4s at the ready, prepared to fire. It is an impressive show of force, and we scare some kids. But the rest of the patrol is mellow, and soft-spoken Lt. Rusty Mason talks to the Iraqis in a friendly manner, asking them how they live, where they get food, how many hours of power they have. In return, they offer freshly baked, crunchy flatbread and cold soda. In the house of sheik Nasr al-Taee women offer the soldiers rice and a dish made with okra and tomato sauce. We stand around the kitchen table picking at the food and introducing ourselves to the sheik's numerous children, nephews and nieces. The lieutenant takes off his helmet and lets 12-year-old Thoha try it on. Another soldier rolls up his sleeve to expose, to the girls' amazement, a collage of color tattoos. Another soldier is outside, pushing around a soccer ball with the boys.
"You know," al-Taee finally says to Lt. Mason, "every day I fix curb in front of my house, and the Bradleys break it."
Everyone laughs, uncomfortably.
Then we get back into the Bradleys and drive back to the base, running over curbs and medians, breaking off palm fronds and frightening kids.