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Spc. Michael MacLeod, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division Public Affairs
RAMADI, Iraq – 09.29.2009
Beyond green waves of head-high qassab grasses growing along the Euphrates, a man was seining the muddy shallows below the highway bridge with a hand net. A breeze skiffed across the water and over his bare almond skin, no doubt casting surprising but short-lived shivers up his spine, even on this sunny morning in September 2009.
For the American paratroopers pulling "overwatch" security atop the Jazirah Precinct police station in Ramadi, the fisherman was a lonely curiosity. The shoreline was in one of the few sectors from which a sniper could not fire at them. In the chaos created by a half-moon traffic circle spilling from the bridge, motorists, pedestrians and cyclists created a constant stream of potential security threats. At least they could see a vehicle coming.
A sniper's bullet would come more like a chill on the wings of a breeze, felt before seen. It was a risk that every service member, both American and Iraqi, takes in the effort to bring peace and prosperity to Iraq. Within the hour, one of the two paratroopers would be shot. Overwatch
Sgt. Deny Caballero, an infantry team leader with 1st Platoon, Company B, 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, was on his second deployment with the legendary 82nd Airborne Division.
The 504th belonged to 1st Brigade Combat Team (Advise and Assist Brigade), a 3,500-strong band of door-kicking, fast-charging light infantry recently retooled for a special mission: to provide support to Iraqi security forces as an "advise-and-assist" brigade.
Unlike combat teams currently serving in Iraq, the advise-and-assist brigades are augmented with personnel who specialize in engineering, military police, transportation, and training civilian employees.
The transition to advise-and-assist brigades reflects the U.S. military's understanding of the evolving operational environment and the fundamental change in its relationship to Iraqi security forces as a supporting partner.
Broadly speaking, the mission of these brigades is to train Iraqi security forces and to implement tasks related to combating terrorism in coordination with ISF to protect the citizens of Iraq. They will also work to foster Iraqi rule of law, governance, economic development and cultural advising.
Inside the police station, company commander, Capt. John Miller, was meeting with the precinct chief, Col. Adnon, to cement a working relationship with Iraqi police, just as the Marines of departing Regimental Combat Team 6 had done. It was the captain's fourth meeting in a month.
Taking the lead on the rooftop terrace was Iraq veteran, Sgt. Kevin Novak, a forward observer from Greely, Company. As a "fister," overwatch was one of his specialties. Novak liked working with "Cab." The native Puerto Rican always brought professional seriousness to the game.
The scene was challenging—the congested traffic circle, the dark-windowed buildings behind it, a rooftop with camouflaged netting, blast barriers lying everywhere like game pieces, palm trees, tall grass, all these civilians. Novak considered the palm trees.
"Hey Cab, were you with us last deployment when we were mortared in that palm grove?"
Both men stood around six feet tall; in their kit, they look alike but for their complexions and the radio antenna protruding from Novak's flak vest.
Not waiting for a response, Novak laughed and said, "We were in the middle of a palm grove around midnight when we got mortared. We ran the wrong way and three guys fell in a ditch of goo up to their armpits."
Novak broke off to call Caballero's attention to a rusting sedan that had stopped. He watched a few of the passengers get out. Caballero moved to get eyes on as Novak directed. The car moved on.
"Listening for that melodious Arab language," Caballero called out, as if talking to the wind.
"Melodious?" Novak asked. "Italian is melodious. French is melodious."
The light banter is spat like the husks of sunflower seeds to make the time pass.
"Watch that guy on the bicycle. That's a pretty random place to stop on a bike."
"Want a tidbit of knowledge, Novak? The Quran is like our Bible. It's rather peaceful."
"The guy on the bike picked up a friend."
Caballero was recently married to another paratrooper in the same brigade. His wife, Catilina, was serving with a different battalion on a forward operating base less than an hour away, near Fallujah. Ironically, Novak was able to talk to his wife on the phone more often than Caballero.
"I don't take my eye off the mission or what I'm doing, but I do think about the little things," said Caballero, taking a knee below the wall. Both knew the last three casualties the Marines had taken in Ramadi were from snipers.
"Her smile, the perfume she wears, her giggles, the way I can make her laugh about just about anything."
He glanced at Novak, who was studying something directly in front of the IP station.
"You smell something, and it reminds you of a certain time. She's always on my mind.
Even though he missed his wife, his battle buddies were like family, he said. For instance, he and Sgt. Daniel Logan, both team leaders, had served in the same platoon for three years. They ate together, worked out together and shared many of the hardships and joys of being deployed in a foreign land, where the goal was to make the pursuit of happiness a viable part of the Iraqi landscape. Sometimes that was hard work, but it's what forged these radiant bonds. Caballero knew that his wife was making such friendships of her own, and he was happy for her.
Someday, he and his plane-jumping, jeep-driving, karate-kicking, animal-tracking, "I'm as tough as you but more beautiful" wife would swap war stories, and that made him smile.
"Now, I have called my mom," he said with a chuckle. "It's a stereotype, I know, but Hispanic moms are dramatic and can get hysterical. I'm still her baby. She knows I love cereal, so last deployment, she would send me boxes of cereal and shelf-stable milk. 'Are you getting enough cereal?'" he mimicked his mother. "'I'll send you some cereal.'"
"I love my mom," he said.
Back on the wall, he and Novak took turns with binoculars to discern a metallic object in a window beyond the traffic.
Boots shuffling up the stairs – it was the platoon leader, 2nd Lt. Adam Johnson, with another sergeant. It was time to move out.
Novak started down the steps, while Caballero took one last look. Nothing. He turned his back. He trotted down the stairs.
Past the last IP guard post, the overwatch detail moved quickly toward five Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, ready to roll. Arriving at the first two, Novak waited while Caballero checked on two MRAPs 30 meters away. He hurried back at a fast trot to Novak.
The "snap" of the bullet was remarkable only because something so lethal should have commanded a more audible presence. From somewhere in the palm grove or perhaps the traffic circle, the 7.62 mm bullet had zoomed in at a half-mile per second and hit Novak.
The bullet passed through his right shoulder and lodged in his hand, without even knocking him over.
"Small arms fire!" Caballero yelled.
Camp Ramadi was only ten minutes away. At the aid station, the Navy's Shock Trauma Platoon quickly treated Novak's non life-threatening wounds, then medevaced him on to Balad for more treatment.
A paratrooper addressed Caballero. "Novak says his wedding ring and a note are under his pillow. He says you know what to do."
Calling Novak's wife was not Caballero's job, but he would make sure the little things – the wedding ring and letters – got to his buddy as soon as possible. Being both deployed Soldier and the spouse of one gave Caballero extra insight into how important those little irreplaceable things are to both partners.
Bravo Company was not finished with the sniper, however. As soon as Novak was cared for, they mounted back up and returned to their Iraqi partners at the Jazirah police station to continue the salty work for which they had trained so many months back in the States. Far from intimidating the IP and the paratroopers of the 504th, the shooter had just given each more reason to appreciate their partnership.
In a couple of days, Caballero would walk the mile to the Morale, Welfare and Recreation facility in the evening, sign up for a computer and, when it was his turn, switch roles from paratrooper to husband and type to his wife through an Internet chat program:
"Hey, paratrooper. How was your day?"