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Salman Pak, Iraq

     The early-morning February sun was blinding. The constant reflections of light shooting off car windshields hurt the eyes, even with tinted sunglasses. A mass of green camouflage was gathering at the edge of the dirt road. Just beyond, spread out for several hundred yards along the road, local Iraqis waited in their vehicles, wondering what the delay was in their morning commute. Three men stepped out in front of the others in a heated discussion.

     “I thought we had the route fully mapped out,” said a tall soldier in green camo named Rolfson, according to his nameplate. He was of medium build, his face unrecognizable due to the helmet, radio antenna, and sunglasses. He stood directly across from two shorter Iraqi men, one holding an unfolded map.

     “We did, Major,” said the man with the map. “My team performed the route clearing last night. We uncovered several IEDs, dug them up, and delivered them to the barracks. The route should be ready for our reconnaissance.”

     Improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, were the most common weapon used by Iraqi insurgent groups. These homemade bombs were easy to make and deploy. Children’s toys or household appliance parts were the everyday components of explosive devices.

     The IEDs could be triggered by a pressure plate whenever a US vehicle drove over it or via a cell phone or other device transmitting an electric signal. Insurgents planted the IEDs at night, covering the explosives with dirt, trash, or animal carcasses to avoid detection. Identification and safe removal of IEDs was vital for American troops.

     “So what do you think, Colonel Jassim? Do you feel confident of your team’s work?” asked Major Rolfson.

     The Iraqi commander looked up from the map and responded, “If Lieutenant Abdul says he checked the route last night, then I trust his judgment.”

     The American officer stepped away from the two Iraqis and peered down the car-lined road. Major Rolfson commanded a small team of twelve American soldiers to support and train Colonel Jassim’s one-hundred-and-twenty-man Iraqi Army unit.

     Rolfson’s team was part of the US military’s ongoing strategy to equip and build a new Iraqi army that could independently secure Iraq, eventually allowing US forces to return home. Rolfson and his soldiers had arrived in Baghdad early in January 2007 to spend twelve months living and working with the Iraqis. Over the past two weeks, the Americans had trained Iraqi soldiers on route-clearing techniques. Today was the first live operation.

     “OK,” stated Rolfson, addressing the Iraqi Colonel, “we will proceed as planned. Colonel Jassim, you will have your men fan out along each side of the route looking for anything indicating a potential IED. If you find anything, halt the movement, and we will investigate. I will disperse my guys among yours. Agreed?”

     Colonel Jassim nodded and explained that Lieutenant Abdul would lead the column of Iraqis while he would remain alongside the American officer to observe. Rolfson had already noticed that the Iraqi commander preferred staying with the Americans rather than being visible to his men. Jassim, who had served in the Iraqi Army under Saddam Hussein, was a Sunni, while the rest of his soldiers were Shiite.

     It took some time before the Iraqis formed two columns on either side of the road and began to advance. The local civilians, stranded in their cars for over an hour, displayed clear frustration. Some rolled down their side windows and shouted about the cause of the delay, while others honked their horns.

     The Iraqi soldiers ignored these reactions and continued slowly down the road. Several of the Americans decided to walk between the cars to get a better vantage point for the movement of the two columns. As the drivers’ anger increased, a few tried to block the soldiers’ advance by turning their cars toward the center. At one point, an American soldier tapped his M-16 rifle muzzle onto the windshield of a vehicle blocking his path and shouted, “Imshi!” Move!

The sight of the rifle barrel had its intended effect; the driver quickly steered his vehicle out of the way.

     The operation proceeded similarly for the next few miles. As the sun rose, the heat became more intense. The scattered palm trees that bordered the road did little to provide relief, and the dust kicked up by the constant shuffle of boots irritated the mouth and nostrils.

Debris littered the route, and the soldiers were wary of the potential danger hidden beneath. Most were careful to sidestep the linen or plastic bags, cardboard, glass, clothing, and other materials.

     A few hundred yards beyond a roadside bend, they came to a halt. The two columns stood in place as the American and Iraqi commanders approached the front to see what had happened. Lieutenant Abdul stood near a large dirt mound off the left of the road and pointed to an object buried in the earth.

     The two commanders leaned down to see more clearly. A small circle surrounded by what looked like fan blades protruded from the ground. The gray metal surface had signs of rust and dirt, indicating that it had been there for some time.

     “I saw a bump in the ground that didn’t look natural, so I took a closer look and noticed this,” said Lieutenant Abdul, still pointing. “It is a 60 mm mortar round. We see this very often. They are easy to transport and hide.”

     The American commander straightened up and addressed the lieutenant. “I thought you said you checked the route last night. How did you miss this?”

     “Well, sir. Seeing these tiny devices at night can be challenging, especially when they have been in the ground for a long time, leaving only slight discoloration in the dirt. I will have my men extract this round for transport back to the barracks.”

     By now, most of the American soldiers had arrived at the mound. Several had looks of concern, while a few shook their heads. The Iraqi commander appeared slightly embarrassed but did not openly rebuke his officer. The group of men retreated to the other side of the road until Lieutenant Abdul and another Iraqi dug up the explosive and carried it back to one of the Iraqi Army vehicles following the columns. The pause in the operation allowed some time for the soldiers to rest and drink water.

     “So, Colonel,” began Major Rolfson, “I hope that is the last omission we see. This discovery has me thinking we should call off the rest of the operation and head back to the base.”

     “I am sure there will be no other ‘omissions,’ as you say, Major,” retorted Colonel Jassim. “This experience is important for my men.”

     “All right. This heat is worsening, and I don’t want to be exposed here too long. We will continue for a few more miles until we reach the pumping station.”

     With the return of Lieutenant Abdul, the movement picked up again. The sun was hot, and the heat, even for February, was becoming oppressive for the unacclimated Americans. Behind the palm trees, various types of private dwellings were visible. These were simple structures made of cinder blocks or concrete. The windows had no glass, and the roofs, where there was one, were flat. Brightly colored metal fences surrounded many of these properties and their dirt yards.

     A large pile of debris sat beyond an intersection toward the west. The front section of the column had already passed this area as Major Rolfson and Colonel Jassim approached it. Attracted by something in the debris pile, Rolfson moved over to investigate. The American commander asked whether the area was cleared and received a reply that all was clear.

     “It looks like one of the men dropped his goggles,” Major Rolfson said, bending down to pick up the eyewear.

     When he grabbed it, a deafening sound ripped across the area.

     Flames shot into the air, releasing a black cloud of smoke. Those in the immediate vicinity were knocked to the ground. Dazed and confused, a couple of American soldiers staggered to their feet. The two men, covered in dust and debris, brushed off their faces and observed the carnage.

     There was an eerie silence; time seemed to have stopped. Across the road, flames and smoke rose high into the air, obscuring the sunlight. To the right, a mangy tan-colored dog was limping through some low grass tinged by the explosion. The scarred remains of a palm tree stood on the roadside, its green leaves ignited and burning.

     Several men, their blue uniforms tattered and blood-stained, dotted the immediate area. Colonel Jassim, who had been nearest to the blast, was motionless in the middle of the road, a thin red trail leading from his right leg.

     A group of Iraqi soldiers, led by Lieutenant Abdul, sprinted toward the scene. There was no sign of Major Rolfson. The cries of the wounded begging for help abruptly broke the silence.

     “Where is the major?” asked one of the two Americans, whose rank patch indicated a staff sergeant.

     “I don’t know. Last I saw, he was standing beside Colonel Jassim,” replied the other American, a tall, burly man. His sergeant first-class rank patch stretched on his body armor that could barely extend across his upper torso.

     The Americans crossed the road toward the blast site, where they noticed the Iraqi commander being evaluated by an Iraqi medic. The medic was full of concern.

     “He’ll be all right,” stated the staff sergeant. “It doesn’t look that bad. Come on. We have to find the major.”

     When they reached the far side of the road, the Americans could still feel the heat from the explosion and saw a crater several meters away from the road with a small fire burning inside. The men began to search around the crater, discovering what looked like the remnants of a boot a few yards to the right, half-buried on the edge of the blast hole. A little further beyond, a severed piece of an arm covered in blood was strewn in the dirt. Green camouflage threads were visible on the limb. The men hesitated for a moment before approaching the remains.

     “Can that be Major Rolfson?” asked the staff sergeant in a pleading tone. “Where is the rest of him?”

      "Stay calm, Sergeant Miller,” said the sergeant first-class. “Don’t touch anything, but let’s see if we can find any identifying marks or other evidence. Maybe Doc can determine whether this is the major.”

     “Jesus, Sergeant Collins, there’s not much to go on.”

While the two sergeants sought to confirm the major’s identity, the rest of the American team arrived at the spot. Most of the Iraqis had also assembled at the blast site. The American medic, nicknamed Doc, ran to join Sergeants Miller and Collins.

     Major Norris, the team’s executive officer, focused on establishing security at the site. He ordered the Americans and Iraqis to form a defensive perimeter around the area in the case of further attack. Lieutenant Abdul stayed by his commander, who regained consciousness after several minutes. His leg wound, although bleeding profusely, was not serious. Lieutenant Abdul assisted the colonel to his feet. Satisfied with the impromptu perimeter, Major Norris walked up to Colonel Jassim.

     “What happened, Colonel?” asked Norris. “Did you see the explosion?”

     The Iraqi commander took a deep breath. “I was talking with Major Rolfson when he mentioned seeing a pair of goggles lying by the road. He must have thought that your men lost them and wanted to return them. He walked over to the side of the road, and then I heard the noise. The next thing I knew, I woke up looking at the sky and seeing Abdul’s face staring at me. Is the major all right?”



Chapter 1


Baghdad, FOB Rustamiyah


     The morning rain had made the sand and gravel pathway slick. The emerging sunlight glistened off the thin water covering the ground.

     Pacing slowly to avoid muddying his boots, Captain Seth Bodin followed the main road from his barracks toward the headquarters of the 3rd Infantry Division, where the division’s head intelligence officer had summoned him. He was unsure of the reason for the meeting but knew that the matter must be important to receive such a summons.

     This was his first deployment, and he was still getting used to active-duty Army life. He had joined the Army as a reservist after the horrific attacks on September 11, 2001. Since then, he had spent one weekend per month performing intelligence analysis for a Military Police unit at a secure facility in rural Michigan.

     Only six months ago he learned that his reserve unit was leaving for a year-long tour in Iraq. He had arrived in Iraq a few weeks earlier, leaving his family and project management job behind.

     He passed the Forward Operating Base (“FOB”) fitness center surrounded by wood barriers and sandbags. The sign for Rustamiyah Gym tilted slightly, the result of a recent mortar attack on the base. Protected from direct assault by ten-foot concrete walls, the base was subject to frequent rocket and mortar attacks. Local insurgent groups using nearby neighborhoods for concealment frequently lobbed explosive rounds into the base.

     Due to this constant risk, he identified spots along his path that could serve as shelters in case he heard the deadly whistling sound warning of an incoming projectile. Too far from one of the many two-man bunkers scattered around the base, a roof overhang from a structure across the road seemed his best option. Seth returned the salute from two enlisted soldiers and ascended a short flight of well-worn stairs.

     A large wood sign welcomed arrivals to the 3rd ID headquarters. American and US Army banners flanked the division’s famous square-shaped, blue and white diagonally striped insignia. The two-story stone structure, whose outer façade still bore the scars of a tense firefight during the American advance into Baghdad several years earlier, was original to the base founded by the British in 1924 as a military training academy.

     Forward Operating Base Rustamiyah was in southeast Baghdad, close to the intersection of the Tigris and Sirwan rivers, making the site ideal for conducting operations southward following the flow of the Tigris.

     He opened the glass door and continued down a long hallway to his left. The beige-colored walls displayed flags and pictures comprising various combat units within the 3rd ID. The constant parade of boots deposited sand and gravel pebbles on the uneven laminate floor. About halfway down the corridor, he stopped and stood before a wooden door with a black nameplate, COLONEL REYNOLDS, 3rd ID S-2. The S-2, or Staff Officer 2, indicated the officer responsible for intelligence.

     Seth knocked on the door.

     “Enter,” came a deep voice from within.

     “Captain Bodin reporting as requested, sir.”

     “Yes, yes, come in, Captain. Have a seat.” The colonel motioned for Seth to take one of the high-backed wood chairs facing his desk. The broad wooden desk was covered with piles of files. A green plastic phone sat on one side while a set of diminutive US, UK, and Iraqi flags occupied the other. The few unoccupied areas on the desk revealed deep scrapes and cuts in the wood.

     Directly behind the S-2 stood an old gray metal bookcase, above which hung a portrait of US President Bush. The overall impression was that of a high school principal’s office.

     “I’ve asked you to come, Captain, because I have a matter that troubles me. Are you aware of the recent situation concerning Major Rolfson?” The colonel fixed his stare on Seth.

     “Yes, sir. Major Rolfson was killed by an IED on patrol with the Iraqis a few days ago. I received the report as part of my daily briefing. A forensics team needed a few hours to identify the major’s remains. Beyond that, the report seemed to indicate nothing unusual.”

     “I agree that on the surface it appears that Rolfson’s death was an unfortunate accident,” stated the colonel. “His team was on their first operation and may have made a rookie but deadly mistake. However, we have recently seen a rise in Iraqi soldiers shooting their American counterparts. Major Rolfson had expressed concerns about possible financial irregularities with his Iraqi partners, making me suspicious of his death. Given your role and experience, I wanted you to investigate the matter more deeply.”

     As the intelligence officer of the 278th Military Police Brigade, Seth had also been alarmed by the increase in such killings involving an Iraqi soldier attacking a US soldier. His primary duties comprised providing intelligence to the brigade commander regarding enemy movements, but he also possessed knowledge of police procedures and investigative techniques. He spoke passable Arabic.

     “I understand, sir, but wouldn’t the Criminal Investigative Division be better equipped? I review and write intel reports and have never conducted an official investigation.”

The S-2 shook his head. “This is not a pure detective matter, in my opinion. There are possible intelligence implications here, and I need someone who can walk in both worlds. That’s why I chose you.”

     “I must get approval from my commanding officer. I have been working on some target packages of suspected bomb makers.”

     “No need to worry. I already spoke with him. This investigation takes priority.”

     “All right then, sir. When do I start?”

     “As soon as possible.” The colonel handed a green file folder to Seth. “This is the information we have gathered so far. I will let you determine how to proceed, but I expect quick results. If this death was not an accident but something else, I want to know what it was and how we can counter it. One last thing. Given our current troop levels, do not expect additional resources to be available. You will be on your own.”

     “Understood. I think I will start by speaking with the men from Captain Rolfson’s team.”

     “Good idea. The team will still be here for several more days while they await their next orders. They occupy Building 104.”

     The colonel stood up. Seth also rose.

     “That is all, Captain. Good luck to you. Dismissed.”

     Seth saluted his superior officer and left the office. While exiting the building, several questions formed in his mind. How would Rolfson’s soldiers react to questioning? Investigating the Iraqi unit might prove even more challenging. If the death is not an accident, should Rolfson’s men be kept in the dark as to the true cause? The colonel seems confident in his suspicions. What was he not revealing?

     He continued around a bend in the road, where he saw a familiar two-story concrete building. The structure housed the 278th Military Police Brigade. Six-foot-high stacks of sandbags protected the lower story, and wooden panels covered every window. A row of up-armored Humvees stood guard outside the main entrance. Each five-hundred-pound door displayed “MP” in large black letters. A small group of soldiers dressed in full body armor stood around some of the Humvees before heading out on patrol.

     “Where are you going today, Sergeant?”

     The black soldier removed his sunglasses and addressed Seth, “Patrolling along Route Irish, sir. We got reports that insurgents have been active all day. There was an IED explosion this morning.”

     “Best of luck and be careful, Sergeant. I see from the intel reports that the route has a high casualty rate.” Route Irish ran through central Bagdad, eventually leading to Baghdad International Airport. Due to its strategic importance as a transport highway, insurgents constantly planted explosives and conducted ambushes.

     “Roger that, sir. Will do.” The sergeant turned back to his men.

     When Seth reached his room on the second floor, he threw the green file folder on the faded yellow plastic garden table that served as his desk and sat in the well-worn metal chair. In the past, Iraqi officer trainees had used the small room, which resembled a freshman dorm room.

White-painted cinderblock walls surrounded a cement floor. Two twin-size beds stood in opposite corners in the back. Tucked under the beds were olive drab duffle bags and a guitar-sized black case. A single heavily used wooden armoire completed the furnishings. Several locally designed rugs, purchased from Iraqi vendors at the base, livened up the place.

Seth opened the tan case folder containing information on Major Rolfson’s death that Colonel Reynolds had given him. He perused the files more closely. The forensic team had taken several photos of the scene. He had seen dead bodies before but never one of an IED victim.

He focused on the edge of the blast crater where Rolfson’s remains were found. Staring at the charred boot wedged into the dirt, he noticed that the soil color on the boot differed from the crater’s earth. No expert on forensics, Seth nevertheless expected more color consistency if Rolfson had, supposedly, stood in that same dirt when the IED detonated. Perhaps the heat of the blast affected the color.

     He wrote a reminder in his pocket notebook to follow up on this issue.

A second photo taken from a wider angle captured the other victims of the blast, five Iraqis including the Iraqi commander. An attached medical report indicated that all the wounds were minor. It was almost as if the Iraqi soldiers knew not to get too close to the commanders. He jotted another comment in his notepad.

     The file contained a report by Major Rolfson expressing concerns about using US funds to purchase goods and equipment for the Iraqi Army battalion. According to Rolfson, there was an apparent lack of proper procedures surrounding requisition requests and payments. The paperwork was shoddy or simply missing. When Rolfson confronted the Iraqi commander, the commander appeared unconcerned, adding that prior American leaders had not found problems. The goods and equipment would eventually arrive at the Iraqi compound, but there was no way to tell what was paid or where the supplies came.

     Rolfson concluded the report with his suspicion that someone in the Iraqi battalion, maybe even the commander, was siphoning off US funds. The purpose remained unclear. Attached to the report was a formal request by the major to audit all transactions with the battalion over the past eighteen months. Rolfson had submitted the proposal five days before his death.

The final section of the file contained the names and bios of all the men on Rolfson’s team. Five officers and seven non-commissioned officers (NCOs) made up the military training team, or MiTT, which had the mission to train Iraqi units in various military specialties.

     Of the officers, there were two majors, two captains, and one first lieutenant. Major Norris, an infantry officer, was the executive officer or second in command. Captain Sullivan, a West Point graduate, was on his second tour in Iraq. Captain Sullivan had commanded an artillery battery during the original incursion into Baghdad in 2003.

     The most junior officer on the team was First Lieutenant Riley, a former NCO with special forces who had earned his ranger and scuba school certifications. There were also officers responsible for supply and weapons training.

     The NCOs, all staff sergeants and above, worked alongside the officers providing hands-on education to their Iraqi counterparts. Master Sergeant Masson was the senior NCO, a reservist with twenty years of infantry experience. Staff Sergeant Miller was one of the team’s machine gunners. Sergeant First Class Collins served as the communications sergeant. The other NCOs specialized in weapons, policing, and logistics.

     Seth closed the folder, furrowed his brow, and evaluated the weight of the information contained within it. Building 104 loomed on the other side of the FOB, a stark silhouette against the darkening sky opposite the 3rd Infantry Division headquarters.

     He had a sense of foreboding, an unshakable feeling that he was on the precipice of a storm that would engulf them all.

     His gaze shifted toward the window at the back of the room, where the last vestiges of daylight were fading into the encroaching night. The ominous clouds above portended another rain shower, but it was the storm brewing within the base that sent shivers down his spine.

Seth knew his lack of experience was a risk, as he stood on the cusp of a dangerous journey. His mission to uncover the truth about the explosion was fraught with dangers and uncertainties. The hour was growing late, and the looming darkness did little to alleviate his unease.

The growling of his empty stomach, a constant reminder of his weariness, finally wrested his attention away from the daunting task ahead. He contemplated his options, realizing it was too late and risky to trek to the MiTT's barracks for the night. The DFAC, the dining facility, was still open and would at least allay his hunger. With a heavy sigh, Seth decided to make a quick food run.

     He picked up his jacket and stepped outside, the chill of the evening air settling on his skin. The journey to the DFAC was uneventful, and the aroma of hot food greeted him as he entered the bustling facility. He filled his tray with a meal, his mind a whirlwind of thoughts, and hurriedly returned to his room.

     The first rain drops began to fall, their soft patter on the ground a prelude to the impending deluge. Seth couldn't help but think that the real storm was yet to come and would kick off in earnest tomorrow.

     As he settled back into his room, the questions surrounding Major Rolfson’s death weighed heavily on his mind. The darkness outside mirrored the uncertainty within, and he couldn't shake the feeling that the answers would come at a steep price.

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