One of my many extra duties is to supervise detainee release. For whatever reason, we release individuals from Coalition custody after they’re deemed “no longer a threat to the Coalition or Iraqi people.”
So, I get the call that around 50 detainees will land in my little slice of Iraqi heaven, and I need to be out there at fricking midnight to meet the helicopters. Why midnight? Because it’s inconvenient, nothing is ever easy in Iraq…and I hate helicopters.
My Iraqi Army partner, and a dozen of his soldiers, sat out by the helicopter landing zone and waited for the detainees. A little after midnight (of course they’re late) we hear the whoop-whoop-whoop of the helicopters, and we jump back into our vehicles. Helicopters kick up an absurd amount of dirt when they land, often accompanied by giggles from the pilots as they brown-out yet another unsuspecting group of spectators. We’d renovated the landing zone with giant steel mats to keep the dust down. The first helicopter landed and kicked up a fair amount of dirt, but nothing too bad.
I ran out to the helicopter, met the Soldier in charge of the detainees, waved the detainees towards the waiting and friendly Iraqi Army. As I counted detainee noses, it became blatantly obvious that I was standing behind one of the giant engines. Ladies and Gentlemen, the world’s largest hair dryer. The air was actually painful, and I wish I’d picked another spot, but then the detainees would run around all willy-nilly. A few more minutes and I would have turned into beef jerky.
The IA policed up the detainees, and they squatted in close quarters. Imagine a giant box off Peeps, but these Peeps are all in identical shirts, shoes, pants and smell terrible.
And then all common sense failed. The first helicopter could have taken off and made room for the second, instead the first stayed put, and the second landed in a dirt soccer field. I waited a minute for the dust to settle, but it didn’t. The second helicopter was surrounded by a THIS IS CETI ALPHA FIVE intensity sand storm.
I stumbled towards the helicopter, but could keep my eyes open for a moment or two. Yes, stumbling blindly towards the giant spinning blades of helicopter death. Once I got close enough that I could see the helicopter ramp, there went a long line of detainees off into the sand storm. They were definitely going the wrong way. What the hell…
I took off after the line, and found a Soldier at the head. Before I could tell him he was an artard and that he’s going the wrong way, he waved at me and took off for the helicopter. There I was, standing in the midst of nuclear winter with twenty-ish detainees who looked scared to death. It was essential that we head back to the waiting Iraqi Army, or I’d have a bunch of detainees running around an Iraqi Army base, at midnight, surrounded by armed guard towers. CNN would love that.
Thankfully, my interpreter is smarter than the average bear, and he waved a lit flash light at us, which we could make out through the haze of flying sand and very small rocks. I utilized my rudimentary Arabic and screamed “Yala!” as I waved towards the light. ‘Yala’ means “run great speed and courageous emotion’ or something like that.
I got the detainees to the Iraqi Army, who had quite the laugh at my expense. Can’t blame them, just look at me:
I look like ancient!
Then we had to screen all the detainees, make sure their name matches their picture, the names on the list, etc. No AQI/JAM would ever try to sneak out of prison by flubbing up his paperwork, never ever!
My Iraqi partner and I quizzed each detainee about why they were arrested (every single one was innocent, they don’t know why they were picked up in the first place) and how long they’d been in jail. One guy said he’d been in jail for a few days short of two years, we asked him if he wanted to stay in the IA jail a bit longer, but he would have none of that.
I get to do detainee release once a month. I’m so excited.