August 7, 2008: "Have you ever ridden in a Bradley before?" asked the sergeant. Heck no. We were getting ready to finally roll out into the streets of Baghdad and he was giving me a tour. "This here's the fire retardant release switch and there's the fire wall door to the gun turret and up here is the fire-resistant blanket." I'm guessing that one of the big dangers of riding in a Bradley tank is from fire?
"Does anyone want to say a prayer before we get in?" asked another member of the platoon I was with, as we prepared to drive off to the Al Rasheed district to visit a COP (command outpost).
When I woke up this morning, I was thinking about my granddaughter -- sweet little baby Mena. She seemed so far away. I hope that she will always be safe. I miss my family after only five days away from Berkeley. Imagine how these guys must feel after six months over here. "How do you keep close?" I asked one soldier.
"Technology. Phone calls, e-mails, videos. Last time I was home, my five-year-old kept begging me not to go back."
Once at the COP, however, I got briefed by one of the officers and got all enthusiastic again. "This is the Al Rasheed district," he told me, pointing to a satellite map. "It's basically a low-income Shia area now. Originally, under Saddam, it was a mixed area and the Sunni section on one end of the district interfaced with the Shia part on the other. And if you will notice, this COP is located right on the seam. When we first came here, this area used to be the battleground for intense fighting between the Shia and the Sunnis -- plus BOTH sides were fighting the Americans." Sounds like the place was a mess.
"But right now things are quiet." Not too quiet, however. When I first arrived at the COP, the unit's two pet dogs immediately took an intense dislike to me -- since I'm the only female here, I bet those are SEXIST dogs! -- and started barking like crazy and trying to bite me. Seriously. One even succeeded although luckily his fangs didn't penetrate my sturdy Mom jeans. But I gots a secret weapon now. Every time one of them charges me, I take its photo. They don't like the flash. Top gun! That's me. Don't mess with Jane.
"Our mission this afternoon," continued the officer, "is to go to some shops on one of the main streets and give out mini-grants to some of the shop owners -- small-scale economic stimulus packages. Want to come along?" Or else what? Miss a chance to walk on patrol through the streets of Al Rachid? No way! Sign me up.
But I thought I'd only be at this COP for the afternoon and it turns out I'll be here for two days. Yikes! Lucky for me that I always carry an extra toothbrush in my messenger bag -- but what about clean unders, my nightie and deodorant? And I also don't have my hijab.
"I can't go out on the streets without a headscarf," I whined.
"Not me. I'm not going out there without a hijab. It's not polite." So they got me a T-shirt which I tied under my chin. Here's me. Hajja Jane. However, nothing prepared me for the main street of Al Rachid. I'd seen a few bullet-pocked doors and houses back in Heet, in Anbar province, but this was different. Whole blocks of buildings were gone. Starkly razed vacant lots strewed every block. It was the Urban Redevelopment project from hell.
We started the patrol at a mom-and-pop-style car repair shop. The soldiers talked with the owner and I talked with the neighborhood kids. At first there was just me and this one little boy but then more and more children came and soon there were 30 of them. "American? Babies? Money? Michael Jackson?" they asked.