first published on September 15, 2015 by Will
Odors carry in the heat, and right now the near steaming rivers of human defecation that lined each side of the street should have been overpowering. It hit you in the face like a brick, but at this point, we were used to it. The more pressing issue at hand was security. Dudes fanned out as they approached the building and performed a 360 degree sweep of the area.
As we cautiously neared the edifice, a new and undeniable stench radiated from the location. Rancid death. This was definitely the place we were looking for, and everybody knew it. Everybody that is, but our fearless leader. The Captain’s mental wheels were still spinning but slowly gaining traction. He looked at his GPS, then to his map, and then back to the GPS.
“We’re at the grid they gave us. It should be pretty close,” he announced having not yet looked up from his land navigation assets.
“Sir… It’s right friggin’ here,” I informed him giving glances of disbelief to my team, and they were returned. I’m told West Point is an ultra-selective, top notch school, but common sense must not be part of the curriculum.
Since arriving in Baghdad, our infantry squad had been tasked with “sensitive site exploitation.” We called it CSI Baghdad, and our job was to, among other things, follow up on gruesome sectarian violence scenes to see if we could find any evidence of how it went down and by who. Today we came to a meat processing plant that, three days ago, had been raided by masked gunmen. All the employees had been loaded up into two of their refrigeration trucks, taken to the edge of the neighborhood, shot through the head and dumped in the street. Two days prior we had been at the grizzly scene of the massacre inspecting gunshot wounds and shell casings. It was pretty horrific, but it was nothing compared to what I was about to encounter.
The butcher shop hadn’t been entered by anyone since the kidnappings. Sides of beef and lamb, now turning blue, still hung to the sides of the building and baked in the 120 degree weather. My guys were dry heaving from 30 meters away. Of course there would be no meaningful evidence inside, but today’s follow-up task was to search it.
“I don’t think we’re gonna find anything in there, sir,” I suggested to the fat-faced but skinny armed Captain. I knew it was a futile attempt. Common sense may not have been taught at West Point, but integrity definitely was.
“We’re not going in there, sergeant…” he baited me into a state of relief. “You are, and take SSG “D” with you.”
D’s eyes got huge. They were buggy to begin with, but right now, he looked like a cartoon character. D, a big black dude, was a fellow squad leader. Tall and strong, he probably weighed 235lbs. This was a guy you wouldn’t pick a fight with, but… he was scared of bugs. He was scared of snakes. He was scared of the dark, and it was apparent that he was terrified of walking into this ungodly stench emitting butcher shop. I guess the Captain would stay out here with our guys. I hoped he wouldn’t misplace them.
D and I stacked on the door. We didn’t know what to expect, so we went in hot. I kicked the door as I raised my carbine and held my breath. My initial plan was to do a two man clearing operation, making sure every single room was free of threats before relaxing to search for evidence. That plan disintegrated as soon as I took my first breath.
The unbearable smell on the outside of this place was nothing compared to inside. We both began gagging and tearing up. I resisted falling to my knees simply because I wanted to touch as little surface area as possible. The interior was dark, and we had to use our rifle mounted flashlights to explore. Band saws, cutting tables, and plastic sheet dispensers populated the room. What must have been, but resembled in no way, livestock carcasses hung from meat hooks about the room. They were inexplicably black. Soon that would be explained.
“It’s too dark in here,” D gagged. “What’s with the windows?”
There were large windows at the front of the room where we had entered. They appeared to have a screen or filter that wasn’t letting any light through. I approached to see if I could peel it back. That’s when the window consumed me. The film on the windows was a layer of flies. Thousands, possibly millions of flies encircled me. I felt them on my face, in my ears, and on my neck. Light blindingly beamed through the window.
I exclaimed expletive after expletive as I retreated toward my buddy. As I stumbled backward, I bumped one of the black carcasses. It came alive as well, and as the flies vacated, wreathing patches of maggots wiggled and fell to the floor. It was too much.
D had gotten flies in his mouth and flung about in panic. “Stay away from the walls!” he screamed.
At that point we decided to complete a most hasty search of the building and get as far from that place as we could. That was when we found the bathtub. It was full. Blood of all stages of coagulation and color were in it. Huge chunks of tallow marbled the contents, and of course flies occupied any surface congealed enough to support them.
I lost it. It was a nightmare that wouldn’t end.
We rushed to the back room and were relieved to see daylight. The stench really wasn’t any better, but there was some air circulating, and the open door brought down the claustrophobic-like panic I was experiencing. There was a way out.
The minor relief wouldn’t last, however. I began to realize what I was looking at. The back room was a locker room. Street clothes hung from hooks with names labeled in Arabic. Pairs of shoes waited patiently for their owners that would never return. There were cell phones and jewelry sitting on the shelves. As the light shown through, it highlighted personal photos of wives, children and happier times. Suddenly the pile of nameless bodies we had documented and thrown, like trash, onto trucks two days ago were no longer just piles of anonymous, stiffening meat. They had names, they had children, and not too long ago they had life.
The stench no longer affected either of us. We slogged in silence, through the frenzied swarming of insects with little bother, out the door we had entered, and back into the blazing sun.
“It’s clear sir.”
A true story from Will, during his deployment to Baghdad. The following video is combat footage from Will’s platoon at the same time period this story occurred.