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by Bleuzette La Feir
Our fireteam—a highly trained, loaded-to-the-teeth four-man Army crew that accompanied me and two water guys—warned me about my camera. They said the SEAL team members across the river might not take kindly to having photos taken. Not only of themselves, but of the westerly perimeter of their base camp, the Blue Diamond Palace once occupied by Saddam’s sons, Uday and Qusay.
Ashen-colored rocks, dirt-brown dirt, and the humid, dusty scent of the blue-gray, murky water were no different than the colors of Conchas Lake, three hours east of Albuquerque, where I’d learned to water-ski and hook a worm. But this water, this dirt, these rocks were at the edge of the Euphrates.
Early that morning I’d received an emergency radio call from the ROWPU manager. The water supply to the ROWPU had stopped. Not even a trickle. A ROWPU is a Reverse Osmosis Water Purification Unit that feeds non-potable water into immense bladders that lie on thick rubber-coated membranes on the ground. The fluid is then pumped through a system of pipes and filters, then pumped over to other bladders. This continuous process provides a remote camp thousands of gallons of drinkable water a day. As a military contractor and camp administrator for KBR at Ar Ramadi from April 2005 to November 2007, it was part of my job to ensure that all military personnel and civilians on camp had their basic living needs met. Water is number one.
Civilians are not permitted outside the wire. Unarmed, why would we want to be? But just the thought of it exhilarated me. I saw in this crisis an opportunity to go where I knew I would never have the chance to go again. My job in Iraq had forged me into a wordsmith, and I found it all too easy to convince my boss. I simply stated that in allowing us to fully document KBR’s mitigation of the blockage of water flow from the deep and powerful Euphrates, to ensure an uninterrupted clean water source to thousands of U.S. military personnel in a mission-critical location, was indeed the best course of action for showing our commitment and dedication, not to mention our lightning response time. We needed to exceed their expectations.
So there we stood. Outside the wire. Seven of us at water’s edge. The plan was to dive into the water and feel around to see what might be blocking the eight-foot-wide cement culvert at the bank that fed river water to the intake station.
The ROWPU manager was former military. Tall, cranky, painfully thin, red-haired, and a chain-smoker to boot, he took one last long drag of his cigarette and threw it to the dusty ground. He pressed the sole of his boot onto the red ember while pulling off his gray T-shirt, revealing a universe of freckles, a map of moles, and one three-inch, rickrack, raised purplish scar that left me wondering what had made that scar. Knife or shrapnel. He left his cargo pants and boots on, then tied one end of a long length of hemp rope around his waist. The muscled, fresh-faced young black man, known as Jono, he’d brought with him tugged at the knot, then placed his foot on the other end of the rope and wrapped a portion of it around his arm. Red methodically made his way into the water as the fireteam circled around, backs to us, rifles and eyes out, alert. Index fingers, straight and stiff, at rest-ready by the triggers of their arms.
I turned back around. Six of us now on the bank. My focus on the oily, twisted rope extending through the surface, breaking the tension of the ancient water source.
A dervish burst up. Jono and I turned our heads away, reacting to the spew of sand. The sun-glassed soldiers stood still. The reeds and tall grasses thick at the river’s edge bent with ease. They waved, pointed their leafy blades, and laughed at us.
Up popped Red. “It’s a huge fuckin’ wad a plastic! I’m gonna try and get a corner of it up here so you c’n grab on.”
Down went Red.
I sat on a large rock and slid my feet onto another rock under the water. It was just like the lake. I’d sit at the edge and sometimes catch a fish darting by. White canvas Keds let the cool liquid flow in and soak my socks. I didn’t even bother pulling up my pant legs. It didn’t matter, it was so hot and dry. As soon as we returned to camp, I’d change into fresh jeans and desert boots. I may as well have been thirteen again as I sat still with my camera and snapped photos of everything around me, of my feet in the water, of the waving pussy willow, of the forbidden palace on the opposite bank. I didn’t hold the camera to my face but snapped the autofocus lever into place, sat it on my lap, and kept hitting the shutter button knowing I had room for nearly a thousand shots.
Up popped Red. “Jono, grab this!”
I shot a few frames of them, then pulled the strap from my neck and set the camera on the rock. I stood next to Jono, and we both pulled at the thick, milky plastic sheeting. We strained and gave it a big tug, pulling Red off balance in the waist-high water.
“Iz okay. Juz’ keep pullin’!”
The roar of an engine ripped up and startled us all. Fireteam spun around and drew up. We paused. Breath in. A light black, six-person, rigid inflatable boat—a Zodiac, they call it: a shadow of a thing; wide, yet low profile—jetted past us. My belly sank tightening the cords over my heart, squeezing my chest. About a minute ago I’d had my camera in my hand. It was just as well.
Overgrown dirty-blond curls protruded from his dark camouflage cap. Finger-streaked, grease-painted face, dull to the bouncing rays off the rocking water framed ice blue eyes as he looked directly at me for several seconds and the phantom boat whizzed by.
“Fuckin’ pull!” Red’s voice broke like a desperate teenager’s. We fuckin’ pulled. Fireteam couldn’t help us. Three had our backs and one now stood sentry at the river’s edge. Adrenaline crackled off our bodies as Jono and I heaved one more time on the plastic sheeting.
It gave way. Jono and I stumbled backward, but neither fell. A loud, hollow sucking sound rumbled as the Euphrates rushed to fill the void in the culvert. The hemp rope around Jono’s arm tightened and pulled. Red was being drawn in. Jono grasped for the rope as it began to burn a spiral into the dark skin of his forearm. I dropped the plastic and grabbed the rope. We both pulled hard as Red grabbed the rocks, fought forward against the powerful suction, and heaved his tired, water-heavy body onto the bank. The sucking sound stopped. Birdsong came to us again. Leftover wake from the Zodiac lapped at the reeds and rushes.
I collected my camera as the two men grappled with the plastic. Coming to the end of it, we saw something was stuck in the Visqueen. It was a cream-colored goat. The curled tip of its horn had hooked the plastic and become entangled. He was about the size of a large dog. There was no way to know how the little fella had ended up in the river or got his horn pierced through the plastic.
“Let’s get outta here,” called the fireteam leader.
I snapped a series of photos, as the promise of evidence was how I’d talked my way out here. I better go back with record of it.
Shoes and socks soggy. Jeans drenched and heavy against my ankles and shins. It was just water, the earth’s water. The same as from the lake I fished and water-skied on in New Mexico as a girl. The same as I would drink later from a plastic bottle. The same but different. This is the water of Eden. The water of kings and angels.
Red and Jono rolled up the rope, rolled up the plastic, released the goat and gently left him to rest on the bank of the Euphrates, in the shade of the waving blades.