Mark Young

Off the grid


Fallujah, Al Anbar Province, Iraq, December 2004

They were on their own.

Diesel growls from M1A1 Abrams tanks beckoned from a distance. Tanks circled the city like lumbering metal horses of war, though their mighty firepower could do him and his men no good here. Narrow city streets permitted only pedestrians and small vehicular traffic to squeeze through. No room for armored cavalry to maneuver, only small arms and hand-to-hand combat worked in these tight places.

Gerrit O’Rourke eased himself to the dusty floor, quietly resting his rifle against the wall. Gazing upward, a black cavernous hole in the ceiling, carved out some time ago by an explosive fist from an artillery shell, offered him a glimpse of a blue heaven. Next to him, a stairwell led to where his men stood watch on the second floor after they ate. His turn for a break after a long tense watch.

A puppy-caked with dust the color of sandstone-clambered over rubble. Gerrit eyed the dog as he heated his MRE, Meals Ready to Eat, featuring chicken with salsa. He studied the four-legged creature as it cautiously drew closer. A tiny rib cage, poking through matted fur, announced just how hungry the animal might be. Dark, mournful eyes stared at Gerrit’s meal.

He lowered a green plastic pouch and squeezed out a few morsels of meat onto a flat stone. “Hey, dog, wanna try a little spice in your life?”

The puppy snapped them up like a hungry bird, then sat on its haunches whimpering for more.

He squeezed out another hunk of meat just as an enemy sniper opened up.

Gerrit scrambled for his M16 assault rifle and sprinted up the stairwell to the second floor. As he low-crawled toward an open window, he glanced at the rest of his team, sprawled out below several other windows, to make sure everyone was present and accounted for.

“You see where it came from?” Gerrit whispered, pressing against the wall and slowly peering around the window frame.

“Yeah, Lieutenant. Somewhere at twelve o’clock. Don’t think he spotted us.” The Marine-a gangly young man from Georgia nicknamed Peaches — lay on his side, glancing at Gerrit. Peaches carried one of the radios for the team. “I think he was shooting away from us, sir. In that direction.” He pointed in the direction where the sniper lay hidden, toward the west, where the late-afternoon sun slowly sank toward the horizon.

Nodding, Gerrit edged his head higher, scanning the rooftops beyond. No movement. They had been sitting here since before daybreak, easing into position during the chilly predawn darkness.

Something nudged his leg. Looking down, he saw the puppy sniffing his pockets. Somehow, those short legs made it up the stairs.

Peaches grinned. “Hey, Lieutenant, who’s your friend?”

Gerrit reached down and patted the puppy’s head. The dog peered up, tail wagging, too young to be afraid. “This little guy is hungry.”

He surveyed the street-scarcely more than an alley-as it cut a canyon between low, squatty buildings, a dusty corridor draped in shadows and protected from the onslaught of the afternoon sun. Movement on the street made him tighten his grip on the M16. He spied several figures moving in single file fifty yards away, sneaking toward his position.

“We’ve got company,” he whispered, pointing toward the gunmen. “At least five, heavily armed. No, wait. There are more. Plenty more, coming our way.”

He motioned toward his radioman, carrying one of the unit’s AN/PRC-148 radios. Peaches handed over the external handset. Gerrit grabbed it and in a few moments forwarded their coordinates and the direction and travel of the enemy.

Yesterday, he and his men from the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion had been ordered to sit tight and report without contact-if possible. Eyes and ears only. Intelligence believed they would be greatly outnumbered in this part of the city, with other Marines too far away to help. After a month-long push of door-to-door combat, a small lull had crept across the war-torn city as Operation Phantom Fury bore down on this ancient city. Some old-timers were comparing this battle to the U.S. Marine operation in Hue City during the Vietnam War because of the nature of the operation and the high number of casualties.

Gerrit crawled over to his men. “Get ready to rock and roll. We have units moving into place. They want us to hunker down. Just be ready to fly if need be.”

The others nodded and spread across the room as quietly as possible.

The puppy nudged Gerrit’s pocket, whimpering.

He stroked the animal’s matted fur, hoping this would keep the puppy quiet. More movement caught his attention. An Iraqi resistance fighter, dressed in loose-fitting clothing and carrying several bandoliers of ammunition, loomed into view, an AK-47 held at the ready. He stealthily moved out of Gerrit’s line of sight in the direction of the other fighters.

Just as a second fighter crept by, the puppy yelped. The gunman jerked his head up toward the window.

Tensing, Gerrit waited. He did not think the man could see him from the street, but just in case he gripped his rifle and withdrew into the shadows of the room.

Motionless, Gerrit watched the fighter scan the building, rifle pointed toward their position. His mouth felt dry as he waited to see if the man might spot them.

Finally, the gunman lowered his gaze and moved out of sight as another combatant followed close behind on his heels. And another. And another. A minute slipped by. Silence filled the dry, warm air as the waning sun still baked the clay walls. He could hear footsteps below and saw more men moving in single file.

Soon, the street appeared empty. The enemy had moved farther down the street. He estimated about twenty men had slipped past their position. Maybe more.

Booom! The crunching sound of a mortar round hit about a hundred yards away. Other rounds quickly followed until it seemed one explosion blended into the next with a continuous blast.

Peaches rolled over and tapped Gerrit. “Sir, how’d you give out those coordinates without looking at a map? I’ve seen ya do this before, but I forgot to ask.”

Gerrit glanced toward the explosions. “I memorized them when we set up here. Just recalculated where the Ali Babas would intersect with our units.”

“Man, that’s so cool.”

Gerrit shrugged. “Let’s get ready to move. As soon as it gets dark enough, we’re pulling out.”

Peaches jutted out his chin. “Lieutenant, you got a new recruit.”

Looking down, Gerrit saw the puppy huddling next to his leg, explosions making the tiny animal shake. The louder the sounds, the more the dog shoved against Gerrit’s leg trying to find a place to hide. He scooped up the dog and held it against him. The puppy wiggled deeper, burying its dirty head into the crook of Gerrit’s arm.

“I think it loves ya, Lieutenant. Whatcha going to call him…Devil Dog?”

Gerrit laughed. “Nah. How ’bout Bones? Look at those ribs sticking out.”

The younger man smiled. “That dog is one heap o’ bones.”

Explosions from incoming mortars suddenly ceased. An eerie silence followed until he heard the sound of men running down below. He signaled a warning to the others. Suddenly, a man’s head popped up on the rooftop directly across the street. A turbaned gunman, rifle in hand, peered toward where the mortars had struck earlier. If the fighter turned toward them, he could see right through the window where Gerrit and the others lay.

Gerrit lowered the puppy and raised his rifle just as the man glanced down. Squeezing off several rounds, Gerrit saw the man jerk back and drop out of sight.

Gerrit sat up. “Let’s get out of here. We’ve been spotted. There must be others.”

Another head emerged. One of Gerrit’s teammates fired back. The team scooped up their gear and scrambled

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