Night Patrol

June 10, 2008 | By Chris Hondros | News

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BAGHDAD, IRAQ – MAY 09: Sgt. Kwame Williams of Aurora, Colo. of the 3-89 Cavalry in the 10th Mountain Division stands guard during a night patrol in the tense eastern suburbs of Baghdad in the early morning hours of May 9, 2008 in Baghdad, Iraq. Sgt. Williams is a member of a small scout squad that patrols under cover of darkness in advance of large teams of soldiers that work main thoroughfares at night, searching for roadside bombs and other insurgent activity. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

It’s dark, nearly pitch dark, and that’s the way the soldiers like it. They use no light on this midnight patrol; they stride down the sides of streets in the shadows. If they pass a glowing florescent tube, they disconnect it or break it. Their footfalls pad the sandy pavement in quiet crunches. Nothing else makes a sound.

I’m with a small squad of the 3-89 Cavalry in the 10th Mountain Division, three men roaming the empty alleys of a neighborhood in eastern Baghdad after the midnight curfew. They’re part of a larger operation, but no one has clearly explained to me exactly what we’re doing; I think these men are tasked with searching empty buildings and fields for weapons, while protecting the flank of other soldiers who are absorbed in mine-sweeping on an important main road. Staff Sgt. Dale Ogden is the squad leader. He’s not happy to have me tagging along at first, but warms up progressively as he discovers I’m not going to slow him down as he makes his way through the dark. He takes a knee briefly behind a low wall and we’re able for the first time to talk, our voices kept low.

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BAGHDAD, IRAQ – MAY 09: Members of the 3-89 Cavalry in the 10th Mountain Division stand watch with night vision equipment in the tense eastern suburbs of Baghdad in the early morning hours of May 9, 2008 in Baghdad, Iraq. These members of a small scout squad patrols under cover of darkness in advance of large teams of soldiers that work main thoroughfares at night, searching for roadside bombs and other insurgent activity. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

“Kind of eerie out here,” I say.
“Not to me,” Ogden says. “I’d rather be out when it’s dark.”
“You would?”
“Oh yeah. We own the night,” he says, with whispered confidence.

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BAGHDAD, IRAQ – MAY 09: Members of the 3-89 Cavalry in the 10th Mountain Division scope out unknown men in the distance with night vision equipment and lasers mounted on their rifles in the tense eastern suburbs of Baghdad in the early morning hours of May 9, 2008 in Baghdad, Iraq. Members of a small scout squad patrol under cover of darkness in advance of large teams of soldiers that work main thoroughfares at night, searching for roadside bombs and other insurgent activity. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

And they do: the soldiers peer through night-vison goggles attached to their helmets, which allows them to see even in complete darkness. And each of their weapons has laser sighting, projecting a beam invisible to the naked eye but deadly clear through the goggles, a small point of light they can place on any target up to half a mile away. Because of this US soldiers are most accurate with their weapons in the black of night.

An Iraqi man is walking down an isolated road in the distance, flouting curfew as he makes his way between two farm houses. The soldiers see him and cautiously raise their rifles and aim. I’m not wearing night-vision equipment but I know what’s happening; three ominous invisible laser points are marking his chest and head as he casually walks, completely oblivious to the fact there are US soldiers in the area and that he is a trigger-pull from sure death. A sudden move to grab a weapon on his part and he’d instantly be shot in half. But the man simply walks, and eventually disappears into the next house. The soldiers lower their rifles with relief, and continue the patrol.
Throughout the night they march on, from place to place in this jumbled neighborhood of houses and businesses. One house is empty. The next is a carpenters shop; they search around for weapons in a large bin. Another is a small school; the courtyard is brightly illuminated by overhanging streetlights. The soldiers climb through a window and find the fuse box, and shut off the main switch; suddenly it’s dark again. I click pictures without flash, using the highest light settings on my camera. Most I know won’t come out. Some will catch tiny stray beams of illumination and be usable.

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BAGHDAD, IRAQ – MAY 09: Sgt. Shawn Hummel of the 3-89 Cavalry in the 10th Moutain Division reaches up to disable a light bulb during a night patrol in the tense eastern suburbs of Baghdad in the early morning hours of May 9, 2008 in Baghdad, Iraq. Sgt. Hummel is a member of a small scout squad that patrols under cover of darkness in advance of large teams of soldiers that work main thoroughfares at night, searching for roadside bombs and other insurgent activity. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images) 

“How can you take pictures out here, when there’s no light?” Ogden asks.
“It’s hard,” I tell him.

By four in the morning the first glimmer of day is glowing on the horizon. By four-thirty the dusky gloom seems radiantly bright. A distant mosque sounds the first call to prayer. Night patrol abruptly ends, and Ogden shepherds his men back to their base.

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