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Capturing Baquba 

by KEVIN TAYLOR & r & & r & The Mural House & r & & r & The waterfalls -- foaming white as they rushed down the mountainside -- looked ever so inviting on a superheated day. Even if they weren't real.





No soldiers, or at least very few, go to Iraq just to blow up the small wonders they run across, but the dreadnought of war is not known for nimble steering.





So things happen.





Six guys in a scout/sniper team from the Fort Lewis-based 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment -- or the 5/20 as it is known -- poked their heads cautiously into an empty house in the Iraqi city of Baquba on the morning of June 24th.





They were astonished to find rushing cataracts, a mountain village amid pines, even a great stag standing at alert near a flock of sheep. Murals painted in vibrant shades of green and blue and white covered the interior of the house, giving the illusion of cool mountain air in the hot, dusty city.





Even as they marveled and goofed -- the grinning medic kneeling with a sidearm and drawing a bead on the painted stag -- the small group decided the Mural House must be blown up.





"The murals only exist now in these photographs. Nobody believes they were in Iraq," says Spc. Krzysztof Matejkowski, an Army scout who pulled a small digital camera out of a shoulder pocket to chronicle the scene.





The house had been searched earlier by American troops, but insurgents had come back -- the scout/sniper team found bags of HME [homemade explosives].





"It's a white powder. Houses that were HME factories could be really unstable. If it doesn't dry well or if it's mixed wrong it can become very, very sensitive," Matejkowski says. In fact, soldiers aren't supposed to mess with HME at all.





But one guy found a 40-pound bag of HME in the courtyard, hoisted it onto his shoulder and carried it up to the roof where the rest of the team was gathered.





"He drops it at our feet and says, 'Look what I found.'" So the mural house had to go, joining several other booby-trapped houses across the street that were also to be blown up.





It was Iraq in a nutshell -- a single long morning that encompassed the wonder, the danger and the weirdness of war.





"I realized so many times it was like, 'Wow! I can't believe I'm seeing this. Nobody else is going to believe me,'" the 23-year-old says. "This was my way to capture the moment and freeze the experience."





Krzysztof's World


& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he first e-mail from Krzysztof Matejkowski to land in Spokane came from Baquba on May 16 under the header "I signed." He was responding to an Inlander call for active-duty soldiers from Washington and Idaho -- or based in Washington and Idaho -- who had signed the Appeal for Redress.





The Appeal, with more than 2,000 signers in the last year, is a bold document in the all-volunteer military, asking Congress to pull troops out of Iraq so more soldiers don't die for nothing.





We stayed in touch after The Inlander published a story for Memorial Day about soldiers who are conscientious objectors or war resisters.





I would send news of the war he was in ("All we get over here is Fox News... it's so biased") and lighter stories about Spokane and the world. Krzysztof would send irregular, often rushed, e-mails about battling Army red tape, as well as insurgents, and crazy stories about life in the heart of the Surge.





He revealed himself to be a bright and curious young soldier with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team (3SBCT) from Fort Lewis who "lucked out," as he put it, by getting a chance to join a scout/sniper platoon instead of being in a regular line company.





And then he mentioned he was taking photos. Getting permission and finding computer time to send photos stateside turned out to be its own battle, one that took months and ultimately didn't work out until Krzysztof was back at Fort Lewis in October.





In the early morning darkness one Saturday last month, I aimed my truck west and drove to meet Krzysztof in person for the first time at the Space Needle.





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & K & lt;/span & rzysztof, a burly, bespectacled fellow in a leather jacket and T-shirt, was still enjoying the fresh sensation of walking freely in a city -- indistinguishable from other pedestrians, unencumbered by armor and gear, unconcerned about being blown up in a random explosion.





Just walking around Seattle with no particular destination in mind was a pleasant passage of time for him because it was so novel after 15 months on a combat tour in Iraq.





And so we found coffee houses and later a hostel near the Pike Place Market where we could plug in his portable hard drive and The Inlander's ancient traveling laptop and take a look at the sort of images many of us don't get to see: a soldier's-eye view of tension, boredom and wonder.





Joining the military has given Krzysztof a goal. He intends to become a photojournalist. The following pages, filled with his photos taken from inside the Surge, show he has a good eye for it.





Krzysztof enlisted in the Army right after graduating high school in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2003. There weren't a lot of job prospects, he says. An older brother is still kicking around the borough getting his GED. His parents won a lottery allowing them to emigrate from Poland in 1993 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but their luck hasn't been so hot since. His mom cleans houses, Krzysztof says, and his dad is a school janitor.





Kids being kids, Krzysztof picked up English quickly, though his speech is still shaped with Eastern European rhythms. His mom, he says, speaks English OK but his dad -- in an only-in-America experience -- has become fluent in Spanish.





"All he does is watch Telemundo," Krzysztof says with an expressive shrug and a shake of his head.





Krzysztof wound up at Western Washington's Fort Lewis in the Stryker Brigade's 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry -- the 5/20 -- a unit that was used essentially as a 400-man SWAT team by the generals running the Surge this past summer.





Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, second in command to Gen. David Petraeus, dispatched the 5/20 from one hot spot to another instead of assigning it a neighborhood or district to occupy and patrol. That meant the battalion was always in harm's way and rarely had down time.





In part because of the way it was used, the 5/20 took the heaviest casualties of any unit comprising the 3rd Brigade with 14 soldiers, including a captain, killed. They encountered plenty of IEDs, including one bomb that killed six soldiers in the same vehicle on May 6, the brigade's worst single loss.





But there were also snipers hitting well-armored soldiers in the head and neck, and sudden firefights that flared up in the relentless 15 months of urban warfare.





He had a revelation, Krzysztof says, when his unit from Baquba met up with their fellows from the rest of the Stryker Brigade in Baghdad just before coming home.





"Everybody who was in Operation Arrowhead Ripper (Baquba) lost so much weight," he says. It had to do with the ferocious mission tempo - "We'd be out for several days and then sometimes only be back for six or 12 hours before going right back out." - as well as the fact they were doing it all on foot.





The threat to Strykers from what were known as deep-buried IEDs hidden all over Baquba grounded most vehicles.





"So we made sure we had however many bottles of water, so much food, explosives, ammo," and all this was carried on their backs, Krzysztof says.





"Our sister units in the brigade ended up in Baghdad and spent time in the Green Zone, so they were all suntanned and muscled from being able to hit a gym," he says. "Everybody here came back looking skinny and gaunt."





The 5/20 was heavily decorated last month upon its return to Fort Lewis for taking on the brunt of fierce fighting as it was sent from Mosul to Taji, then to Baghdad to be a key early element of the Surge and, finally, was among the first units sent to recapture Baquba from the mix of foreign and Sunni jihadis who comprise al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia.





Krzysztof has a Purple Heart, awarded after an IED ripped through his Stryker last Dec. 3, killing one soldier and wounding several others.





The 5/20 had been sent west from Baghdad into the farm country on the edge of Anbar Province to look for a downed U.S. pilot. On the way back after a fruitless search of several days, the convoy stopped amid confusion over bombs in the road. Krzysztof still doesn't know, he says, if an EOD (explosives ordnance disposal) team had found an IED that turned out to be fake. No one seemed to know what the story was. But through ill luck, his Stryker came to a stop atop of a real IED, one detonated by a pressure plate.





All was fine until the confusion cleared and the convoy started rolling, then, "It came right up through the bottom. One guy was pretty much in pieces, another guy messed up his back."





Krzysztof was shot straight through a topside hatch and left the Stryker, bouncing off the sniper netting draped across the top and falling back inside. He whacked his head and back on the metal opening and lost consciousness.





"The guy I landed on messed up his leg because I landed on him. When I came to at first I couldn't move my leg, which really freaked me out. I was like a headless chicken when I finally got out," he says.





Krzysztof had other close calls, but there was a steady stream of strangeness, too.





Such as the surreal two hours on a hot street in Mosul "pulling security" on a giant pile of crap until the bomb disposal guys could get on scene with their robot, cautiously drive it up to the suspicious mound and probe it to see if there was an IED underneath. There wasn't.





He had the wonder of watching date pickers "doing work they've done since their grandfather's time."





Or the gruesome few days spent in a sniper hideout watching Crazy Legs, an Iraqi man who was shot trying to sneak out of Baquba, whose legs were gnawed away by feral dogs as he lay dead in the road. People in the neighborhood eventually rolled the body into the roadside canal where they drew their cooking water during outages.





"I mean, they boiled the water, but still, it's Crazy Legs water," Krzysztof says.





Krzysztof purchased a 10-megapixel digital camera small enough to fit into a shoulder pocket and packed it along on patrol to record his experiences.





One time, his platoon was patrolling the palm groves. Unlike fruit orchards here, the groves are wild tangles of grasses and underbrush that stand man-high.





"It was like we were in Vietnam," he says. "We made our own napalm," to burn off thick underbrush where insurgents frequently hid to take shots at an Iraqi Police checkpoint.





"We used anything that worked, but the best was when we mixed the fuel with Quaker Oats and put the C-4 [plastic explosive] in," Krzysztof says.





When his platoon napalmed the bushes, "We heard cheering and clapping from the checkpoint," Krzysztof says.





Why did the Iraqi Police not burn or hack down the bushes themselves?





"Maybe they didn't have the resources... or they just never thought of it, to tell you the truth," he says.





There were also tales of what you find in a typical house in Baquba. The platoon ducked into one house intending to set up for reconnaissance purposes, Krzysztof says, only to find a couple of Iraqi men sitting with uncomfortable smiles. It turns out they were insurgents who had ducked into the same house minutes earlier with the same idea and who had whipped their AKs under the couch when the Americans walked in.





Amazingly, he met an Iraqi who had attended the University of Idaho back in the 1970s; the man said he was a wrestler. In another house was a marine engineer who had worked all around the world and regaled the platoon with stories.





"He said his favorite country was the U.S. because of all the pretty girls," Krzysztof says. "You could tell he was happy to talk to people who knew the places he had been. When he came back, he was not allowed to leave [Iraq] again.





"We tried to deal with everybody and get the point across we are not the big, scary occupier," Krzysztof says. "I wouldn't mind going back again... just not in the military."





Oasis of Blue


& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & C & lt;/span & hildren in the U.S. have swimming pools, Matejkowski says. Even American soldiers in the middle of Mortaritaville have a swimming pool.





"In Iraq, children have ditches at the side of the road filled with trash," he says.





Matejkowski shared an observation other Iraq war veterans have mentioned to The Inlander, of the head-spinning change of reality experienced by units on combat patrol who visit any of the large American bases.





The enormous aqua stretch of the swimming pool below looks as if it could be in Qatar or Bahrain, the United Arab Emirate states on the Persian Gulf where soldiers are sent for R & amp;R.





The Olympic-sized pool, built since the invasion, is smack in the middle of LSA (logistics support area) Anaconda, which is smack in the middle of Iraq.





"We were there July 4. We had our first real pass as a platoon," Matejkowski says. This, after a year in Iraq and after several weeks of Operation Arrowhead Ripper -- the 10,000-man battle to recapture Baquba.





"I couldn't believe the conditions. People live like this for a year?" he says.





Matejkowski hauled a portable hard drive to a meeting in a Seattle coffee shop one Saturday morning last month. From it, he opened photographs of his platoon cavorting in the water.





"Everyone here is showing off their sunburn. We were all proud of it," he says. U.S. soldiers spend most of their deployments in the carapace of body armor and Kevlar, so getting sunburned shoulders or backs is a pleasant surprise. It means there was a moment -- an almost-normal, back-home moment -- where you could peel off the armor and holler and do cannonballs all the while feeling pretty much safe.





LSA Anaconda got the nickname Mortaritaville in 2003 and 2004 when insurgent attacks were as high as 60 a day. This has dramatically changed, however, as the base -- which contains the runways of Balad Air Base and the trauma hospital that is the first stop for many wounded -- has grown into a fenced city of 36,000 with fast food courts, movie theaters and dance studios.





In fact, at many big bases - like FOB Warhorse in Baghdad - there were rules that soldiers had to walk around combat ready.


To the scout/snipers, who often spent days outside the wire, hiding in ambush or recon spots, in uniforms stiff with their own sweat, the combat-ready regulation was seen as a ridiculous overreaction.





The scouts and snipers often wore bandannas, Matejkowski says, to keep the sweat out of their eyes while scoping things out on missions. "We'd come back to some FOBs [forward operating bases] and there were rules that if your helmet came off, the bandanna came off. It wasn't allowed. I think every time a new general or somebody came in they had to make a rule just to say 'Hey. I did something.'"





Battle-hardened boys... and puppies


From: Krzysztof Matejkowski


Subject: Re: And my little dog, too ...


Date: July 13, 2007 2:26:15 PM PDT


To: kevin(at)inlander.com





Hey Kevin.





Are you a fan of the Marx brothers? I used watch them all the time in Poland. It's sad about your dog. I remember a time in Mosul when we did patrols in a real bad part of town, the outskirts really. We'd make sure people get out of our way using less than lethal guns.





Our VC [vehicle commander] noticed a litter of puppies in the middle of the road. They were the saddest bunch I've ever seen in my life. We stopped and the whole patrol got out and moved them out of our way. That was the first time.





During a more recent operation in Arrowhead Ripper, with the help of EOD [explosive ordnance disposal], we blew up a few houses. Two were trigger houses and one contained a 40lbs bag of HME [home-made explosive]. HME is quite unstable. The trigger houses also contained a mortar turned into a trap for anyone who would come upon it. A dismounted IED. That last house was a real shame because it contained some amazing murals on the inside of its walls. (I have some pictures of them. No one believes they were in Iraq. ) We were just about to walk away and blow up the trigger points when someone noticed a litter of puppies a building away. We stopped the whole operation to save them. A few guys went to get them, the rest pulled security as we went away from the blast site. Once we were set up. Boom! A few windows shattered in the surrounding houses.





The puppies were spared. Just a few minutes after the explosion we saw their mother come upon the site. We put them back once it was safe and went on our merry way. (I have pictures of that too.) It was the strangest sight: Battle hardened veterans turning into little boys, petting, and talking to the pups. Yet we had a mission to do. Our good deed done.





I can't wait to get a pet when I'm back. It may be fish but that's something. :)





Have a good one


Krzysztof





The Baby Defense


& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & K & lt;/span & rzysztof Matejkowski and the scout/snipers often spent days at a time creeping around Baquba on missions, hiding in abandoned buildings or commandeering houses to hunt down the foreign fighters who comprised al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the insurgent group that had taken over the city in 2004 intent on making it the capital of a new Islamic caliphate.





When the snipers in their hideouts would track Iraqi men through the scopes on their long-barreled M24s, Matejkowski says, "the snipers [would] joke that the Iraqis always seem to know, and the first thing they do is pick up a baby. 'Mister, me not bad.' A baby and a white flag are double the protection."





Many residents were tired of living amid jihadis and booby-traps -- entire blocks of houses and even whole intersections had been rigged with explosives in Baquba -- and the team found it more effective to ask normal Iraqis permission to take over a house than to kick in the door and herd families around at gunpoint.





Matejkowski's unit offered water, and sometimes money, in place of aggression.





Iraq or Vietnam?


& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & "P & lt;/span & eople don't believe this is Iraq," Matejkowski says of photos he took during patrols of the palm groves outside Baquba.





Iraqis who lived in villages inside the groves would sling a bag over their shoulder and, with nothing but a leather belt, skip their way barefoot up the trunks of nodding palm trees, all the way to the starburst of palm fronds set against the pale sky to pick dates, as they have done possibly since Biblical times.





Patrolling the groves was ridiculous, Matejkowski says. "Sometimes a few feet in front of you was as good a security as you could get."





It sort of brightened my day...


From: Krzysztof Matejkowski


Subject: Re: Sad news


Date: August 14, 2007 12:52:43 PM PDT


To: kevin(at)inlander.com





Hey Kevin,





It seems that insurgents are coming back in the city. It's been making progress but now with less troops it's going back to its old ways. More bodies found on the street. More gun shots in the night. More scared people looking over their shoulders. My old company found 6 headless bodies not just a week or two ago.





This happened sometime in September of 06. It was in Mosul. We're doing our thing in the city. I go on a building and pull security for our snipers. We are a scout platoon with battalion snipers. Or a Scout/Sniper platoon as some people say. Not the snipers though. Pretty cool stuff. If you consider looking at a stairway for 3 or 4 hours cool. So nothing happens. We heard a lot of gunfire. Machine guns and all, but we couldn't see where it was at. Someone's getting shot at. We're overlooking a graveyard and a mosque. I heard plenty of complaints about what we do to mosques. Yet we can't even go into them when that's where the shots are coming from. Mosques are a fav bad guy spot since they know our hands are tied. We get up and start packing to go. Crack and a ting!!!





A shot goes by right between me and one of the snipers. We were no more than a yard away from each other!!! Needless to say I got down fast. As I dropped on my knee another shot wizzed by. At first our snipers thought one of us ADed [accidental discharge]. That's how close the enemy sniper was to us. At least they did till a second shot went between them. Then the snipers took up some good positions and tried to look for the source of the shot. No luck. We think he was watching us and decided to shoot when he thought we were about to leave. In fact one of the guys on my team was facing that way almost the whole time and had to have been in the guy's sights for quite some time. It was quite a rush. It sort of brightened my day for some weird reason. I was in a blah mood. But the shot helped a lot. It cheered me up.





As that was happening our Stryker was almost hit by a mortar round. It landed just 5 to 10 feet away. One guy had a concussion. One guy has a story to tell, because he saw it come down. He just managed to say "O, shit" before being knocked into the Stryker. It's sure a strange life over here.





Have a good one.


Krzysztof








Already Gone


& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & B & lt;/span & aquba could sometimes seem like an empty city to the small team endlessly prowling its streets. The anticipated pivotal battles between American troops and al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia never happened.





The insurgent leadership melted out of the city on the eve of the "surprise" launch of Arrowhead Ripper. The insurgents had spent months turning Baquba into a Rubik's Cube of booby traps, placing refrigerator-sized "deep buried" IEDs under intersections with backhoes and rigging entire blocks of houses to explode.





The American advance was slowed to a walking pace.





"You are always on alert. At first you are nervous because you don't know what to expect," he says. "Eventually you become more focused, a little wiser at what you are looking at and what you are looking for."





And what you hear, learning to discern the sound of a Dragunov sniper rifle and other weapons used by insurgents.





There were moments of comic relief, of course, such as when an Iraqi Army soldier during a joint patrol presented Matejkowski's platoon leader with rose mallow from a courtyard.





"I remember those flowers smelled so good because we stank. We were so sweaty and stinky," Matejkowski says.





The vibrant and fragile magenta blossoms were also small clues that there was another world beyond the immediate world of endless days of walking on heightened alert through a succession of 130-degree days in a city where any footfall could detonate an explosion.
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