Through the Glass
by Christopher Rance
Staring hard into the dark, we moved silently through the thick forest of concrete. Our shadows follow us as they track along the towering blast walls that snake through the city of Dora. There’s eight of us. Myself and my sniper partner Kelly, then six light infantry scouts, each battle-tested over the course of this war; Miller, Glass, Andy, Morales, Curry and Belford. As we fumble around the city in the middle of the night, we make our way to our final destination, a vacant two-story house on the west side of Dora. Our mission is to set up in one of the rooms and find a good vantage point to watch over a multilane highway that cuts through the heart of Baghdad and eliminate any threat that might be stirring about.
As we arrive at the vacant, cream-colored concrete house, we cautiously approach the eight-foot compound walls. Peering through the vertical slots of the compound gate, we didn’t see any movement. We carefully open the gate, unlatching the lock from the inside and slowly head for the front door. Andy and Belford, who tower amongst the rest of us, pull out a set of bolt cutters and snip away at the thick, rusted linked chains that bound the double metal doors to the house. In a file formation, we enter the home at a brisk walking pace. The first four guys split off to the left to clear the first floor and Kelly, Morales Glass and myself move towards the staircase that leads up to the second floor. I slowly raise my Colt M4 Carbine to the pocket of my shoulder. The Colt M4 is designed specifically for lightweight mobility, speed of target acquisition, and potent firepower capability. It’s comfortably carried, yet instantly available. Maneuvering up the staircase, we came to the second floor. There are two rooms on this floor, Glass and Morales take the first room on the left side of the unlit, narrow hallway and Kelly and I push down to the next room on the right.
Kelly and I enter the room with our M4 Carbines raised to a high ready, sweeping the room for any threat. We conduct a quick scan of the room; an old wooden table and chair set in the far right corner and the room’s floor is layered with broken glass and dust. A window unscreened with rusted metal bars running vertically from frame to frame, no more than six inches apart with tiny shards of glass protruded from the framed edges is the only window in the room. I slip off my heavy, burdensome pack and gently lay it beside me on the floor. I unzip the top pocket of my pack and pull out my Canon image stabilizing binoculars. It features a generous 6.5 degree angle field of view and only weigh 36.79 ounces. They are very handy when I find myself looking out a window for extended periods of time, I’m really glad that I bought them.
Without exposing myself, I carefully look out the window and survey my hunting ground. I’m very meticulous when I observe. A fevered concentration comes over me whenever I look out a window. I’ve always enjoyed the fascination of that which is being looked at. As a child, I would sit for hours and observe other people, even if I knew I’d risk being caught. I wanted to see things, even things I wasn’t supposed to see; even things that would frighten me, especially things that would frighten me. I guess that’s why I wanted to be a sniper. It would afford me the opportunity to continue my fascination of looking, to pry into one’s personal space, without being known and without consequence.
Looking out, I could see the highway running perpendicular from this room, roughly 200 meters out. Twisted metal stumps of what use to be guard rails, litter the highway. Coalition forces tore them up months ago for the insurgents would use the guard rails to hide an IED-an improvised explosive device from approaching convoys. Not a single soul was on the highway tonight and for a good reason. After 10 p.m., the curfew comes into effect. Stay out past the curfew and only bad things will happen to you. Beyond the highway, about 250 meters out, was a row of houses, shielded by plain, thick walls to discourage strangers like me from looking inside. Luckily, perched up on the second floor, I could peer into their courtyards with relative ease.
Setting my binoculars down, I finish unloading my Pack. I unsnap the plastic buckles from the scabbard and pull out my sniper rifle. The M-110 Semi-Automatic Sniper System is a precision 7.62mm NATO caliber, gas operated rifle that is highly acclaimed for its battlefield performance. The rifles inherent accuracy, ambidextrous controls, abundant MIL-STD-1913 rail mounting capabilities, and highly efficient sound suppressor system all contribute to the system’s combat success. I then unzip the main compartment of my pack and extract; my sand sock. It’s an OD green sock filled with sand that is used for rear support of the sniper rifle. My data book-a bounded book that contains information on previous engagements and my Kestrel 4500- A handheld device that is capable of monitoring and reporting an exhaustive list of environmental parameters from temperature to barometric pressure, temperature, humidity, wind speed and more, the Kestrel 4500 is the most feature-rich pocket weather meter on the market. Lastly, I pull out some lightweight mesh screen and thumbtacks. Kelly and I will use the screen to help conceal us inside this room. By hanging it down at a 45-degree angle from the window’s frame and back towards us, it will look like a vacant, dim room from the outside. This is exactly what we want, to not be seen.
Once our screen is setup, Kelly picks up the old wooden desk and chair from the corner of the room and carefully sets it down roughly six to seven feet from the window. I gently place my rifle on top of the desk. I then clip on my universal night sight-The UNS clip-on weapon sight, adds the latest high-performance Gen 3 light intensification night vision to most rifles and day scopes by attaching to the Mil-STD-1913 rail in front of your existing optic. This device lets me see at hours of darkness, in shades of green. I reach out with my right hand and grasp the adjustment knob at the front of the night sight, carefully turning the knob to sharpen the green image that I observe through my rifle scope. Once the picture becomes clear, I bring back my right hand and place it under the butt of the rifle stock, sub conscientiously wrapping my fingers around my sand sock. I close my eyes and take a deep breath, letting my muscles of my body relax so I can settle into my natural point of aim. As I exhale, I open my eyes, eagerly waiting to spend some time in getting to know my area.
I faintly shift the rifle in the pocket of my shoulder to examine the highway. It’s a subtle, sweeping motion, looking for the unknown, wanting to find something that shouldn’t be there. The night is quiet, eerie quite. Even the rabid hounds that roam the night, hunting the dead were silent. I could see the Dora oil refinery in the distance, like a single wax candle flickering in the cold, starless night. An Iraqi police checkpoint is to my 3 o’clock, roughly 700 to 800 meters out. I can faintly make out their outlines, as they huddle around a fire, yet all I see through my scope is opaque shapes of green. Thermals would be better suited on nights like these, with no moon or stars to illuminate the objects that live within my riflescope, the shadows can hide those who wish not to be seen.
About two hours have passed and my eyes start to become heavy. I look over to my sniper partner Kelly, who was sleeping and huddled up against the room’s wall with his sleeping bag over his head. Kelly is a young kid, who has significant physical features and a great mind. He’s very smart and has been an asset to the team. He used to be in a rock band before he joined the Army. His music is unique; the blend of heavy metal-screaming-then eases the listener in with soft, touching lyrics, it really captivates. At first, I gave it a pass, but over time, it grows on you.
“Kelly, wake up, it’s your shift.” I spoke with a gentle tone.
Kelly wrestles with the sleeping bag that was over his head and rolls it back up haphazardly and stuffs it back into his pack. He rubs his eyes and makes his way over to replace me from behind the rifle. I give him a quick rundown of our sector and tell him to wake me up in a few hours.
I’d rest my eyes for a bit, thinking of who or what I might see when the day breaks. Just the contemplation of watching over a new area, seeing new people, seeing how they go about their day, gives off an inward chuckle and a smile. Growing up, kids would get that feeling on Christmas morning, anxiously waiting to see what Santa would bring them.
I never cared for Christmas.
No, my favorite day was the first day of spring. That’s when all the neighbors would open up their blinds, their windows, their garage doors and invite me in. The children would be outside playing in the yard. The father would be in the garage, fixing his lawnmower. The mother would be in the kitchen, baking something delicious, like an apple pie. I would be in my room, sitting at my desk with my fingers parting the cream colored aluminum slats from the blinds that hung from my window, watching…
I can feel the room getting warmer though a dampness of bitter cold still lingers in the room. The sun must have been up for a few hours now. I slowly nudge my chin into my chest to look down at my wristwatch. A quarter past 9 a.m.
Damn, I must have been out cold. I didn’t even hear the Morning Prayer that echoes through this city every morning.
I roll to my side and ascend to my knees. I look over at Kelly; he’s behind the rifle, looking out the window.
I consider for a moment on what he’s looking at, what he’s thinking? Does he enjoy it as much as I do?
“Kelly, everything ok,” I ask curiously?
“Yeah man, no issues to report. Traffic has started to pick up and that Iraqi police checkpoint to our 3 o’clock switched out guards about an hour ago.”
“Any change in plan?”
“Nope, Glass came in before sunrise and said the commander didn’t change his guidance. We’re here to sit on this highway and keep it safe for coalition forces moving about and to not intervene unless we got positive I.D on any IED teams setting up. If we see something, we call it up and he’ll make the call.”
I’m glad there’s no change in plan. I’ve been waiting to get back behind my rifle and see what things I couldn’t see last night. I shuffle over towards Kelly and take his place. The chair is warm, which is comforting. I make a few minor adjustments to the rifles setup. Kelly already removed the night sight from the rifle, as it would be useless during the day. Kelly shifts back over to the corner of the room and opens up his pack. Digging around, Kelly grabs an MRE-The Meal Ready-to-Eat, is a self-contained, individual field ration in a lightweight packaging bought by the United States military for its service members for use in combat or other field conditions where organized food facilities are not available. Kelly tears into the MRE and devours it, he must have been starving.
I rest the butt of the sniper rifle against my shoulder, eye’s squinting as I adjust to the glaring daylight. A second or two passed and my vision clears. The day is busy. Cars are roaring down the highway, horns screaming at one another. Pungent smells of smoldering plastic, diesel and charred meat slither into our hide through the open window. Smoke billows out from the Dora power plant, like an old man puffing on a cigar. Children scurry around the neighborhood, kicking soccer balls, smiling.
I fixate my interest to a row of houses across the highway. Just to pick a few at random:
The farthest one to the right has bare thick walls that face out onto a narrow street. The courtyard has an elevated basin from which water channels across through a small canal and into a larger pond in the middle of the courtyard. Pieces of cloth hang throughout, creating layers of shadows. The windows are kept small, with gypsum panels above. An older woman wearing a black abaya gown and hijab scarf tend to a little garden.
The next house down is more traditional. It’s a two-story structure made of brick and concrete. The house has latticed windows and an open inner courtyard. A large palm tree commandeers the courtyard, with its outreaching limbs and leaves providing scattered patches of shade on the tiled floor. On the roof, two middle-aged women in monotonous gowns and scarf’s hang patterned rugs over a laundry line.
The third house down was a peculiar arrangement. Colored glass and wood dotted the mostly brick structure. Fretted screens brought needed shade to the courtyard and a cultivated garden of flowers could be seen. The windows were small but plentiful. An older man was sitting in the cool shade of the late morning. I couldn’t tell if he was sleeping, but he was very still. A young woman wearing a floral scarf was tending to the garden. She was kneeling on a pillow; her fingers were sunk into the garden’s soil. I could only see the right side of her face, but she had a soft, delicate outline. She looked like Ingrid Bergman, from the movie Casablanca. I could feel my heartbeat, ratatat, drumming in my chest, my blood retreating from my fingers and face. I slowly reached up with my right hand and felt for my magnification knob. Inching ever so slightly, I became closer to her, so close as if I was right beside her in the courtyard. My lips unfastened and warm air ascended from my lungs and it rolled out between my lips and it hit the cold air, turning it into a soft, ashen smoke.
She unearthed her fingers from the garden’s soil and quickly rose to her feet; it was a sudden movement as I had to react quickly and zoom back out to put her back into my frame. She walked over to the old man who was sitting, and placed her hand on his shoulder and said something, but I couldn’t hear what she said. The man nodded, and she took her hand off his shoulder and walked over to the far right corner of the courtyard and grabbed a wooden broom that was leaning up against the wall.
She must have been five feet and a few inches tall if I were to guess. She had a thin frame, but curves in all the right places. I could make out the subtle outline of her breasts through her top. She wasn’t wearing an abaya gown and her choice in clothing was more exuberant in color than the other women on the street. Her hair was chestnut brown and her eyes were emerald green. She finished sweeping the courtyard, then set the broom against the house and turned and smiled at the old man and then went inside.
Her smile apprehended my mind. My face rose slowly off the rifle and I tilted my head to the right, then to the left, feeling the muscles in my neck elongate, my heart still beating, rat tat tat. I didn’t know beauty existed in a place like this. I was perplexed, yet eager to see more of her, to learn her habits, to get to know her.
Hours have passed since I saw her. The day becomes hotter. The scene outside our window is buzzing. Patiently waiting, I continue my watching; the cars passing, the rawboned children playing. The days scent becomes more unsettling. Fragments of thoughts and feelings slosh around in the sea of my sub conscientious mind; family, home, sex, war, her…
I wipe the sweat from my brow with my non-firing hand.
“Kelly, you never told me why you quit your band and joined the Army.”
“Shit’s honest here. I couldn’t fucking breathe back home with all the drama that was going on around me. I had to get out and be something more. I took an 18X contract, went to basic training then airborne school, but ended up getting hurt in the Special Forces Assessment and Selection course. I’m still bummed out about it, but maybe someday I’ll get back to Fort Bragg and see it through.”
“Why did you join the Army?”
“Oh, you know, the God, Country, Family rhetoric.”
“Pff, come on now. I want to know.”
“I needed to be stimulated, to keep everything immediate and fresh, like sex, like murder, like denouncing your religion. I didn’t feel like I was living anymore, I’ve seen everything that I needed to see back in the states. I wanted to see more. I wanted to tear into stranger’s soul.”
“Fuck, you serious?”
“Haha, no man, I’m just toying with you.”
I’m not, though. I really wanted to escape suburbia, and find a profession where looking was my job. It’s like mental masturbation for me; it’s what burns deep down inside of me. The constant hunger for whatever it is it wants. The way it stops and starts.
Glass enters the room. He’s a tall fellow with dark hair and has a deep Alabama accent. He’s been with the Scouts since our unit’s first tour in Afghanistan back in 2006. Glass always has a calm demeanor, very calculated when it comes to taking chances.
“Will be picked up tonight,” said Glass.
“Really, what’s the reason?”
“Commander Say’s where needed elsewhere. This highway is secured, no need to risk compromising our site in case we need to set up here again for a future operation.”
I’m a bit bummed of this situation. We just got here and I finally see something worth watching.
“Finish up your area sketches and get some photos of the highway, that Iraqi Police checkpoint and those houses across the street,” Glass says as he leaves the room.
“Kelly, come take over the gun while I dig out my camera.”
I move sluggishly over to my pack and pull out my camera. It’s a Canon XTi-an unbeatable combination of performance, ease of use and value. It has a newly designed 10.1 MP Canon CMOS sensor plus a host of new features including a 2.5 inch LCD monitor, all in a lightweight, ergonomic body. I take the camera and attach it to the Leupold digital camera adapter that connects to my Leupold Mark 4 Spotting scope-the Mark 4 12-40x60mm Tactical spotting scope is ideally suited for use as part of a shooting team. It features a Mil-Dot reticle and you can outfit it with a variety of performance-enhancing accessories.
I see a rusted, faded blue four door car speeding down the narrow street towards her house. The car abruptly stops in front of her courtyard gate. Two men, wearing long sleeve shirts, jeans, and masks spring from the car.
“Kelly! Look to your 1 o’clock, across the highway, the third house down. You see the blue car and the three MAMS-military age males?”
“Yeah roger, I’m on it.” Kelly shifts the rifle over to get on target and his right thumb flicks down click and disengages the rifles safety.
“What’s my elevation? What you seeing for the wind?” Kelly asks.
“Give me 3 minutes up-minutes of angle and favor left-hold the crosshairs slightly left of center mass on target.
We couldn’t identify any weapons on the males, so we held off from calling up to engage. Waiting, I start snapping pictures of the men and the scene unfolding before us.
One of the men wearing a mask pulls out a can of spray paint and starts tagging the courtyard outer wall. camera-snap Another masked man violently launches a brick that has some type of note bound to it over the compound wall and it slams against the front door, rattling the window that borders it. The men rush to get back to the car camera-snap with one almost being dragged away as the driver punches it and whips the car around the far corner of the street, fading from our sight.
The still man from before is still no more. He opens the front door and picks up the brick with the note attached. He rips the paper bound to the brick and reads its. He clenches the piece of paper in his right hand and runs through the courtyard and opens the gate to the narrow street. Quick, nervous turns in both directions as he looks down the street. He pauses for a moment, then turns back, facing the courtyard walls. He stands there for a time being, note still clenched tightly in his right hand. His head begins to hang low.
A blood red painted circle, with a U in the middle of the circle and a dot above and centered of the U, sprayed on his courtyard wall. camera-snap
She emerges from the house, camera-snap sprinting through the courtyard and out the gate and into the street. She comforts the older man, her hands tugging at his arms, pleading him to come back in. camera-snap
My thoughts are racing. Who were those men? She dresses differently from the other women that live on the same street. She must be a Christian. I’ve read reports – Christian families getting a letter in an envelope together with a bullet of a Kalashnikov, warning to leave, pay a ransom or face death.
She finally guides the older man back into the courtyard. She closes the gate, locking it at the top and securing the latch below. She stands there for a minute, looking back towards the street. camera-snap
She’s winded, I can see her chest expanding and her shoulders dropping with each breath. She pulls her forearm to her forehead to wipe away the sweat, then once more for the tears. camera-snap
“What the hell was that, man?” Kelly says.
“I don’t know. Sectarian shit, I presume. Stay on the rifle, I need to tell Glass.”
I move quickly down the hall and into the room where Glass and his RTO-radio telephone operator Morales are. Morales is a stocky guy, but don’t let that fool you; he’s a tough son-of-a-bitch.
“Glass, you need to get the commander on the radio and tell him we just saw a harassment attack on a house across the highway. I think that Christian family is in some serious shit.”
“You see any weapons?”
“No, but they spooked that family pretty good. I have a bad feeling about it; we need to stay on site through the night.”
“Damn, I’ll see what I can do.”
A few minutes pass, Glass and the commander exchange words.
Glass sets the radio down.
“We got another 24 hours on site. Tell the rest of the guys to get comfortable again. The commander said to keep an eye out but DO NOT engage, said we can’t screw up a good hide site like this on some Haji drama shit.”
“Sure,” I mumble. Though what’s the point of staying if we can’t intervene?
I move back down the hallway and then downstairs to the first floor to inform the rest of the guys. The scouts handle the security whenever we set up shop. They’ll buddy up and take a room on each side of the house and pull watch, or set up different vantage points on an objective. You’ll also have a team watch the entry doors in case any stragglers or Al Qaeda come barging in with AK-47’s who want to ruin our day.
I pass the word around to the rest of the men and head back upstairs to my viewing room.
“Alright Kelly, we got another 24 hours on site. Let’s get another rifle set up on this table so you can watch the highway and I’m going to stay on the row of houses.”
“Roger,” Kelly starts to unpack his M110 and set’s up shop right beside me on the table. He grabs a second chair from Glass’s room and settles in.
The sun is setting; my left eye begins to twitch. I’ve been on the glass for too long, but I don’t want to pull off, I need to stay vigilant. I need to stay watching. I can see her and the old man rumbling about, through one of the small windows from the front of the house. Are they packing? They need to hurry if they want to leave before the curfew or wait until morning.
Night consumes the day. The busy highway empties and the thin children are sleeping. The smells still loiter, but stillness sets in.
Half past 1 a.m. the older man slips outside and into the courtyard. A flash of orange engulfs the man then it dims to a small orange glow that rest between his lips. Nervously he flicks the cigarette; fiery ashes appear then disappear into the dark. He looks up for a minute, to the heavens, then drops his cigarette and it hits the floor. He stomps it out with his left foot then heads back inside.
Tick, tick, tick, the ticking of my watch is the only sound I hear. Restlessly waiting, my left eye drifts right, then back to the left, leaving nothing to hide in my scope. One more hour till sunrise, I hope they finished packing.
The darkness on the horizon begins to break. Morning Prayer echoes through the loudspeakers of the mosques that plaster the city. It becomes annoying. I’ve been up for too long, thirsty and hungry. My body aches. I can see her front door begin to open; the old man pokes his head out and then opens the door all the way. The old man drags out a large black trunk. It’s a stubborn trunk with thick handles and metal trimming. She follows behind him, wearing a violet color long sleeve shirt and dark blue jeans; they accentuate her legs and ass nicely. She has on a white scarf and her face looks tired, but still stunning. She’s not smiling though. I do miss that smile. She’s holding a smaller suitcase, blue and gold. They make two more trips back inside and each time they bring out more luggage, stacking it up in the courtyard like a small city being erected, piece by piece. The old man starts to stuff the luggage into a gray sedan. He’s struggling, but she comes over and lends a hand. Only three pieces of luggage remain on the courtyard floor.
A red car begins to creep up in my peripheral at the far right corner of the narrow street. The driver’s window is partially rolled down with cigarette smoke billowing out. I can only see the outline of the driver and maybe another in the back. The car idly waits, engine humming.
“Kelly, get on the handheld and tell Glass I have a suspicious car in view, maybe 200 meters from the Christian house, far right corner of the street.”
I can hear Kelly’s voice in the background, giving Glass a rundown of what I see, but my eyes stay sharply focused on the car and its rear lights.
Red…red… then they ignite!
The car shifts into drive and the front tires spin up, rubber grips the asphalt, the car lurches forward, hurling down the street towards her.
“FUCK! Get the commander on the radio! It’s them!”
Kelly brings the radio to his mouth and starts the transmission to Glass. Glass receives it and tells Morales to get the commander on the radio.
“I need a clear to engage now,” I bark at Kelly.
Seconds start to pass.
I need the clearance.
“Stand down, the commander says.”
“Don’t engage,” Kelly yells.
“What the hell do you mean,” I fire back!
“He’s saying to pull off; a convoy is in the area and their en route. He’s adamant about not compromising our site or putting us in danger. We don’t know how many of those guys are out there. What if this is a trap, and we expose our spot and then the next thing you know it we got twenty of those fuckers coming down on us!”
The red car’s front end rams the compounds gate. The gate splits in two, chunks of metal explode outward into the street and into the courtyard. The old man freezes. He slowly looks back to her. She takes off sprinting back into the house and slams the front door shut. The old man extends his hands into the air, pleading. His face filled with fear.
KA TAT TAT TAT
The bullets from the Kalashnikov rip into his flesh, cutting him down. The three masked men with AK-47’s rush past the dead old man and without hesitation kick open the front door and enter in after her.
I flick down on the rifle’s safety click my left index finger wraps around the rifle’s trigger. I can feel the forged steel resting on the first pad of my finger. I start to apply reward pressure to the trigger. I can feel the trigger beginning to break.
I can see her through the windows of the house. She’s making her way to the second floor, and then she emerges onto the roof. She darts for the ledge, but she’s hesitant to leap off. She hysterically yells for help. I can make out a faint scream from where I’m at. Her neighbors hide inside. Her skin becomes pale, her eyes become big and round and they start to swell with tears.
She turns and faces towards me. She looks right at me.
KA TAT TAT TAT
She slowly starts to fall, gracefully staying within my frame. Her knees buckle and they hit the ground, then her torso, lastly her head. She lies horizontally within my scope. I sit here watching, watching her blood. I didn’t even know her name.
Christopher Michael Rance is a second-year student at Penn State University in International Politics. He is an active duty United States Army sniper who has combat tours to Afghanistan and Iraq.