The Iraq War


by Joshua Key

As told to Lawrence Hill

The Girl at the Hospital.

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When my squad mates and I stood guard at the Ramadi children's hospital, we took along with us the military rations called Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs. Our duties usually lasted for 24 hours, and while changing posts every four or so hours, I was free to grab an MRE and a bottle of water.

Standing guard for 24 hours in a row was mind-numbing. I smoked cigarettes, chewed Copenhagen dip, knocked back shots of Tabasco sauce, bought Coca-Cola from street vendors, wondered how Brandi and our three boys were doing on the base in Colorado, and I welcomed any distractions to stay awake. One distraction that I learned to anticipate was the daily visits from a young Iraqi girl who lived across the street from the hospital.

She was about seven years old. She had dark eyes, shoulder-length brown hair and seemed impossibly skinny. She usually wore her school uniform — a white shirt with a blue skirt and a pair of sandals. The girl would run up to the fence that ran between us and call out: "Mister, food." She acted as if she didn’t even know that she lived in a war zone, and ran to the fence the same way my own children might have approached a sandbox, piping out, "Mister, food."

During two tours of duty in Ramadi, I stood guard at that hospital on at least 30 occasions. She came every single time I was posted there. I sat just inches away, on a big rock, but I would stand to greet her when she came up to me. I wondered who had taught her to say these two English words. Perhaps it was her mother, who often stood at the door of their ramshackle house, waiting for the girl to bring food for the family.

The first time she ran up to me I tried to ignore her. We were under orders not to speak to Iraqi civilians at all, unless authorized to do so by one of our officers, and it didn’t seem like a good thing for a seven-year-old child to be anywhere near American soldiers standing with assault rifles locked and ready at all times.

"Mister! Food!"

"Go away," I said.

"Mister. Food."

I waved my hand to tell her to go away, because she clearly wasn’t getting my words.

She kept at me, and I started mumbling at her. "Come on, little sister, you've really got to get out of here."

She stood motionless, kept smiling and would not leave. Finally, I reached over the four-foot high, chain-link fence and handed her my MRE. It was a beef enchilada, with Tabasco sauce, a packet of cheese, a few crackers, two pieces of gum, a bag of Skittles, a pouch of powder to make an orange drink, and a pack of matches. The whole thing came in a thick, tightly sealed plastic bag, about a foot long, six inches deep and three inches wide. It weighed less than a pound. She ran with it back to her house. The instructions on the bag were only in English. I don't know if her family figured out that you had to break open one pouch, pour in water, and let it boil for a minute or so before you ate it.

Three days later, when I returned for another day of guard duty, there she was.

"Mister! Food."

Her face and her feet were dirty. It occurred to me that it must be extremely hard to keep a child clean in a country with a destroyed infrastructure and a ruptured water supply.

I tried once more to wave her off, but she would have nothing of it. She stood her ground until I tossed her an MRE. Country Captain Chicken, with a package of peanut butter, a container of grape jam, a slice of bread in vacuum-sealed plastic, a piece of poppy seed lemon cake, peppermint gum, and the drink powder. When she got to her front door, though, I saw her mother slap her and send her right back out to me.

"Mister. More food." Ah. A third word. She resisted my warnings to get clear of danger, and stayed until I radioed one of my buddies in the squad to fetch another MRE from the APC. This time it was beef teriyaki.

She did not get slapped again when she returned with the second package, and I wondered if her family had ever seen peanut butter and jam, or what they thought of Country Captain Chicken. It struck me that they had a pretty dismal picture of American life:  M-249s and the world's fastest yet least edible food.

As my guarding duties at the hospital continued, I began to carry a small stash of MREs with me so that I could give her two at a time.

The girl always ran home with them. It seemed like running was the only speed she knew. It didn’t matter if it was 125 degrees in the afternoon sun. It made me happy to see her flying across the street on those light brown legs.

I wasn't the only soldier in our squad who gave rations to the girl. "I saw that girl today while I was out front of the hospital," Specialist Sykora would say.

"Give her anything this time?" I'd ask.

"Damn right," he would say. "Beef stew and a bottle of water."

She seemed to have a slight limp when she ran. Each time she came, as soon as I tossed her one or two MREs, I would say, "Hey there little sister. Don't stay here. Go home now." When she stood too long at the fence, I would toss candies — Werther's and Starbursts, for example — far enough away to get her to move to a safer spot. 

We were deployed to Fallujah for a few weeks and when we returned to Ramadi, the girl noticed, and she began running to me daily again, asking for food.

One day she brought me a piece of bread. When it passed over the fence, from her hand to mine, I could feel that it was still warm. It was a flat bread, and delicious, and she would not move until I had eaten the whole thing.

"Thank you," I said.

I was away on house raids for a few days after that, and I found myself looking forward to guard duty at the hospital so that I could see the little girl again.

The next week, I was back at my post in front of the hospital. I saw the girl run out of her house, toward the fence that stood between us. I reached for an MRE, looked up to see her about ten feet away, heard the sound of semiautomatic gunfire, and saw her head blow up like a mushroom.

I couldn't believe what I had seen. I looked in every direction. The only armed people in the area were my squad mates, posted at various points around and on top of the hospital. There were no armed Iraqis within sight, and I had not heard the steady drilling sound made by the Iraqi AK-47s. The only thing I had heard was the distinctive sound of an M-16, which doesn't give off a loud, sustained burst of gunfire. It shoots just a few bullets at a time. Pop pop pop. Break. Pop pop pop. Break. It was the sound of my own people's guns that I had heard blazing before the little sister was stopped in her tracks.

I saw her mother fly out the door and run across the street. She and someone else in the family bent over the body. I could feel them all staring at me, and I could say nothing to them and do nothing other than hang my head in shame while her family took away the body.

Even today I can’t help thinking that it was one of my own guys who did it. And I can’t help feeling that I was responsible for her death. If I hadn’t been feeding her, and allowing her to believe that it was safe, little sister might be alive today. She would be ten or so years old now, around the same age as my eldest son, Zackary.

Her death haunts me to this day. I am trying to learn to live with it.

Excerpted from The Deserter's Tale, copyright © 2007 by Joshua Key and Lawrence Hill, and reprinted by permission of the publisher Atlantic Monthly Press.