Dirty Words: Ten Years After in Iraq

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By Sal Ruibal

I’ve been thinking about a kid I met near the Iraq-Iran border a little more than 10 years ago. I was in Kuwait taking care of logistics for USA TODAY reporters and photographers moving back and forth between the carnage in Bagdad and Fallujah and all those messed up places.

Hanging in a Persian Gulf resort making sure our folks had enough cash and sleep wasn’t tough work, but I was itching to get out into the field. This was the time when the U.S. Army was stretched so thin that reservists had been called up to fill in the gaps opened by RPG rounds and land mines.

I spent some of my time getting entry documents from the Kuwait authorities. Getting out of Kuwait was easy, getting back in without an entry visa was impossible. You don’t want to be on the wrong side of the Iraq-Kuwait border without an AK-47 and an armor vest.

But an opportunity came along to ride with some U.S. reservists who were heading toward the Iran border to relieve some regular Army guys in that area. On our way there, we stopped at a British Royal Marines outpost to drop off some Girl Scout cookies that the reservists brought for a small school next door to the Brits’ little camp near Basrah.

I saw a little boy there who was tooling around in the sand on a makeshift rusty bike with leaves in the tires instead of air. He had rigged up a headlight with a discarded flashlight blub connected to a battery with black tape.

He had some little flags stuck to the spokes. I asked if I could ride his little bike, but he clenched up. For a box of Thin Mints – for his sister, he said – he would let me ride for five minutes. I inched around the brown dirt playground and I could see he was upset. That bike was everything he had in this world. He risked me breaking it so he could give his sister some cookies.

I had a multi-tool with me and I did a little maintenance on his wheels and handlebar. I gave his teacher a bag of apples I bought in Basrah. That kid is probably 18 now. He was a Shiite, so I figure now he’s been given an AK-47 of his own, if he’s still alive. I don’t know if he ever thinks of that little bike, but he probably hates all Americans anyway. We deserve it.

But for a brief moment, we were bike brothers. We shared a moment of pride in that. Is the Bike Brotherhood stronger than centuries of religious hate? Nope. That’s living in a fool’s paradise. I’ve changed my address since then. Good luck, kid. Good luck to all of us.

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