Live from Iraq

By Stewart Nusbaumer

Surviving in Mosul Stuggling to survive after a horrific explosion.

Street Without Joy
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Good Morning, al-Adhamiya
In one of Baghdad's most dangerous neighborhoods.

Squiring Out Of Baghdad
Is the surge ending or dispersing the insurgency?

With PTT in Heet
A Marine unit training and equipping the Iraq Police.

Embed in Trouble
What is a journalist to do with attacked by a U.S. Army biggie? Go to the bigger?

Four Days in Dulab
In a small, dangerous town in the most violent province in Iraq.


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  Dispatch: Four Days In Danger

In a small, dangerous town in the most violent province in Iraq.
By Stewart Nusbaumer

Dulab is dangerous. When Marine convoys rumble through town, the kids don’t dash to the road and flash thumbs-up. They don’t spread their little fingers into V signs. They don’t scream for candy. They just stand and stare. No smiles, no words. When kids are unfriendly you know their parents are dangerous.

Located on the banks of the lovely Euphrates River amidst placid palm groves and surrounded by gorgeous pristine desert, if Dulab’s crumbling sandstone buildings were reassembled, its crushing poverty was erased, its bloody violence evaporated, Dulab would be an oasis. But Dulab is no oasis.

“It used to be a lot worse,” Captain Vukelic says, “they wouldn’t even be on the streets when we passed.” In their first month, his small group of Marines from the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion discovered through detection and detonation 30 IEDs and experienced 20 small arms attacks. Six months later, some military and civilian observers believe Dulab has become a so-called neutral town, others believe the majority of the residents still actively support the insurgents but that majority is growing smaller. It’s hard to tell what Dulab is, except its dangerous.

The four days that I was at the small Dulab Marine outpost, there was a roadside bomb that wounded several Marines, a fire-fight with insurgents down by the river, a drive-by shooting just outside the outpost, and when I went on a foot patrol with the Marines, a discovery of three rifles buried in one of those placid palm groves. Today the people may be less hostile and there may be fewer armed attacks, but Dulab isn't quite ready for tourists.

Once I was driven through the concrete road barriers and concertina wire, escorted past the high blast walls and stacked sandbags and inside Patrol Base Dulab -- an ideal movie set for a besieged World War II outpost was my first thought -- stories of war flowed free and fast. In the dirt courtyard covered by camo netting where Marines congregate to smoke and chat there was the story of a rocket propelled grenade that barely missed the guard tower directly above us. There was the story of an IED that exploded just outside the wire and a bleeding Marine -- “he looked like a goner” -- was thrown onto the hood of a Humvee and raced into the patrol base. In a dark and stale smelling sleeping room crammed with bunk beds and combat gear, there were stories about ambushes in town and firefights outside of town and jets dropping bombs on insurgents…. Inside the COC (Combat Operations Center), there was the Captain’s story about two machine guns opening up on Marines in the town’s marketplace.

In this small combat outpost in the middle of volatile Anbar Province -- where nearly as many Americans have died as in all of Iraq’s other provinces combined -- the entertainment is limited and the food is bland but there is an abundance of exiting war stories. But there was something strange, something missing in these stories. I was always left wondering when the combat occurred. Was it yesterday? Last week? Last month? Six months ago? Plenty of detailed facts, lots of genuine emotions, extensive collaboration, but there were no time markers. When I asked “when,” the Marines looked uncertain, even confused. As if the “when” never occurred to them.

Foot patrols here are scheduled for all hours, road convoys can happen anytime, house searches are never routine. Adhering to schedules makes you predicable, which makes you vulnerable to enemy attack, which can kill you! But there is more. Thinking about time stretches time, extends the time before you return home. So time in Dulab is not like time in America, here fixed time is dangerous, thinking about time is painful.

While your personal security says scramble and mix up time, your mental wellbeing says to dismiss and forget time. So the Marines make time slippery, allusive, and invisible. Time is here, yet not here. The Marines remember the details of their war stories, the adrenaline rushes, the fear that even now is barely hidden, but time is never present in the stories. There is, however, one time all the Marines do remember. The time they are to board the plane for home. But no one wants to talk about that time. Thinking and talking about that time just might destroy the date and extend their time in Iraq.

For those four days in Dulab, I was acutely attuned to an orchestra of ominous thuds and thumps and cracks and rumbles, ratcheting my nerves tight. My biggest concern was not time, but sound. I would soon be leaving, so time was not important to me. But those sounds had me worried that I might be leaving in a body bag. The banging of a metal door suddenly became the sound of a crashing rocket. A Marine’s rifle bolt slamming was an insurgent sniper about to fire. Combat gear smacking against the wall was the heavy thud of something too nasty to even contemplate. But the Marines never blinked an eye, never flinched a muscle -- until the sound mattered! The sound that mattered was the one that had the potential to kill their return date home. Everything else was, for them, the sound of silence.

And there was a competing orchestra of sound, this one friendly, called the sound of dreams. The Marines were always talking about their plans when they returned home. Buy a new house. Create a business. Party binge with their buddies. Right a failing marriage. Marry a beautiful girl. When the war stories stopped and my sounds of fear took a short break, I heard their steady stream of happy dreams. In Dulab, reality was funneled into the horrible and into the beautiful. The mind was wrapped around death and hope, and little else.

In war zones, dreams acquire an incredible power because they are never tested by the ugliness in reality. Dreams are tools for escaping the ugly of the present. Their raw enthusiasm and boundless hope can only die in peacetime -- at home when the marriage ends, when the party turns into a miserable hangover, when the business never happens, when….

When the Marines of Dulab return home, some will be time deficient, as if time is still the enemy. Some will be sound sensitive, jumping when you don’t even hear. That’s OK, they’ll sort everything out. But watch their dreams. When dreams die too fast and too hard, when time becomes a nasty sound, they just might want to return to Dulab. And that’s dangerous.

Stewart Nusbaumer is embedded with various US Marine and Army units in Iraq. He can be emailed at


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