KIRKUK, Iraq Every patrol has a different feel, a different rhythm and energy. A night patrol in Oruba has an eerie, foreboding feeling. The dark and nearly deserted streets and claustrophobic neighborhoods seem riddled with unseen dangers, as if someone is lurking in the shadows preparing to a pull a trigger.
Soldiers are edgy during a night patrol and relieved when it's over. The same garbage-strewn Oruba neighborhood that one soldier called “the underbelly of Kirkuk” takes on a different character during the day.
One sunny Saturday afternoon Bravo Company’s soldiers headed into Oruba. High school-aged kids played soccer on a dirt field littered with trash, but they wore clean, white-and-blue team uniforms. Scroungy animals roamed the streets and vacant lots with new offspring in tow. Kid goats and lambs pranced in weedy lots and knobby-kneed colts nursed off mares.
With school out, the children treated Humvees like a cross between a parade float and an ice cream truck.
Children ran toward the Humvees, waving and giving the thumbs-up. Although the thumbs-up was traditionally an insult in Iraq, the kids have adopted the American version. They smile brightly and there's no malice in their faces.
“My biggest thrill out of this is the kids. Most of them are really cool,” Cpl. Shaun Hall of Boise said from his position in the rooftop machine-gun turret.
“Somebody's been throwing out candy, that's why they're charging the truck,” Sgt. Joe Kazyaka of Mountain Home said from the passenger's seat.
Hall said he's seen a change in the people's attitudes since the 116th took over patrols in Kirkuk. The Oruba neighborhood is predominately Arab, which has been the most anti-American ethnic group in Kirkuk.
"When we first got here, 5- and 6-year-old kids were flipping us off and throwing rocks," Hall said. "If a little kid came out and waved, their mom or dad would smack ’em," Hall said.
"The 25th Infantry Division was really rough on them. We started treating them like human beings, and they got nicer," he said. "Slowly but surely, it's getting better."
The soldiers wonder if that will continue. Insurgents have been known to ramp up their activities in the warmer months. As the temperature rises, so does the risk of violence.
"These guys are fair-weather fighters," Hall said. "When it's rainy or cold, they won't even come out of their houses. But when it warms up, that's when they start trying their stuff."
Soldiers say they're not afraid of a head-to-head fight. The 116th is better armed and better trained, but they fear the randomness of roadside bombs commonly known as IEDs, or improved explosive devices. Bravo Company has been involved in two IED explosions in Oruba, both in February. Nobody was injured in either.
“We try not to get complacent, but it's hard sometimes," Hall said.
"We keep our security tight," Spec. R. J. Slade of Salt Lake City said.
On this patrol, it seemed like the kids thought the patrol was strictly for their entertainment. “Here comes another mob squad," Hall said. "It's a parade out here."
Kids approached whenever the Humvee slowed down or stopped. It was heartwarming and heartbreaking. Kids in sandals ran through a lot filled with garbage, hopped a small stream of sewage then stopped, waved and shouted hello to the soldiers.
Boys wore cotton pants and sweaters. Some wore jeans. Many of the young girls are dressed similarly; others wore bright red, orange and yellow dresses. One boy's sweatshirt said “Penny Road Elementary School” in English. Another boy's said "Future Aviator." A girl sported a "Hang Ten" shirt.
The kids got Hall energized. He launched into a non-stop monologue. "Hello! How are you?" he shouted from the machine gun turret down to the kids.
"I miss my daughter, damn it," Hall said.
"I do too," Slade said.
One Iraqi mother who held a baby waved the baby's arm and smiled as the soldiers drove past.
The young and older women were much more reserved than the children. Some waved, and others smiled when Hall yelled hello. "If a female smiles at you, that's a wave," Hall said.
The men and teen-aged boys in Oruba rarely waved. They gave a vacant stare, looked away, or completely ignored the soldiers.
"The older ones are still kind of paranoid. They still think Saddam is coming back," Slade said. "Hopefully we will make a difference for these kids."
— Roger Phillips