Technically, it's called a "route clearance" mission, but for all intents and purposes, it's a bomb hunt. On this night, two members of our CBS News crew were invited to join.
Producer Randall Joyce and I traveled with the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment. We were there as they looked for IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), an insidious scourge that has killed thousands of troops in Iraq. The work performed by the regiment is dangerous, but necessary. It keeps the roads safe for Iraqis, and for fellow soldiers. It's work that takes place every day, whether it's a holiday or not.
Our convoy left Camp Liberty at 4:30 in the afternoon, and within minutes we were outside the wire, rolling down Baghdad's Airport Road. Our destination was Dora, a neighborhood south of Baghdad's center. Dora used to be a hotspot for violence. It has improved dramatically since the surge began, but new information indicates insurgents are trying to make a comeback there. Some 200 IEDs have been found in the neighborhood since September.
Because groups like Al Qaeda are constantly inventing new ways to attack, the military has to come up with new ways to foil their plans. The vehicles in our convoy carry equipment that's expensive, and impressive. We can't even talk about many of the tools because it would give valuable information to potential enemies.
Halfway through the trip, the sun had set. We approached a fruit stand and butcher shop. There was a small crowd in the street. The leader of the mission took a look around and decided it was safe enough to get out. The back door of the Stryker opened, and Randall and I exited.
What followed was a fascinating, up-close look at what the surge is all about: local contact. Soldiers hit the streets and talked to neighbors. There was a translator on the team, which enabled Lt. Taylor McMaster to speak to a group of Iraqis who gathered at a small marketplace. He explained what his team was doing. He asked them about a shooting that took place nearby a few days ago. He asked what changes they'd like to see. They told him they want more checkpoints, and more electricity. Right now, residents on one side of the street get power for only five hours a day. On the other side, they don't get any at all. It's not a comfortable way to live, and the locals made sure their message was heard.
The team moved up and down the street, gathering intelligence, but maybe more importantly, gathering goodwill. More neighbors emerged from their homes, especially kids. The soldiers brought buckets of candy, and children lined up for chocolate. One little girl rushed into the arms of Sgt. Thomas Kirkwood. He picked her up and they both smiled. It was a tender, moving moment. Kirkwood told me it reminded him of his little boy back home, and of a little girl on the way. His wife is pregnant, scheduled to give birth this month. He chose to stay in Baghdad so he could be with his team.
After half-an-hour on the street, it was time to say goodbye. We got back in our vehicles and the clearance mission continued. The convoy had to be careful, and moved slowly. The team picked up a number of suspicious objects, and each one of them had to be "interrogated," meaning examined and tested. If a bomb had been found, the team would typically have performed a controlled explosion. This night, that wasn't necessary.
It was 10 p.m. by the time we returned to base. We dismounted, and thanked the team for their time. The troops would get a night's rest, and go on a similar mission tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that.
It's a grueling routine, but we heard no complaints, even though these soldiers know family members are relaxing and celebrating thousands of miles away.
Part of what sustains them is their new family, here at Camp Liberty. As Sgt. Ray McGrew told me, "I have 10 guys in my squad, and they are just like my brothers. I'd do anything for them."
That, in a nutshell, is Christmas in Iraq. It's not pretty, but if you're back home, it's hard not to feel proud.