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Faced with a level of brutality new to American soldiers in Iraq, they responded brutally, taking over the city by sheer force. In a way, it worked — all 550 survived — but the ruthlessness with which they fought also cost the guardsmen: They came back alive, but not whole.
Hubert Aris received orders to ship out the day after Christmas 2002. At the time, he was working as a maintenance man at a local hotel. Along with the more than 1200 people that composed the 124th Infantry, he was told to report to Fort Stewart, Georgia, and to prepare to spend a year in uniform. It was rumored that an invasion of Iraq was imminent, but Florida National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Ron Tittle told the Miami Herald at the time that he had "not seen anything to indicate that the soldiers are being readied for action in Iraq." Nonetheless, after less than two months of training, Aris left with the regiment's Alpha and Charlie companies for the Middle East. They arrived in Jordan, where they spent the duration of the invasion manning towers and staring into the desert, learning to use C4 explosives by digging holes in the arid soil, planting the C4 grenades, and running.
Then, in early April, the 124th Infantry was sent to Ar Ramadi.
With a population of some 400,000 — roughly the same as Miami's — Ramadi is situated in the southwest corner of the Sunni Triangle, an area in central Iraq composed mostly of Sunni Arab Muslims and for many years one of Saddam Hussein's strongholds. The three companies of the 124th were to replace the weary Third Infantry Division — professional soldiers who had led the desert charge on Baghdad and then, instead of being allowed to come home, had been redeployed to Iraq's newest conflict zones, Fallujah and Tikrit.
Their replacements were decidedly scrappier. The 124th men were without body armor or armored vehicles; they drove Humvees and 50-ton trucks, into which the soldiers piled, exposed, to patrol the streets. Their accommodations were poor: Bravo Company, the best-situated, occupied a decimated palace that only a month prior had belonged to Saddam Hussein; Charlie Company bivouacked in what was literally a bombed-out scrap yard on a remote edge of the city; Alpha Company — having shown up last — was put in a converted barn outside the palace, where they slept in the sand. When the sun set on Ramadi, the city would come alive with gunfire, and mortar shells hit their camps from the first night to the last. Spec. Edouard H.R. Gluck, a member of the 124th who recorded the experience in his book of photographs, This Is Our War, told a reporter: "If Hell physically exists, if there is in fact a Hell ... it is Ramadi."
As a guardsman, Aris assumed his job in Iraq would be to back up other, active-duty soldiers. But it turned out the 124th was the only infantry present in all of Ramadi. So Aris became a machine-gunner. He and his fellow guardsmen patrolled the city, conducted raids, responded to ambushes, and detained suspected insurgents. Early into their stay, Aris and several other Alpha soldiers were riding in a truck convoy on their way back to base on the main road — a thoroughfare that would later come to be known as "Ambush Alley" — when the driver of one of the trucks spotted something suspicious in the road. While he was maneuvering around the object, Aris looked up and saw a strange sight: purple smoke streaking all around him. It wasn't until the grenades hit the ground behind them and began exploding that Aris realized what was happening. "RPGs were flying all around us. But we had never heard of one, never seen one. To me, I just saw colors coming toward me and I thought, What the hell is that?"
By then the soldiers were being shot at as well. "It was an ambush," Aris says. The men sped off to the base and were piling out of the trucks when someone noticed something lodged inside Aris's truck: a grenade, undetonated. "And that was the reality of it right there," he says. "That was the first time, and everybody could have died. We stayed up until the next day, all of us, just talking about it."
Now, four years later, RPGs and IEDs are household terms. But what Aris and his company were witnessing in Ramadi was, in fact, the beginning of a new war. Baghdad was still relatively safe for soldiers — but out in the Sunni Triangle, and especially in Ramadi, Florida's National Guard was witnessing the beginnings of the counterinsurgency.
"They were the first infantry to really go into Iraq, into the great unknown, as an established unit," explains Gluck, the guardsman who was assigned to photograph the day-to-day war in Ramadi, "because basically everybody else there was there for the 'Mission Accomplished' part of it. But what started to happen was that the 124th started to lend themselves to the reality that this was not a conventional war."
Battalion commander Hector Mirable, Gluck says, was the chief mind behind this new, unconventional strategy. A onetime Miami Police major, Mirable had his men patrol Ramadi endlessly. They would break down doors, blow apart buildings, and kill anyone who got too close. These days, patrols are the norm all over Iraq — most soldiers are killed by IED explosions during such outings — but at the time, it was a new tactic.