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Test of soldiers' humanity ends, unsolved

Soldiers wonder what to do about a body in a cesspool. Then it's gone.

Published April 29, 2007


BAGHDAD - The soldiers called him Bob, and for the past several weeks, until Tuesday morning, he was the biggest obstacle to the success of an important mission in a small but crucial corner of the Iraq war.

"We can't get anybody to get Bob out. No one wants to do it, " Army Maj. Brent Cummings, executive officer of the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, said with worry one recent morning.

Cummings was looking at an aerial photograph of an area in east Baghdad called Kamaliya, where there was an abandoned spaghetti factory with a hole in the courtyard, a hole in which some of his soldiers had discovered Bob.

Bob: It's shorthand for "bobbin' in the float, " Cummings explained. Float: It's shorthand for "2 to 3 feet of raw sewage."

Bobbin' in the float is shorthand, then, for yet another lesson in the absurdity and tragedy that is any moment in this war.

Bob was found as a result of the new strategy of trying to secure Baghdad by temporarily increasing the number of troops and moving them into neighborhood outposts. After the soldiers identified the spaghetti factory as the best place from which to secure poor, rough, dirty, insurgent-ridden Kamaliya, they began clearing the factory in order to move in.

One day, in one area, they found 16 rocket-propelled grenades, three antitank grenades, 11 hand grenades and 21 mortar shells. Another day, they found a square metal cover in the courtyard that they thought might be booby-trapped. Ever so carefully, they lifted it and found themselves peering down into the factory's septic tank at Bob.

The body, floating, was in a billowing, once-white shirt. The toes were gone. The fingers were gone. The head, separated from the body, had a gunshot hole in the face.

The body, it was quickly decided, would have to be removed before the 120 soldiers could move in. "It's a morale issue. Who wants to live over a dead body?" Cummings said.

But how? That was the problem. No one wanted to touch Bob. Not the soldiers. Not the Iraqi police. No one.

Days passed. The need for the soldiers in Kamaliya increased. Bob floated on.

Finally, with no easy solution in sight, Cummings decided to go see Bob for himself.

In Iraq, a short drive to a spaghetti factory is no easy task. A combat plan was drawn up, just in case. A convoy of five Humvees was assembled. Body armor was strapped on.

Off the convoy went, slowly. The convoy advanced past trash bags that might be hiding bombs, along dirt roads under which might be buried bombs, and now past something unseen that, just after the last Humvee in the convoy passed by, exploded.

No damage. No injuries. Just some noise and smoke in the air.

The convoy kept going, now past a dead water buffalo, and now the Humvees stopped against a high wall, on the other side of which was a yellowish building topped by a torn tin roof banging around in the wind.

"The spaghetti factory, " Cummings announced. Soon he and Capt. Jeff Jager, commander of the company that would be moving to the factory, were staring into the septic tank, and suddenly Cummings had an idea.

"Lye and bleach and sanitize and cover it up, " he said. "We bring our chaplain here, and we'll say some words and mark it."

Easy. Done.

Jager shook his head. "I think you gotta clean it out, " he said. "We could drop down there and get it out ourselves, " Jager said. "But - "

"But what soldier am I going to ask to go in there to do that?" Cummings said.

They continued to stare.

That was Monday.

And then came Tuesday morning, and a phone call from Jager, who had received a call from the factory owner's brother, who had received a call from someone who lived near the factory.

"The spaghetti factory has been blown up, " Cummings said.

Cummings shook his head. Bob, he said, was no longer the biggest obstacle.

[Last modified April 29, 2007, 01:27:20]

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