Part 15 of TIME's Return to Baghdad series.
Midway through our trip, I had a chance to return to my element and visit American soldiers to see what life is like for those left serving in a post-U.S.-withdrawal Iraq. My guide was Staff Sergeant James Scott, a team leader for the War Pigeons of the 162nd Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company (EOD), one of my best friends for 18 years who is biding his time at Saddam Hussein's old Ministry of Defense complex, known to the Americans as Old MoD.
As far as combat tours go, Scott's unit's has been underwhelming. The troops have been here entirely too long, with far too little to do, but the notion that they're finished with combat is misguided. In fact, they laugh at the irony that the vast majority of the action they've seen has come after the Aug. 31, 2010, decree that brought U.S. combat operations to an official end.
First there was the Aug. 17 suicide bombing right outside of their base, an incident known to the troops as the "suicide pants" bombing. An insurgent walked into the middle of a recruiting drive for the Iraqi security forces and blew himself up. The explosive material was inside his pants, taped with ball bearings to maximize the carnage. More than 40 people were killed that day. Eighteen days later, a team of five fighters stormed the gates of Old MoD. Two were killed just outside the gate, and the driver set off a bomb in the car. The two insurgents who got inside took prisoners in a building, beginning a three-hour standoff before detonating themselves on the third floor. Seven Iraqi army soldiers died.
During both incidents, which took place 100-plus yards from where Scott's team sleeps, the troops hustled to their trucks with weapons and gear. And waited. Under the Status of Forces Agreement that accompanied the U.S. troop withdrawal, the Iraqis must request the assistance of U.S. soldiers before they can join the fray. The Iraqi army did eventually request Scott's unit in both bombings, but not until hours after the initial fighting.
Some members of Scott's team had experienced bombings before, but all of them said this was the most carnage they had ever witnessed. On the floor where the last two bombers killed themselves, the troops had to dodge entrails hanging from the mangled ceiling just to get to the blast site. Ordinarily, U.S. troops are forbidden from possessing pictures of dead combatants, but part of EOD's job is to document the incident like a crime scene, so they were able to show me pictures from the immediate aftermath. In the photos, the four bombers were ripped inside out from explosives rigged around their chests, but the suicide-pants bomber was different. The blast appeared to liquefy his body below the waist, leaving everything above his belt virtually untouched.
This is a strange yet frequent phenomenon with explosives: what's closest to the blast often remains practically untouched. Early in 2006, a roadside bomb meant for my wingman's vehicle exploded between us, blasting a white pickup truck off the highway. The man driving the car was decapitated, but it took me a minute to see his son slumped in his father's lap. They must have come from the market, because the little boy was holding a crate of eggs. Whereas he was shredded by the deadly shrapnel, none of the eggs were broken.
U.S. troops have experienced such scenes for more than seven years. The men of the War Pigeons hope that the blasts outside of Old MoD will be the last they have to endure, but given the bloodshed in the past two months, they are skeptical. Politicians can declare an end to combat operations and generals can change campaign names. The violence they experience will naturally decrease because they patrol less, but they know there will be no real end to combat until they go home.