In Memory of Poncho Bebe

In Memory of Poncho Bebe

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He was only ten years old. At least that’s what he appeared to be. I never really knew. He just showed up at the front gate of Camp Taji one day. And to my knowledge he never left, until that day in July 2004.

I also never knew who nicknamed him Poncho Villa, but it had stuck; more so because he wasn’t quite able to pronounce “Villa,” and it came out “Bebe.” For some silly reason, everyone got a kick out of that, no matter how many times we heard him say it. “Me Poncho Bebe".

He lived on the scraps of food we brought him, slept wherever he could find a place and became a fixture at that gate. Poncho thought of himself as our translator, although it was a little hazardous to use him. You never knew what might get lost in the translation.

I saw him almost everyday as we went out on patrol and always made a point to stop for a few minutes to say hi, give him some bits of candy, and ask him what his name was. “Me Poncho Bebe!”

He filled our hearts with a joy so rare in Iraq. Thoughts were always there that one of us might try to adopt him, bring him home to the U.S., and give him a life that was so lacking in Iraq. I think most of us knew that was never going to happen. But none of us ever thought it would end the way it did.

Traffic at Castle Gate was always a nightmare: Iraqis trying to get into Camp Taji for work, for hand-outs, or to escape the violence on the outside. Summer of 2004 was before car bombs were a common occurrence, and little thought was given to who we were letting inside the compound or how dangerous it was to allow cars to pile up bumper-to-bumper at the entrance. The morning of July 6, 2004, taught us otherwise.

As usual we stopped at the front gate on our way out for a routine patrol and said hi to Poncho. For some reason, I decided to take my picture with him. And as usual, when we were ready to roll, Poncho ran out onto the highway like a bold New York City cop and stopped traffic for us. I couldn’ t hear him, but we all could see that he was saying, “Me Poncho Bebe!” as he held out his hands, palms facing the stopped cars.

Poncho smiled at us as we moved past him, and then he disappeared in a cloud of smoke, dust and debris.

The car bomb that went off was at least 50 feet away, but it carried Poncho’ s small body from the center of the highway back into Camp Taji.

I don’t know why I ran to him without first checking on my own guys, but I did. He was just inside the gate, face down in the sand. His right leg was gone just above the knee, and the other was twisted behind him so that his foot was resting on his back. I rolled him over. His eyes were open and moving from side to side. I didn’t check to see if he was breathing. I started mouth-to-mouth resuscitation without even thinking. I saw Poncho’ s chest expand with my breath and as I turned for another, he coughed blood into my face. I knew then that he wasn’t going to make it.

I picked him up and started walking in different directions, looking for what, I wasn’t quite sure. By that time all kinds of helicopters were overhead, both gunships and the medevacs to carry the countless dead and dying. One had already landed nearby and I think the crew chief started to wave me off as I approached. That was often the case when trying to get even the most seriously wounded Iraqis ahead of an American. The look in my eyes must have made him think otherwise. Or perhaps because he saw that I was carrying a small boy. Whatever the case, he let me place Poncho in the back corner of the helicopter, between the tri-level stack of gurneys. He pulled me back, however, when I tried to climb inside for the short ride to the Baghdad Combat Support Hospital.

I looked at Poncho for a brief second before stepping away. His eyes were still open, but they were no longer moving. It struck me that the hat that I had given him was still resting on his head. I turned away and walked back toward Camp Taji, through the now obliterated gate, and continued toward our living area, leaving behind everyone in the patrol I had been leading a few minutes before.

I didn’t look back, but could hear the helicopter lift off. I never asked anyone whether Poncho lived or died. I knew. I also knew that he was just another of so many who had died, and who would continue to die, in such a senseless war.

I only wished that day that it didn’t have to be Poncho Bebe.

The author is an 18-year Army veteran who deployed to Iraq in 2004-2005. He now lives in Northern California. This article orginally appeared on