In Memory of Poncho Bebe

A routine patrol starts off as any other. But the brutality of war comes swiftly and suddenly, and spares not even the most innocent.

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.”

A photo dated July 6, 2004, of the author and Poncho Bebe posing for the camera outside the gates of Camp Taji, Iraq.

The author with 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.