Sonny Trimble's grave undertaking: unearthing the victims of Saddam's slaughter.

Michael "Sonny" Trimble stands in the middle of an Iraqi desert, inches from the razor-sharp blade of an 80,000-pound track-hoe. His nose practically grazes the earth as Wade Ricard, the machine operator, scrapes away the sun-roasted dirt with the touch of a microsurgeon, centimeter by centimeter. The pair has been digging for a week and has not yet detected any change in the soil color: the subtle sign that bodies are near.

It is August 2004 and Trimble, a bony, balding raconteur with sage-green eyes, has embarked upon the most ambitious job of his life: leading the Iraq Mass Graves Investigation Team in its effort to prove Saddam Hussein committed genocide.

For miles the maple-brown desert of Ninawa Province unfurls around Trimble's team, but the ring of U.S. soldiers circling the dig site is a grim reminder that the war rages not far away. Trimble, a St. Louis forensic archaeologist with the United States Army Corps of Engineers, is growing impatient. "I was looking at my watch five times an hour," he recalls. "It's like being in a cab in New York City: The meter is running. Every day we stay out there costs a lot of money — and we have a greater chance of getting hurt."

courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by Da
Michael "Sonny" Trimble
courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by Da
Michael "Sonny" Trimble

Trimble sports a St. Louis Cardinals T-shirt under his army uniform and a navy-blue cap the sun will eventually fade to the color of the cloudless Iraqi sky. "We didn't have a thermometer, but I'm telling you, it was more than 125 degrees — at least 130 degrees," he says. "It was so hot you could feel your brain boiling in your cranium."

For three tedious hours, Trimble and Ricard sift through the hard-packed soil before — at last — the first sign of massacre appears. It is an oddly gray shard of fabric — stained, perhaps, by fluid from a decomposed body. Trimble clears away some dirt and flinches at the next discovery: a patch of purple and yellow silk.

"I'd never seen anything like that coming out of the ground," he says with a tone of wonderment. "You expect people with not a lot of resources to be wearing pretty plain clothes: monochrome, darker clothes. And yet here's all these bright colors, like the person had dressed up for somebody's wedding, or some very important family event."

Stunned, Trimble stares at the shred of material. Then he recalls the radiantly dressed Iraqis he saw in old history-book photographs he perused while preparing for the trip. This, he realizes, is a Kurd, another victim of the scorched-earth attack Saddam unleashed against this ethnic group two decades ago. "They're very proud of their traditional clothing," he says. "It's all hand-sewn, and they favor patterns with flowers and bright colors, and raw silk. It's very beautiful, very beautiful."

Sonny Trimble arrived in Iraq for the first time in July 2004, seven months after a St. Louis mechanic named Samir pulled Saddam Hussein from his spider hole. Trimble reported to the Regime Crimes Liaison Office (RCLO), a rotating battalion of American lawyers and law enforcement agents, newly formed to assist the Iraqi High Tribunal with prosecuting Hussein.

"The RCLO's first office was this tiny shotgun room, and you had about twenty guys sharing four or five computers and one phone," Trimble says with a laugh.

Trimble got to work studying satellite imagery and the database of potential mass-grave sites compiled by a U.S. Marines battalion in 2003. He was anxious to leave the Green Zone for the killing fields, but his superiors had no date-certain plan for the dig. "That bothered me," he says. "But I came to learn very quickly that's the way Iraq is. Somebody makes a promise to do this or that, and it doesn't happen. It's hard to plan. It's Iraq."

In early August Trimble and three colleagues finally boarded a Black Hawk helicopter and flew north over the Fertile Crescent. Trimble grew excited seeing the verdant, blooming horizon of the Tigris and Euphrates river valley, which turned a bleak brown as the chopper reached the desert outside Mosul.

The helicopter touched down at a forward-operating base known as Camp Jaguar. It would be the Mass Graves Team's quarters for the next three months. Home to one of Iraq's largest ammunition storage sites, Jaguar was nothing more than an endless line of bomb-filled bunkers.

"It was like Fort Apache," Trimble remembers. "We've got all these rough-tough junkyard-dog security guys, and every one of them is dipping snuff. They were all just high as a kite. It was just disgusting."

A base camp and forensic laboratory were supposed to be set up for Trimble's team at Jaguar. He expected to find his fifteen pallets of equipment sent over from Scott Air Force Base. He looked around. Nothing.

"I've never had a worse feeling in my life," he says. "It was cataclysmic disaster."

Trimble made up the beds and prepared the best he could for his team's arrival six days later. The dig commenced soon thereafter. Several days in, Trimble was already mentally drained. He worried people on the team weren't drinking enough water, that they might fall ill and leave him short-handed. And he fretted that the team wouldn't find a single body after all.

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