James Jeffers stands in front of a house in Oak Cliff spraying jets of water onto a large garden carved out of what was once a solid mix of St. Augustine grass and weeds. Along a quiet residential street otherwise lined with thick green lawns, the brown plot of upturned earth is an abrupt break in the scenery.
Tiny droplets arch in front of him catching the late morning sunlight before peppering the dark soil, but despite the scene, Jeffers doesn't look much like a typical farmer. His thick build leans toward athletic, and his heavy beard conceals an easy smile. Tattoos peek out from the back of his leg.
Farming wasn't his first choice of professions. He spent most of the past decade in the Army, including two tours in Baghdad, in 2004-'05 and then again in 2006-'08. Things got messy, though, particularly on Haifa Street, a 2-mile stretch through the middle of Baghdad that snakes alongside the Tigris River.
A line of palm trees runs along the median, and each side of Haifa Street is dotted with clusters of sandy brown apartments. The southern end of the street banks hard to the west, following the river that leads directly into the Green Zone, where a large sandstone arch marks the entrance — a monument that eventually became known as Assassin's Gate.
After the U.S. invasion in 2003, Haifa Street, situated between Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods, became a fault line constantly teetering on the brink of chaos. American troops patrolled the area, but the high windows, rooftops and balconies offered a tactical advantage to whoever was standing on them, particularly if they had rocket-propelled grenades. This large swath of real estate in the middle of the city became a battleground between those intent on chaos and those trained to mitigate it.
Jeffers, along with the 1st Squadron 9th Cavalry Regiment and the Iraqi National Guard, maintained as much order as possible on the street. While some residents fled, others put up a fight in hopes of staying in their neighborhoods. American and Iraqi troops worked alley by alley, building by building and floor by floor through the high-rises to clear out terrorists in a constant game of cat and mouse. By 2004, the stretch was nicknamed "Grenade Alley."
"The members of the Iraqi National Guard were just like any of us," Jeffers recalls. "They were dads who had families and just wanted to keep their neighborhoods safe. And they were wonderful to work with. When we were out on patrols it was hard to tell who should be in the neighborhood and who shouldn't, but an Iraqi can spot an Iranian a mile away."
One day while out on patrol with the ING, Jeffers and the rest of the "Headhunters" of the 1-9 Cav were working to clear an area when they came under fire. Insurgents hiding in the maze of buildings had surrounded them and trapped some in a small alley.
The Americans hunkered down while Jeffers and another soldier positioned themselves outside the alley and kept the fighters at bay. Eleven soldiers were injured from the initial attack, and they waited for reinforcements to arrive.
Jeffers took hits from three hand grenades during the battle, but eventually he and the 1-9 Cav all got out alive. For that, he received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with a "V" device, which indicates an act of valor.
Throughout his time in Iraq, Jeffers had at least a half-dozen encounters with car bombs, grenades, RPGs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and walked away with shrapnel scars covering 50 percent of his body. Most of those wounds have healed by now, but multiple back-to-back concussions led to moderate traumatic brain injury (TBI). Over time, everyday tasks became murky. His senses weren't as sharp as they once were, which is a handicap in combat.
"After I got home from my second tour, I couldn't do simple things, like make coffee," Jeffers says. "I went through three coffee makers. One day I'd forget to put the water in the tank. The next day I'd forget to put the grounds in the filter. It was so frustrating. After a while, I realized it was time to get some help."
Therapy at a TBI clinic at Fort Hood in Killeen helped Jeffers re-engineer the delicate synapses in his brain. Acupuncture helped with back pain. But the part that really hurt, the wound he's still trying to heal, was getting out.
"I just loved the Army," Jeffers says. "I was one of the lucky ones who figured out what they were good at. I felt like a kid, living out of my backpack on the other side of the world, shooting guns."
Jeffers had a knack for leadership. After nine years, he'd made sergeant first class, a rank that usually comes with more than 15 years of service.