When a soldier dies...
When a soldier dies in combat, he is replaced so the unit will not be compromised. But anybody who’s ever been in our shoes knows that the fallen soldier can never really be replaced. Somebody may file in the ranks, but nobody can replace the smile, the comments or the little quirks of the fallen comrade.
I met Sgt. David Mitts and Staff Sgt. Salamo J. Tuialuuluu on November 14, hardly enough time to learn anything but the basics in any normal situation, but when you’re with a squad and you get shot at you bond. I covered their squad when we were pushing insurgents out of Mosul after the terrorists had taken over four Iraqi Police stations in Mosul. I spent 12 hours with them, patrolling the city, ducking behind cover and swapping camp-fire-type stories like we’d known each other our whole life. They both told me that their wives were pregnant. Mitts said he planned to name his child after Michael Landon, which at the time I found extremely odd. I asked him why and he said, “Because that man represented family values.”
SSG T was a Samoan. He played volleyball like I played baseball as a kid. He had a thick accent and I barely understood him. At first, he was quite reluctant to let me go out with his squad. A lot of army folk see people with cameras as distractions – even if they are in uniform – but after he learned I’d been on more than 100 combat ops and I’m former infantry, he loosened up and said something I couldn’t understand. He knew his job well. I saw him move his squad like a veteran of three wars, and he was only 23.
While I’m not organic to their unit, I really became friends with these guys and we all made a point to hang every day. I’d see ‘em in the chow hall, we’d swap stories, Mitts would tell me about the baby kicking and T would say something I couldn’t understand. I worked out with Mitts once, and he’s a lot stronger than me. T was said to have benched 315 once… that’s more than your average Iraqi car weighs. These guys were special, and I’m not just saying that because they’re no longer with us.
Mitts was a friendly fellow who could turn into a smart ass on a dime. T was a hard shell on the outside, but when you talked about family, you could tell he was nothing but a big Teddy Bear. They were America’s best and they lost their lives for their country. They will not be forgotten. As long as I live, I will remember these two guys and tell my children about sacrifices made by them and countless others who’ve given their life.
I’ve spent a lot of time with soldiers, telling their story. I can’t count how people I’ve know who’ve been killed, but none have hit me harder than these two soldiers. Maybe it’s because they were so damn passionate about the army. Maybe it’s because they were faithful husbands and showed me pictures of their wives, saying they couldn’t wait to call them again. Or maybe it’s because I feel like these men would have done more for their country. Mitts was the All American boy and T was the little Indian or Samoan that could.
On November 14, I took more photos of these guys than I have of any other squad in the past 10 months. I don’t know why; it just kind of happened. I sent them to their hometown newspapers and several web sites. They were great photos, but none – to my surprise – were ever picked up. Now that they have passed, editors want the imagery. It’s sad that they are dead. But it’s even sadder that the news world didn’t want to tell their story until they were gone.