I started this blog because it's so hard to write emails to everybody, and I just wanted the people I love to know that I was OK and I can't interject opinions on my "Army" stories. Never in a million years did I expect to receive emails from people of Egypt, Australia and even, Iraq. I was humbled by the many kind words written to me and or posted on the comments section. The last couple weeks, people have asked, some even begged, that I continue to post when I return to Milwaukee. But honestly, I don't know what I'll write about. Maybe, I could go to the bars and coffee joints and pick somebody out to make fun of... nah, that's not really me. Or perhaps, I'll grow a beard and long hair and let you know what kind of shampoo I use... nah, too boring. Whatever I decide, I assure you, I'll keep writing. It's too fun to give up. With that being said, this will be my final post for a couple days because I'm leaving on a Jet Plane and I don't know when I can post again. For my final Iraq post, here's a collection of memories...
When I arrived in Iraq in February, everything seemed so foreign to me... the 1960s cars, the concrete square buildings, Arabic people wearing turbans with Michael Jordan shirts and Nike shoes, the mosques shouting prayers throughout the city five times a day, buildings made of marble yet had no toilets and of course, the stark reality that I carry ammunition everywhere I go and people want to kill me. This was no vacation, that's for sure. I'd been in Iraq two days when I received orders for my first combat mission. I was scared. "Where are your earplugs, sergeant?" Uh, I forgot them.
"Any time, you get on a Stryker, you wear ear plugs. Here take these. This your first time?" Yup.
"You'll be fine."
I went on a very basic patrol through the city. My job was to shoot the cover of Soldier's Magazine. In fact, the sole purpose of this patrol was for me to take pictures for Soldier's. On my first adventure in the city, I had so many emotions running through me. I was nervous. I felt inadequate as a photographer. I wanted to see combat. I didn't want want to see combat. I wondered what pick-up line I'd use on this girl I've been chasing for three years. So, I've been in the shit, wanna go out? It actually snowed that day for the first time in 12 years, which is great if you're an Iraqi throwing snowballs but horrible when you're a photographer trying to capture Iraq through your lens. However, I did make some really good friends with that particular platoon. The magazine passed on the imagery, which I was a little upset about. Here I am risking my life to take a damn picture for your damn magazine and you don't even use it. Nonetheless, the relationships I formed that day solidified my position for the remainder of the deployment: I would be the go to photographer / writer for combat operations.
This unofficial title has afforded me the great chance to meet and know the soldiers of the first two Stryker Brigades, who were mostly infantry. These are the guys who seek and destroy the enemy with more speed and combat power than any Army entity ever. Simply put, these are the best soldiers in the Army.
One patrol I was on, an Iraqi charged an American and tried to take his gun. The soldier pulled out a knife and slit his attacker's throat. He didn't want to kill the person, but he had to. "It was either him or me or my buddy." We don't like killing people, but that's why we're here, I guess, to kill them so they don't kill us.
This war started out as a means to find weapons of mass destruction. Then, it was let's give the Iraqi people freedom. Now, politicians say let's fight the terrorists there and not on American soil. To be honest, soldiers don't care about the cause. We're not fighting for any of the above; we are fighting for the guy on our left and right. You form a bond so tight with fellow soldiers that you never want to let them down. I've seen it displayed every day for a year.
Once, I was in Tal Afar for a large-scale, three day operation. We had birds, Strykers and artillery, but the fighting always comes down to the individual soldier and his weapon. In Avgoni, nearby Tal Afar, we were moving toward the objective through very dense terrain. Tall trees, thick brush and long vines were every where. It was so green because of human crap, which flowed to the bottom of the hills and fertilized what appeared to look more like a Vietnam jungle than an Iraqi village. But, the enemy knew the terrain and we didn't. They posted white T-shirts on the smaller trees, which looked like a person from a distance, setting a trap that we walked right into. At the other end of these decorated trees were about three or four men with AKs and RPGs. When the squad moved into the open zone, the enemy opened fire, nailing the squad leader in each leg and in a fat roll. As the squad leader fell to the ground, he didn't moan in pain; he fired back, killing an insurgent gunner just as he was about to fire an RPG into the squad. Because of this soldier, the man on his left and right are still alive, including me.
A lot of the operations I've been sent on have turned out to be nothing. They sent to me to the Najaf, Al Kut area when al Sadr's militia was wreaking havoc. This was in August or September, I can't really remember. "This is going to be like World War III. Sadr's militia is hunkered down and just waiting for us." When we got there, they had abandoned ship and left behind their toys. All we did was find weapons cache after weapons cache. I think I only had one RPG fired at me the whole time. For spending a month there, I was a little disappointed.
Then there were the QRF missions at which I had five minutes notice to go document a car bomb or something of the type. I think we photographed 20 car bombs. My first broke me in pretty good. It was just outside of city hall and there were body parts every where. I nearly broke down in tears when I saw this little foot that couldn't have been more than four inches long. The scene never got better; I just got used to it.
Probably the more defining moments of this deployment have been the close calls. The RPGs flying over my head, the bullets pinging off of metal three inches from my head, the mortars spreading shrapnel at the very spot I would have been if I didn't sleep in. I don't really know how many I've had; I quit counting in August. But with each one, I said a prayer and thanked God to still be alive.
But probably the most painful of moments were when we lost people. I'll never forget the smiles on my friends' faces, T & Mitts. They were both strong characters who represented the army values. There are thousands just like them, and each soldier killed had a story. We tried to tell that story to the world. Rather than focusing on how they died, we described how the person lived, the difference they made to the world. Nobody ever saw these memorial stories but the families and the few small town newspapers who were interested. We learned our lesson of spamming a memorial story to the larger outlets like AP. The editors deleted the story and used the photo of a crying soldier hugging the memorial display of an M-16 bayoneted into a box with the soldier's helmet on the buttstock and dog tags on the hand grip. The photo cutline read: A soldier mourns the loss of a fellow comrade. Elsewhere in Iraq, 14 killed in a large explosion outside... you get the point. Just a single sentence. No name. No family. Just a sentence and then elsewhere in Iraq. That's hardly justice for a soldier who gave that reporter the freedom of press.
When the Iraqis die, it's just as hard to swallow as when it's an American soldier. My good friend and interpreter, Samir, was killed on the very day I went home for leave - back in September. He was captured by terrorists when he was on his way to the palace. He managed to escape; had he not, they probably would have beheaded him. As he ran through the market, trying to get away, asking for help, the people said "get away from us; you work for the Americans." His back was sprayed with bullets and he died on the concrete sidewalk. He was there for hours before anybody notified us or moved his body. "Don't touch him, let him rot, he worked for Americans." We had this saying, "we're here for Samir." He was a great guy.
Of course, not all Iraqis hated us. Back in April, I was in this very small village that had a mud-hut mansion. Inside were crystal glasses and Persian rugs. The residents served us tea and did nothing but thank us for rebuilding their schools, hospitals and roads in the Kurdish village. I've seen little kids read essays in English thanking us. Old ladies have made us food thanking us. Interpreters have bought us souvenirs thanking us. I've been thanked by Iraqis at least 1.234 million times. I recall the words of an Iraqi general when he pointed at one of my female soldiers... "You people (his soldiers) should be ashamed of yourselves. This girl is here because of you. She is fighting for your country. You owe her a thanks, your honor."
The other day, we received our awards and a dozen hugs and kisses from our interpreters and Iraqi counterparts. As I stood at attention, I thought about the man I had become over the past year, the friends I made, the cameras I broke and how I would do it all over again. My commander said, "From now on, for the rest of your life, you will be linked to everyone who wears that uniform and has served in combat. This year, you have proven yourselves and now, it's time to go home."
Now that I look back on everything, I can say that this hasn't been the easiest year of my life, but it's certainly been the most memorable. I'm sure I'll always look back and say, "There I was in Iraq and this...." Boy, my kids are in for a treat.