In the five years Baghdad was my home, I got to work (or just hang out) with some of the finest news photographers in the world: Yuri Kozyrev, Franco Pagetti, Kate Brooks, James Nachtwey, Robert Nicklesberg, Lynsey Addario, the late Chris Hondros… the list is as long as it is distinguished. Their immense talent and incredible bravery combined to make the Iraq war arguably the most exhaustively photographed conflict in human history. This selection doesn't begin to capture the immensity of their collective achievement, but it is evocative of the horrors — and just occasionally, hope — they were able to chronicle.
As a correspondent, I was sometimes on the scene when an iconic image was captured: for instance, I had to keep ducking out of Kate Brooks' field of vision in the aftermath of the Sept, 2003 bombing of the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf. The scene was one of utter carnage, and I found myself putting aside my notebook to help dig survivors and bodies from the rubble. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Kate, standing perfectly still in the swirling chaos, her eye never moving from the viewfinder, capturing the moment. I have no idea how she kept her senses: I found myself frequently crying or vomiting. Afterward, she told me she was able to fight back any emotion precisely because her eye was glued to the viewfinder: the camera allowed her a sense of distance from everything around her.
Perhaps the secret of great photography lies in that ability to be simultaneously in the moment physically and removed from it by the camera. If that sounds coldly dispassionate, then I'm not describing it right, because war photographers are the most emotionally alert people I know. As these images will show, it is their ability to capture humanity in the most inhuman circumstances that makes them the best at their craft.
Bobby Ghosh is the editor of TIME International. Follow him on Twitter @ghoshworld.
Reporting and production by Vaughn Wallace. Additional production by Bridget Harris.
These selections from letters, e-mails, journals, and personal essays, by soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines who served or are serving in the current war in Iraq, are part of a project sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts called Operation Homecoming, which invited American troops and their families to write about their wartime experiences. The centerpiece of Operation Homecoming was a series of fifty writing workshops, conducted by distinguished American writers, and held at twenty-five military installations here and overseas. Most of the six thousand troops who participated in the workshops had just rotated out of front-line combat. They were told to write freely, without fear of official constraints or oversight. Since Operation Homecoming began, on April 20, 2004, more than ten thousand pages of writing—nonfiction, fiction, and poetry—have been sent to the N.E.A. An anthology of the work, edited by the historian Andrew Carroll, will be published this fall; a TV documentary based on the material will air in 2007; and the entire collection will eventually be housed in an open government archive. (Audio recordings of the soldiers reading, along with their photographs from Iraq, are at NewYorker.com.)
Captain Ryan Kelly, thirty-six, Denver, Colorado. E-mail to his mother, from Camp Buehring, Kuwait. December, 2003.
The worst thing here is not the searing heat or the cold nights. It’s the waiting. Waiting for the wind to quit blowing and the sand to quit grinding against your skin. Waiting for a moment of privacy in a tent packed with seventy other men, in a camp packed with seven hundred other tents, in a base packed with fifteen thousand soldiers, all looking for a clean place to go to the bathroom. . . . Waiting for the bone-rattling coughs from dust finer than powdered sugar to stop attacking the lungs. Waiting for the generals to order the battalion to move north, toward Tikrit, where others—Iraqis—are also waiting: waiting for us. . . .
A quick look around my tent will show you who is fighting this war. There’s Ed, a fifty-eight-year-old grandfather from Delaware. He never complains about his age, but his body does, in aches and creaks and in the slowness of his movements on late nights and cold mornings.
There’s Lindon, a thirty-one-year-old, black-as-coal ex-Navy man from Trinidad who speaks every word with a smile. His grandfather owned an animal farm and lived next to his grandmother, who owned an adjacent cocoa field. They met as children.
There’s Sergeant Lilian, a single mother who left her five-year-old daughter at home with a frail and aging mother because nobody else was there to help.
There’s Melissa and Mike, two sergeants who got married inside the Fort Dix chapel a month before we deployed—so in love, yet forbidden, because of fraternization policies, even to hold hands in front of other soldiers. But if you watch them closely, you can catch them stealing secret glances at each other. Sometimes I’ll see them sitting together on a box of bottled water tenderly sharing a lunch. They are so focussed on each other that the world seems to dissolve around them. If they were on a picnic in Sheep Meadow in Central Park, instead of here, surrounded by sand and war machines, it would be the same. War’s a hell of a way to spend your honeymoon.
There’s Sergeant First Class Ernesto, thirty-eight, a professional soldier whose father owns a coffee plantation in Puerto Rico and whose four-year-old daughter cries when he calls.
There’s Noah, a twenty-three-year-old motocross stuntman, who wears his hair on the ragged edge of Army regulations. He’s been asking me for months to let him ship his motorcycle to the desert. I keep telling him no.
There’s Chief Warrant Officer 4 Jerry, the “linedog” of aviation maintenance, whose father was wounded in WWII a month after he arrived in combat. On D Day, a grenade popped up from behind a hedge grove near a Normandy beach and spewed burning white phosphorus all over his body, consigning the man to a cane and special shoes for the rest of his life. C.W.O.4 Jerry lives out on the flight line, going from aircraft to aircraft with his odd bag of tools, like a doctor making house calls. He works so hard that I often have to order him to take a day off.
There’s Martina, twenty-two, a jet-black-haired girl, who fled Macedonia with her family to escape the genocide of the civil war in Bosnia. Her family ran away to prevent the draft from snatching up her older brother and consuming him in a war they considered absurd and illegal. A few years later, the family, with no place else to run, watched helplessly as the U.S. flew their daughter into Iraq. She’s not even a U.S. citizen, just a foreigner fighting for a foreign country on foreign soil for a foreign cause. She has become one of my best soldiers.
There is William (Wild Bill), a twenty-three-year-old kid from Jersey with a strong chin and a James Dean-like grin. The day before we went on leave, he roared up in front of the barracks and beamed at me from behind the wheel of a gleaming white monster truck that he bought for fifteen hundred dollars. Three days later, he drove it into the heart of Amish country, where the transmission clanked and clattered to a stop. He drank beer all night at some stranger’s house, and in the morning sold him the truck. Kicker is, he made it back to post in time for my formation.
There’s Top, my First Sergeant, my no-nonsense right-hand man. He’s my counsel, my confidant, my friend. He’s the top enlisted man in the company, with twenty-eight years in the Army, and would snap his back, and anybody else’s, for that matter, for any one of our men. Last year, his pit bull attacked his wife’s smaller dog—a terrier of some sort, I think. As she tried to pry them apart, the pit bit off the tip of her ring finger. Top punched the pit bull in the skull and eventually separated the two. A hospital visit and half a pack of cigarettes later, he learned the blow broke his hand. He bought her a new wedding ring in Kuwait.
And on and on and on . . .
I hope you are doing well, Mom. I’m doing my best. For them. For me. For you. I hope it’s good enough.
Commander Edward W. Jewel M.D., forty-eight, Washington, D.C. Journal entries, hospital ship U.S.N.S Comfort. March-April, 2003.
March 27. Q: The Comfort is a large non-combat hospital ship protected by the most powerful Navy, Army, and Air Force in history. What is there to be afraid of? A: Everything. Danger is all around us. We are really very close to the action. At times we see oil fires near the shore. However, we cannot really see the combat. We are not afraid of the Iraqi military. If they try to fire a rocket at us it would be easily shot down by artillery on the ground, aircraft, or by naval gunnery/rockets. However, we believe there are mines in the Gulf. Purportedly, small boats have approached the Comfort several times. When this happens we call in a helo and launch our small boat to run them off. How can we possibly see one of these things in the dark? I think it would be very easy for a terrorist to attack this ship with an explosive-laden small boat. Very easy. Would the Iraqis attack a hospital ship if they could? Why not? In their view, they were invaded by mercenary infidels who deserve no better. A surgeon buddy of mine, Mike from Massachusetts, thinks an attack on our ship is a near-given, with a fifty-per-cent chance of success. However, he is a proctologist and a Red Sox fan and naturally pessimistic.
March 28. Sickening sight: a helicopter’s downwash blows a stack of letters overboard. Who knows what was lost? Last letter to save a troubled relationship? A fat check? Notice of tax audit? We’ll never know. That’s war.
The doctors are all bored from under-utilization, but the surgeons seem particularly restless. There are so many of them and not enough cases to fill the time.
The Army helos cannot fly patients out to us in bad weather. The visibility has been poor the last three days, with choppy seas. We were to have received twenty or thirty new patients, but they never made it because of the weather.
March 29. The old Navy jargon “belay my last,” meaning disregard my last statement, applies to my commentary from yesterday. We got creamed with fresh casualties last night, thirty new patients, both sides, all needing immediate and significant intervention. The injuries are horrifying. Ruptured eyeballs. Children missing limbs. Large burns. Genitals and buttocks blown off. Grotesque fractures. Gunshot wounds to the head. Faces blown apart. Paraplegics from spine injuries. The number of X-ray studies performed last night in a short period of time is so great that it causes the entire system to crash under the burden of electronic data it is being fed.
Our patients are mostly Iraqis. Along with their combat wounds, they are dirty, undernourished, and dehydrated. One rumor says that we will treat all the wounded Iraqi E.P.W.s (enemy prisoners of war) for the duration of the war and these are the only patients we will see. If true, this would, in effect, make the Comfort a prison hospital ship. The corpsmen on the wards have to guard the prisoners and keep them from communicating with one another to prevent rebellion. As medical people we are trained to care for the sick; it is difficult to stay mindful that these patients are the enemy and could fight back against us.
April 5. The Saturday entertainment is karaoke. I usually like it, but tonight it’s not for me. The room is hot and crowded, and the whole event just too loud. I step out for air. On deck is a different world. For safety we are on “darken ship” status now. This means no external lights and all windows are covered to block light transmission. The goal is to make the ship invisible or nearly so to evildoers trying to locate the ship in the dark. It does actually work. The night is moonless, skies only a slight haze. It is very dark outside. So dark my eyes need ten minutes to fully accommodate. There is a magnificent display of stars tonight, reminiscent of what you see in Utah. The night has a misty, Impressionist feel. People moving about in the night are just vague dark shapes. Voices are low. Boys and girls being what they are, couples are forming on Comfort. They drift into obscure corners. Ghostlike green blobs of fluorescence rise and fall in the water. Jellyfish. Thousands of jellyfish drift and bob around the ship. I watch the stars until my neck hurts. Someone is singing in the dark in a beautiful, strange language. He tells me it is Hindi, and he is actually practicing for karaoke. I hope he wins.
April 7. The prisoners are kept on a separate ward, deep in the bowels of the ship, for security reasons, and the location is kept obscure. There is concern for the security of the prisoners. Lawyers run everything now, and we actually have a lawyer on board whose primary job is to insure we comply with all tenets of the Geneva Conventions. There are press on board all the time.
Most of the Iraqis show real appreciation for the care rendered them. I would love to talk to them about family, etc., but we have been firmly warned not to do this. The prisoners are a sad lot. I feel for them. Most were not real soldiers, just conscripts forced to fight for the Big Lie, Saddam Hussein. Some of these guys, however, were the feared fedayeen suicide commandos. In general, the prisoners are badly wounded. They look defeated and glad to be out of combat.
April 11. The number of patients coming aboard Comfort is simply out of control. Like the doctors on “M*A*S*H,” we have grown to hate the rumble of helos on the flight deck, since it usually means another load of Iraqi patients. Today we received at least thirty-five more patients. New in the last twenty-four hours is a big influx of sick and injured children. We have only one doctor with residency training in pediatrics. Some of the kids are very ill. One was D.O.A. from drinking kerosene. “They” are sending everyone here. We don’t know who “they” are, and no one seems to have a handle on where these patients come from, when they are arriving, or who is sending them. We take them all and do our best.
There is no long-term-care plan for all these patients, and the ones who survive will need long-term care. Where will they go? Who will care for them after we leave? We have become deeply involved in a humanitarian crisis that we will not be able to extricate ourselves from.
April 15. Civilian Iraqi patients are being allowed to move around the ship more (with escorts, of course) as their conditions improve. I saw a teen-ager today smiling and shaking hands with everyone. As he bent to tie his shoe, his sleeve slid up. I saw he had a tattoo on his upper arm. A fresh Marine Corps “globe and anchor.” Wow! Hearts and minds, indeed.
April 17. We began in earnest to discharge stable E.P.W. patients from the Comfort. Close to thirty sent back today. Sent somewhere. Sadly, these guys don’t realize they are not being repatriated. For security reasons, they cannot be told where they are really going. Looking at these pathetic-looking fellows, it is easy to forget that they were the enemy, and many probably still wish us harm. According to an I.C.U. doctor, one of the most timid-looking teen-age patients is actually an identified terrorist. Another patient awoke from surgery disoriented to place; he asked if he had been sent home to Syria!
April 21. Comfort receives a visit from CENTCOM, the name for the headquarters group for the entire war. A group of their medical-admin bureaucrats, primarily Army, are on board to give us an overview of the medical situation in Iraq and Kuwait. We hope to hear something concrete about our own status: what is planned for us, how can we offload our patients, and, mostly, when can we go home? Instead of insight and clarity, we got more obscuring mud in the eye. The formal presentation is tiresome, trite, and uninformative. It takes fifteen minutes to get the PowerPoint working. The speaker uses too much Army-specific jargon. He admits that the Comfort is the most stable, established, and productive medical unit in the theater. The hospitals in Iraq have been looted and are barely functioning.
A Q&A session follows. The discussion is as overheated as the room. Pointed questions regarding why we got stuck with so many patients go ignored or glossed over. It is explained that the Iraqi casualties were put on helicopters by well-meaning, altruistic U.S. troops, even though they were told not to do this. They offer no explanation for why all the Iraqis ended up in our hospital. They thank us for all our hard work, tell us that they “feel our pain,” and say that war is hell. It is not convincing or reassuring to us. These guys all look rested, tanned, and pain-free to us.
Staff Sergeant Parker Gyokeres, thirty, Howell, Michigan. Personal essay drawing on letters to friends and family from Tallil Air Base. November, 2003-March,2004.
I know a number of you have been curious about what it’s like over here, so we are going to take a small mental voyage. First off, we are going to prepare our living area. Go to your vacuum, open the cannister, and pour it all over you, your bed, clothing, and your personal effects. Now roll in it until it’s in your eyes, nose, ears, hair, and . . . well, you get the picture. You know it’s just perfect when you slap your chest and cough from the dust cloud you kicked up. And, no, there is no escape, trust me. You just get used to it.
O.K., pitch a tent in your driveway, and mark off an area inside it along one wall about six feet by eight (including your bed). Now pack everything you need to live for four months—without Wal-Mart—and move in. Tear down the three walls of your tent seen from the street and you have about as much privacy as I have.
If you really want to make this accurate, bring in a kennel full of pugs; the smell, snoring, and social graces will be just like living with my nine tentmates. Also, you must never speak above a whisper because at all times at least four of your tentmates will be sleeping. That’s where the flashlight comes in handy; you are going to use it to navigate a pitch-dark tent, twenty-four hours a day.
Time for hygiene. Walk to the nearest bathroom. In my case, it’s a thousand-foot trudge over loose gravel. Ever stagger to the john at 0400? Try it in a frozen rock garden. Given the urges that woke you at this hour, taking the time to put on your thermals and jacket might not be foremost in your mind. But halfway there, it’s too late. So dress warmly. It gets really freakin’ cold here at night.
I don’t even feel like talking about the latrine experience. All I have to say is that, after the first time, I went back to the tent and felt like either crying or lighting myself on fire to remove the filth.
I am somewhat limited in my ability to say how, when, and why we do what we do. Essentially, my unit escorts third-country nationals (T.C.N.s) and local nationals (L.N.s) who work on base. We handle their passes, and we also watch over areas in which they work and, in some cases, live. I currently work in the control center for those escorts and workers. I handle radio traffic and communication between the people coming in, patrols and posts controlling or containing escortees, and the police who search their vehicles. I am nearly always speaking through my Iraqi translator with Iraqis, Koreans, Italians, Dutch, and countless other nationalities while tending to multiple other duties.
In an average exchange, I’ll be speaking with an Arabic translator who is speaking pidgin Turkish to a man who is trying to tell me he needs to get in touch with a person whose name he doesn’t know, but whom I still need to contact, while some Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Filipinos are trying to steal back the knives I confiscated from them, as the Koreans bring fifteen kids in to their hospital for medical attention. Meanwhile, the guy in the corner is making threats against my control team because he is sick of waiting for somebody on the base and the screaming kid just stopped screaming, because he puked on my weapons/contraband searcher who now wants to shoot the Korean escort for letting that sick kid loose. This goes on for twelve hours. Reminds me of a really stressed-out, low-budget version of “ER”—with automatic weapons—in Arabic.
Rule No. 1: Not speaking English is no excuse for being stupid. I think I’m going to get a card that says that in Arabic and flash it to every person who attempts access to our facility. Don’t even try “I don’t understand” on me, all I asked you to do was sit down and stay there while I work on your issue. I then had to get the interpreter to tell you. Twice. I then had to post one of the troopers on you to babysit. If I have to tell you again, I’m going to kick your butt out and you might be barred entry permanently. And stop asking how long it will be. I told you twice we are waiting on your rep and he will be here when he feels like it. Ask me again and I’m going to start yelling.
Rule No. 2: Making me yell will get you in trouble. If you don’t stop wandering slowly (like I didn’t see you get out of our paddock) toward your truck, I’m going to yell. If you don’t get off the cell phone in my yard, now, I’m going to yell. (No weapons, communication devices, cameras at all on base for T.C.N.s or L.N.s, and we mean it.) If you don’t tell me about the sharpened tire iron I just found under your floorboard (and don’t worry, my guys will find it, I assure you), I won’t yell when I take it, but I will yell loudly when you have the stones to ask for it back. You have got to be shitting me. What do you mean to tell me that your sharpened eighteen-inch piece of bent angle iron is a family heirloom? You go. Now.
Rule No. 3: If you don’t stop after I tell you once, yell at you twice, and physically attempt to stop you from being terminally stupid or, more to the point, doing something that could be potentially threatening, I’ll go the last step, and it always works, regardless of language, nationality, or I.Q. We call it “the exclamation point” or “shacking one.” As in: “That damn idiot wouldn’t stop, and when he started reaching into his bag again, after I had told him so many times not to, I had to shack one on him.”
“Shacking one” means you grab your rifle’s charging handle and as quickly as possible (to make as much noise as possible) yank back till the handle stops and your fingers break free. As soon as your fingers clear the handle, the spring tension, from the pull, slams the bolt forward and chambers your first round. It sounds like a very quick sliding/slapping shlack! It’s the loudest metallic noise in the world when it happens. And, for at least three seconds, the only sound you hear, as the crowd unpuckers, is of your own heart trying to break out of its rib cage, one pounding thump at a time. Once you’ve heard both the noise and its effect, you’ll never forget it. I’ve never had to do it myself (except in training), and, again, it’s really for cases when you believe there is a genuine security issue.
Shacking one is the international symbol for “Conversation over.” Shacking one tells the individual that this is not a game and we are not going to allow it to continue. From that point, amazingly and without exception, people do what they are told, immediately. They suddenly understand everything we have been trying to tell them. Whaddaya know?
Please don’t get the impression that all we do all day is run around and act like Storm Troopers. We all know our guns should never come off our shoulders, and, if they do, that’s the very second we need to be calling in the professionals to assist us. The guns are for our self-defense as an absolute last resort. Nothing more. Thankfully, events like these aren’t common. Most days pass by smoothly with only funny stories to break up the monotony.
A week ago, for instance, Geraldo Rivera came to Tallil to do a report for Fox. As he was going into his shtick, just as the camera zoomed in on his face, a troop in the crowd, positioned just over Geraldo’s shoulder and visible only in the midsection, “adjusted himself,” on live, national television. In prime time. This is the same troop who got kidney stones, was shipped to Baghdad to have a CT scan, and whose convoy was attacked while he was there. When he came back, the Army doctor informed him that he had two more stones, which he then painfully passed over the next two weeks. If there’s a lightning storm, I’m running away from this kid, ’cause he’s cursed.
Or blessed, as he’s still here, still alive, and didn’t lose a stripe after the Pentagon called the base commander the next day and wanted to know why reporters in the morning national press briefing were asking about an airman at Tallil A.B. being obscene, live, on prime-time Fox News. The kid had to scratch, for God’s sake. He had no idea that the camera was zooming in at that exact moment. And, yes, he’s one of my crew, God bless him.
I was just told that today he received a letter of reprimand for (and I quote directly) “an immature, childish, and obscene gesture that intentionally defamed the USAF.” Was it bad timing? Yes. Was it bad manners? Probably. But was it, as the reprimand further stated, “a deliberate action, known as a ‘package check’ ”? Ahh—no.
This place truly never ceases to trip me out. Last week I met a man who came through here to visit his wife, who was in hospital. He spoke O.K. English and, it turns out, he was an American citizen, from Dearborn, Michigan. His home was less than ten miles from where I lived before joining up.
I’m standing there in all my body armor, wearing a helmet and holding an assault rifle, looming at least a foot and a half taller and a hundred pounds heavier than he, talking about restaurants in Detroit like an old friend. He told me that eight of his friends from Dearborn have died in the service of the new Iraqi Army in the past few months. I had no idea that so many of those guys were U.S. citizens. He brought his kids in to meet me, and they looked like American kids, in their Spider-Man jackets and Nikes. These kids go to American schools, they watch “SpongeBob,” and now they are swatting flies and getting the metal-detector treatment for hidden weapons. I wonder often what they think about all of this.
Captain Donna Kohout, thirty-two, Dillon, Colorado. Letter to members of the Dillon Community Church, from Misawa Air Base, Japan. April, 2003.
I’m still praising God for the opportunity to spend five months in the Middle East both to serve in the largest conflict of our day and to witness the wonders He was working at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, where I lived. I don’t know how to describe the feeling that there was a spiritual element to what we were doing. When I first arrived, I did a double take when I looked at the maps in the back of my Bible and recognized the locations of the cities we were flying over. Tallil had been Ur of the Chaldeans, the birthplace of Abraham, who was the father of the Israelites. When God punished the Israelites with exile from the land that He had given them, they were taken to Babylon, near present-day Al Hillah. This is also where Daniel survived his famed bout in the lions’ den. During their years of exile in the Babylonian Empire, the Israelites camped out near Nippur, or the current Al Kut.
I wish I could describe the feeling of flying across what we called the T.E. (Tigris-Euphrates) Line in the months prior to “Night 1” of Operation Iraqi Freedom (O.I.F.). The T.E. Line, which marks the edge of the settled area, is just south of the Euphrates River. South of the line is barren desert. At night, there are no lights there, but to the north bright collections define the towns CNN made famous—Tallil, As Samawah, Basra, Al Kut, Al Amarah, Karbala, and, of course, Baghdad. One clear day, I looked down at the rich greens of the valley between the Tigris and Euphrates and pondered over the fact that these were the Tigris and Euphrates that I’d learned about in church and school my whole life. Genesis describes the Garden of Eden standing at the headwaters of four rivers, two of which are the Tigris and Euphrates. That places the Garden just north of Basra, within sight of where I flew almost daily.
Abraham, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, the whole displaced Israelite nation, and perhaps even Adam and Eve all trod the ground I was looking down on daily. And I was living in the same desert where the Israelites wandered. We complain about being there for three months—it’s so barren, flat, windy, hot, sandy, and dry—it’s no wonder the Israelites complained during the forty years that they followed God around the Sinai Peninsula between their exodus from Egypt and their entrance into the Promised Land, near Jerusalem.
In O.I.F., I flew only nights, except for the occasional late-evening or sunrise flight. At night a person can see every bullet and missile launched, near and far away, with the aid of night-vision goggles. Thankfully, most of what the Iraqis shot was unguided and too small to reach the altitudes at which we fly. However, it is still nothing shy of a miracle that given the sheer number of airplanes in the sky, they didn’t shoot down a single fighter, bomber, or tanker with all the projectiles they launched over those three weeks.
Praise God for the safety He has provided so many of us over the last several months. And please continue to pray for the Iraqi people and the soldiers over there now. There is a long and unconventional road ahead of them still.
First Sergeant Richard Acevedo, thirty-eight, Staten Island, New York. Personal essay based on diary entry. June, 2004.
Manuel Ernesto [not his real name] was a soldier assigned to the famous Fighting 69th, a National Guard infantry battalion based out of New York, which is where I call home. The unit has a history of being one of the most decorated outfits in the Army, boasting a lineage that goes all the way back to the Revolutionary War and with a fair number of legends in its ranks. Men like the famed poet Joyce Kilmer; Father Duffy, the Army chaplain whose statue graces Times Square; and “Wild Bill” Donovan, who would go on to start the O.S.S. (Office of Strategic Services), the predecessor to the present-day C.I.A. Today’s members of the Fighting 69th are true New Yorkers and come from all walks of life. Manuel Ernesto probably represented that better than anyone.
Perhaps the best way to describe Ernesto is to say that he’s a simple man. At the time, he looked to be in his late thirties, though it’s hard to tell exactly. He was kind and had a childlike innocence about him, but he had difficulty understanding easy, straightforward tasks and directions. There was also something about him that seemed awkward and out of synch. My many years in the Army have taught me to be a quick study of men, and my initial impression of Ernesto led me to believe that he would not fit in very well within the spartan, testosterone-driven world of the infantry.
We spent four months at Fort Hood, Texas, preparing for our deployment to Iraq. My first real observation of Ernesto in action was during one of our early-morning P.T. sessions. I always started off the day’s training with a gruelling workout. I had to get these men in shape and help them shed the pounds that their comfortable civilian lives had packed on them. Combat in Iraq would be unforgiving on these citizen soldiers, and they would have to tote around as much as fifty pounds of gear every day in the brutal hundred-and-twenty-to-hundred-and-thirty-degree summer heat. Usually I began with jumping jacks, and on this one morning as I was jumping along and leading the company, I could hear the men break out into a roar of laughter. I scanned the ranks looking for the reason. Lo and behold, there he was, in the last row, rear left-hand corner of the formation. It was Ernesto, jumping around in spasms of unsynchronized, discombobulated movement. He looked like a fish that had just landed on the deck of a boat, flapping around waiting to be clubbed.
At first, I thought it was an act and began to get angry, thinking he was trying to get laughs during my P.T. session. I watched him for a couple of seconds more and came to the conclusion that this was no act. The harder Ernesto tried to get in synch with everyone else, the worse he looked. One of the guys next to him started to mimic his movements, and instead of Ernesto catching on that he was being mocked, he looked at the prankster with a quizzical expression on his face and shouted to him between labored breaths: “Are you . . . having . . . a hard time . . . with this . . . too?” This caused the whole group to convulse in laughter. That was who Ernesto was.
Days turned to weeks and Ernesto wasn’t making any progress. It was time to come up with a game plan for him or he would get himself or someone else killed. I decided one day to have a discussion with our battalion sergeant major in reference to Ernesto. As soon as the topic was broached, the sergeant major began to smile. Ernesto, it turns out, had been in his company some years back when he was a first sergeant. During training, Ernesto started to squirrel away food from the mess tent and keep it in his backpack in anticipation of some unknown impending famine. One day, he took three little containers of milk from that morning’s breakfast. Most of the time, the Army’s milk is processed in such a way that it has a very long shelf life. But on that day, the mess tent had served fresh milk, and Ernesto, not realizing the difference, stuck the containers of milk in his duffel bag. A few days later, people heard screaming in the middle of the night from somewhere inside the patrol base; Ernesto was on the ground writhing in pain and clutching his stomach in agony. The cause of his illness was consumption of spoiled milk.
After hearing the story, I became angry and asked the sergeant major, “If everyone knew this guy was so screwed up, why was he ever placed in my infantry company for this dangerous deployment?” The sergeant major assured me he would find Ernesto a job as a gofer somewhere safe within the battalion. But there was something else he said that stunned me: Ernesto, prior to this deployment, had been homeless and living in a city shelter. This was why he had been squirreling away the food, and this was why he had been saving the milk; these were habits he had cultivated from being homeless for so long.
A few days later, I was informed that Ernesto would be transferred to the headquarters company to work in their supply room. Essentially, Ernesto would get a job that would not require him to leave the camp to go out on missions. Problem solved, case closed.
Some weeks went by, and, one night while working late in my office, I heard a soft tap on my office door. Ernesto shuffled quietly into my office, shy and apologetic for disturbing me. I told him to come in, sit down, and tell me what was bothering him. He sat down wringing his hands and looking all around my office, studying every nook and cranny and every object in the room.
I gently asked him what was on his mind. He finally looked me in the face timidly and asked if he could come back to the company and be with the men. I was a little surprised by his comment, and I asked him if he was unhappy where he was. He said that the supply sergeant was taking very good care of him and that he liked the work he was doing and the hours he kept.
He had the hardest time looking me in the eye, and I finally told him, as nicely as I could, that I didn’t think he was cut out to be an infantry soldier. I don’t think Ernesto took this as a surprise, and I felt he knew the truth deep down inside. He quietly stated that he knew the men would be risking their lives soon in combat and that he wanted to be with the men and would do anything he could to help them—even if it meant picking up the dead and filling body bags.
We were weeks away from deploying to Iraq, and the newspapers and cable channels were rampant with stories about people getting their heads cut off, convoys being ambushed on a regular basis, and U.S. service members getting killed by the constant onslaught of bombs hidden on the roads.
I realized that his comment was not just an idle or morbid statement. For all his awkwardness and childlike qualities, Manuel Ernesto showed more compassion for his fellow-soldiers than they ever showed him. I felt ashamed at that moment, especially considering that some men in my company were trying to do everything in their power to get out of going off to fight. Here was Ernesto, a guy who was homeless and shunned by the rest of civilized society, and, in the end, he turned out to have more heart and guts than most.
I told him that if the day ever came when, God forbid, I had to pick up my fallen soldiers, it would be an honor for me if he could help in any way. He smiled and tears welled up in the corners of his eyes. He quietly got up and saluted me in an awkward manner, and I saluted back, not having the heart to tell him that I was a sergeant and only officers get saluted.
Sergeant Timothy J. Gaestel, twenty-two, Austin, Texas. E-mail to his father, from south of Baghdad. September 21, 2003.
Hey, Dad, this is your son. I finally get to write y’all a letter. First off: let me tell you we made it here safe and so far, but everything is going very good. Now, Dad, I know that you have already received a phone call that tells you I am O.K., but I want you to know exactly what happened. . . . We were heading south down Highway 8 and I was gunning for the second truck. Byrd was driving and my chief was the passenger. We got off Highway 8 onto Ambush Alley, the route we didn’t take going up there. I was in the back of the truck with my 240B machine gun, and the S2 [an intelligence officer] wanted to ride in the back of the truck with me, since I was the only one back there. We were at the end of the convoy at this point so we were really hauling ass, driving down the wrong side of the road and all that, just so we could get to the front of the convoy. My buddy Eddie was a badass driver and kept us from getting in wrecks a few times. But still able to get the mission done. The X.O. [executive officer] truck was behind us and needed to get in front, not to mention the fact that I had his Gatorade I was supposed to throw to him the next time they passed us.
At that exact moment, a loud and thunderous boom went off and pushed me all the way to the front of where my 240B was mounted. I knew something had just happened and when I turned around I could see two large smoke clouds on each side of the road. The first thing I thought was that I had just been hit in the back by an I.E.D. [improvised explosive device]. It wasn’t like I felt as if I was going to die, more like “Man, that really hurt.” At that moment, I reached around and felt my back and pulled my hand back, and it was covered with blood. Before that I honestly thought it had just hit my I.B.A. [interceptor body armor]. It turns out that it had hit my I.B.A. and gone right through it.
I lay down in the back of the truck, but this didn’t seem like a good idea and I didn’t have my weapon and had to yell at the S2 to give me my weapon—I didn’t want an ambush to happen and for me to not have my weapon. So I stood up on my knees and yelled again to him to man the 240B; he was scared, but that’s what happens when you don’t ever get any kind of training and you sit in an office all day. This guy didn’t react very well when I showed him my back—he started flipping out and yelling “Oh, G., you got hit man, oh he’s hit bad, man.” This is the last thing that you tell someone who has just been hit in the back and is bleeding. As you can imagine, I was pretty pissed off at this point, and I showed my anger toward the people in the town that we were driving through. I had my M4 rifle at the ready and my trigger finger on the trigger and was just waiting for someone to give me a reason to have me put it from safe to semi. I maintained my military bearing as well as one could in that situation. I sure wanted to shoot the bastard that had just set the I.E.D. off.
As we were making our way back to the F.O.B. [forward operating base] at that last street, I could no longer sit up straight and my back was killing me. There was a major who was our field surgeon waiting for me in the front of the gate to check me out. This guy didn’t reassure me, either. When I told him that I was O.K., he looked at me and said, “Look, son, you may have internal bleeding.” Now I was scared. They rushed me to the aid station, where I talked to some sergeant majors and the colonel. In like fifteen minutes, in my brown underwear, green socks up to my knees, and a blanket, I was rushed out to the landing zone where a chopper took me to C.S.H. [Combat Support Hospital] 28, in downtown Baghdad. The flight through Baghdad was amazing, too, you could see the whole city and all the buildings and stuff, it was very strange. The helicopter pilot was a badass as well, he had to do a wartime landing, which is really fast and quick, it was cool. Now, Dad, I hadn’t seen a female in twenty-one days, and so you could imagine I was excited when I looked down off the helicopter as we were coming in for a landing to see a very beautiful woman (it could be she was beautiful because I haven’t seen a woman in a while). Now when I landed, a female second lieutenant took me into the E.R. with no one else in the whole room except her and me. She came up to me and ripped off my blanket, grabbed my brown undies, and ripped those off too and gave me a catheter. Now that was more painful than the I.E.D. and way not what I was thinking was going to happen when she grabbed my blanket off me. Then she gave me some morphine and I was good.
One thing that bothered me is the way they treated people—just because they’re always around stuff like that doesn’t mean that they have to act like it’s nothing to get hit in the back by a bomb. They did an X-ray of my back and found that I had two pieces of shrapnel in my back. I asked the doctor if I could keep the shrapnel and he said, “Yeah, sure, forever.” They weren’t going to be taking the shrapnel out. So, yeah, now your son is going to have two pieces of metal in his back for the rest of his life. I was cleaned up and taken to patient hold. A place that is something out of a movie. It was horrible to see all the soldiers with missing legs and arms and bandages everywhere. Shortly afterward, I was given some morphine and I passed out. When I woke up, Colonel Smith, Company Sergeant Major Burgos, Lieutenant Layton, Company Sergeant Major Howard, and our chaplain came in. The first thing Lieutenant Layton said to me was ‘Well, me and the sergeant major were talking and you are the first person to receive the Purple Heart in the ‘Loyalty’ battalion since Grenada (in 1983).” It’s quite crazy, the turn of events that have led me here. A Purple Heart recipient—I guess all it means is that some guy got me before I could get him. We will joke about this all someday, Dad. I told them I didn’t want you all to find out about this because I’m not leaving Iraq and I don’t want you to worry. I know you’ re going to worry anyway but the reason I shared this story here was so you know what it’s like to be here and that the people that I’m with all look after one another. I guess it’s really crazy that I volunteered to stay even though I was hit in the back with shrapnel, and as soon as I can I’m going to return to my unit. I don’t want Mom to worry so don’t read her the detailed parts of this letter. I LOVE Y’ALL and will be home soon enough.
Sergeant Tina M. Beller, twenty-nine, Allentown, Pennsylvania. E-mail to her parents, from the Green Zone, Baghdad. September 12, 2004.
I am sure by now you can read the news and watch the tube and know that we were severely attacked with a barrage of rockets yesterday morning, your nighttime.
At any rate, I am just writing to let you know that physically I remain unharmed. Emotionally and mentally is a different story. I never would have thought my day would have started out this way.
I was the first responder to a building within our compound that was hit by a rocket. I was driving back into the compound around 0630 from my usual early-morning routine when the hair on my arms stood up. I suspected something was up, but couldn’t identify it since I had just arrived from the gym and was too busy praying to Jesus that I hadn’t been nailed by a rocket at the palace parking lot, which I had been driving through just moments before.