Iraq War Diary: Samarra

October 2005 – I caught a ride to FOB Razor, an outpost on the edge of Samarra. They get mortared just about every day, and a car bomber pulled in and killed seven soldiers here last spring. After a little wait, I caught a lift forward to meet a New York National Guard platoon, with whom I would spend about a week.

I came in with a convoy delivering the first cold drinks and chow they had seen since the big battle. Everybody told me “you should have been here yesterday,” which is about the worst thing you can say to a news photographer, but it was true. Several hours of fierce fighting had defined this incursion, and nothing I would see after ever came close to showing what they had been through.

I walked around with the convoy dropping cold water on their security positions, and learned soon after that they would be moving on foot to their next strong point. We hiked around a mostly residential, comparatively affluent neighborhood until after dark, when it was finally arranged that the platoon could stay in a home in the area.

A local family had obliged to house everybody, and was duly compensated. After sending some pictures, I slept on a bench on a patio, which was a little risky because there was some continuing mortar activity, but it was a cool evening for a change, and I couldn’t help myself. A five foot wall circled the property, and soldiers were always on rotating guard duty, so I felt safe knowing there was no chance we could be overrun.

We walked back into town the next day and took a position in a hotel just across from the main mosque, where the heaviest fighting had been, but it was pretty quiet now. The hotel was filthy and broken down, but the hard structure was safe from mortars and incoming small arms fire, and soldiers set up sniper and mortar teams on the roof.

I grabbed a room with a nasty old bed and mattress and went up to the roof to send more pictures. I had several foot patrols to cover in the following days, but got some of my best stuff here in the plaza between the hotel and the mosque as U.S. and Iraqi troops would come and go all day.

On my way out, I covered a memorial service at FOB Brassfield-Mora, for a soldier killed in Samarra before I arrived. He was shot by a sniper while directing fire on the same roof I had been using to send pictures from the hotel. He was older like me, divorced without kids, and it made me think a lot, though I didn’t really figure anything out.

Right before I left, a master sergeant gave me a company coin, an honor I’ve enjoyed several times now but never feel like I deserve, as I think it takes a lot more for a soldier to get one than a journalist. More remarkably, the captain cut his company patch right off of his sleeve and gave it to me, reminding me that it had been in combat. I am never going to forget these days.