On September 28, 2004, I posted this text to a private message board I was keeping for friends and family while I was Baghdad Staff Photographer for the Associated Press. This time with photos:
I’ve had some time on my hands, as my next embed keeps getting delayed. I thought this one was worth posting…
Last week, I spent the most dangerous 72 hours of my life with the US ARMY 1st Cav’s “1-12 Cav” in Sadr City during a major planned incursion into this most dangerous Mahdi Army stronghold.
Columns of Abrams M1A1 tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers with 25MM cannons, rolled into town from several surrounding bases. The Brads also have “reactive armor,” big boxes of C4 explosive which line the outside, and are designed to kill anybody shooting at the Brad from nearby. Of course, incoming gunfire also threatens to kill American standing near the Brad, so you learn to exit the back and get away fast.
I was in a specially equipped Brad at first, squeezed in with an Iraqi interpreter and a tank commander with a workstation, a little industrial desk and chair sort of cockpit where he could oversee his battalion. It’s called a BFISS or something like that, but nobody knew what the acronym stood for.
I had asked to ride with the most forward dismount team, but their Brad was packed, like always, and I was going to be dumped out at the same spot at the same time as them.
Only, after first entering town with almost no contact, their term for armed resistance, the dismount team never dismounted as IEDs exploded and mortars rained down all around for most of the afternoon and evening. I even got to see one mortar strike about 30 feet away through one of the little glass viewing slots over the ramp. It appears that the glass panels are about 6 inches think, maybe more, and are said to be less likely to be penetrated by bullets or shrapnel than any other armor.
I was buttoned up in the Brad for about twelve hours straight before finally getting to stretch my legs at a refueling stop setup outside of the city. That’s when the driver showed me a big black smudge where and RPG had struck his hatch.
I was wearing the usual flak and helmet on top of my clothes and carrying the usual gear, and the heat inside kept sweat beaded on my skin constantly. I drank the three 1.5L bottles of water from a cooler inside, and also finished the 3L in my camelback but never needed to, um, relieve myself, as I was still a little under-hydrated.
My memory for details, like exact times, gets a little foggy here for reasons explained below, but I think that was when I switched to another Brad, crowding into a with five soldiers, with their guns, rucks, and a big yellow fishing cooler, all in a space meant for four.
As always, I took the small padded jump seat at the far left, commonly known as the “bitch seat,” but I like it because then I’m the last to dismount; bad for pictures, but good for not getting shot. (BTW – Communication is way too urgent when mounting and dismounting to discuss political correctness or sexism, and I’m sure that the vulgarity is the furthest thing from anybody’s mind.)
Behind the bitch seat is a long slot beside the turret where a not-so-big soldier can ride, laying on his side with arms outstretched, if only absolutely necessary. They call this spot the “Hellhole” and it makes the bitch seat look pretty good.
Also inside, there is a monitor that can display the driver’s view, gunner’s view, and also some things I probably shouldn’t discuss, for the benefit of those riding in the back. There is a separate hatch for the driver, up front on our level, and the commander and gunner ride in the turret.
If there was ever an intercom, it never seems to work, so soldiers in the back signal to have the heavy hydraulic lift raised or lowered by slamming their helmet against the inside of the turret. If you mess us, the ramp would almost certainly cut your foot off, so it can be very dangerous when people get sleepy on 72hr missions like this one.
Again it was hot, and always bumpy as the Brad travels on tank-like tracks obviously not ideal for urban warfare, and the constant vibration is deafening.
This area poses the worst IED threat in Iraq, and although I had been in Brads before, I finally made a point of learning how to manually open rear and overhead hatches in the event of an actual emergency.
The explosions started not too long after we got into Sadr City, though it was hard to distinguish between IEDs, mortars, and RPGs, as I haven’t learned to differentiate among the sounds when muffled inside the Brad, although the soldiers could do this as well as I can outside.
It seemed like two hours of heavy explosions while we mostly sat still, and I felt a lot like a worm on a fishhook. On the previous night with the tank commander, my driver, who had told me quite directly that he was the best in the battalion, would move a short distance after every nearby impact. I never got to ask, but I think he was dashing directly to the spot of the every last strike, presuming that there was no way another mortar would hit in exactly the same spot.
So we sat out there until noon, with explosions all around, hardly ever moving, and sweating our asses off. All of us would nod off from time to time, with the blasts never relenting.
Our gunner would fire the cannon now and then, mostly single shots, and in occasional short bursts, and the whole vehicle would rock. It was by far louder in our space than anything outside.
Most of the soldiers would hardly react, but this one big, tough looking dude would briefly snap briefly a fetal position every time. He’s the first guy I have ever seen do that, and I wondered why he was different.
Tank and Brad commanders watched through their monitors as people placed IEDs out on the road in front of us. In one case, they saw a man stretch a wire back to his house, so having established that this attacker was inside, they promptly leveled the house, in line with their rules of engagement. I heard it on radio, so I don’t know if he got hit by a tank or a Brad, but I’m sure he was killed.
I could hear every detail on radio as one tank was hit by an RPG, caught fire, and one of the crew was wounded and evacuated.
I’d look out through the little glass vent from time to time, and saw ghetto everywhere, with sewage streaming down many streets, and huge piles of trash in the middle of the others. There was never anybody in sight, but everybody howled when a soldier looked out at spotted two donkeys fucking right outside.
Then, we got hit. Either I don’t remember it, or it didn’t strike me as an unusual blast, but the next think I did notice was dust was clouding the cabin, shaken loose by the impact, and that the four soldiers inside with me all had rags over their mouths, and their eyes were bulging with concern.
They were banging on the turret and hollering “drop the ramp” when I next noticed my eyes burning from fumes, as our fuel tank had been ruptured. I had bandannas in several pockets, but I didn’t want to take my focus away from getting out, not even slightly, so I just cupped my hand over my mouth and started sucking are between my fingers, and it worked pretty well.
When the ramp dropped, you could hear the fuel gushing and see the clear liquid pooling in the street. That was when I first saw that there were two long columns of tanks and Brads running down the street, but not a soul in sight. I new there could be gunmen waiting to shoot at us upon exit, but I didn’t give it a thought, as there were no alternatives.
We got orders to split up, and I charged first into the nearest Brad when I saw a ramp drop. Four of us would need to crowd into an already full space and I wrestled my way in as deep as possible, forcing each arm and leg into any little gap I could find, like playing “Twister,” a game I remember from childhood. “Right foot blue; left hand red!” I remembered from the TV commercial.
Another guy was pushing his shoulder into my ass, but the third and fourth guys were still stranded outside. The Sgt. was perfectly decisive in identifying the nearest building, so we bailed out, charged forward, and a soldier kicked in the door.
It led to a small courtyard, maybe ten by twenty feet, with doorways to two small one-room homes and a stairway leading to a third locked room, and then to the roof.
The soldiers split up to “clear” each room, and establish that there was nobody armed inside, and found several people trying to hold back the door to the home of the left. They broke through, and next, there was a flurry of men and women with children, about ten people altogether, scurrying into the small room on the right, basically being taken hostage to the soldiers’ necessity, as well as mine to be honest.
They were clearly terrified, and the men looked humiliated. Two young men were permitted to return to the other room to carry a very old woman back, and placed her on a bed. I think the room upstairs was empty, but some of these people might have come from up there.
I photographed all of this while trying to keep close to the walls, and finally looked out into the street, where fuel was still running out of our Brad like a waterfall, probably gallons per second.
A huge mortar struck and shook the ground, but I could see that it was probably forty yards away.
A little time passed when I heard banging at the gate and somebody hollered “friendlys coming in!” and everybody inside hollered “come on in!”
Another group of guys from another Bradley in the same platoon entered the courtyard, including the LT, who got on the radio to hatch an escape plan.
Meanwhile, the guys on the roof got into a gunfight with somebody, described as a “fat guy in a man-dress,” who was firing his AK from the roof of the attached house right next door. I wondered if it was an active insurgent, or just a neighbor who thought soldiers were raiding his block, or even a friend or relative of the people my platoon was holding.
There were soon two Brads waiting to squeeze us in, but we couldn’t exit the house until this gunman was neutralized, and the soldiers on the roof couldn’t move forward without exposing themselves to other possible threat on the street, so it was decided that one of the Bradleys would fire it’s 25MM and just blow the top of the house off.
A guy on the roof yelled down to the LT who radioed the Brad commander right outside to hit the house described to have a satellite dish on the roof, and we all moved into the room with the Iraqi residents.
Apparently, however, our building also had a satellite dish, and when the Bradley fired at it, much of the top of the brick and stone building crashed down into our courtyard, leaving a pile of rubble, and smoke and dust was everywhere.
Many soldiers, including this group, often tell me that they’re pleasantly surprised that I’m pretty cool when things go bad, but they later had a good laugh about how my eyes bulged and my chin drooped while the building came down. I was standing in a doorway, and not by accident, so I was untouched but very close to the collapse.
The Brad retargeted and blew apart the house next door, and the incoming gunfire stopped.
On orders, we dashed through the dust and smoke and went back outside, without a word to the locals who were left together in that first floor room.
Our Brad had already been towed away by another crew, and two less-than-packed Brads were waiting to pick us up. I jumped as deep as I could into the one of the left, mostly by chance, maybe because it was closer, or maybe because filling them from left to right made some kind of sense to me. Soldiers followed and the ramp went up.
We wiggled into the most comfortable positions possible, shared some water, and went right back to playing fish bait.
A little while later, I heard a lot of commotion on the radio involving another Brad. On orders to dismount and recover equipment from the tank crippled earlier, at least four guys were wounded by gunfire, mostly in the arms and flaks, but the Lt. took a deep graze to the face, and all four had to be evacuated to the hospital in the Green Zone. Yes, this was the other Brad I could has well have climbed into; the Brad on my right leaving the house.
Later on, we went back to a nearby base for a quick break and refit, to stretch our legs, and get fuel, ammo, and water. Some troops from yet another Brad warmly enjoyed telling me how they had seen that the IED we struck had exploded pretty much right under my ass. They judged from the size of the blast that it was a rigged 120MM tank shell, one of the most common types of IEDs.
I don’t know how long we were there, but it was long enough to eat an MRE, drop my gear and have a little nap on a floor.
We went back downtown in a new configuration to make up for our lost Brad and the six wounded soldiers. A Sgt. got a field promotion to Platoon Lt.
I don’t know if I should discuss the mission before, as it might still be in a future plan because we never got that far.
I can’t recall how long we were out, although it was 1 a.m. now, about 13 hours since the IED blast, when we got engaged with an individual firing RPGs. Several exploded outside, and the gunner was returning fire, but we got hit again.
It didn’t rock us like the IED, but the driver yelled “I’m on fire” and the hatch dropped quickly this time, just as the chamber began filling with smoke.
We ran and briefly took cover behind a highway divider, until another building was identified for entry. It was a three-story single this time. It was dark, so I stayed just inside the door while soldiers cleared the building and moved the residents all into one room again. I’m not sure why, but I never went in to look at them.
I guess the driver got himself out too, along with the gunner and commander. One of them was apologizing for not killing the insurgent before he got us.
Once it was cleared, I made my way to the roof and made some photos with my new infra-red camera as soldiers exchanged fire with insurgents outside.
I peeked over the wall just long enough to photograph the Brad, and saw that the fire had spread wide underneath.
Soldiers looking down noticed that somebody had left a 240 machine gun on the ramp, and two of them bravely went out to get it while guys on the roof provided heavy suppressive fire.
I went in and out several times, low-crawling to take pictures on the roof, or taking cover at the bends in the stairwell, the only place not exposed to windows.
Eventually, I went down to a second floor kitchen and slept for a couple of hours, tight against a wall in my flak and helmet.
The universal wake-up call for sleeping soldiers is a little kick to the sole of your boot, and they got me up this way as they learned that more Brads were coming to evacuate us.
It was brighter now, not long before dawn, and I found another soldier sleeping beside me. I had heard him ask a medic for pain meds earlier after he strained his back, and they apparently knocked him out, but he staggered to his feet too, and we all moved downstairs.
I don’t really remember how many soldiers or vehicles were involved now, but we had to get nine guys into the back this time, in the space meant for four.
Three sat on each side, and I slid in back-first over a big cooler in the middle, with my head against the turret, and with two guys in front of me, sitting toboggan style, with my legs spread wide. There wasn’t an inch to spare now, rifles were jamming into my sides and legs, and whenever somebody shifted his weight, somebody else would grunt in pain.
I could only see the back of the guy in front of me and one face on each side, and both looked very uncomfortable. I was bent so bad that I was really afraid my back might blow as we rumbled back to the base, so I had to keep it flexed all the way. The guy in front of me kept one hand on an overhead handle to try to take the load off, but it only helped a little.
I thought a lot about what might happen if we got hit again, but I knew enough not to say it out loud.