This month marks the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. For many of the journalists who have covered it, it has been the story of their lifetime, but we’ve nevertheless seen coverage of the war slip off the front pages over the last few months. While there are still plenty of reporters risking their lives doing great work in Iraq, much of the political, social, and economic complexity of today’s war seems to be getting lost in the election-year crush, even as the war continues to be a major issue in the campaign. This series is CJR’s attempt to add a little bit of context to the whole, while digging into stories that don’t always make it into our morning newspapers. This is Part Five in an ongoing series.


We parked the Strykers next to a deep, wide canal, whose bright blue water rushed under a narrow bridge blocked by two concrete traffic barriers. Lieutenant Max Pappas went through the plan again: we would cross the bridge on foot, run a few hundred meters along a dirt road bordering a reed line, plunge through the canal at a narrow point and converge on the farmhouse where we had found the weapons cache the day before.


There had been reports that a few military-age males had been seen at the house after 1st platoon arrested the young man suspected of planting the weapons cache the day before, and Captain Higgins wanted to see if he could catch anyone poking around the house.


Once everyone had jumped over the yard-high concrete barriers on the bridge and started running down the narrow dirt road, I realized how weighed down American soldiers are by their heavy ballistic vests, M-4 rifles, extra ammunition clips, first aid pouches, and the other burdens of an infantryman at war. This is to say nothing of the soldiers carrying M-249 SAW rifles, which clock in at about fifteen pounds each, or the platoon’s radio officer, who lugs around cumbersome communications equipment. I moved much more lightly—my ballistic vest was smaller, and the only things I carried were a notebook, some pens, a voice recorder, a camera, and a few Power Bars I shoved in my pocket in case we found ourselves out all day.


As we huffed down the road, a few of the guys carrying heavier loads started to lag behind, but it didn’t take long for others to drop back and take up some of their load, making sure everyone kept the tight formation. We reached the spot in the reed line where the lieutenant wanted to cross, and the platoon plunged, single file, into the frigid, knee-deep water, scrambling across the canal and up the few feet of muddy bank on the far side. After the first few soldiers made it across, the splashing of the water made the canal banks even more slick, and footing became difficult. I was set to go across somewhere in the middle of the pack, and as the lone civilian, I was concentrating on not slowing up the process. I jumped in, waded across, and on the other side found that a soldier was struggling on the bank. I grabbed the bottom of his ballistic vest and pushed up, just as the soldier behind me began pushing me up in front of him, and suddenly, I was out of the reeds and standing, exposed, on a dirt road directly next to the farmhouse.


“Go, go!” Sergeant Flick bellowed as a squad with a SAW flopped down in the muddy bank of the canal to cover the rest of the platoon’s dash up to the house. I briefly wondered if I should run to the house, too, or hang back, but since I found myself running, figured that my legs had made the decision for me.

Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.