Part of a continuing series about the life of an embedded reporter in Iraq.
FALLUJAH, IRAQ — I was eager to leave Baghdad and embed with the Second Marine Division in Fallujah, but due to bad weather — and then a sandstorm — I ended up getting stuck another two nights at the Coalition Press Information Center in Baghdad. I had more company this time, though; Toby Sullivan from the Anchorage Press and AP photographer Jacob Silberberg were also stranded, trying to get out to units they were scheduled to embed with.
Sullivan is an interesting story in himself. A quiet guy with a big, bushy moustache who works as commercial fisherman in Alaska during the summer, he freelances for the paper over the winter, and this was his second long trip to Iraq for the Press. He was trying to head out west near the Syrian border to spend a couple months with the Marines, while Silberberg was going to Ramadi to cover the action in al Anbar province.
By the third night, the weather had cleared, we were on standby and there weren’t too many people waiting at the Washington Landing Zone to fly out. Some time after midnight, we heard the distant “thwack!” of choppers approaching, and we gathered our gear and headed out to the helipad. I muscled to the front of the line and to my surprise, managed to get on, but since they were going to different places, Sullivan and Silberberg remained stuck.
Sullivan had predicted that once I landed in Fallujah, no one would be able to tell me where the “media tent” was and I might have to improvise. While he was right about no one having heard of a “media tent,” Lt. Blanca Binstock, the public affairs officer for the Second Marines, told me to take the shuttle bus to “embark,” and ask once I got there. As I got off the bus, there was no one to ask, so I splashed through the mud and the darkness until I found the tent, which is a sagging structure with a couple dusty bunk beds, muddy pillows and a temperamental heater. Didn’t much matter though, so I closed the flap, unrolled my sleeping bag and bunked out.
Next morning Master Sergeant Gideon Rogers stopped by the tent to make sure I was squared away and scheduled my transport out to Echo Company (of the Second Battalion, Sixth Marines, stationed in the city itself) as soon as he could. A friendly, easygoing guy, Sergeant Rogers took some pity on me and brought me over to the mess hall for some much needed-lunch before I shoved off.
(If I may be permitted an aside here, I’d like to give some praise to the chow hall at Camp Fallujah. It was a thing of beauty. Four hot steam trays, fully stocked with burritos, onion rings, turkey, mashed potatoes and ravoli, followed by coffee urns, fruit juice machines, and coolers full of cans of soda and juice. And who can complain about the salad bar and ice cream station? I almost hated to leave — it was the best meal I’d had since arriving in Iraq.)
The ride out to Echo Company was pretty quick. First a stop at the forward command post to be briefed on my embed, then an armored truck for a ride to Echo’s post. The only other guy in the truck was an Iraqi interpreter from Baghdad who was assigned to work in Fallujah.
He was a young guy, full of twitches and nervous tics, who rapidly pulled on a succession of cigarettes while claiming he wasn’t scared that the job put his life in danger. At first his military-style bravado seemed like a put-on, like when he patted the handgun on his hip and bragged, “If the terrorists catch me, I save a bullet for myself.” I asked what would happen if he were caught. He laughed, exhaled smoke and said that his punishment would be to have his tongue cut out, his eyes poked out and his head drilled through with an electric drill until he died.
All of which, if true, gives his save-the-last-bullet-for-himself story some credence.
Coming up on Fallujah, we cut a vehicle checkpoint manned by the Iraqi Army and rolled by blocks of smashed houses and torn-up cars, fallout from the ferocious fights the Marines waged here in April and November 2004 to take the city. The interpreter was dropped at a checkpoint and I continued on to Echo Company’s base of operations: a railroad station on the edge of town.
Just as I arrived, the commander, Captain Pinion, got a call from a unit on patrol in the city which had rolled up on a large group of men who scattered when they saw the Marines. They stopped as many as they could, but one guy put up a fight, and grabbed a Marine’s rifle. On the chance that they had stumbled upon a large insurgent meeting, a call to base went out. Marines came running from everywhere to head out, and Capt. Pinion went with them. Not knowing how long they’d be gone, I went to the mess hall for some dinner and to wait to see where I’d sleep.
Echo has a spartan setup at the railroad station, but one that works well for their mission: quick access to the city, space to house the troops and their gear and a large parking area for their vehicles. Inside the station, the Marines have constructed a series of plywood hootches (Marine slang for makeshift rooms), each housing about 16 men, and on a loading dock out back they have a makeshift gym. Latrines, shower trailers and a couple of washing machines were out back behind the building.
After he returned (nothing much had happened), Capt. Pinion and I sat in the mess hall and discussed which patrols I was going to head out on the next day. As it turned out, since travel delays had cut into my time, I would only be with Echo for a couple days, so I was determined to get in as many patrols as I could.
But for that night I was given a cot to bunk with the guys in headquarters hootch, unrolled my sleeping bag, and settled in.
Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.
Next: On Patrol with Echo in Fallujah.