Gina Cavallaro had drifted away from the soldier escorting her, wanting to take a picture of the Iraqi children trailing them as they patrolled Ramadi. She heard a lone gunshot and turned around, disoriented, trying to see where the shot had come from and where it had landed, when she saw him–Specialist Francisco Martinez–lying on the ground, his limbs spread as if he were making an angel in the sand. Cavallaro screamed. Martinez had been her escort on patrol a few days earlier and again that day. They had become fast friends, trading stories about the neighborhoods of San Juan and the never-ending Christmas celebrations of his native Puerto Rico, where Cavallaro, too, had grown up and begun her career in journalism.

She helped drag Martinez into the Humvee that had brought her and soldiers from Alpha Company, First Battalion, Ninth Infantry Regiment, to Ramadi. While a mate tended to his wound, Cavallaro told Martinez in Spanish to not fall asleep, to look at me, and to breathe, holding his hand and stroking his arm.

Back at the base, she followed behind his stretcher, watching drops of blood fall through the mesh that cradled his body, leaving a long trail of dark clumps in the sand. Though the bullet had found its way into the gap between the body armor that protected his front and back, Cavallaro was told that Martinez would survive. As she walked back across the base to where she had been staying, she mentally made plans to see Martinez back at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

That was the last day of her fourth embed in Iraq, and she needed to prepare for the departure for home. Soon she became aware of the eyes of other soldiers on her. They had heard over the radio that a soldier had been shot, close to Cavallaro. Martinez’s blood, in fact, was all over her bare arms and her face.

“We have stuff to clean that off,”a soldier told her.

Then, while one soldier held her outstretched arms, another wiped her off with biohazard clean-up wipes and rinsed her with a bottle of water.
Remembering that she was a journalist, Cavallaro snapped a picture of the
spent foil packaging, fascinated that the need to cleanse skin of blood was so common that these packets were as readily available as a Kleenex pack would be in civilian life.

Not an hour later, while Cavallaro
was sitting in a makeshift coffee lounge, Martinez’s commander sought her out. He squeezed his six-foot, four-inch frame into the chair across from her and told her the news: Martinez had died. Cavallaro cried uncontrollably, then forced herself to stop, shamed by the weight of another soldier’s presence in the room.

Before leaving Iraq, she wrote a personal essay on Martinez’s death for her newspaper, noting the grief and helplessness she felt:

I’ve known people who have been killed here. But I had not had the misfortune of having to witness a mortally wounded soldier try to hang on to life. I grieve for this fallen soldier as I know his buddies do.

The column generated hundreds of e-mails and letters. Soldiers wrote to thank her, to commend her, and to comfort her, telling her that God had put her there for Martinez, that there was nothing like a woman’s touch to comfort a man in his hour of death.

Cavallaro is a staff writer for Army Times, an independent, Gannett-owned weekly, published by the Army Times Publishing Company, which also publishes the other Military Times papers: Air Force Times, Marine Corps Times, and Navy Times. While other journalists embedded in Iraq were covering the war–as breaking news, as current event, as the story of our time–Cavallaro was just covering her beat, the shared beat of everyone in her newsroom: the world of the U.S. armed forces. “Because they’re at war is why we go there,” says Cavallaro. “We’re not covering the war, we’re covering them.”

Alia Malek is an assistant editor at CJR.