Combat becomes an addiction in this archive story
Morning. Jan. 27, 2005. Baqubah, occupied Iraq. A hundred surly Arabs and a bunch of bemused GIs gather in a musty provincial government building. It’s a chance for known insurgents to sign a pledge against violence in exchange for amnesty from arrest. They call it Peace Day.
The lights go down. The Arabs take their seats. The media — a CNN crew, correspondent David Pratt from the Scotland Sunday Herald and me, from the Columbia, S.C. Free Times — pick up cameras, tap microphones and pull out notepads, just in time to record the chaos as a suicide bomber in a compact car blows himself up outside.
The building shakes. Windows shatter. Yours truly takes a tiny sliver of glass in the hand. Everywhere, there’s the heavy thunk-thunk-thunk of gunfire. Arabs, GIs and reporters hit the floor.
Well, not all of them: One insane CNN cameraman hops out of a broken window with his camera rolling. And a handful of soldiers race outside to pile into a Humvee.
I follow them, and slide into the Humvee’s one empty seat feeling like John Wayne and looking like a terrified child. My voice cracks when I say, “Mind if I tag along?”
“Not at all,” says Sgt. Kim Snow, an Army journalist from the 1st Infantry Div., famous for braving firefights in Fallujah to get the hot story.
All around us, gunfire rattles. A thick pall of smoke curls skyward. And there’s this smell—burned flesh and rubber—that I just can’t describe. Soldiers dart this way and that. Into this pandemonium we drive.
“So what’s the plan?” I yell over the Humvee’s gurgling diesel as we pull onto the street.
Snow laughs. “The plan,” she says, “is to get closer.”
She floors the accelerator and points the Humvee at the street, where a hundred soldiers and police are converging on a bloodbath.
I was in Iraq to report on the S.C. National Guard and on the country’s first democratic elections in half a century.
That’s the official line, anyway. The truth is a little more complicated. And even now, a month later, sitting in a military library at Camp Doha in Kuwait, waiting for my flight back home, I’m only beginning to understand my own motivations.
When I ask myself why I volunteered — Hell, fought tooth and nail — for an assignment to a war zone, I recall a day last fall when, trawling for untapped story ideas as a staff writer for this paper, I sifted through a long list of war headlines in other alternative newspapers:
• “Veteran Stars of Bush’s Inauguration Have Scars,” The Village Voice
• “Military Outreach Center Helps With the Burdens Soldiers Carry,” Rochester City Newspaper
• “Military Reservists Reluctant to Seek Mental Health Help,” Louisville Eccentric Observer
• “Military American Soldiers Returning From Iraq Are Heroes and Victims,” Charleston City Paper
I was puzzled. The same day, I’d seen a poll in the independent Army Times newspaper that indicated most soldiers supported the war in Iraq.
Far be it for me to question my colleagues’ journalistic integrity: I had to assume both the alt news stories and the poll were accurate, and that many soldiers could remain enthusiastic for a war that had physically and psychologically scarred so many of their comrades, and maybe even themselves. But there was something going on here, something the alternative press — overwhelmingly and perhaps blindly opposed to the war — had neglected to examine, something I thought I understood.
I guess I just wanted to be sure. So, I convinced my editor to green light my trip, lined up some freelance work, begged the Army for room and board, then packed my bags for Iraq.
I started with the 1052nd Transportation Co., a unit of the S.C. Guard based at Camp Anaconda near Balad, a city between Tikrit and Baqubah.
It was cold and wet when I arrived at the 1052nd’s enclave on Jan. 21, almost a year after the unit had deployed here. There was a gloomy pall in the air and it wasn’t just the weather.
“There are a lot of people planning on getting out [of the Army],” 2nd Lt. Ross Sparks, a narcotics officer in South Carolina, says of his soldiers.
Spec. Justin Segres, 22, answers more directly when asked how he feels about the war. “What’s the point?”
“Bringing democracy to Iraq?” I say.
Staff Sgt. Willie Williams, 44, a hospital employee back home in South Carolina, says morale is actually higher now than it was a few months ago. “It was worst when Sgt. Lemon died.”
Staff Sgt. Jerome Lemon, 42, a convoy commander with the 1052nd and a cop back home, died right outside Camp Anaconda’s gate on Oct. 27 when insurgents exploded a bomb alongside his flatbed truck. The blast knocked Lemon’s head clean off his shoulders and onto the floorboards. Dozens of 1052nd soldiers witnessed the attack and some were badly traumatized.
Now, four cold months later, after some 1052nd soldiers have completed more than 100 convoys totaling more than 20,000 miles combined, most of the unit’s 115 soldiers are ready to come home.
With two exceptions.
The strange case of Willard and Abney
On the night of Jan. 21, I’m waiting in the rain between long rows of idling flatbeds — waiting for the start of a convoy mission to Tikrit, watching tracer rounds illuminate the sky over Anaconda’s gate — when someone grabs my arm.
He’s a tall black soldier with teeth that reflect the truck’s yellow headlights. He’s wearing sergeant’s bars and his nametape says “Abney.” Later I learn his first name is Jerry. He’s a 41-year-old from Saluda.
“Yeah, I’m press.”
He sidles closer. “You gotta help us. Me and Robert Willard are trying to extend.”
I draw a notepad from my pocket. Like everything else in Iraq in January, it’s soaking wet. “Uh-huh. And what does that mean?”
Abney stomps the muddy ground. “Everyone else is leaving in two weeks, but we want to get permission from the National Guard to stay.”
“You don’t want to go home?”
All around us, soldiers are climbing into their trucks with their M-16s. Everywhere there’s a hum of excitement as the convoy gets ready to move out. Abney looks nervous. “Look, I gotta go.” He grabs my notepad and scribbles his email address. “Email me, OK?”
I don’t have to.
A couple of days later, I’m lounging in my hooch — a heated trailer the 1052nd generously provided me — when there’s a knock on the door. I open it to the grinning visage of a stocky soldier. He tells me his name is Spec. Robert Willard, from Columbia. He’s 28 years old.
“I have something to show you,” he says.
Across the camp we go — one scruffy reporter, one squat specialist grinning like the Cheshire Cat. En route to his hooch, he points out his “art” — a couple of spray-painted concrete barriers. One—an eagle against an American flag—is dedicated to Lemon. Another appears to be Japanese writing. “Means sex,” Willard says, grin growing ever wider.
His hooch is like a set from Oliver Stone’s Platoon: slathered with posters, heaped high with colorful junk, sweet-smelling and populated by spaced-out, half-naked soldiers. “Sit down,” he says, clearing a bag of Doritos from a folding chair.
I watch as he fires up his laptop computer and begins a slideshow of graphic images. Burning trucks, maimed Iraqis, bits and pieces of dead bodies. He pauses on one image of a scorched flatbed.
“Lemon’s truck,” he says. “That was one rough day for everybody.”
“And you still want to stay?”
He shrugs. “It’s an adventure.”
I give him some email addresses that might help: Gov. Sanford’s, Sen. Graham’s, some others. I tell him to plead his case at the highest possible level. And then I go outside to clear my head. A siren sounds. Soldiers run for cover. A helicopter banks overhead.
It’s a mortar attack.
A couple of days later, I leave Abney and Willard and the rest of the 1052nd and make my way to Tikrit, where I meet David Pratt, the Scottish reporter, then link up with Sgt. Snow and other members of the 1st Infantry Div.
On Jan. 27, Pratt, Snow and I attend Peace Day, which is anything but peaceful. On and around election day on Jan. 30, I get shot at, mortared and scowled at by the full spectrum of Iraqi malcontents, insurgents and terrorists.
With a 1st Infantry Div. Patrol led by Staff Sgt. Joshua Marcum, 25, I chase down rocket-wielding wackos, shifty-eyed smugglers and gun-happy Baathist thugs. I sleep in trucks, outposts and primitive camps — and some days, I don’t sleep at all. I briefly lose hearing in one ear from all the gunfire. I watch people kill and die.
And it’s never less than exciting. Fun, even. I begin to understand why Willard and Abney want to stay. Mortal danger’s a small price to pay for the thrill of combat.
But there’s another explanation, according to an Army psychologist I meet under unusual circumstances at a besieged Army camp in downtown Baqubah on a Monday night.
Fear and loathing at FOB Gabe
Behind concrete and barbed wire and nervous and heavily armed guards it hides, this enclave, this bastion of civilization in the seedy, mangy wild of Baqubah. Forward Operating Base Gabe, named for a sergeant who died here, is home to 2,000 engineers and artillerymen from the 1st Infantry Div. who patrol this lawless city of 200,000, mostly Sunnis.
Out there, there are bombings and gas and medicine shortages and legless beggars in streets running ankle-deep with human waste. In here, there are showers and heated hooches, Internet access, a fine little chow hall, a chapel and a library.
In between, there’s a great deal of animosity. Every couple of days, some mad Iraqi makes a move on the front gate — throws a grenade, explodes a bomb or takes a potshot, usually dying in the process. Once in a while, the insurgents get their act together, relatively speaking, and manage to lob a mortar round or two over the wall. There’s a flash, a puff of smoke and a bang. Then the Army mortar team on Gabe fires back.
And so on, the deadliest show in the world for the most jaded audience. Exhausted and unimpressed by all these attempts to kill them, the soldiers at Gabe slouch through their transplanted domestic routines in their little transplanted America, awaiting their next missions, when they’ll shed their practiced sloth, stand taller, talk louder and move like the professionals they sometimes pretend not to be.
Life at Gabe is a strange charade — you do your best to relax when you can so you’ll be at your best when you need to be. But, let’s be honest, you’re tense all the time. And even 1st Lt. Kai Chitaphong, 29, a psychiatrist from New York specializing in “combat stress” (the Army’s term for post-traumatic stress disorder), a soldier with a mission to help other soldiers cope with being soldiers, feels the strain. He adopts two itinerant reporters as his temporary confidants.
On Jan. 31, the Monday after the elections, after two days of exhausting fighting, I awake from a nightmare to find Pratt and Chitaphong conferring over non-alcoholic beer on Pratt’s bunk in the hooch that we share.
“Combat’s like a drug,” Chitaphong says. “The biochemical effects of stress — of fear — are actually addictive.”
Pratt nods thoughtfully and eyes me over the top of his near-beer. I recall election day, when we both went out on separate missions, both got shot at quite a bit, then met for battery-acid coffee in the Gabe chow hall: the 25-year veteran Scottish correspondent who once lunched with bin Laden, and his young American protégé. Wincing from the coffee, he asked how I felt.
“All right,” I said, and I think I meant it.
“So what are you going to do when you get home?” Pratt knows that I’ve burned a lot of bridges on my way to war.
I shrugged. “What I used to do, I guess. Cover county politics somewhere.”
He shook his head. “No way. You’re hooked.”
He would know. In 1995, after a decade of covering conflict all over the world, Pratt was in war-torn Bosnia with two local reporters when the three were kidnapped by drunken Croat thugs. They killed the two Bosnian reporters, beat Pratt to a pulp and dragged him to a mass grave, where one of the Croats put a gun to his head. He pulled the trigger.
Nothing happened. So the gunman knocked Pratt unconscious and left him lying in the grave atop the corpses of the less fortunate. He came to some hours later and dragged himself to safety. Ten years on, his coffee cold on the table between us, Pratt smiles and says, “It nearly did me in.” And he’s not talking about his mortality. He’s talking about his career.
But with a short convalescence and the love of a good woman, he pulled himself together and — within months — was in Gaza covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, back in the thick of the thing that almost killed him, a helpless addict to a lethal drug, just like Willard and Abney.
And just like Sgt. Marcum and his crew.
Toward the sound of gunfire
This is the worst weather Iraq has seen in months: intermittent freezing rain driven by a stiff wind turns the dirty, dusty, sewage-covered streets into a morass of cold yellow mud the consistency of diarrhea. It’s miserable, but it’s not enough to chill Marcum’s passion, even after a year of combat with only a few days off. Driving down the muddy streets of Kanan near Baqubah on the evening of Jan. 27, Marcum waxes enthusiastic about all the firefights he’s been in. He calls them a “pretty good time.”
“But we don’t get into enough firefights. We really like those.”
And why not, when they’re so good at them? Marcum carries an M-4 carbine with a thermal sight and an infrared laser aimer. His driver, Pvt. 1st Class Timothy White, 23, is similarly armed. With their sights and aimers — not to mention their rigorous training — they can kill insurgents from hundreds of yards away in the dead of night. “It still amazes the Iraqis how we shoot them at night,” Marcum says, laughing.
Marcum’s patrol continues down the road as the sun sets, casting a red glow through the haze of smoke and pollution that blankets most of Iraq whenever it’s not raining. It’s a filthy country: trash litters roads, raw sewage pools behind homes and mangy wild dogs run in snarling packs. At an Iraqi Army checkpoint in Kanan, White and two Iraqi soldiers make friends with one good-natured wild dog. It rolls playfully on its back as White pets it.
“He’s crazy,” Marcum says of White, who with only a few months in the Army is already under consideration for a bronze star medal for valor for treating six wounded Iraqis while under machine gun fire. But White says the same thing of Marcum, who has the unnerving habit of running toward gunfire while everyone else runs away.
Near a polling place just a few hours later, heavy gunfire erupts just a couple of hundred yards away. “Let’s roll,” Marcum barks — and White hits the accelerator. Then the call comes from 1st Lt. Joe Valintis to hang a right.
Marcum is floored. “What the fuck? The fight’s not that way.” But he obeys and follows the lieutenant to a dead end. When they finally get oriented to the true source of the gunfire — a polling place at a school guarded by Iraqi police — the shooters are long gone. Marcum angrily confronts Valintis, his superior. “Couldn’t you hear it? I could hear it.”
Marcum tells me he hates to miss a firefight. And it’s not because he likes killing, necessarily. Believe it or not, he’s a pretty sensitive soul. And in a quiet moment later that night, he tells me about the worst thing he’s ever seen.
It happened last summer, just a few months after he arrived at Gabe. A jumpy National Guardsman guarding Gabe’s walls opened fire at some Iraqi civilians he mistook for insurgents, killing a 14-year-old girl.
“They were just scratching in the dirt, looking for food,” Marcum says of the victim family. His face contorts when he recalls the scene. “I was the one who had to clean up the mess. I carried the girl past that guy and showed him: ‘Look what you did, dumbass.’ It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen. And nothing ever happened to that guy [the shooter]. It was just an accident, right?”
Nine months later, the incident still haunts Marcum. But it doesn’t slow him down. And when gunfire erupts outside an Iraqi Army outpost in Kanan, Marcum leaps from his Humvee to chase down the shooters — on foot, into the darkness, through the cold and the mud, scared of only one thing: that if he’s not fast enough, he’ll miss the fighting.
I’m not just guessing when I describe what he’s feeling, because I feel it too, mucking behind him with my notepad in my pocket and my camera clutched to my chest, thumping in 4/4 time with my racing heart.
Maybe the alt news stories about scarred, traumatized soldiers and the Army Times poll are both right — and about the same soldiers. Maybe it’s possible to love a war that breaks you. Maybe, like a drug, war feels good even when it’s close to killing you.
Or maybe it feels good because it’s close to killing you.
Back in Baqubah, at the scene of the suicide bombing, there are Iraqi cops and American soldiers everywhere, screaming orders, waving guns, firing straight into the air, throwing open car trunks to search for additional bombs. It’s chaotic.
Spilling out of Snow’s Humvee with my camera raised, I head straight for what appears to be the epicenter of the blast — a black streak on the ground surrounded by smoldering hunks of meat and debris. All over the ground and nearby vehicles there’s a fine spatter of blood. And on my hand, streaming from the cut from the shattered glass, more blood. Bigger pieces of the bomber draw crowds of cops and soldiers. I shove through one crowd to reach the attacker’s torso. It’s scorched and limbless and oozing blood and bile.
It’s a portrait of death — and it’s beautiful.
This is it. This is what I’ve been afraid of all my life. And this is how it feels to stare it in the face and live. This is what it feels like to survive. It feels … good.
I snap some photos. I get quotes from some of the soldiers milling around. And as I put the bloody death behind me and push through the crowd toward Snow’s Humvee, I decide that there’s more to combat addiction than biology. There’s an almost spiritual aspect to combat, when you stand up to your greatest fear, death, and find that it’s not so scary when it’s in plain sight and your eyes are open.
It’s an epiphany. And it’s the kind you find yourself craving more after you’ve tasted it. No wonder some soldiers have a hard time readjusting to life back home. Home is calm. Home is peaceful. Home is safe.