‘When we were good men’

Noor, in a happy moment, at the school for disabled kids she attends in Baghdad. March, 2013
Noor, in a happy moment, at the school for disabled kids she attends in Baghdad. March, 2013

As a reporter, I have numerous conversations every day with people I don’t know that well or at all. Once in a while, those conversations strike a chord. That’s what happened a few days ago in my 30-minute discussion with Col. Kevin Brown.

I’d met Brown in Baghdad in 2005; he was commander of a 10th Mountain Division battalion (Triple Deuce), to which a Georgia guard company I was embedded with was attached. I saw him now and then when he interacted with the soldiers I was writing about and then in the context of “Baby Noor,” an Iraqi girl with spina bifida who the soldiers flew to America for life-saving treatment.

You can read my stories about Noor on CNN.com: “Iraq’s Baby Noor: An Unfinished Miracle” and the followup story for which I called Brown recently.

I knew Brown was a smart man. He was now a retired Army colonel pursuing a PhD in security studies. He was a high-ranking officer who was well-liked by his soldiers — I didn’t hear that often about battalion commanders.

Brown at a medal ceremony at Camp Liberty, Baghdad, in March 2006.
Brown at a medal ceremony at Camp Liberty, Baghdad, in March 2006.

But our phone conversation struck me. Brown was forthcoming and deeply philosophical about his years at war and how Iraq had affected him and others. Though he is largely unfamiliar to me, at times in the conversation, I felt I was talking to my best friend. I knew exactly how he felt. I felt comforted by the words on the other end of the phone.

“Perhaps the Noor story shines that light on a time when we were good men and earned our nation’s respect whether they were looking or not … whether they knew it or not, and it gives us some comfort amongst the shades of gray we experienced there,” he said.

At that moment, I knew that my follow-up story on Noor had to center on Brown. He had captured the essence of the story with his words. I hope you will read it on CNN.com.

It’s not a big, bad, breaking news story. And in the grand scheme of things, Noor’s story, as I say in my piece, is a blip in the overall chaos and  sorrow of the Iraq War.

But it’s stories like these that keep me going as a journalist. Because in the most basic way, they confirm our humanity and keep me believing there is good in people. Without that, after all, there is little meaning in our lives.

Silenced too soon

Michael and me at Camp Striker near the Baghdad airport in September 2005.
Michael and me at Camp Striker near the Baghdad airport in September 2005.

Michael Hastings died Tuesday in a car crash in Los Angeles.

The news hit me hard. He was 33. He was a great journalist. He was a friend.

Most people know his name for the Rolling Stone story “Runaway General,” the profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal that exposed him as a loose cannon, chiding his civilian commanders in the Obama administration.

“Great reporters exude a certain kind of electricity,” said Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana, “the sense that there are stories burning inside them, and that there’s no higher calling or greater way to live life than to be always relentlessly trying to find and tell those stories. I’m sad that I’ll never get to publish all the great stories that he was going to write, and sad that he won’t be stopping by my office for any more short visits which would stretch for two or three completely engrossing hours. He will be missed.”

Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed praised Michael’s incredible instinct for a story. He also said this:

“Michael was also a wonderful, generous colleague, a joy to work with and a lover of corgis — especially his Bobby Sneakers.”

Michael was known for his aggressive reporting. He believed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were misguided and didn’t for a second let any U.S. official — whether it was McChrystal or Hillary Clinton — get away with an easy answer.

His fiancee, an aide worker, was killed in Iraq when Michael was a Newsweek correspondent. He wrote about that relationship in his first book, “I Lost My Love n Baghdad: A Modern War Story.”

I never met his wife,  Elise Jordan. I cannot imagine her grief today.

As much as I respect his journalistic prowess — I leave it up to every media outlet to give him the proper reporter’s eulogy — the Michael I will cherish the most is the one I met in May 2005 at a hostile environment training put on by AKE in Virginia. I was there with AJC colleagues. He was there, I guess, on his own, determined to make a career for himself by going to the wars America was fighting.

He entertained us with his NYC white-boy rap — he was really good — and acerbic wit. Not bad, I thought, for a 28-year-old kid.

Three months later, Michael messaged me. “I am in Baghdad,” he said. “Going to Camp Striker tomorrow. I hear you are there. Lunch?”

So we ate standard military fare at the chow hall and shared stories about being embedded with the U.S. Army. He made me laugh when I hadn’t laughed in weeks. For that I will always be grateful.

An incredible young man robbed of life. An amazing journalist who will never again be able to write all the words that were within. Or expose the world for its sins.

Goodbye, Michael. May you rest in peace.

Read Michael’s advice for young journalists.

On this day, remember

The last day of a 12-month deployment in Iraq for the 1st Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment of the Georgia Army National Guard's 48th Infantry Brigade. The long journey home started with an incredible thunderstorm over Baghdad.
The last day of a 12-month deployment in Iraq for the 1st Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment of the Georgia Army National Guard’s 48th Infantry Brigade. The long journey home started with an incredible thunderstorm over Baghdad.

Even at the height of Iraq and Afghanistan, the wars were but a rude blip in the minds of a majority of Americans. Our military is made up of those who volunteer their services. Most Americans are disconnected from the men and women who serve in uniform.

A smaller share of Americans serve in the Armed Forces now than at any other time in our history except for the period between the two world wars. Unless you have a loved one of friend in the military, unless you live by a military base, you probably don’t think much about the sacrifices of service members. Aside from the magnetic yellow ribbons that adorn cars, there’s not even many visible reminders that America has been at war for a dozen long years.

How many families are separated? How many children are growing up without daddies and mommies? How many lives are broken by wounds that cannot heal? How many lives, lost?

In 2010, on the 10th anniversary of the Afghanistan war, I traveled to Watertown, New York, to write a CNN story about a place I knew was constantly reminded. Fort Drum, home of the 10th Mountain Division, sits on the edge of Watertown. The division’s soldiers led the charge into Afghanistan and its many brigades and battalions have done multiple tours of both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Watertown is also my husband’s hometown of sorts. He was born in nearby Carthage but as a boy, he lived in Watertown for nine years. I had been visiting the area for a number of years and knew very well that war’s toll was greater here than where I live in Atlanta.

Up there, in the North Country as the locals call it, war makes unwanted, life-arresting visits; crashes into homes and entire neighborhoods just as assuredly as a January blizzard. If you like, you can read my CNN story.

In Watertown and in military homes across America, war is a constant. Let us make it a constant in our homes  just for one day.

On Memorial Day.

Catching up with Baby Noor

I went to school with Noor (right) during my visit to Baghdad and had this photo taken with her and Hajar, her best friend, who lost the use of her legs in a mortar attack.

My friend Joe Duran just called me after many months. I’d last seen him in November in Istanbul. Now, he was calling from his native Mexico, where he’d gone on vacation and also to sort through boxes of old things he stored at his house there.

“Moni, guess what I found?” he said.

I have no idea what’s about to come next.

“You know when you asked me about the tapes of Baby Noor? The raw tapes are all here in a box,” he said, coughing from the dust he’d whipped up.

I’d called Joe back in January asking if he had access to the footage he shot of Noor, the infant with spina bifida who American soldiers helped save by shuttling her out of her home in Abu Ghraib and sending her to Atlanta for surgery. Without the operations, she would surely have died.

I was an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter embedded with the Georgia Army National Guard unit that came upon Noor during a routine raid. I wrote about her for the newspaper and several days later, Joe arrived with camera in hand to file a story for CNN.

Our friendship was sealed in the throes of war. When I reconnected with Noor’s family in Iraq earlier this year, I called Joe about the footage. Turns out most of it was in the CNN system and I didn’t need his tapes. But it was good to talk to him about the stories we did back then.

“I can’t believe it’s been seven years,” he said.

I can’t either.

Except that I saw Noor again a few weeks ago.

I was not prepared to see a little girl who could speak and read and write. A girl who fancied pretty dresses and demanded her hair be embellished with colorful clips. She had grown so much.

I returned to Iraq to find her and tell the story of how she was faring all these years later, long after everyone in America who had been involved had lost touch with her.

It was strange that Joe called me out of the blue on the day before the story published on CNN.com.

Here is the link to the story:


Back to Baghdad

At the Roman ruins in Jerash, Jordan.
At the Roman ruins in Jerash, Jordan.

I felt small standing amid the Roman ruins in Jerash.

I marvel at the building accomplishments of people who lived so long ago; they intended to make structures last. How many slaves gave their lives in constructing magnificence not even an earthquake could fully take away?

I think of how I’d stood in this exact place more than a decade ago, when war seemed imminent in Iraq and I was in Jordan, waiting for a visa to fly into Baghdad. Just as I was now.

Time seems fleeting – and not.

Back in December of 2002, no one knew for sure what would become of Iraq. How George Bush would invade, drop bombs, send the world’s most powerful military in to destroy Saddam Hussein.

No one knew what would come next – a de-Bathification program that purged Iraq institutions of knowledge and expertise and left an occupying U.S. force with the daunting task of running a nation.

No one knew how American soldiers and Iraqi civilians would fall. One after another. In roadside bombings, firefights and attacks from an enemy that was often unseen. Or how Iraq would fall into chaos; Sunni fighting Shiite to the point that everyone assumed the worst of a civil war.

I stand under a cloudless sky in Jerash. It is late February but the chill that is normal for this time of air is gone. It is warm. The sun, bright. Like in Baghdad.

I will be there soon, 10 long years after the first time I visited.

saddam-hussein-picture-21Saddam’s face was everywhere then, a constant reminder of the consequences of stepping outside the boundaries of subservient Iraqi life. I remember clearly when I walked down the jetway from the Royal Jordanian plane at Saddam International Airport. “Down With the USA!,” it said. There was no mistaking where I had just arrived.

I was frightened and alone as I navigated my way through the maze of Iraqi controls for the foreign media. I was even afraid to close my eyes at night in my twin bed on a sixth-floor room at the Al Rashid Hotel. I knew someone was watching. Or listening. Or both.

On that trip, I met good people who had given up on life after years of conflict and punishing sanctions that robbed Iraq of material goods and normalcy of life.

A doctor who had no access to modern medicine, current journals or technology. A professor who sat under empty bookshelves – he had sold them all to feed his family. And a bookseller who hoped to make a living hawking outdated computer science books along with “the Great Gatsby” and “War and Peace” on the sidewalks of Al Mutanabi Street.

Where were they all now, I wondered? How their hopes must have risen an plunged like the tides of the oceans. I know I will probably not find them again now – after a decade of war, a decade of convulsion.

But I cannot wait to see Baghdad again. The way it was without American tanks and Humvees. I am anxious to see how the Iraqi capital is faring a decade after the war began and forever changed the course of Iraqi history.

I leave Jerash, my face pressed against the car window, all the way back to Amman. Soon I will be in Iraq, where I spent so many months of my life covering the war. In the midst of tragedy, I came to know a land that I loved in a way that is not always understandable. Perhaps it was because I saw the very best of humanity in conditions that were the worst.

Now I am eager to be there again.

Chaplain Turner’s War

Chaplain Darren Turner counsels a soldier at a combat outpost
in Arab Jabour, March, 2008.
Photo by Curtis Compton/AJC
Four years ago, I spent time with an Army chaplain in Iraq because I wanted to write about how war affected American soldiers. His name is Darren Turner. He had only been a chaplain for a few months before he headed to Baghdad.
I discovered through him a world different than mine. In the midst of war, I learned about faith, specifically Christianity, and how it was vital to so many of Turner’s men in the 3rd Infantry Division.
Their battalion was part of the surge and had seen a lot of bad stuff in searing summer months and the rugged terrain of Arab Jabour. Turner had grown weary form memorializing so many of his men.
I met Turner at Fort Stewart, flew up with him to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where Spc. David Battle was struggling for life. He had lost three limbs in a bombing and Turner recently told me he was the most injured soldier at the time.
A few weeks later, photographer Curtis Compton and I flew to Iraq. My plan was simply to follow Turner around and document everything he did. I did not know how the story would turn out. Every day brought a new tragedy, a new triumph.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published the story in June, 2008. Now it is out as a digital book. http://www.amazon.com/Chaplain-Turners-War-ebook/dp/B007XULHX4/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1335542515&sr=1-1

The publisher thought it was as relevant as it was when it was written, now that the Iraq war has come to a close for America and in many places, it was has been swept under the rug, almost as though it never happened.
But it did happen. For more than eight long years. It changed lives here – and there – in the most disturbing ways.
Nearly 4,500 American troops died in the Iraq war. More than 30,000 others were physically wounded. Countless others live with scars that can’t be seen.
I want people to read this story and think about the costs borne by their fellow citizens. I want them to know that life will never be the same again for so many of them.
Darren and Heather Turner in Clarkesville, Kentucky, 
Feb. 2012. Turner tried to help his soldiers save their marriages 
but ran into trouble in his own.
A big thanks to Jan Winburn, who edited this story for the AJC – with a broken left arm to boot.
To Valerie Boyd, who had the wisdom to get me on this project and push it as a digital book.
Of course, to Agate Publishers for taking this on.
And to Darren Turner. I was glad to see you again this year and even more glad to know that you are happy again.


I intended to write this for my blog Saturday. CNN decided to publish it as an opinion piece.  You can also read it on CNN.com.
The last of America’s mine resistant vehicles out of Iraq boarded a ship in Kuwait on Saturday, bound for Fort Hood, Texas. There, it will be displayed at the 1st Cavalry Division Museum, forever a symbol of the Iraq war.
The Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicle – known simply by its acronym MRAP in typical military fashion – was in a long convoy of vehicles that crossed the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border December 18 when the last U.S. troops exited Iraq.
I remember when the MRAPs were newly introduced in Iraq. They were a fresh hope of survival for American men and women.
Photographer Curtis Compton and me
in the back of an MRAP. Arab Jabour, Iraq. 2008
Staff Sgt. Jamie Linen used to transport soldiers and run supplies every day from Baghdad’s Forward Operating Base Falcon to nearby patrol bases where surge troops of the 3rd Infantry Division were based. Linen, like all other soldiers, thought about the risks of bombs hidden along the roads every time he rolled out the gate. They were, after all, the No. 1 killer of American troops in Iraq. The first MRAP arrived for Linen’s unit in November 2007, months after President Bush ordered a “surge” in troops to defeat a raging insurgency. The shiny trucks were the new stars of the military then.
The soldiers were glad to get out of the backs of hot, uncomfortable Bradley Fighting Vehicles or the less-protected Humvees and step up high into the cab of a sophisticated MRAP. Made by International, the $658,000 trucks sat high on the road – 36 inches off the ground – and came with a V-shaped hull that helped deflect the impact of an improvised explosive device.
The walls of the truck were thick. The design was state of the art. The only thing they were missing, a soldier joked, were cup holders.
The MRAPs were loaded with safety features, including a fire suppression system that protected every part of the truck and a pressurized cab built to withstand a nuclear or biological attack. The seats had shoulder harnesses, and the doors operated on a hydraulic system so that in a rollover, soldiers didn’t have to push their way out of armored doors that could weigh up to 1,000 pounds. That was always something that gave me pause when I rode around in an up-armored Humvee. How would I get that door open if something bad happened?
Linen had to take a weeklong course on MRAP operation and maintenance. He told me the trucks boosted his confidence to get the mission done. I could see why after riding with him a few times. I felt the kind of protection a frightened child feels in a mother’s arms.
Just weeks before, I had met Linen’s platoon leader, 1st Lt. Mark Little, who was recuperating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. A bomb had blown both his legs off.
No one could say for sure, of course, but Linen thought that perhaps Little wouldn’t have to wear prosthetics had he been in an MRAP.
“Nothing is invincible here,” he said. “You got tanks with 3 feet of armor getting blown up. But the MRAPs give us a sense of security.”
Linen’s driver, Spc. Robert Nowlin, was sure the enemy feared the Americans more when they were riding in MRAPs.
Why would they not?
In late 2007, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters that “these armored trucks … have been the military’s top acquisition priority for months now, and with good reason.”
The MRAPs had their drawbacks. They were not suited for narrow roads because of their size and weight and were susceptible to rollovers. They weren’t good for Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain. And American soldiers did die in MRAP incidents. But back then in Iraq, they were a godsend.
Apt, I thought, that one should find a home in a military museum, a testament to the American men and women who fought in the war.

A long, divisive war will soon be over

Georgia  soldiers patrolled western Baghdad in 2006

President Barack Obama made a stunning announcement Friday. The war in Iraq would be over in December when virtually all of the remaining 40,000 U.S. troops will pull out and come home

After nine long, divisive years, the Iraq war is finally coming to an end.

I am glad for all those troops who will come home before the holidays to hug their friends and loved ones. 
I am concerned about the future security of Iraq — many of my friends in Baghdad still live in fear.

And, I feel strange that the war will no longer be a headline. It has been so much a part of my life — from my first trip in 2002 under the controlled environment of Saddam Hussein’s information ministry to my last journey there with so-called surge units in 2008.

The night that the United States began “shock and awe,” it was pouring in Atlanta. I rushed in the rain to the Woodruff Arts Center from the Atlanta Constitution newsroom to cover a ceremony honoring Jimmy Carter’s Nobel Peace Prize.

I lived in this tent for almost four months at Camp Striker in 2005.
I remember sitting there, amid nobly dressed ladies and gentlemen beaming with pride, taking in the pomp and ceremony of the evening.

But my mind was elsewhere.

I thought of my friends Salar Jaff and Hala Araim. Were they alright? Had they fled Baghdad? How many people were cowering in fear that night? How many suffered?

It was only a month later when I arrived in Iraq that I found the answers to my questions.

Less than a week after the U.S. bombing started, the 3rd Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team from Fort Stewart was about 100 miles outside the Iraqi capital. They had raced through the harsh Iraqi desert and were eying Baghdad, once the crown jewel of the Middle East.

I met up with some of them in April. Little did they know then how things would transpire in Iraq. In the first weeks of American occupation, the soldiers traveled in soft-skinned Humvees without fear of being blown up.

I thought about the first days of euphoria after the fall of Saddam as I listened to Obama from the CNN newsroom today. In another country not far from Iraq, the same kind of jubilation was unfolding on the streets.

Will Libya succeed in enforcing security so it can get on with the task of building democracy? Or will it turn into terror as Iraq did?

No one can answer such questions with any certainty, of course. We will have to wait and see.

In the meantime, to all my Iraqi friends and the many soldiers and Marines I met over the course of nine years: I raise my glass to your courage. 

A wretched anniversary

It’s been four years since AJC photo journalist Bita Honarvar and I took a C-130 military transport from the safety of Kuwait into the horrors of Iraq.

We were just starting an assignment to cover the Georgia Army National Guard’s 48th Infantry Brigade. It was my first trip to Iraq as an embed – I had never been exposed to the conflict through an American soldier’s lens.

Within hours after arrival at our dusty two-person tent at Camp Striker, adjacent to Baghdad’s airport, I stumbled upon the worst news possible: The brigade had just suffered its first four combat casualties.

Later, I would discover they had died in gruesome fashion.

The last of a three-Humvee convoy rolled over a 600-pound bomb hidden in the road. The military calls such bombs “improvised explosive devices” or IEDs. But to me, there is no other word for a bomb that kills with such precision, such ease.

All four men in that Humvee were alive one moment, oblivious of their fate. Within seconds, they were gone.

Staff Sgt. Carl Fuller
Sgt. James Kinlow
Sgt. John Thomas
Spc. Jacques “Gus” Brunson

They were members of Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment. I had watched them train in the winter, among the tall pines of Fort Stewart, just outside of Savannah. I had watched them train in the unforgiving Mojave Desert, in camps and terrain designed to simulate Iraq.

They had practiced so hard for war, yet in the end, they never had a fair chance. They never got to fire back at the enemy.
My first Iraq story for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that summer was about the four men and their memorial.

The commanders made it clear that reporters were to stay away from the traumatized men. I didn’t know how I could talk to them. I wanted to tell their story. What does it feel like to bunk with a man one night and stare at an empty cot the next? Do you wonder how much they suffered? Do you fear it will happen to you? How do the days pass without their laughter; without their friendship? How do you find the strength to carry on?

On my second day, I stumbled across two of the soldiers from that unit in the Striker PX. We struck up a conversation in the checkout line. Later that night, Spc. Shane Parham, a “country boy” from Social Circle (pictured here with an Iraqi boy) came by to speak to Bita and me.

I believe he found the company of women comforting; he knew we would not judge him or think him weak. He could let his guard down in front of us and not have to act the macho infantryman that he was trained to be.

We fought tears as we listened to what he had witnessed. He was part of the body recovery crew. He had seen what no man should ever have to see.

Suffice it to say that parts of the Humvee and the equipment the soldiers carried that day were strewn about the fields and ditches of southwest Baghdad. I know because I saw them every time I went out on a mission with 48th soldiers. Part of a helmet; a Gerber knife, pieces of Army green Humvee seats. My heart raced and I feared the worst as we drove up Route Red Sox, the name the soldiers attached to the dirt road lined with canals, ditches and thick clumps of papyrus and bamboo.

I have my notebooks from my conversation with Shane – two steno pads filled with a soldier’s words. Hardly any ever appeared in print. I knew that his emotions were raw. I chose to respect him in this terrible moment of overpowering grief and anger. I knew I could learn from him.

Bita and I covered the memorial service. It was my first for a soldier who died at war.

I was taken with the ceremony. There’s something very powerful about an empty pair of desert boots, upended rifles with helmets slung over them. Dog tags belonging to the dead, dangling on the stage as if so say: Don’t ever forget my name.

And then, the unthinkable happened: Four more from the same company, the same platoon, were dead. They were also in the last vehicle of a three-Humvee convoy and rolled over a hidden bomb.

The men and women at Striker trembled openly. They withdrew to their tents; spoke in whispers.

Killed in action:
Spc. Jonathon Haggin
Staff Sgt. David Jones
Sgt. 1st Class Victor Anderson
Sgt. Ronnie Shelley

Shane took me to see the guys in Alpha Company. I will never forget walking into the 16-man tent to see the eight empty cots. The survivors, sat with heads bowed, trying to find the right words to tell a reporter. It was as horrifying as anything else I had witnessed: mass graves, earthquake victims, executions.

I see people on Atlanta roads who have yellow ribbons plastered on their cars. Support the troops, they say.

I wonder how many of those people really know what some of these men have been through. Going to war may be heroic and patriotic. It may even be honorable sometimes. But it is never glorious.

My real understanding of what U.S. soldiers experienced in Iraq began on that July day four years ago.