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. 
 
 
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War


Today is the eight anniversary of the Iraq war.

That fact got lost in all the breaking news, most significantly, the U.S. use of force against Libya.

It reminded me of George W. Bush’s intention to remove Saddam Hussein. The term “regime change” did not surface much but that’s essentially what’s going on in Libya, right? The United States would not be leading the charge against Moammar Qaddafi if he were a friendly fellow, even if he did fire on his own people.

Lost also in the news of the last week are the horrific events unfolding in Cote D’Ivoire, where a political crisis has spiraled downward rapidly into bloodshed. The United Nations has reported incidents of people burned alive. Others have had their throats slit. At least seven women were butchered earlier this month — the video posted online showed one who had been decapitated by the power of a big gun.

Crimson rivers are flowing in West Africa — and in the East. Sudan, Somalia. Yet we hear so little in the news.

I hope that Libya does not escalate or turn into protracted war in the same vein as Iraq or Afghanistan. And while that conflict is most urgent, I hope we will not turn away from human suffering in other parts of the world.

Leaving Iraq


The last of the 4,000 soldiers in the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, crossed the border from Iraq into Kuwait Thursday. There are no U.S. more combat brigade teams left in Iraq. All is going seemingly well for President Barack Obama’s plan to pull to leave just 50,000 troops there by September.

Hard to think about how it was then.

By then, I mean seven years ago, when the United States invaded Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and U.S. soldiers deployed in droves.

In 2003, I looked at the American Humvees and Abrams tanks rolling through Baghdad. The soldiers wore aviator glasses and pointed their M-16s triumphantly. I stood among crowds of Iraqis and like them, pondered the course of history.

I did not know then that more than 4,000 of those soldiers would die in Iraq, along with thousands of Iraqis, many of them caught in the middle of dirty urban warfare.

By the time I returned as an embedded reporter in 2005, Americans ruled the landscape.

Camp Liberty was a sprawling American base with air-conditioning, movie theaters, stores, restaurants and other amenities the Iraqis lacked. Even now, Iraqis say they have no electricity or other basic services. A young lieutenant who was waiting to catch a plane with me on the military side of the Baghdad airport told me that if the Americans could deliver electricity, they would win the war.

In a way, he was right. By 2008, Iraqis asked me why the world’s superpower could not give them something as basic as power.

This year, protests erupted over the lack of power. In a land where temperatures soar to 120-plus in the summer, it’s hard to live without a fan. Only two-thirds of Iraqi have their electricity needs met — in Baghdad, it averages to four hours a day.

I thought about the day when I returned to my tent at Camp Striker and the AC unit had shut off. I sat on my cot dripping buckets of sweat and and tried to imagine life for Baghdadis outside the camp.

Seven years after the war, basic services are still a problem in Iraq.

So is insecurity.

Many people like to point to the drop in violence as a marker for success in the war. But my Iraqi friends still worry about stepping out with their children.

A car bomb exploded in Ramadi Wednesday night, killing two people. That may not sound like a lot compared to the height of the war when hundreds died each month. But when it is your husband or your mother, it’s everything.

Another 48 people died Tuesday in an attack outside a military recruiting center in Baghdad.

When will the killing end in Iraq? When the Americans are gone? When the Americans are still there?

When will the government be formed? It has been almost six months since the parliamentary elections and still there are no agreements on forming a new government.

“Iraq is still at the beginning of the story of its evolution since 2003,” Ryan Crocker, the former American ambassador to Iraq, told CNN.

I cannot pretend to be an expert on Iraq and pass judgment on this day being hailed as another milestone in post-Saddam history.

Today, I am in the comfort of my Atlanta home, thinking back to all the suffering I saw in the past.

I think especially of Dahlia, a young girl I met in the barren fields of dust and scrub near Nasiriyah. She was walking testament to her name: Dahlia. A bright flower in the midst of drab.

She wore a crimson and lemon yellow printed robe, her head was covered in a black scarf – at 10, she was old enough to respect the modesty taught by her culture. She stood barefoot in front of a lone U.S. Humvee that stopped before entering the gates of Camp Cedar.

Dahlia’s father was killed by Saddam, she told me. She never went to school — there were no schools nearby. She lived in a makeshift tent with her mother and brother.

I asked her what she wanted to do when she grew up. “Nothing,” she said, as though she knew her fate was bound to the bleak sands of southern Iraq, that she would never break out of poverty.

She thought for a while longer. “I want to work at Cedar.”

That was in 2006. The U.S. military closed Cedar shortly after I met Dahlia. Now so many more of those bases are gone.

No, today, I cannot share in the optimism of all those who hail Iraq a success. I think of the hundreds of Dahlias I met in the midst of war.

The Hurt Locker: Ouch


I’ll be watching the Oscars on Sunday night, though this year, I am not as excited as I usually am. I’ve only seen two of the movies nominated for best picture: Up in the Air and The Hurt Locker.

The former is an entertaining movie even though George Clooney is George Clooney solely because he looks like George Clooney and not because of any Oscar-worthy talent.

The latter had the makings of a great movie, but the director lost me on the very first scene when the words “Baghdad 2004” flashed on screen and American soldiers were seen wearing the digital green combat uniforms. Those uniforms, of course, were not issued until May 2005. I know this because I was embedded with the 48th Infantry Brigade, the first unit to receive the re-engineered fatigues.

The camera panned wide to show a neighborhood in Baghdad that I instantly recognized as Amman, Jordan. There are no rolling hills in the Iraqi capital.

From there, other inaccuracies skewed my judgment of good filmmaking. I thought director Kathryn Bigelow perfectly captured the tension and adrenaline rush that goes with war, specifically with the job of a bomb detection specialist. But the lead character, played by Jeremy Renner, is too much of a cowboy. There’s no way an EOD team leader would be able to run through the streets of Baghdad in a t-shirt and cammos and make it back to the gates of Camp Liberty and be allowed in without stern questioning and punishment. There’s no way, a lone Humvee would leave the gates without a convoy and find itself way out in the Iraqi desert in a showdown with snipers.

My soldier friends agree with me that The Hurt Locker is rife with errors. So do a lot of EOD veterans who have been interviewed by various media outlets including my own, CNN.

I realize that the movie is a work of fiction. But the Iraq war is so fresh that I felt the film lost credibility by not getting things right. It wouldn’t have taken much to correct those errors.

So while The Hurt Locker beautifully captures the addiction to war and what happens to soldiers who return to lives that seem mundane, the movie missed the mark with me.

I cannot hope that it trumps its contenders Sunday night. For the sake of truth. That’s just the journalist in me, I suppose.

About journalists and trauma

“Hey! Welcome back. How was Iraq?”

That’s something I heard often in the hallways of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when I was freshly returned from war. But how do you answer such a question when the person who asked hasn’t even slowed their gait to listen. I mean, really listen.
So the answer, inevitably, went like this: “Iraq was great. Glad to be home.”
Keep moving.
Tonight, at the Atlanta Press Club, I have been asked to contribute to a discussion on journalists who cover traumatic events. I’m not sure what I will say because I’m not sure I have figured it all out.
I just know that after seven trips to Iraq, life became rather difficult to navigate at times. I felt lonely, cocooned really, thinking that no one here understood me anymore. I was frustrated to hear my friends speak of things I considered dull, irrelevant, inane. I wanted the paper to laud me for my heroic efforts. It didn’t. I considered every assignment boring — what could top a war story?
I saw rivers of blood in my dreams and when I awoke, I wanted to return there. It was the only place that had meaning.
I don’t know what I will say tonight. That, perhaps, is the entire point.
Covering These Troubled Times: What Journalists Should Know about Trauma



WHEN
Wednesday, November 4
6 – 6:30pm reception
6:30-7pm Screening: Breaking News, Breaking Down
7- 8:30pm Panel discussion

WHERE
The Commerce Club, 16th Floor
34 Broad Street Atlanta, GA 30303 Valet parking is available for $6 and is not included in the ticket prices. For directions, please visitwww.thecommerceclub.org/location.html. Because of limited parking at TCC, please consider using MARTA, whose Five Points station is across the street, or parking in nearby decks on Marietta Street.

R.S.V.P.
This program is open to the public. APC members and students receive complimentary admission to the event. Please R.S.V.P. so we know how many people to expect. Nonmembers may purchase tickets for $10. Tickets may be purchased by clicking the link below or by calling 404-57-PRESS. Payment must accompany reservations, and there is a 48-hour cancellation policy.

85,000

That’s how many Iraqis died in the war between 2004 and 2008. Iraq’s human rights ministry released that grim number a week ago.


We keep an exact count of the number of Americans who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Or the number of British troops and other coalition members. But no one really counts the civilians. The children. The mothers. The grandmothers. They remain nameless, numbing numbers in headlines. “42 died in suicide bombing.”

“Outlawed groups through terrorist attacks like explosions, assassinations, kidnappings or forced displacements created these terrible figures, which represent a huge challenge for the rule of law and for the Iraqi people,” the ministry said.

“These figures draw a picture about the impact of terrorism and the violation of natural life in Iraq,” the ministry said in a draft report on deaths in Iraq.


But no one really knows how many Iraqis died.

The Iraqi government report was compiled with death certificates issued by the health ministry. What about all those people who never saw home again. Or whose families never reported a death out of sheer fear.

I know people who have lost loved ones and kept silent. One death in the family was enough.

Some Iraqis were killed by AK-47 fire, rockets, mortars, and bombs, otherwise known as improvised explosive devices. Some were abducted, stabbed or beheaded. In places like Ramadi, such gruesome acts were carried out in public places and in broad daylight.


The capital of al-Anbar province was once al-Qaida’s haven and an Iraqi citizen’s hell on Earth — the neighborhood of Melaab was known as “the heart of darkness.”

I asked Ramadi residents what life was like before the insurgency was quelled. They glided their right index finger across their throats. The insurgents brazenly beheaded people in public and distributed videos of the executions. Think of what kind of fear an ordinary Iraqi lived through. And still does.
The headlines these days report fewer incidents of violence.

But one bullet, one bomb — is all it takes.

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.