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Iraq Journals

Glimpses of life in a war-torn country by GNS national security correspondent John Yaukey and photo director Jeff Franko.


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Saturday, April 26

War Diary - Embedded in Iraq: Riding the Humvee with Col. Cowboy

By John Bebow | The Detroit News

One night in February 1943, on his way to becoming the best-ever "embedded" journalist, Ernie Pyle propped sheets of corrugated iron against an old wooden cart in Tunisia, crawled underneath and smiled his way to sleep.

``It was the coziest place I'd slept for a week,'' Pyle wrote for the dozens of newspapers carrying his dispatches from the front lines of World War II. ``I was so pleased at finding such a wonderful place that I could feel my general spirits go up like an elevator.''

I felt that kind of grimy feng shui on every one of the 40 days I spent with U.S. Marines in Iraq and Kuwait. Finding bliss in the smallest pleasantries is a natural way to deal with corpses, filth, homesickness and flashes of terror in the war zone.

The sandstorms were brutal. The particles worked past my ski goggles, stuck in the corners of my lids like pink eye, and churned a sandpaper mucous in my lungs. But the dust also clouded the sky when my cracked and blistered lips needed relief from the sun.

In the 26 days I went without a shower, I rarely missed a clean shave. The gas mask wouldn't seal against a scruffy face. For a few moments each morning, that perfumed shaving cream overcame my odors.

At night, I folded my still-damp shaving towel into a pillow and sometimes slept on the open desert floor, or in wheat fields, underneath the kind of brilliant constellations most Americans only glimpse during woodsy vacations.

Life's daily tasks will never again be so simple, or crucial.

Wake up just before dawn. Roll up the bedding. Put on the boots and 35 pounds of body armor. Eat. Drift with the unpredictability of daily Marine missions. Write it all down. Sweat. Stay braced for violence at every moment. Keep the canteen filled. Eat once more. Watch the sunset. Plug the computer into the portable generator. Type notes into news. Unroll the bedding. Take off the boots and body armor. Collapse.

One night at dusk I stood on the edge of an Iraqi farmer's pond, sucked on a Cuban cigar and gazed in satisfaction at the Marines' Cobra attack helicopters roaring overhead.

``All real Americans love the sting of battle,'' Gen. George Patton said in World War II.

My hubris soon disappeared when I saw the rotting bodies of Iraqi soldiers raked by Cobra fire.

Few financial costs

The war came with few financial costs, though. The only $10 I spent in Iraq was a bill I gave to a barefoot girl begging for food along a desert highway. There were no billboards, no commerce, no spam e-mail, phone solicitations or other signs of American excess.

The only advertisements I saw were the flashing pop-ups on The New York Times Web site, which I accessed through a modem connected to the Internet through a satellite somewhere over the Indian Ocean. With Saran Wrap protecting my keyboard from the grit, I filed stories on my belly in the desert and from the back of a Humvee with a blanket over my head, concealing the computer light from potential snipers as we rolled down the road at 4 in the morning.

One day I spotted a stray dog sitting comfortably on a mound above a smoldering Iraqi soldier trench. As the trucks rolled by the destruction, the dog panted and wagged his tail as if he smelled his next U.S.-military-issued doggy bag of meatloaf, or other rubbery meat, ``chunked and formed.''

The dog seemed to share the Marines' power of positive thinking.

``Bloom where you're planted,'' they would say in spots of adversity. ``Adapt. Improvise. Overcome.''

No Marine chanted such lines with more conviction than Col. John ``J.J.'' Pomfret of Pontiac, Mich.

I met him two days into the war, when he passed through a desert outpost where I seemed destined to miss the entire conflict. The colonel teased that the supply unit he commanded ran right with the fighting grunts.

``Join me up the road,'' he challenged. ``I'll get you stories.''

I rode a convoy for five days to catch Pomfret's unit near the city of Diwaniyah, about 100 miles south of Baghdad. The next night, the colonel led his Marines down a side road to the edge of a marsh. He pulled me over to a computer called ``Blue Force Tracker'' in his Humvee. The screen used satellite technology to show the location of every Army and Marine unit in Iraq.

``All we have in front of us are a few reconnaissance guys,'' Pomfret said. ``You're standing on the front line. There are enemy positions right out there in that marsh somewhere. We're in bad-guy country. I like it.''

I was hooked on Col. Cowboy.

``Go to the sound of the guns,'' Pomfret ordered his driver each morning, repeating a military maxim attributed to generals from Napoleon to Custer.

He raced from first light to well past dark, opening airfields, visiting artillery encampments and division headquarters. I rode in Pomfret's back seat or in a security Humvee just behind. He'd open a folding chair in the fading evening light and lecture on Robert E. Lee's deft management of his subordinate generals' emotions. Or Winston Churchill's sense of humor. Or his reverence for ``The Corps.''

``I love each and every one of these Marines,'' he'd say. ``They are magnificent.''

When Marines crossed the Diyala River into Baghdad, a general ordered Col. Cowboy to resist his urge to drive right into the neighborhoods of the fight. So he invaded the plush grounds of the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission instead. We walked through opulent executive offices and hurried off when U.S. intelligence agents saw us.

``Did you get a good story?'' Pomfret asked with a grin.

Media adventures

Some officers in Pomfret's camp grumbled that these made-for-media adventures were far too risky and not central to the Marine mission. I didn't care. Riding with Col. Cowboy was like a drug. A voice told me I'd need to kick this habit, but each morning I wanted the fresh fix.

Then came the hangover.

After a 12-hour ride through parts of Baghdad and the neighboring slum of Saddam City on April 9, Pomfret, in his usual rush, broke away from his security team. He had an emergency supply mission at an airfield almost an hour south. Nobody knew the way to our new camp. We drove off through the unpredictable streets of Baghdad to catch up. The Marines repeatedly jumped out of the trucks and leveled their M-16s at passing Iraqis. It was too dark to tell friend from foe.

Finally, we caught Pomfret and started to rumble down a rough dirt trail leading to our new camp. Exhausted, I curled into a ball in the bed of a high-back Humvee and tried to sleep.

Suddenly, the engine revved, we lurched forward, started to roll, and a sickening mix of inertia and dread enveloped me. Grenades and loaded rifles went airborne with those of us in the truck. Boxes of food and ammunition bounced off my body armor. There was dirt in my mouth. It was quiet for a split second, and then I could hear others breathing.

``I can't move,'' one of my companions said.

``Is everyone OK?'' someone yelled.

``Gunney!'' Our Iraqi translator shouted to the gunnery sergeant who looked after him. ``Gunney!''

I wiggled my fingers, noted that I could wiggle my legs and felt wetness on my flak jacket. Blood, I figured. It turned out to be water from my canteen.

``There's going to be a fire,'' I thought. ``I've got to get out. I've got to get out. I've got to get out.''

I found the gate at the back of the truck, dug away loose dirt and scrambled out from under the upside-down, two-ton Hummer. I was at the bottom of a dry, 8-foot-deep ditch.

Atlantic Monthly editor Michael Kelly died just like this a few days earlier - in a ditch, in a Humvee. Kelly drowned. Religious persecution saved me. My ditch was dry. It was a Shiite ditch. Saddam Hussein often punished Shiite farmers by refusing to fill irrigation canals like this one.

I stood up and there was Col. Cowboy reaching down from the road to pull me out.

``You must have gotten out of there in about 60 seconds,'' he applauded.

Somehow, all six of us in the Humvee walked away. Then the Marines, as always, stayed on task, pulled out the Humvee and had it running again by the next afternoon.

It was me who wasn't quite the same.

Separated shoulder

A field surgeon said I had a slightly separated shoulder, told me to keep weight off of it for a month and gave me some painkillers.

``We're going back into Baghdad,'' Pomfret yelled out when he saw my arm in a sling the next morning. ``Are you coming?''

My shoulder throbbed under the weight of my flak jacket, but I needed another Pomfret fix. I explored Baghdad for two more days. I was spooked, though, and told my editors so.

The accident wasn't my first close call. Earlier, an Iraqi guided missile buzzed right over my head and exploded behind me. Explosions from Iraqi rockets - and American engineers destroying mine fields - shook my tent quite often. And snipers occasionally fired at my convoys.

I sensed I'd spent my last reserve of good fortune walking away from that Humvee. I started to feel the creep of dark shadows and wondered which passing Iraqi car would blow me up. The story was far from over, but my editors and I agreed it was time to leave.

E-mail last week from Joe Eddins, a Washington Times photographer who spent part of the war with me and Pomfret, seemed to confirm my intuition.

Eddins accompanied Pomfret's crew on another adventure after I left Baghdad in a chopper. Eddins said his Humvee - the one I normally rode in - missed a head-on collision by just a split second on the way to Tikrit, Saddam's hometown. The next day, an Iraqi rocket-propelled grenade landed nearby, and Eddins and others were ``nearly greased'' by friendly fire from Marines.

``Nobody hurt, but it was very close,'' he wrote.

By the time I got Eddins' note, I'd struggled for days with adrenaline withdrawal. His words made my adjustable chair in the middle of the newsroom feel quite comfortable.

There were more than 700 embedded journalists in this brief war. Fewer than 200 remained with their units as of the middle of last week. Ernie Pyle would scoff at the idea of war correspondents back home for Easter dinner, less than two months after the first shot was fired, navel-gazing about their ``experience.''

Pyle didn't think he'd make it home alive, and he got what he expected. After years of close calls at the front lines of Europe and the Pacific theater, he caught a Japanese machine gunner's bullet in the head just four months before the end of World War II.

No ``embed'' this spring moved the nation the way Pyle did with his portraits of everyday fights against German and Japanese soldiers. We didn't see what he saw. The outcome of our war was never in doubt. History won't remember us.

For that, we are lucky.