Forty-five seconds of whistles, cheers and thunderous clapping roar in my ears. An eternity of applause. It’s as close to Marilyn Monroe as I’m ever going to get. I can’t help but smile and try to ignore the deep embarrassment that is welling inside me for this attention I do not deserve and did not earn. In truth, they are cheering not for me, but for their women folk, their wives, mothers, sisters, daughters and I represent all of those people to them. I am the woman they have missed for weeks and months, the woman for whom they long. I am the woman for whom they will survive this war.
Before me is a crowd of some 2000 U.S. Marines. Sweat and dust cover their tanned faces and have become woven into the threads of their khaki uniforms. They stand in the cool evening of a Kuwaiti desert in the barracks called Camp Coyote, home of the Second Tank Battalion, where I have been embedded with my writer, Jim Landers. Lt. Col. Oehl has announced a talent show to keep spirits up and the Marines take this opportunity to strut their stuff: the good, the bad, and indeed, the ugly. It’s a numbing show, like something out of a movie. It’s not quite real, and yet the clapping reverberates in my heart and reminds me that the dust and grit is very real. Each person there knows that with every hearty laugh and every good-humored joke that we will go to war, and it is highly likely that some of us will not return.
I have taken a liking to our colonel. He’s a genuine, no-nonsense, low-key man who passes on a quiet confidence to his men. I have been living with 6,000 men in a camp where only a handful of women have stepped. One other female journalist was embedded with another unit about a half mile away, and there were some female engineers who were temporarily in the area, but I was told they had left.
During my short time in the camp, the men have treated me with respect, generosity and kindness. I have grown fond of these men from all over the United States, who serve their country and endure tremendous obstacles to see that our government’s wishes are fulfilled. I have been adopted. I have inherited a thousand big brothers.
On the morning that President Bush was scheduled to make his speech declaring war, we were awakened with a start at 3 am and told to pack: we were leaving in three hours for war. I made quick decisions in the dark about what to bring and what to leave in my secondary bag, the one that would follow in the field train some eight hours behind. We were supposed to have two days’ notice to prepare, to let loved ones know that they would not hear from us for awhile...until we entered Iraq. Instead we woke up to the shock of war: tanks rumbling over the earth beneath us, and no way for us to call. The goal was to surprise the Iraqis with our stealth. We proceeded to the DA, short for dispersal area. The Lieutenant Colonel decided not to move us temporarily to a TAA, a tactical assembly area, whereupon the troops then move to the DA, and then on to cross the LA, the line of departure or, in other words, the border.
We loaded into our AAV, an amphibious assault vehicle that was to take us into Saddam Hussein’s never-never land. We traveled for hours, bouncing around in the back of our metal box. We set up camp at the DA, only to be told hours later to tear down our tents immediately. We would be moving closer yet to the border.
We intended to stay a couple of days until news trickled in that the GOSPs (gas, oil separation plants) were being set on fire, in the south. Several times we were thrown into high alert when artillery was fired on another group of Marines several miles away, and we suited up in our full NBC suits, nuclear biological chemical suits, sweating our brains out in 100-degree desert temperatures. Once again, we hurriedly tore down tents and threw our belongings together to cross the DA ASAP, so we could save the GOSPs. It seemed that this whole military embed thing was really a tactical maneuver to give all of us journalists the workout of our lives, and a heart attack to boot.
A couple of ABC television reporters joined us and they, along with my reporter and a CBS radio fellow stomped around the inside of our AAV trying to get a good angle on the few mortars and artillery that hit several miles away. All of the action was aimed at us and we were under direct attack, according to their breathless reports. I could not reach the hatch to see much and with my bulletproof vest and Kevlar helmet, I could barely hold myself vertical. I huddled in the corner with my two cameras hugged to my body, dodging boots, not bullets, that came a little too close, and feet that I feared might have snapped me in two as bodies came landing alongside me just missing my vitals.
It’s been a few days since that momentous night: March 20,2003. We were some of the first to enter Iraq, but have seen little action as we progress north. It is not good strategy for a tank battalion to enter smaller towns where it cannot maneuver the streets and damage sewage lines, so we work our way west and let the infantry take the towns and cities of Al Basrah and An Nasiriyah. I am frustrated to not be exposed to any action and I continue to make pictures of Marines sleeping, convoying, surviving dust storms and getting ready for battles that never materialize. I came to cover a war, but it has become so dangerous that my bosses won’t permit me to cover anything independently. I must continue traveling with the military.
Stories trickle in of ambushes, deaths and hostages being taken to Baghdad. We have heard of reporters being killed by friendly fire and of Iraqis posing as journalists. The Marines of the Second Tank Battalion are weary of hours of dusty roads but stay on guard for possible attacks by smiling, white banner-toting Iraqis.
At this point we are headed north to take on one of the last Iraqi army divisions in the north. The Marines are not set up to travel more than 60 miles away from port, yet we are some 300 miles away from the nearest one and our supply trains can hardly keep up with us. We wait for days for the fuel trucks to arrive, only to have enough fuel to travel 30 miles.
Last night we survived a nasty dust storm in our military hummer. The wind whipped around at 60 Mph tossing our vehicle to and fro. We gasped and coughed for breath, covering our faces with scarves and T-shirts to filter the air. We had one casualty, a pigeon that the chem/bio guys have been keeping to help detect an attack. At four PM, it was completely dark and we could not see five feet ahead of us. Being outside was like having one’s face sandblasted. A large piece of metal fell on one of our Marines as he worked furiously to patch together a tank to make another death-defying trek north. We thought he might be paralyzed. Others dared the wind and dust to get help. We feared that people would get lost as they tried to walk from one vehicle to another. Just when we thought things couldn’t get worse, news filtered in that three unrecognizable tanks were cruising by not far from our encampment. Fearing that their thermal tank sights might detect us through the dust and fire a few rounds at us, we donned our body armor and helmets and waited to see what they would do. Although they may be hugely underpowered compared to our M1 Abrams tanks, they could do some damage if they hit a vehicle like our little hummer.
I haven’t had a wash in six days and am as dirty as I can recall ever being in my entire life. We are living in some of the dirtiest conditions imaginable with dust; dust and more dust everywhere and still no bath in sight. We live in extreme heat during the day with wet, chilled temperatures at night. All my companions are sick with respiratory infections. I, too, have developed a cold and appease myself from the complete misery of the situation with little bits of chocolate I bought before leaving Kuwait. There are no more tents, no more sleeping bags, just body armor to keep one’s neck propped up at night. There is no comfortable position. We must be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
A couple of nights ago, we arrived at our new camp after traveling some ungodly amount of miles with the tanks. Exhausted and cranky, I prepared to fight with my satellite phone to try and transmit some images from the field. Five minutes later, a 50-caliber machine gun blasted several rounds just yards from me. A young infantryman grabbed me and threw me to the ground, covering me with his body. He dragged me up and then pushed me toward the back of a hummer. Eyes wide and fearful, I breathed hard and painfully as we waited for another round to fire. It was so close that our chances for escape would have been low if indeed we were under attack. Moments later, screams of A positive! filtered through the dark night and we realized that someone had been hurt. It was a 26-year-old Lance Corporal from New York, and he was dead immediately. A fellow tanker had accidentally pressed the safety switch on his gun while getting out of his tank and it set the machine off killing the lance corporal in the neighboring tank. Although I am permitted by the rules of our embedment to photograph such situations, the Marines in charge were too freaked and would not permit me to make photographs. I can understand their sentiments. But I explained to them that I am not traveling with them to do a public relations campaign. I am there to document their experiences, in all that entails. War sometimes entails death. It’s difficult to imagine what our military personnel go through to conduct a war. It is truly the most wretched of circumstances. Even before I met up with the Marines at Camp Coyote, some hadn’t had a shower in weeks. Many suffer from trenchfoot and other unsavory conditions. Yet they continue to work as hard as they can to do their jobs right and with pride. It struck me immediately when I entered the sphere of the Americans in Kuwait. Whereas in my five-star hotel in Kuwait I never knew if a man would walk ahead of me or behind me through a door, I always knew among the Marines that I would be given the right of first entry. It feels good to be among our men. Chivalry is still alive among them.
© CHERYL DIAZ MEYER