The Digital Journalist
On "The Lifeline"

by Rick Loomis

May 2006

Going back to Iraq was not an easy choice. I had been twice already. The first time was for the invasion in 2003. The second was in 2004 for a battle in Fallujah that ensued after four U.S. contractors were killed and hung from a bridge. Each trip had been more perilous than the last and I thought that maybe I'd had enough.

But while talking with writer David Zucchino in New Orleans during the Hurricane Katrina disaster he mentioned the story he was trying to put together in Iraq. His premise was to show the medical care wounded soldiers receive by telling the intimate stories of just a few select individuals. It was a fresh and important story that had yet to be told. I immediately told him that I wanted to help him tell the story visually. David had already spent months jumping through hoops trying to set it up and it was almost another two months before we got clearance to head over there.

Before I left I was asked to shoot the project on video as well as in still photography. Instead, I decided that I wanted to concentrate on just the stills and audio reporting. My desire was to come away with material for a multimedia piece for to accompany what would be presented in the newspaper. My bosses agreed with this scenario.

As we embarked for the trip I was a bit uneasy about the task at hand. I knew there were perfectly healthy U.S. service members that were soon to meet me only because they were living through the worst day of their lives.

We landed at the Baghdad airport on a Royal Jordanian flight, the only commercial airline that conducts flights to Iraq. Where on previous trips I would often ride by car to and from the airport into Baghdad, David and I decided to wait almost all day for a helicopter flight into the Green Zone. The option of going by the road, known as the "Highway of Death," was not appealing to either of us. The site of frequent ambushes and roadside bombs, it had too recently claimed the life of a good friend of ours. A helicopter seemed prudent.

We began to tell the story of the wounded at the Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad. Once Saddam Hussein's personal hospital, it's now completely run by U.S. military medical personnel. At times it's packed with doctors and nurses rushing around tending to the incoming wounded. At other times you could not find a soul in the emergency room with the exception of someone manning the entry desk. The ER could go from zero to full speed in a matter of minutes when a call for incoming wounded came over the radio. It was an amazing thing to watch.

After several days in Baghdad we caught a flight to Balad, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, where we did the remainder of our reporting. Balad is the last stop for wounded U.S. patients before they continue on to a hospital in Germany and then on to the United States for recovery.

Balad had more turnover as it was a collection point for all of the wounded around Iraq. Almost every night a huge transport plane would ferry the injured on to Germany. It was a process that was so organized because, sadly, it was so routine.

Along the way, between Baghdad and Balad, we found several injured people willing to share their stories. Our intention was to board a plane with one or more of them as they made the trek back to the United States. But we were missing an important element we thought we couldn't leave without. We had not been with medevac helicopters that are charged with flying into dangerous areas to pick up the wounded and bullet them away to the field hospitals.

So we embedded with a helicopter medevac crew that was based on a remote part of the Balad base. And there we waited. And waited. And played horseshoes. And waited some more. There were no 'point of injury' missions called out for days. Meanwhile, all of the patients we had met and started following were being shipped off to Germany and beyond. After over a week, we became a good luck charm for the helicopter unit and they wanted to keep us around. But it was time to go.

Over the next few months we met with the same injured soldiers and Marines we saw in Iraq, but this time it was here in the States where we saw them begin to recover. They all looked so different than when I first saw them, bloody and battered.

There are now 17,000 injured U.S. soldiers and I hope the story we did helped to make sure that they don't go unnoticed.

© Rick Loomis

Rick Loomis has been an award-winning photographer at the Los Angeles Times since 1994. Born in North Carolina but raised in South Florida, Loomis became interested in photojournalism through a high-school internship at The Palm Beach Post. He had college internships with The Fort Wayne (Ind.) News-Sentinel, The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colo., The Seattle Times and Syracuse Newspapers before graduating from Western Kentucky University. Loomis' foreign assignments have included Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti and Israel. Among his many awards, Loomis was named NPPA Newspaper Photographer of the Year in 2003.