Just like the Marines in Charlie Company, I wanted to see action. We all knew the risks, but we were eager to get into the fight.
On March 26, along Ambush Alley in An Nasiriyah, we got what we asked for -- in spades.
As the convoy cleared the south bridge over the Euphrates River, we were ambushed. Iraqi soldiers sprayed us with gunfire from a line of woods to the right, and the Marines began blasting back.
The noise was blistering. You don't know loud until you've been in a close-quarters firefight. Think of firecrackers going off in your living room -- big firecrackers.
I ducked down on the bench seat of the 7-ton truck I was riding in and threw my feet up against the door. Charlie Company is a light-armor reconnaissance unit, but the trucks have no armor at all.
I struggled to stuff my bedroll, laptop computer and anything else I could find between my butt and the door. Then I panicked, trying to figure out which part of my body I had left most vulnerable -- and which part I should leave most exposed.
That exercise didn't last long. It's tough to decide which body part to sacrifice, so I sat up to see what was happening.
I saw rapid-fire muzzle flashes maybe 50 yards away. It all seemed so surreal. I'm being shot at, and I could die. A rush of raw, mortal terror swept over me.
I yelled to Lance Cpl. Brian Anderson, the truck's .50-cal gunner sitting in a turret atop the cab, and pointed toward the Iraqi gunfire. Anderson, who a week later would become the company's only fatality, said his weapon was malfunctioning.
I felt dizzy. Everything began to blur.
What was I doing here? Was I out of my mind begging for this assignment?
It was tough to remember at the time, but I had my reasons.
WE HAVE A MOTIVE
Flashback to January 1991, Saudi Arabia. The Persian Gulf War was about to start.
I was a young Marine Corps corporal in one of those all-grime-no-glory jobs: air wing mechanic. Conditions in our desert camp were miserable. It was cold, it had been raining for weeks, and my tent leaked.
I worked on the night crew. During the day I would wrap myself in a plastic garbage bag, slide inside my soaked sleeping bag and try to nap while Harriers roared overhead.
As I tried to doze each morning, I listened to news reports on the radio. What I heard in no way resembled what I was experiencing. The accounts were mostly of perky airmen frolicking inside a concrete barracks, giving pat answers to corny interviews. Reporters talked about the cushy conditions for young Americans on the eve of war with Iraq. They were describing just a slice -- a very sanitized slice -- of what was really going on.
Who were these morons, and what gave them the right to paint such a narrow picture for the folks back home? I was livid.
What I didn't know at the time was that most journalists covering the Gulf War shared my frustration. In fact, some of their frustrations most likely helped pave the way for the more open ``embedment'' process in Round 2 with Iraq and Saddam.
Until those irritating mornings in Saudi 12 years ago, I'd never thought about journalism as a career. But I began to fixate on those newscasts, and how they did not mesh with my reality. I thought about how cool it would be to someday to cover a war, and how I'd get it right.
When I left the Marine Corps -- I was in from 1987 to 1992 -- I attended the University of Delaware on the G.I. Bill. Before long, I'd forgotten about the war coverage, other than retaining a vague hostility toward the media.
Then came a journalism class, and writing for the school paper. Then a fellowship to the University of Maryland's journalism school. Next thing I knew, I was a reporter.
PITCHING A PLAN
On Sept. 11, 2001, I was ironing a shirt in my Norfolk apartment as I watched one plane and then another slam into the twin towers.
For weeks I stayed up late watching television reports from Afghanistan. I was writing for the business team at the time, but realized I'd forgotten why I got into journalism in the first place. So I began working to get on the newspaper's military team. The switch came in January 2002.
By the summer of 2002, the war in Afghanistan was fading from the public stage. Something was brewing with Iraq, but the timetable was fuzzy.
Last fall, the picture began to clear. It struck me that I might get the chance to back up my boast -- to cover a war in Iraq better than it had been done in 1991, the way it should be done.
As the likelihood of war with Iraq grew, so did my drive to cover it. If there was a war, I had to be there. Had to.
I started planting the seeds with my editor, Carl Fincke, who began laying the groundwork with his superiors.
As talk of the Pentagon ``embedding reporters'' grew, our five-person military team began planning its coverage. In November, I persuaded my editors and military gatekeepers to enroll me in the Pentagon's first ``Media Boot Camp'' -- a weeklong exercise designed to prepare journalists for covering front-line combat.
Because Hampton Roads is a Navy community, a reporter and photographer covering the carrier battle groups would be Job One for us. But I began pushing the idea of embedding with an amphibious ready group.
I was selling the strong local connection -- North Carolina-based Marines going to war on Navy ships from Hampton Roads -- and the prospect of great stories from the field once we got there.
My pitch was a start-to-finish deal, chronicling the entire deployment cycle of the Navy-Marine operation. I would ride over on the Navy ships, go into battle with the Marines and then sail back.
I would eat, work and sleep alongside the sailors and Marines. My mission would be to give a ground-level view of their lives, capturing the highs and lows, the drudgery, the frustrations, the fears.
It would be a good inside story even if there was no war. And if there was combat, we'd have the day-to-day story of the men and women preparing for war, then fighting it.
The newspaper bought it. With my almost daily badgering, Navy and Marine officials seemed to be on board. But when the new year rolled around, there still was no official blessing.
On Jan. 12, a frigid Sunday, I was on the pier in Norfolk as the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade from Camp Lejeune, N.C., began boarding the seven ships of Amphibious Task Force East. When the ships pulled away without me, I was devastated.
Then the call came, at 4 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 14. Cmdr. Dave Werner with Atlantic Fleet said I was in. All I had to do was get to Cherry Point, N.C., on the double, and I'd go aboard there.
It was a gamble from the start.
On Jan. 15, a helicopter flew me from the Marine base at Cherry Point onto the Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship from Norfolk. I was now unofficially the first embedded reporter of a war that wouldn't start for another nine weeks.
Official embedment assignments would not be determined for another month. I would ride the Navy flotilla over to the Persian Gulf -- although I could never say in print where we were headed -- but once there, I would have no guarantee of being embedded with Marines heading into battle.
I spent the next five weeks reporting from the ship and lobbying for a place with a combat unit. The seven Navy ships were loaded down with 5,000 sailors, 7,000 Marines and untold tons of war-fighting equipment. Eventually the Marines would be known as Task Force Tarawa.
An amphibious assault ship is a big place to rattle around in -- unless you've been on it a while. In time, a deployment can seem like a prison sentence.
Weeks without seeing land. The same routine day after day, after day, after day. Long lines -- sometimes up to two hours -- to make a phone call (at $1 a minute). No privacy. Bunks that are smaller, and maybe less comfortable, than coffins.
The days become so monotonous that almost any variation from routine was good. Smallpox vaccinations and rough seas weren't fun, but at least they were different. Landmark points in the trip -- such as passing through the Strait of Gibraltar or the Suez Canal -- were cause for celebration.
At least I got a change of shipboard scenery on occasion. I was able to hop by helicopter to other ships in the group -- the Bataan and Ashland. But for most of the sailors and Marines, it was the same-old-same-old every day.
It didn't take long for me to appreciate the work these men and women do. Imagine never leaving your office, working 12- to 16-hour shifts, never having a day off and not seeing your family for six months.
For more than a month I lived a life similar to theirs, and it was no picnic. But, as were the sailors and Marines, I was there to do a job.
THE WORST OF TIMES
By the time we reached the Persian Gulf, I knew I wanted to be in the field with a recon unit, specifically Charlie Company, 2nd Light Armor Reconnaissance Battalion. Known as an LAR, it would go out in front of the main regiment, scouting and sometimes fighting as it makes first contact with the enemy.
During the ride over, I'd been particularly impressed with the company's leader, Capt. Greg Grunwald -- a no-nonsense guy who gave me straight answers,
On Feb. 17, in a hovercraft loaded with dynamite and C-4 explosive, I went ashore in Kuwait. The Marines moved on to establish Camp Shoup, but there were no embeds yet, so I was on my own.
I hitched a ride with Seabees into Kuwait City, where I got a room at the Sheraton. I thought the rate was $170 a night, but it turned out to be 170 dinar, the Kuwait currency. In U.S. dollars, that was almost $700.
I knew I could be stuck in Kuwait for a while, and even though the newspaper was paying my expenses, that rate was too much. Two days later, I found a room at the Hilton for about $200 a night.
My three weeks in Kuwait were the most frustrating stretch of the entire assignment. I spent most of my time worrying, cursing and yelling.
To get proper pre-embedment press credentials, I needed a visa. But because I had come in on a hovercraft and not through official channels, I had no visa.
Basically, I was in the country illegally, so I had to lie a little low even while trying to get the proper paperwork done.
And Central Command -- which runs the Middle East operations for the U.S. military -- was at the top of its bureaucratic game. Days of e-mails to CentCom went unanswered.
Kuwaiti officials suggested I get various letters of recommendation -- from the newspaper, then from a ship commander -- but those proved no help. At one point, a Kuwaiti official said, ``All you need is a letter from the president.'' Of the United States? ``Yes.''
After a while, I became known to many in Kuwait City as ``Mr. Dennis, with the visa problem.''
Because I was not a credentialed journalist, I was not supposed to file stories. As days went by with no bylines, I felt increasingly worthless -- and expensive. I did get an overnight trip to Camp Shoup to touch base with the Marines, but that was it.
When the embedments finally were announced, our paper got the number it requested but not the specific Marine slot I wanted. Unofficially, the Pentagon was allowing slot swapping, so we traded one of our slots to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune for the Marine position I wanted.
But I had it backwards -- the original position was the one that would have given me a seat with Charlie Company. By the time we figured that out, it was too late to get the spot back.
The stress factor was rising fast. No visa. Wrong embedment slot. And worst of all: no bars in Kuwait.
Then I caught a huge break. I ran into a buddy from the Chicago Tribune who had the exact slot I wanted -- and who wanted the slot I had. Our editors made the swap, and I got my first good night's sleep since coming ashore.
I had one more big logistical scare before I left Kuwait City. I had miscalculated my expenses and the ceiling on my credit card, and I could not cover the $7,700 hotel bill.
I will never forget standing outside a mosque, pressing a satellite phone to my ear, trying to hear over the evening prayer call as I shouted profanities -- in vain -- at the credit card representative who was refusing to raise my limit.
After considerable wrangling, I did get the hotel to fax the bill to my editor back in Norfolk, who covered it so I would not be arrested as I headed out of town.
LET'S GET IT ON
The first days in the desert, I was almost giddy.
So what if I was sleeping on the hard ground, with vicious sandstorms whipping my face? I was in the field, just a few miles from the Iraq border, and war was in the air.
War is an awful thing, of course. But Marines want to be in the fight, and journalists want the big story. As a former-Marine-turned-reporter, this was about as good as it gets.
My view of the war would be through the eyes of the Charlie Company, a 140-man unit with 32 vehicles. Another reporter was embedded with the company, but he would leave the unit well before I did.
Like most of the Marines in Iraq, Charlie Company had a mix of young and old, with a strong tilt toward the young. Average age was probably about 21.
Once they learned that I was a former Marine and had ridden over on the boat with them, I had instant credibility. In the field, I had to pull my own weight and I went out of my way to not be a burden.
As the clock ticked on Saddam, emotions -- the Marines' and mine -- rose and fell like the sea in a storm. The atmosphere could be flat-out electric with the prospect of getting ready to go in, and it could swing to despair with talk of getting right up to the brink and then having the war called off.
There was guilt. I shared it, too. How can you hope for war? Don't know. But how can you deny what you feel?
Most Marines train for battle their entire career and never see it. What it came down to was that these men wanted to see it. So did I.
AND IT BEGINS
The war started early in the morning on Thursday, March 20; back home, it was Wednesday night, March 19.
Thursday night, from our position near the border, we could see and hear rockets overhead as they roared into Iraq, softening up the enemy for the ground attack to come.
Friday morning, Charlie Company crossed a barbed-wire fence and an anti-tank ditch, and we were in Iraq. The first couple of days were like a cruise in the country. No combat, just desert and small towns where mobs of Iraqi kids and young men would run up to the vehicles begging for food, water and candy.
As we moved farther into ``Indian Country'' -- as the Marines call enemy territory -- the job became more serious.
We began processing surrendering Iraqis on Sunday. Many came toward us in civilian clothes shouting in halted English: ``I quit!'' and ``Bush, good!'' But we were hearing stories of guerrilla warfare tactics -- such as Iraqis faking surrender then opening fire -- so the tension was running high.
On Monday, March 24, one of the light-armor vehicles, or LAVs, shot and killed two Iraqi soldiers. For me, and most of the company, it was the first combat and the first kill we'd seen.
The next day, we entered An Nasiriyah, where just two days earlier, coalition forces had suffered a bloody setback. Thinking the city was secure, a U.S. lightly armored convoy was ambushed. Ten Americans had been killed, and a dozen were still missing or captured when we showed up.
Charlie Company was ordered to move to the north part of town. Crossing a bridge on the south side of the Euphrates River, we entered Ambush Alley and took fire for the first time. The aftermath of the recent ambush and battle was everywhere -- burned-out armored personnel carriers, an oil storage tank still on fire, mortar impact craters in the pavement.
As we rumbled up Ambush Alley, we drove through the middle of a firefight. To our right were Iraqi fighters shooting from inside buildings; to our left were prone Marine Corps infantrymen returning fire. It seemed as if we were taking fire from both sides.
It was harrowing, and exhilarating, but we made it through Ambush Alley OK -- that time.
March 26, forever to be known to the men of Charlie Company as ``Hell Night.''
The weather was miserable -- cold and rainy. Around sundown, reports came in that a 1,000-vehicle Iraqi convoy was headed our way from Al Kut. Orders were given to dig foxholes. The mud was heavy, like cement.
But as soon as the foxholes were finished, new orders came to head south, where the regimental command post was under attack.
We rolled back through Ambush Alley in a thick fog. Along the way, we had to cross over the median into the northbound lane because our path was blocked by a damaged vehicle from the March 23 ambush.
As the truck I was riding in crossed the median, a trailer full of explosives and supplies it was towing flipped, spilling C-4 and dragging the truck so much that we couldn't go on.
So there we were, half a convoy stalled at night in Ambush Alley. The front half of the convoy sped on, unaware of our problem because a Marine ahead of us had inadvertently left his microphone on after radioing us to switch lanes. The only thing being heard on any of the convoy's radios was the rumbling of that LAV's engine.
Panic gripped us. We were sure that, any second, Iraqi snipers would begin picking us off.
I stayed in the truck as the driver got out to survey the situation. Then I got out to help. We tried to flip the heavy trailer upright but couldn't. We tried to unhook the trailer, but the hitch was badly bent from the accident.
Radio communication was restored, and the Marines were ordered to grab whatever we could from the trailer, cut it loose and get out of there.
Supercharged with adrenaline, I muscled the jammed hitch open, snatched my bedroll from inside the canvas-covered trailer, ran back to the cab, and we were off.
We finally caught up with the rest of the convoy near the south end of Ambush Alley. Marine Corps artillery began hitting the Iraqi position with a cluster-bomb-type shell that looked so much like fireworks that I will never again watch a Fourth of July display.
One Humvee full of Marines from a different unit had five or six Iraqi prisoners lying face down on the road. Moments after the driver yelled that the palm trees to our right were teeming with Iraqis, we were under heavy fire.
Our first major firefight was on.
After giving up trying to protect myself and seeing the muzzle flashes so close by, my world went fuzzy.
Commands of ``Cease fire! Cease fire!'' snapped me out of it. The gunfire stopped, then started again. I took several deep breaths, hoping they would not be my last.
During one pause, we moved south, and reached the same bridge we had crossed the day before to enter An Nas. An Iraqi machine gun nest was hammering the regimental command post. As Charlie Company opened up on the Iraqis, so did another batch of Marines on the other side of the bridge.
Suddenly, all hell broke loose. The sky lit up with tracer rounds. If it wasn't so scary, it would have been beautiful.
Anderson, manning the .50-caliber gun on the truck, hit the deck. I laid flat on the bench seat and looked up through the turret hole -- basically a sunroof in the truck cab -- and saw endless lines of red and green tracers.
The noise was unreal. Like the THX sound system show-off in a movie theater, the noise grew until it reached a crescendo of pure gunfire blending like a chord of metallic music.
Everything seemed to be in slow-motion. I sat up, my eyes and brain feeling detached from the rest of my body. Two rounds whizzed past my head. Close. Bullets zipping past your ears make an odd sound -- kind of a rubbery doink, almost like a rock plunking into a pond.
I laid back down, and watched the tracers.
Then came the mortars -- Bump! Bump! -- throwing up debris that showered the truck.
And then the king of battle, the artillery -- Whump! Whump! The rounds were close, and getting closer. In the cab, we wondered: ours or theirs?
Finally, it was over. Exhausted and emotionally wrung, I passed out cold asleep.
THE DAY AFTER
The battle had seemed to last forever. I guessed it was about an hour; later, I discovered it was probably ``just'' 10 or 15 minutes.
We learned that the initial gunfire barrage at the bridge was the start of a major friendly fire incident. Moments after opening up on the machine gun nest, Charlie Company and the Marines across the bridge were firing on each other.
The mortars were Iraqi, but the most deadly weapons in the fight -- the artillery -- was American. Someone on the other side of the river had pegged Charlie Company as the Iraqi convoy coming south from Al Kut.
The artillery was homing in on us when Charlie Company's Grunwald finally convinced the other Marines that they were targeting Americans.
Charlie Company came through the incident in one piece; 31 Marines on the other side were wounded. One report indicated that many of the injuries came from the artillery shelling.
We had been in Iraq for six days. The men of Charlie Company, and many other Marines in the field, were severely sleep-deprived. I have no doubt that this was a factor in the blue-on-blue engagement.
When I woke up, I called the office. I told my editor that I was still pretty shaken up, and didn't know if I could write anything.
Try, he said. Once I put pen to paper, it spilled out. I called him back less than an hour later to dictate. Between the two of us, with my notes and babbling and his interviewing me, we pieced together a story.
I found out later that my editor was pretty shaken, too. He told only those he had to -- two of his bosses -- what the story was about. Retelling the incident was too difficult, too emotional, he said.
After ``Hell Night,'' everything was different. You're glad to have survived such a close call, but you worry that there will be closer calls -- and maybe one too close.
The next six days were spent in An Nas. The Marines and I grew to hate the place.
On March 29, Charlie Company took over a riverfront headquarters of the 11th Iraqi Infantry Division. Shortly after entering the building, the phone rang. A Marine picked it up and said, ``Hello?''
The voice on the other end chattered something in Arabic, and the Marine screamed into the phone that the United States Marine Corps now occupied the headquarters.
Minutes later, while sitting atop an LAV, I heard something whiz past my head, followed by an explosion behind me. Then another. They were rocket-propelled grenades, which make that rubbery sound like a bullet, only deeper and more drawn out.
I ducked inside the LAV just as its gunner began blasting across the river with 25mm high-explosive rounds. I thought the noise from the firefights was loud, but sitting in a tin can with a large gun on top banging away topped anything I've ever heard.
That began an on-and-off, three-day firefight with Iraqis on the other side of the Euphrates. At night, the psy-ops guys -- psychological operations -- would blare messages over loudspeakers explaining that the war was against Saddam, not the citizens of Nasiriyah or the people of Iraq.
Some Marines craved more action. I spoke with one who confided that at night, when he was on watch, he would blink his red-lens flashlight at the Iraqi positions, hoping to draw fire so Charlie Company could shoot back. One time, trying to elicit a response from the soldiers across the way, psy-ops played the Kid Rock tune ``Bawitdaba'' over the speakers.
On April 2, Charlie Company got orders to leave An Nas. Spirits were high, until tragedy struck as we were heading out of town. While manning his gun atop the truck, Anderson grabbed a low-hanging wire to lift it over the turret. The wire was live, and Anderson was electrocuted.
Task Force Tarawa lost 22 Marines in the war, but Anderson would be the only fatality from Charlie Company.
Charlie Company hopscotched all over southeast Iraq. Each mission began with the mix of excitement and fear that comes before battle, but there was little combat after An Nas.
As the war wound down, the Marines became split on whether they wanted more action or no action. Some were itching for more fight; others were more than willing to quit while they were ahead.
Before long, everyone was ready to go home. Boredom became the enemy. During combat, survival was all that mattered. Now, aggravation was everywhere.
MRE's -- meals ready to eat -- were no treat to begin with; having to eat them for six weeks was almost inhumane.
We went a month without a shower. I won't tell you how long I had to wear the same pair of underwear.
The mail -- or lack thereof -- went from being a joke to a major frustration. Weeks would go by without a delivery. Rare mail calls would sometimes include ``Priority'' items that were sent three and four months before.
Friends and family sent me several large packages that never arrived. I can't imagine where they wound up. Hopefully someone is putting that Charmin and those Parliament Lights to good use.
The high that we were on as the war began had eroded into a dull, throbbing low.
My own state of mind was not helped by the fact that I was not allowed to use my satellite phone for a three-week period. U.S. officials suspected that the positions of Thuraya satellite phones could be traced by Iraqis.
So for most of my time in Iraq, I could not transmit photos -- no great loss, the photographers back at the paper would say -- and whenever I wanted to dictate a story I would have to wait in line to use the Charlie Company phone.
Up until the friendly fire incident, I rode in one of the 7-ton trucks. But the next morning, I switched to Grunwald's LAV. That was my home, such as it was, for my last four weeks in Iraq -- crammed into the stomach of a rolling tin can with six other men. By the end, I could tell who was who by the smell of their feet. Really.
On April 24, I got word that I was to be ``unembedded.'' I suspected at first that it was because of a story I had written the day before that did not sit well with Charlie Company and Marine officials. I had mentioned that some men had been drinking black-market Iraqi whiskey. Confession: I had some, too.
I was flown back to Kuwait. Later, I found out that all reporters embedded with Marines were being sent out of Iraq.
After 10 days in Kuwait, I was reunited with Charlie Company in Camp Shoup. On May 15, we took hovercraft back to the Kearsarge.
The ship ride over had been tough, but after two months in the desert, you appreciate some of the ship's relative comforts. That bunk isn't so bad anymore, and that chow line sure is a lot better than an MRE.
But, like many of the Marines, I began to realize that I preferred the physical rigors of living like the Flintstones in the field to riding on the ship. Despite eating food from a plastic packet, never bathing and getting shot at, the combat phase of the assignment was the easiest. Perhaps because it was so simple, so caveman: me hungry, me eat.
There is a faux normalcy on a ship, with many of the same amenities you'd find at home -- TVs, showers, hot food. But after a while, I felt like I was in this vast human refrigerator -- I was being preserved, but my life was nothing close to a normal.
Through e-mail and phone calls, you get just enough of a taste of home to miss it.
The return ride seemed excrutiatingly slow. I was going a bit stir-crazy until we got a four-day port call in Lisbon, Portugal. But even that was a temporary break from the boredom.
We reached the shores of North Carolina on June 22 and unloaded the Marines. I rode with the sailors back to Norfolk and on June 25, my 162-day assignment of a lifetime ended when I stepped off the Bataan and onto the pier.
CALL ME CRAZY
Most deployments never include combat. Isn't it funny that, despite spending five years in the Marines, I witnessed my first combat as a journalist?
For that reason alone, I could consider the assignment a success. But more importantly, even in the face of countless frustrations, the embedment process worked -- at least from my point of view.
It allowed me to achieve my goal: to take readers inside the military machine and give an unvarnished look at war and the people fighting it.
The glamour part of the assignment, so to speak, was the war coverage. But there was much more to my mission. My job was also to capture the gritty reality of what sailors and Marines go through in the course of a deployment.
Only five of my 23 weeks ``deployed'' were spent in Iraq. As with most military missions, the majority of time was spent preparing, training and traveling.
Did my work hit home? Apparently so. I was floored to learn that readers, many of them online, had sent nearly 3,000 e-mails thanking me.
Former sailors appreciated the stories on those doing the thankless day-to-day jobs that kept the ships running.
Relatives of Marines in Iraq took comfort in knowing what their sons and daughters were going through, including one mother who said tears were falling on her keyboard as she typed the e-mail.
Others simply thanked me for the risks I had taken and the sacrifices I had made.
I gave up everything I knew for six months, burdened my loved ones with my absence, and missed my daughter blowing out the candles on her second birthday cake as she wished that I would come home.
I lost 30 pounds, and 4 inches off my waist. I also probably lost a little of my mind, but it's coming back -- I hope. I'm just glad that's all I lost.
I can't tell you how many times the sailors and Marines told me I was crazy. They couldn't believe I volunteered for this. Never mind that they also had volunteered -- and for much longer tours of duty.
They were just doing their job, they said.
And I was doing mine.