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Boots on the Ground

By Andrea Bruce Woodall
Sunday, November 14, 2004

American troops in Iraq aren't abstractions. They could be your sons or daughters or best friends from high school. To bring that simple truth home, Post photographer Andrea Bruce Woodall walked some very rugged miles in their shoes

Washington Post photographer Andrea Bruce Woodall has traveled to Iraq five times since the war began. Most recently, she arrived a week shy of the first anniversary of the invasion in March and stayed through a period in which a widespread insurgency against the U.S. occupation flared anew, and U.S. fatalities approached 1,000. For some Americans, the chaos and violence in Iraq has receded to a kind of grim background noise, distant and impersonal. Woodall set out to dispel that creeping indifference by getting up-close and specific. Here, through her camera's lens and her personal journal, is Iraq as it's seen from the bulletproof window of a Humvee.

3/10/04

I CAN'T GET THE BOMBINGS OUT OF MY HEAD. Not just one, but the aftermath of them all. The metallic smell of blood. The stains on the roads. As if each victim was blown up individually, from the inside out, or maybe dropped from the sky. Razor wire collects flesh like torn pieces of clothing . . . I saw one police officer go mad in Baghdad recently, obsessively picking up stray pieces. I thought, maybe for burial -- but it seemed more drastic, more urgent. U.S. Army and other Iraqi police tried to stop him with force. But he yelled back, shrugging their hands off his shoulder, never losing sight of the ground, the razor wire, the pieces, quickly filling his plastic bag -- until the bag was full and he had to pile the pieces into his hands, gloved in plastic, intestines hanging through his fingers.

People always want me to take pictures of every last piece. Like proof. I have to do it -- we won't use the photos -- but it makes them feel better. An eyeball. Teeth. A finger swept into a corner. Piles of bloody shoes. Brains. Other things that I don't recognize but I know by the smell. Pieces stick to the bottom of my shoes.

No one cries at these scenes. We all -- Iraqis, U.S. soldiers, journalists, family members -- walk from the bombing to the hospitals to the morgue. We are all sleepwalking. Numb. A nightmare. It happens almost every day.

6/12/04

TODAY I PATROLLED WITH THE U.S. ARMY'S 1ST CAVALRY DIVISION. I HAD NO IDEA WHAT THE MISSION WAS. Neither did the soldiers, but they knew the location. It was relayed to them over the radio. One soldier cursed under his breath and looked out the window. Everyone else was quiet -- scared.

Our Humvee pulled up next to a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. A soldier from our vehicle ran to it -- it lowered its mouth-like door, and he climbed in. I popped out of the Humvee, wearing helmet and flak jacket, and followed him inside the Bradley. Eight soldiers were already piled inside -- I had to sit in the middle, on everyone's laps. The door closed behind us before the soldiers knew what to say to me. I didn't know these guys -- never been out with them. And I'd never been in a Bradley before. We were in Sadr City.

The air conditioning was broken. Sitting four on one side, four on the other -- the soldiers' knees were touching, and that is where I sat. Guns everywhere. My glasses fogged immediately -- the thickly armored fighting machine was like a sauna. I felt the same nervous quiet that I had experienced in the Humvee, and it made me forget about the sweat pouring off us. One man joked with the medic with exaggerated friendliness. The medic was also new to this group.

Again, it seemed they all knew where they were going and were filled with bad memories.

After two hours riding in the Bradley, I thought I was going to faint. I never faint. I created a mantra: Stay with it, stay with it; don't faint, don't faint. There was only one small window lighting the outside world to us. It was like being crammed into a closet waiting for someone to walk by so that we could open the door and scare them. But the Bradley was a closet only to us. On the outside, it was the loudest and scariest thing in Baghdad. And it was a huge target. At one point, we took small-arms fire. The Bradley returned with force.

Finally, we heard from one soldier, we were there -- we were in position for a raid. He gave orders. He was full of confidence and in control. I also followed his orders. It's often hard to remember that these men are almost all 10 years younger than I am.

The door of the Bradley opened, and we piled out in the direction of the house. Is it that one? Or that one? "These damn houses all look the same. Which one? Are you sure?" a soldier was shouting over his radio. Measured answers came back to him -- vague, unreassuring, cold. "What the hell are we doing?" he yelled. "We're standing out here like stupid targets." The poor neighborhood we were in had a narrow street. Two-story rowhouses up and down. Clotheslines were glimpsed inside the walled gate surrounding every home. All that Iraqi-beige color -- dust and sand.

The soldiers, about 10 or so, rushed inside a home, bouncing off walls and knocking things over with their overstuffed flak jackets. We must have all looked like aliens. The soldiers ordered all the men into one room -- all the women into the other. The men stayed quiet; women and children screamed and cried. Early in the day, I was told the soldiers were looking for suspected insurgents, supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr.

The oldest Iraqi man in the group tried to be kind -- offered the soldiers water. The soldiers were frustrated, nervous, but they politely declined. Some went on to raid the house next door.

Over the radio, the orders were to detain the men. Soldiers started tying the Iraqi men's hands behind their backs. One had a physical disability. The soldiers hadn't noticed. The women of the household -- especially the older, strong and fearless grandmother -- pleaded with me. I understand very little Arabic, but I understood more than the soldiers did. The son with the disability was sick, couldn't be taken with the other men, needed medicine. After an hour on the radio, the soldiers were allowed to leave that young man behind. But they took the older man, the young men from next door and a few passersby that the soldiers had happened upon. They were all flexicuffed and marched by the arm into a waiting personnel carrier.

No huge firefight. Just confused information -- or misinformation -- and high-fives later. I guess the soldiers have to try to believe they are doing something right, that they are making progress. They have to try to believe that they've helped -- or everything will seem so pointless. But I know for sure that they didn't make any friends on that sleepy street. How long will the detainees be held? How will the families survive with their men gone?

6/21/04

THE PAST COUPLE OF DAYS, THE 1ST INFANTRY DIVISION HAS SEEN HEAVY FIGHTING IN BUHRIZ. One soldier, Pfc. Jason Lynch, 21, (the next on base up for leave) died during an ambush. Instead of reporting his death as a statistic, as we often do, Washington Post reporter Ed Cody decided to go into detail with this soldier's life and death.

After spending a day interviewing soldiers on base, I decided to go on a "routine" night patrol with the "Bulldogs" unit inside the town of Baqubah and the village of Waidr. Not as much for the story -- but for the experience, to get more of an idea of what it would have been like for Lynch patrolling local streets.

The village was peaceful, almost festive. We rolled out around 9:30 p.m. -- crescent moon, bright country stars. It seemed like everyone was out enjoying the cool night breeze. Getting ice cream. Riding bikes. The town felt so nice, pleasant. Maybe it was because of the tree-lined streets, the gardens -- luxuries I miss in Baghdad.

I was inside one of four Humvees (one of only three that were fully armored). We dismounted and went on foot patrol for about four blocks of narrow, heavily populated streets of well-to-do homes.

To me, the soldiers seemed rude -- screaming at locals to Move! Move it! Move on! Slow down! Where do you think you're going on your bike? But the second lieutenant was cool -- a very young guy, skinny, reminds me of one of the members of the band the Beastie Boys. He kept the only translator by his side, asking locals about "bad guys."

"You know they're out here, don't you?" the second lieutenant asked a group of older men in long white dishdashas. "There are bad guys here, aren't there?"

The men denied it. "La, mako shee," they said. No, all is okay.

After about 25 minutes, the electricity in the town went out. Everything turned dark. One soldier started to appear anxious. "I don't have a good feeling about this," he said. "We've been on foot too long. Let's roll!" The dozen or so soldiers on the patrol climbed into their vehicles, night-vision goggles still floating in front of their eyes. They left the village quickly, shining flashlights in the eyes of scared Iraqis, who hadn't seen the ghostly Humvees with their headlights off.

When they drive like this, these young guys, headlights off, through the roads between small towns and farmland, it brings me back to my small-town high school days in Indiana -- the rides my parents didn't know about, going too fast. I listen to these soldiers. They are so much like my redneck high school friends back then. But I'm now 30. And we are in Iraq. I wonder if they sometimes forget where they are, too.

WE DRIVE OUT OF THE VILLAGE AND STOP AT AN INTERSECTION TO LET A CAR CREEP BY -- SLOW WITH FEAR. Then, I can't hear anything. Can't see anything. Dust and smoke are everywhere. I feel like I've been smacked, hard, with a hot pillow. The gunner, who was in his perch, is crouched beside me, as if he has been hit.

When the dust settles, we speed away. Everyone in the Humvee is screaming. Is everyone okay? Yes, yes, yes, yes. No one in our vehicle is hurt. What happened? An IED (improvised explosive device) went off about five feet from our Humvee. Planted in the grass beside the road. Triggered by someone.

The Humvee makes another sharp turn, and we return to the site of the IED. Small arms fire hits us from several directions. On one side of the intersection, buildings stand; the other side is a forest of date palms. The dusty air is filled with blue and red tracers. The Army gunners open fire in all directions. But the air is still so thick that no one can see anything. The rest of the soldiers have left the Humvee and stand just outside its doors, firing like mad. Everyone is yelling at one another -- but I can't understand what they're saying. We can't see anything. I sit in the fetal position in the back seat. I raise my camera over my head, firing at smoke.

After a minute -- maybe two -- the shooting stops. Completely. I'm still taking pictures, holding my breath to keep my camera stable -- hoping it can see things I can't. Hot casings from the gunners have fallen all over me, bounced off my helmet, fallen inside my flak jacket, in my camera bag. I can still hear the echoes of the Humvee being hit by bullets -- like large stones thrown with a pitcher's arm.

The scariest part is the silence afterward. I think, How many of these high school friends are dead?

"We need a medic!" someone screams from the dust cloud outside. Gun lights shine on two men, writhing, standing, sitting outside. One is speaking Spanish. Blood hangs from their faces like drool. Thick and sticky. Bright red. One still wears a helmet with night-vision goggles. One can't see -- he grabs his face. He prays. The medic works quickly. The soldiers are so nervous. I stay out of the way. I have left the Humvee, and I crouch by its side -- try to steady myself. My heartbeat makes my camera jump. I still can't hear much, so I can't tell when the shutter is pressed successfully. I'm unaware of myself. I can't think. I just take pictures. Stay quiet. Stay out of the way.

Shrapnel from the IED had blown into their faces. Their Humvee was not fully armored. The top was open to the sky -- and the bomb.

Being the only woman around, I try to help with a soothing voice. "You are fine," I say, without realizing I'm saying it. "You're going to be all right." They are freaking out. I try to calm them. "Shhhhhh, it's going to be okay." I think they are going to be okay, really.

For some reason, I think, I have to take these pictures. I will give them to the soldiers when they are better. When they are old and gray, they can tell war stories to their grandchildren, show them photos as proof -- alongside that scar on their chin.

They don't think they are okay. They scare one another with frightened voices. He can't see. They feel the blood. They pray.

6/22/04

THE 1ST INFANTRY DIVISION HAD THE MEMORIAL SERVICE FOR JASON LYNCH TODAY -- the morning after the IED explosion. I found out that the two soldiers I had followed to the emergency room will survive. One lost sight in one eye. The other's injuries were more minor. Those two men, what they went through, will not be reported to the media by the Army -- as if it didn't happen. The news of the day counts only deaths. I wonder if our readers will realize what an IED explosion means? These small incidents aren't small. And they happen every day.

Lynch's memorial service included hundreds of soldiers, all standing at attention, all saluting his empty boots and his helmet propped on top of his gun. His dog tags blew in the wind. Young, tough-guy soldiers told stories of this quiet, reliable man. A photo showed him baby-faced and smiley.

I was impressed with their tears and the brotherly comfort they showed for each other. The usual steely cool of the military -- of Americans in general -- has always frustrated me. What is so bad about showing grief? To me, it's beautiful. It's showing how much we love someone, that we miss them.

Many soldiers looked frustrated, angry. To some, I'm the person to be angry at. As if I'm the cause. "We're tired of seeing our friends die for a war we don't understand," one soldier hissed at me. "Leave us alone." And I did.

7/05/04 to 7/12/04

FOR THE PAST COUPLE OF WEEKS, I'VE SPENT A LOT OF TIME WITH THE 1ST CALVARY, WHICH OVERSEES SADR CITY. I've been with the soldiers of Forward Operating Base War Eagle in Sadr City, the poor, sewage-drenched Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad that has become a center of resistance to the Americans and the new Iraqi government.

I have tried to go out on a day patrol and a night patrol, with different units, every day. Night patrols usually ended up being a checkpoint where soldiers stopped suspicious vehicles and detained suspicious people. To get anywhere, the soldiers had to go down a long street that the Army nicknamed "IED Alley."

During day patrols, the soldiers cruised the streets of Sadr City in the Humvees. Half of the residents threw waves their way. The other half threw rocks. One day, a teenage boy spat on the window of the Humvee I was riding in. I spent the rest of the day taking pictures of the way Iraqis look at the soldiers -- through a layer of spit. But it went both ways, and I decided to take pictures of the world the soldiers see -- through the tiny, two-inch-thick window in 130-degree heat. All of the air conditioning inside the vehicles was broken, and we had to keep the windows closed -- just in case someone wanted to throw a grenade our way.

One day, the guys played Motown music while driving through the streets of Sadr City. They bought a small CD player, locally. The driver kept one hand on the wheel, the other on the volume button. He was the deejay. The soldier in the back seat next to me smoked hand-rolled cigarettes that he got from a fancy silver case -- it was also a lighter. I guess those are the things one has to hold onto to feel some kind of comfort.

These guys are jumpy. Who can blame them? As they patrol, they point out the sites of all of the IED explosions they have lived through in the city so far. One guy already has two Purple Hearts.

I get dehydrated so quickly. Headaches are constant. Everything looks brown.

Andrea Bruce Woodall fielded questions and comments about this article. Read the transcript

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