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Combat very real for cameramen

Published April 5, 2003

NAJAF, Iraq - Staff Sgt. Luis Lazzara and his driver were tailing the brigade commander when their convoy took a short blast of fire from the roadside.

As the convoy swung around to confront their attackers, Lazzara lifted his video camera and started filming.

Lazzara, 27, of Tampa, and his driver, Pfc. Kevin Gropp, are combat cameramen for the 101st Airborne Division, sent forward to document the war in Iraq for the division and Army archives.

Both were wounded, and division commander Gen. David Petraeus awarded each a Purple Heart during a short ceremony here Friday afternoon.

On Wednesday, Lazzara and Gropp had just left the headquarters of 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry, in Najar and were following the brigade commander, Col. Ben Hodges, to visit another pocket of troops.

They heard small arms fire, and Hodges turned the convoy around. As they passed two camouflaged ammo trucks, bullets and shell fragments blew through their Humvee.

"We jumped out and started filming," Lazzara said. "Our adrenaline was up and I didn't feel it when I got hit. It didn't hurt until later, then I was like, Ow.

"That's some crazy s---, man, taping yourself getting shot."

The convoy returned fire and Hodges called for air support. Several Apache attack helicopters turned the two ammo trucks into smoke. Lazzara and Gropp drove themselves back to 2nd Battalion and limped into the aid station.

Gropp was struck on the inside of his left thigh. Lazzara was struck by shrapnel in his right arm and a bullet or shrapnel in his right leg. They were driven to the rear for treatment, then returned to duty Friday.

"We counted 18 holes in our Humvee," said Gropp, 26, of Littleton, Colo.

Overall, casualties for the 101st Airborne in Iraq have been few. Two soldiers, including an Air Force major assigned to the division, died and more than a dozen were injured after a fellow soldier attacked Hodges' headquarters in Camp Pennsylvania, Kuwait.

A soldier with the division's 2nd Battalion was killed in a firefight near Najaf early this week, and several soldiers have been injured in accidents.

Lazzara is a graduate of Leto High School, and his mom, Jeannette Winkelman, lives in Carrollwood. He has served in the Army for nine years.

Gropp said he hopes to become a TV cameraman, while Lazzara said he isn't sure if he wants to stay in film. If he does, he said, after the Army he'll probably stick to weddings.

"None of that combat stuff," he said.

[Last modified April 5, 2003, 02:02:48]