A reporter tells what it's like to travel with U.S. troops and cover the war in Iraq.
By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2003
HILLAH, Iraq -- The soldiers usually line up by squad when they dash from one building to the next, searching for enemy soldiers and weapons, so I always try to slip in between the squads, then stay out of the way.
When we arrive, usually panting, at the next school or compound, I step back while the soldiers knock down doors and dash in with their guns.
Sometimes the enemy shoots back, and the soldiers drop behind walls or cars, or slip into roadside ditches. Then they shoot back, too, and then we see what happens.
As a reporter, I have been traveling with the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army in Kuwait and Iraq. My unit, the 2nd Battalion of the 327th Infantry, moved into Iraq nearly three weeks ago and took the city of Najaf, then the city of Hillah.
The main attack on Iraq was carried out by another unit, but the 101st Airborne, an elite division of light infantry from Fort Campbell, Ky., has been digging out pockets of Iraqi fighters in those two cities, as well as to secure main U.S. supply routes.
The key to writing about the infantry is being on the scene without being in the way. I am unarmed, and virtually untrained, and I neither want to be a liability or a casuality.
To get the stories, I have developed relationships with soldiers and officers so they trust me, and will take me along on their missions. I also follow the Army's safety rules, wearing a helmet and a flak jacket and carrying a gas mask on my hip everywhere I go.
And when the other soldiers dive for the dirt or take cover, I take cover. Then I ask what's happening.
For a journalist, this is the best place to be. There are stories everywhere; all you need to do is pay attention and talk to soldiers. I stay wherever the soldiers stay, usually in camps in the desert or in schools or commercial compounds in the city.
We generally don't have showers, or much water for washing clothes, so everyone is pretty filthy. Most soldiers carry packs of baby wipes to help them keep somewhat clean. We sleep on the ground and use the bathroom in trenches the soldiers dig.
A typical day begins at 5:30 a.m., either with a mission to find Iraqi fighters and weapons, or a meeting to plan the day's missions. This is also when most soldiers splash cold water on their faces to shave and eat field rations called MREs, which stands for Meal, Ready to Eat.
MREs don't come in breakfast food, so breakfast might be ravioli, or Thai chicken, or a hamburger.
The first meeting of the day is usually at 6, when the officers discuss the mission ahead, and I usually tag along with one of the battalion's three rifle companies as it attacks an area of town.
Other days, I travel with soldiers from the civil affairs unit, who are assigned to help the Iraqi people, or just spend the day interviewing soldiers about what they think of the war, about what they like or don't like about the Army, and about what they do.
I use all that information for background, so I can write accurate stories with depth and meaning.
At the end of the day, around sunset, we talk about our families over coffee or field rations, then I go to another meeting where the officers discuss the next day's plan. After that, I usually spend the evening in battalion's Tactical Operations Center or TOC, a sort of mobile headquarters, writing a story about what happened today.
Usually I finish well after most soldiers have gone to bed, so I have made friends with the guys who work the night shift in the TOC.
Covering the war in Iraq is kind of like an extended camping trip, with frequent explosions. And that's okay, as long as you know who's making the explosions, and where they're coming from.
You quickly learn to ascertain both.
As I write this, the old concrete-block warehouse where headquarters is located is being rocked by a series of large explosions nearby, the handiwork of Army engineers. All day long, U.S. soldiers here find piles of Iraqi rocket launchers, grenades, mortar rounds and bullets, and the engineers blow them up so the enemy can't use them.
Explosions are so common, after a couple weeks here you don't even flinch. And no one minds the massive booms of the engineers, either, because that means those Iraqi weapons won't be aimed at us in the morning.