Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Photo essay on JPG Magazine site

I have put together a small collection of my Iraq photos into a short photo essay on the JPG Magazine site. If enough viewers vote for it, it will be included in the print version of the magazine (hint).

New article on the Minnesota National Guard website

There is a new article about my trip on the Minnesota National Guard website today.

Thanks to author CPL Joe Roos, for his characterization of my work as "some of the best photos that have been captured of Minnesota National Guard Soldiers in action in Iraq."

There is also a small collection of my photos in a new gallery on the site.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


I've started a (probably temporary) podcast of audio from Iraq. The first 5 episodes are live radio call-in shows that I did from Iraq to WTIP North Shore Public Radio in Grand Marais, Minnesota.

These podcast episodes should show up in the iTunes store shortly (just search for "eric in iraq"), but in the mean time you can download them directly here:

Monday, February 26, 2007

All photos uploaded

I have completed uploading all my photos from Iraq (all the good ones). You can search through all 732 of them here:

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Cross-country skiing in Iraq

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - The American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race was held in Hayward, Wisconsin yesterday, and two Minnesota National Guard solders competed from Iraq (I'm not making this up).

Here is a link to the story on SkinnySki.Com:

For readers that don't know me personally: I used to be a serious cross-country ski racer and was once a member of the US junior national biathlon team myself, and I have also competed in "the Birkie" several times.

High praise from the US Marine Corps

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - One of the recurring themes of my conversations with senior Army and Marine Corps leaders in Iraq was effusive praise for Bravo Company 2/136 in particular, and the Minnesota Army National Guard in general. The following two video clips are senior Marine Corps commanders that were willing to speak on camera about the job that the Minnesota troops have done.

Major General Zilmer the commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force (II MEF), with over 40,000 Marines and all of Western Iraq under his command for the past year. It seemed noteworthy to me that he was even aware that 200 Army soldiers from the Minnesota National Guard were under his command, but he had more to say than that:

Colonel Bristol the commander of the II MEF (FWD) Headquarters Group, was Bravo Company's direct commander on Camp Fallujah, as well as being essentially the mayor of Camp Fallujah, a city of over 10,000 American's in a very hostile neighborhood. Colonel Bristol personally participated on many Bravo Company missions in the past 6 months, and he got to know many of the men in Bravo Company personally:

Trained killers or police officers?

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - I've received several questions in response to the "Blue Bongo Battle" story about the goals of American soldiers in Iraq. Apparently, some people read the story and came away with the impression that the primary goal of the coalition forces in Iraq is to kill insurgents.

I can say from multiple first hand experiences while in Iraq that American soldiers genuinely view and actively train for deadly force as a last resort. Every time soldiers head outside the wire there is a mission briefing, and every mission briefing starts with a review of the rules of engagement. The rules of engagement are an explicit set of standards for how and when force may be used. A soldier must of have clear justification to fire his weapon.

Every soldier carries plastic "flex cuff" handcuffs, and in the past six months Bravo Company soldiers have captured twice as many insurgents as they have killed. Soldiers may not fire unless they are directly threatened. For instance they aren't allowed to shoot somebody just because they are holding a weapon, the weapon would have to be pointed at a soldier first. The standards seem pretty much the same as those that police officers in the US operate under.

Car bombs are a serious threat in Iraq, but there is a clear chain of escalation of force for stopping a suspicious vehicle:

1. Wave an orange flag or flashlight.
2. Fire a flare or orange chalk grenade.
3. Fire tracer bullets into the road in front of the vehicle.
4. Fire into the engine and wheels to disable the vehicle.
5. Fire at the driver.

I saw this happen multiple times, and it never got past step 2.

It is also important to note that a captured insurgent may reveal the names of other insurgents, or the locations of weapons caches. A dead insurgent doesn't talk. Soldiers understand this, and recognize that actionable intelligence is much more likely to save their life in the future than one more dead insurgent.

Bravo Company article in US Cavalry ON Point

Andrew Lubin outside the chow hall on Camp Fallujah, February 2007.

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - During my two weeks in Iraq with Bravo Company 2/136, I got to know a number of other journalists including Andrew Lubin, an ex-Marine, author, and commentator, who has written extensively on the the Marine Corps in Iraq.

Mr. Lubin took a little time off from his Marines, and spent several days with Bravo Company 2/136 during the the Blue Bango mission that I have written about previously. Here is a link to a new article from Mr Lubin about the Blue Bongo mission published on the US Cavalry ON Point website:

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Fallujah Portraits

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - I took a whole series of reference photos in Iraq that were never intended for publication, but when I started looking at them, they were just too powerful not to share.

Part of my workflow is to have people I photograph fill out a numbered "shot card" which includes their name and other personal information. I have them hold the card up next to their face, and then take a snapshot so that I have a photo to tie their face to the number so that I can keep track of who's who, and hopefully get everyone's name spelled correctly.

The interesting thing about telling somebody that you are just taking a picture for your records and asking them to hold up the card is that they relax. This collection of photos is some of the most true to life portraits I've ever taken.

Here is a link to the complete collection:

Friday, February 23, 2007

Change shortage in Iraq and Kuwait

The change in my pocket when I arrived home from Iraq & Kuwait.

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - In Iraq and Kuwait there is a shortage of US coins, and so AAFES (the Army & Air Force Exchange Service), has taken to issuing it's own US currency, in the form of "gift certificates".

When you make a purchase of at the PX, or McDonalds, or Green Bean Coffee, or any other entity on a US military installation that accepts cash, you get these paper coins as change. They are printed on a heavy gloss card stock, and are about the size of a US fifty cent piece.

Occasionally, you get real US coins as change, but it's pretty rare. I would be curious to know how much of this "money" AAFES is printing, and what percentage of it disappears into the lint screens of the industrial dryers of the Army bulk laundry system.

The coins have a large number on one side, and a photograph on the other. There seem to be a lot of different versions. In the photo above there is a dime with Richard Nixon and a nickel with Chuck Yeager, as well as other more modern images with military themes. I wonder if there will be any coin collector interest in these?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Marine Corps Public Affairs Office in Camp Fallujah

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - The following article came up on my Google Alert for "Fallujah" today:

I thought it would be interesting to highlight this article, since I never really mentioned the Public Affairs infrastructure at Camp Fallujah in posts while I was there.

There are eight Marines working full time in the II MEF (FWD) Public Affairs Office on Camp Fallujah. Their responsibilities include publishing articles like the one above as well as assisting visiting journalists with details like transportation, housing, and communications.

SGT Jackson, the photographer and author of the article above was responsible for getting my satellite feed to KSTP working every night, despite only having been in Iraq a few days, and working with unfamiliar equipment. The rest of II MEF PAO office was equally helpful. Thanks to all!

A few public notes (since I don't have any of your email addresses):

2LT Hollenbeck: Thanks to your travel planning, I made it from Fallujah to Kuwait in 11.5 hours. Thanks!

SGT Jackson: I'm glad to see you are getting outside the wire. Keep up the good work. I'll be watching for the first Robert Capa photo.

400 additional photos uploaded

I have uploaded all the photos from days 1-4 in Fallujah. It's a lot of pictures the wade through, but hopefully fun if you are looking for somebody you know.

Here is the link to the new "complete" galleries:

I will be uploading another 500 pictures over the next few days.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Battle of Pump House Flanders, August 12th 2006

On August 12th 2006, 10 soldiers from Bravo Company 2/136 Infantry, 34th Brigade Combat Team, fought one of the most significant and decisive battles that Minnesota National Guard soldiers have fought in the Iraq War to date.

The Bravo Company soldiers were manning defensive positions at Pump House Flanders, a Combat Outpost that protects one of the two water pumps that supplies water from a canal fed by the Euphrates to the US base at Camp Fallujah.

Up to 35 insurgents riding in two fortified dump trucks, and supported by mortars, rocket propelled grenades, and machine guns launched a surprise attack after having approached to within 20 meters of the perimeter. 38 minutes later the fight was over, and 1 Bravo Company soldier was seriously wounded, and more than 20 insurgents were dead.

The following video clip show Captain Chip Rankin, the Bravo Company commander, standing on the wall of the Pump House, giving an account of the fight (recorded in February 2007):

Chocolate Chocolate Chip Muffins

FALLUJAH, ANBAR, IRAQ - An Army runs on it's stomach, and one Bravo Company soldier apparently runs exclusively on Otis Spunkmeyer Chocolate Chocolate Chip Muffins.

SPC Brian "Bootcamp" Micheletti, of Gilbert Minnesota, poses with one of his favorite muffins.

A short interview with SPC Micheletti, discussing his favorite food.

The innocence of children...

FALLUJAH, ANBAR, IRAQ - One of the things that I have the found most striking during several weeks in Iraq is the children. The young children in particular are oblivious to the war around them. They don't know or care whether they are Sunni or Shia. They don't know whether or not their father is an insurgent. They view American soldiers (and reporters dressed like American soldiers) with curiosity and openness not fear.

Older children are more aware of what is going on around them, but they still don't grasp the gravity of the situation. They tend to see American soldiers as some odd blend of Santa Claus and dim witted uncles. They run up to you any time you stop calling "Mista, mista! Chocolat? Pen? Futball?" If you don't give them anything I have heard some reports of rude gestures or even thrown rocks, but this was definitely not my experience. Instead they would adopt a sort of hurt puppy face, and following you around, cataloging the other possessions that you might be willing to give them.

Numerous children asked to see my watch (a Tag-Heuer given to me by wife as a wedding present), and then asked me to give it to them. One boy in his early teens asked me to give him one of my cameras. When I said no he said he could give me money for the camera. I said no before we got to discussing what he would consider a fair price for a Nikon D200 and telephoto lens.

The camera boy left, and I thought I had seen the last of him, but a few minutes later he reappeared carrying a rabbit by the ears. He wanted to trade the rabbit for my camera. This attracted the attention of one of the soldiers I was patrolling with, and between the three of us we were able to determine that the rabbit had a name, and that it was probably the boy's pet. The most interesting part of this whole exchange was the perceived value of a rabbit to a young boy growing up in a small impoverished village outside Fallujah.

Several days later while visiting the local water plant, I met a boy of about 10 named Whalid. I know his name because he came up to me and proudly introduced himself, and wanted to know my name. I tried to ask Whalid his age, but I couldn't get the point across. We were however able to determine that Whalid could count to ten in English. I thought that this was a worthy accomplishment, and I rewarded it with pen.

Whalid, in the black and white striped shirt, wins the lottery with a new soccer ball, and can of soda. Courtesy of they US Marine Corps.

Generally, the children would stick together in groups, but occasionally one of them would approach us on his own (boys only). The most memorable of these was "sling shot boy". On this occasion there was a group of about ten older boys who were watching us from a little distance. They were doing the usual "Mista, Mista!" routine, but they weren't coming forward to interact with us. This was a little unusual, and I'm guessing that they had very specific orders from some village elder to keep their distance, because we were meeting with the sheik.

Slingshot boy was probably only five or six, I'm guessing that one of the men we were talking to was his father, and so he felt much more comfortable to come forward and interact with us. He might have been a little too young to have learned the whole "Mista, Mista" routine, because he didn't ask for anything, he just wanted to quietly see what we were doing. He was rewarded for his politeness with a spinning top, and his first Pop-Tart.

Children also serve to bridge the gap between adults in this war. I was standing near three Iraqi men in their 20's and 30's while I was taking pictures of Slingshot Boy. They weren't openly hostile, but they definitely weren't being particularly friendly either. It's a safe bet that in this part of Anbar province, a strongly Sunni tribal area, that one of these men was probably an insurgent, and they were probably all at least somewhat sympathetic to the insurgents, if not openly supportive.

We were all enjoying watching Slingshot Boy's excitement at his first bite of a PopTart, and I had a flash of inspiration and pulled out a picture of my family to show the Iraqi men. I quickly had a cluster of cheerful Iraq men all gathered around to check out the picture.

This exchange of a picture led to a ten minute conversation carried out in very broken English and makeshift sign language with multiple pictures and maps scratched in the dirt. From this we were able to determine that all of us were married, and all of us had children. I assured them that I was not from New York or California, and drew a map of the United States to show where Minnesota was. Yes, this was a television camera, but I was not from the BBC. The fact that one of my cameras was worth more that $3,000 US was fairly staggering.

The day started with mistrust, and ended with friendship, all because of children. I'm left with some new found hope that there is always common ground to be found between people even in situations as divisive as the Iraq War. Hopefully these men will think twice about planting an IED along the roads leading to Camp Fallujah, or even better will be willing to call the hotline to report one.

Ordering Prints (frequently asked questions)

Now that I'm back in the US, I am in process of uploading about a 1,000 full sized original photos from the trip that will all be available for printing (this includes more than 800 new pictures that nobody has seen yet!) It may take a couple days to get them all uploaded...

Frequently asked questions:

1. How much are you charging for prints?

4x6 $5.00
5x7 $7.00
8x10 $15.00
8x12 $15.00 (I would highly recommend printing 8x12 instead of 8x10, because it shows the whole image.)
11x14 $20.00
4 x wallets $5.00

There are also many other products available from coffee mugs to t-shirts. Click the "buy: this photo" button above a picture to add a picture to your shopping cart and see all the products and prices.

2. What about poster size enlargements?

Many of the pictures I took should print fairly well up to 20x30 (poster size), if you are interested in ordering 12x18 ($30.00) or 20x30 ($50.00) please contact me by email (eric.bowen(at), and I will handle the order personally.

3. Why are you charging so much/so little for prints?

This project is a personally funded, money loosing labor of love. Selling prints is one way to help recover some of the costs. My goal is to strike a balance between affordability for family members and meaningful income to support the project.

4. I would love to get some prints of my family member, but I really can't afford the prices?

I realize that this deployment is a severe financial hardship for some guard families, and if you legitimately can't afford the prices send me an email, and we'll arrange a scholarship to get you some free photos of your family member.

5. What if I order a lot of prints? Can I get a discount?

Contact me directly, and I would be happy to discuss your circumstances?

6. I'm uncomfortable shopping online with a credit card, can I send you a check?

Send me an email with the details of what you would like to order, and I would be happy to try to accommodate you.

7. Print guarantee. What if I'm not happy with the prints I ordered?

SmugMug, the company that hosts my photo website, and processes print orders provides an unconditional guaranty of all print orders:

"If you are unhappy with your prints or gifts, SmugMug will reprint or refund your order, whichever you prefer. Simply send email to within 30 days of receiving your order."

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Eric Home in MN Safe and Sound

Eric returned on Monday afternoon. He is doing great. I know he has many more stories to post and hundreds of images to upload. Our 1 and 3 year old are initiating him in their own "embed" program which is keeping him pretty busy at home but I am sure they will give him a break soon so he can get back to you!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Cartoonist Embed

I'm sitting with my new friend Chris Muir, at Caribou Coffee in the Kuwait City International Airport. I haven't mentioned Chris before, but he was on my flight from Amsterdam to Kuwait, and he was one of the other three journalists that I travelled to Baghdad with on the way in to Iraq two weeks ago.

This morning I ran into Chris again in Kuwait, and it turns out he is on my same flight from Kuwait to Amsterdam again. Small world. We have been taking turns watching each others bags in the airport, and generally hanging out. It's always nice see a familiar face.

Chris is a cartoonist, and he just spent a week in Mosul on an embed to get material for his comic strip (and you thought I was crazy). At any rate I thought I would pass along the link to his website so you can check out his comic strip. He doesn't have any Iraq themed strips yet, but I'm sure he will soon.

Day by Day, by Chris Muir:

UPDATE: I've also added Chris' comic strip to the bottom of this page (it will update daily).

UPDATE II (March 8th): Chris has a humorous travelogue posted on The Fourth Rail today. For those that aren't familiar with it, Bill Roggio's Fourth Rail is definitely the most comprehensive and credible independent source of daily news on the wars in Iraq and Afganistan that I am aware of.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Ice Cream

I ate dinner with 1LT Bromgren, SSG Jones and a few others from Bravo Company 1st platoon the other night at the DEFAC on Camp Fallujah. I had just been out on a patrol with SSG Jones that morning.

I was getting ready to get up from the table when 1LT Blomgren said, "Aren't you going to have ice cream?"

"No", I responded.

"We ALWAYS have ice cream."

Noncommittal grunt from me.

"This could be the last night you ever have ice cream..."

"Good point. I'm in."

We both had mint chocolate chip, and it was great.

I had ice cream again tonight at the McDonalds here in Kuwait... you never know if it's going to be your last ice cream.

Little things I find surprising

I arrived in Kuwait a few hours ago, and although I've only been gone for a week and half, my perspective has still changed.

It's evening here, and I just saw a helicopter fly over with it's lights ON! In Iraq most routine helicopter flights take place at night, and all helicopters totally blacked out at night to make it harder for insurgents to shoot at them.

I took a shower, and put on clean civilian clothes for the first time in 10 days (I've been living in a nomex flight suit). It felt good, but foreign. It's a little uncomfortable to not have ten pockets with every thing you could possibly need in easy reach. Where do I up my sat phone and my spare camera batteries?

There are no armed Ugandan guards in front of the PX or the chow hall here. This saves the multiple times daily debate I've been having with various Ugandan guards about where I am, or am not, authorized to enter without a military escort (chow hall: OK, Multi-National Forces West Headquarters: NOGO).

The Mechanics

SSG Hausauer and SGT Resindez of Bravo Company maintenance section, lift a new Bradley transmission controller into place.

FALLUJAH, ANBAR, IRAQ - Normally, mechanics at the company level are just responsible for basic servicing: oil, tires, light repairs, basic stuff. For anything serious, they just pass it on up the chain to the next higher level of maintenance.

The vehicle's operator is responsible for first level maintenance: known as Preventative Maintenance Checks and Services (PMCS). This basically means checking the oil, and making sure the lights work.

Company level maintenance is second level and the next level is the battalion, or "third shop" as it colloquially known in the Army. There are additional levels beyond the third shop, ending at "depot level" maintenance. This same scheme applies to all Army equipment, such as radios and weapons, not just vehicles.

Bravo Company is technically part of the larger 2nd Battalion 136th Infantry, but the rest of the battalion is located on another base several hours away on the other side of Fallujah. And so practically Bravo Company has been on it's own as far as it's normal maintenance chain. Fortunately, Camp Fallujah is a major Marine Corps headquarters, and there are higher level Marine Corps maintenance units available to help out the Bravo mechanics.

However, according to SSG Hausauer, a Bravo Company mechanic, the third shop on Camp Fallujah was so slow, that after the first month they just started doing higher level maintenance themselves. They ordered additional tools and manuals, and started teaching themselves how to do things.

The Bravo Company mechanics were trained as Bradley Fighting Vehicle mechanics, and didn't have any previous experience working on HMMV's, but they dug in and figured it out. Over time they worked their way up to doing most major HMMV maintenance themselves including replacing engines. SGT Resindez the chief troubleshooter, figuring out many of the new problems as they came along.

The Marines don't use the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, and so there weren't any other Bradley mechanics on Camp Fallujah to turn to. The Bravo Company mechanics started figuring out the high level maintenance tasks on this vehicle as well, including pulling turrets.

Every several weeks the mechanics have had to go "outside the wire" with their tracked tank retriever, to recover vehicles that had broken down, or been damaged by IED's. Normally when they head out to do a recovery they have a security element provided by the Camp Fallujah Quick Reaction Force (QRF), which is staffed 24 hours a day by Bravo Company soldiers.

Trips outside the wire to recover battle damaged vehicles are real combat missions into hostile areas, and the mechanics have to be prepared. In addition Camp Fallujah experienced frequent indirect fire attacks (mortars and rockets) during the first 9 months that Bravo Company was there. Including having mortar shells land right outside the motor pool.

During the Iraq summer with temperatures climbing to over 120 degrees, and the Bravo Company mechanics experimented with working nights, in an effort to stay cooler. Unfortunately, the Marines were only working days, and they couldn't get parts or deal with issued that required help from the Marines at night, and so they ended up continuing to work days in the scorching heat.

With the pending move to TQ, it is unclear what the Bravo Company mechanics will be responsible for, during the final four months of their extended tour.

Bringing the interpreters home

Max the interpreter, with his back to the camera, questions a villager.

Here is a great article from ABC about bringing Iraq interpreters back to the United States:


BALAD (AKA: "ANACONDA"), IRAQ - Disembodied voice, closely followed by two distant explosions, "Take cover. Take cover. We are receiving an indirect fire attack." I've been here for 4 hours, and this is the second time I have heard this announcement. A few of my fellow passengers pick up their body armor, and jog to the nearest bunker, but most don't even seem to notice.

I put on my body armor, and taking note of the lack of a general sense of urgency around me, I wander outside to check out the scene. There is a small cluster of transients gathered nervously inside the entrance of the nearest bunker, but the local civilian employees are still chatting in the smoking area. Protected from incoming mortar rounds apparently, by cigarette smoke and laissez fair.

I'm at the Balad fixed wing passenger terminal (AKA: "The PAX Terminal") waiting for a flight to Kuwait. In this case "terminal" describes a group of long green Army tents with plywood floors, and sandbag walls. There are three tents that I've gotten to know over the past few hours.

The first tent is the ticket counter, where three KBR employees stand behind desktop computers. There is a large whiteboard that lists the days flights arriving and departing for places named: BIAQ, TQ, Kuwait International, Ali Al Saleem, Mosul, and Al Asad, to name a few.

The second tent is innocuously named B-2, but it is really a never-never land of cots and sleeping soldiers, where you go to wait indefinitely in hopes that there will be space for you on a flight that is going your way. People can wait here for days, I had been told to allow at least 3 days to get from Fallujah to Kuwait.

I wait here for a few hours, and then go back to the first tent to check on my status. My first choice flight has been cancelled... There is another flight in two hours, but it doesn't have any seats. The woman tells me be back at 7:20 am to see if there are any no shows for the full flight.

At 7:30 I'm waiting at the counter in hopes of an open seat. A new shift has started since that last time I was here, and the woman working the counter seems irritated by my Press ID, and the fact that I'm making her call to check on the status of "line 10", the flight to Ali Al Saleem, Kuwait. She doesn't seem to have any desire to answer a direct question, but she takes my Press ID and tells me to go to a third tent.

Tent A-3 has lines of benches setup like a church pews, and they are full of soldiers. Outside is a small group of civilians, and a few older more senior soldiers. I join the outside group, and soon start a conversation with a middle aged Sergeant from the Tennessee National Guard who is on his way to Qatar on a 4 day pass. A Lieutenant Colonel from the Maryland National Guard joins our conversation. She is stationed in Kuwait, or "confined" as she describes it, and is returning to her unit from a "vacation" in Iraq. She has a 7 year old daughter at home, who she hasn't seen since July.

Happily, tent A-3 is the waiting area for passengers who have been manifested on the next flight. It would have been nice of the KBR lady at the counter to explain this to me. Within a few minutes a seasoned Army master sergeant begins a roll call of the flight manefest. He is on his way to R&R, and has been press ganged into the job by a KBR employee who can't seem to be bothered to do it himself.

We stack our bags on the side of the road, and a group of civilian contractors palletizes them so that they can be loaded onto the aircraft in one forklift friendly bundle. Then we board busses to the flight line, and proceed to pack 72 humans into a C130 bound for Kuwait. The seats are just as uncomfortable as last time, but I'm on my way home.

BREAKING NEWS: Bravo Company 2/136 moving to TQ

Captain Chip Rankin briefs Bravo Company 2/136 soldiers on their impending move from Falluja to TQ.

FALLUJAH, ANBAR, IRAQ - Bravo Company 2nd Battalion 136th Infantry, 34th Brigade Combat Team, Minnesota National Guard, currently based in Fallujah, Iraq, just received the official news that it will be moving from Fallujah to "TQ". TQ is the base where to rest of the 2nd Battalion 136th Infantry is stationed.

Bravo Company has been in limbo for the past month since the surge was announced, and the entire 34th Brigade Combat Team's tour in Iraq was extended by four months. Before the surge was announced, a Marine Corps infantry battalion was scheduled to replace Bravo Company in Fallujah , and they began to arrive this week in accordance with the pre-surge planning.

With the arrival of Bravo Company's Marine Corps replacements this week there has been a debate as to how best to use Bravo Company. The Marines were expecting to take over Bravo Company's present offices, housing, motor pool, and equipment including things like crew served weapons and radios.

With two units contending for the same scarce resources, the decision was made to return Bravo Company to Army control, and let the Marines take full responsibility for the security of Camp Fallujah, which is primarily a Marine Corps base.

The mood of Bravo Company soldiers was generally positive at today's announcement. TQ has better amenities, like phone service, and recreational facilities. And the rumor mill claims that the chow hall there is better.

There has been no official announcement as to Bravo Company's mission at TQ, but the general expectation is that it will be considerably safer, not involving the sorts of offensive combat operations that the company has been engaged in around Camp Fallujah for the past 6 months.

Note: There is a photo gallery of this briefing here:

Friday, February 16, 2007

New photos from Fallujah - Day 8

I went out on another meet and greet patrol this morning. Captian Rankin took Colonel Stewart out to tour Pump House Faladers, and meet another minor sheik, whose village is right outside the south gate of Camp Fallujah.

I apologize for the lack of comments on these photos, as I rush get packed for my flight out this evening. Hopefully I'll have better internet access over the next few days, and I can update them.

Technical difficulties

We had heavy rain here in Iraq last night, and I wasn't able to get a good satellite connection to upload pictures (4000ms ping times and 95% packet loss for the geeks reading this).

We also had to do the television upload in a non-standard way, and apparently the audio was lost in transmission. Maybe weather related, maybe operator error...

Not to worry... we will resend everything again later today. Along with today's stuff.

Today is my last day in Fallujah, a day earlier than planned due lack of open helicopter flights tomorrow. But I still have a ton of additional photos and lots of stuff to write about, so stay tuned for the next week or two...

UPDATE: The clouds went away, and we have a sunny afternoon, and my satellite modem is working great. Moral of the story: BGAN does NOT work in rain or heavy clouds, and loves clear skies (1500ms ping times now, and 8% packet loss... MUCH happier). Photo upload in progress.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Soldiers names

I have a system of index cards and mug shots to help me identify all the people in my photos, but it's not perfect, and sometime I'm in a hurry to just get something posted... That is all a 'round-about way of asking for your help:

If you know someone in a photo that I have not identified in the caption, please put their name in a comment, and I will update the caption as soon as I can.

The incessant hum...

... of generators is the one universal truth that I've found of the Iraq war. Everywhere I go in Kuwait or Iraq there is a generator running, often multiple generators. There are certainly hundreds of generators running on Camp Fallujah at any given moment, and there may even be thousands of them.

Their incessant hum blends into the background fairly quickly, except when you are shooting video, or recording audio, and then it is a nagging pain that just won't go away. If the meter on your audio isn't registering sound constantly it means something is broken, because there is no such thing a quiet here.

This morning they had to take the MWR internet center, were I was working on my email, down for an hour because they had to service the generator. Surprisingly, I've never noticed a fuel truck on Camp Fallujah. Perhaps the diesel fairy comes around every night, I'm not sure.

New photos from Fallujah - Day 7

I was able to spend another day outside the wire today with CPT Rankin and COL Stewart the new Marine commander of Camp Fallujah, and CPT Rankin's direct superior.

The primary purpose of our mission was to introduce COL Stewart, who has only been here in Fallujah a week, to the local Sheik and to the manager of the local water treatment plant.

The water treatment plant is currently broken, and engineers from Camp Fallujah have been working to help get it working.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


I'm sorry that I haven't written much in the past couple of days. I'm prioritizing on shooting photos and video, and there just aren't enough hours in the day.

I have lots of stories in progress, and I should have lots of time to write next week as I work my way home "space a".

New photos from Fallujah - Day 6

I spent today focused on the Bravo Company headquarters platoon, including the medics, supply, commo, the arms room, and the mechanics. I did some fun video interviews with all of these groups, and hopefully you will be able to see some of them on KSTP this evening (note: all KSTP programming is available on the web the following day).

I'm working on a special in-depth profile of SGT Ruben Resendiz and his family in cooperation with the Crookston Daily Times, and so that is the reason that there are quite a few pictures of him today. More details over the next several days...

Here is the link to today's photos:

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

How do you define "nothing going on"?

On Monday I stopped in the First Sergeant's office to see if anything interesting was going on, and find out where I would get the most interesting stories for the day. He said that it was going to be a quiet day, and there was really "nothing going on", but why didn't I go hang out with 3rd platoon for the day.

I got to 3rd platoon's area to let them know that I would be in the area all day, and they said they were heading out in an hour, and I should get my stuff (body armor and water) if I wanted to go (that was the mission that I photographed sweeping a village for weapons).

Fairly interesting stuff for me, but so routine for Bravo Company that everyone I asked said that there was "nothing going on" today. That's because many Bravo Company soldiers have been doing this sort of thing 6 days a week for almost a year, and going out on a combat patrol is about as unusual for them as doing their laundry (actually most of them only do their laundry once a week).

I've learned that I have to ask people WHAT they are doing today, instead of whether they are doing anything I might find interesting...

Questions and concerns:

I've been getting a lot of email from you all over the past week, and I apologize for not having had a chance to respond to it all personally. Here are a couple of common questions:

Q: Why aren't you, or when are you going to, show other Minnesota troops besides Bravo Company.

A1: Transportation in Iraq is very slow/difficult/unperdictable (read some of my earlier posts about the trip from Kuwait to Fallujah), if I tried to visit other bases I would be spending my entire 2 weeks waiting for helicopters instead of taking pictures.

A2: I thought there was more value in focusing on just one group of soldiers, and really taking the time to get to know them in order to provide in-depth coverage that is hopefully representative of all the Minnesota Guard soldier serving in Iraq to some extent.

Q: Are you endangering soldier by tell where they are? Are you endangering a soldier's family by saying where they are from?

A1: I have very strict guidelines about what I can an cannot write about. I will never write about future operations, or operations still in progress, and I will not discuss military locations in Iraq that are not already widely known by insurgents.

A2: I believe it is very common practice to list a soldier's hometowns, it helps readers/viewers identify with the soldiers. That said, if any individual or soldiers family had a problem with their hometown being listed I would certainly remove it from my website and photos immeadiately.

The worst sound in Iraq...

... is a medivac helicopter. Camp Fallujah's hospital is only a few hundred meters from Bravo Company's area here on Camp Fallujah, and we've seen two medivac helicopters come in this morning (it's 8:00 am here).

To be very clear these are NOT carrying Bravo Company soldiers, or Minnesota National Guard soldiers to the best of my knowledge, and no Bravo Company soldier has been wounded in the week that I've been here, with exception of one broken ankle (a non-combat injury).

But almost everyone in Bravo Company has seen a medivac come in for one of their own at some point in the field, they know what it means. And when one flies over our area to land at the hospital you see people visibly disturbed.

KSTP coverage

Here is the link to watch my daily spots on KSTP Channel 5 News in Minneapolis:

New photos from Fallujah - Day 5

Here are the latest pictures from Fallujah:

Monday, February 12, 2007

Watch me on KSTP Channel 5

KSTP Channel 5 Minneapolis ran my first piece on the 10:00pm news last night. I don't know if it ran on any other Minnesota ABC stations.

For those of you that live outstate, or don't have time to sit glued to your TV, you should be able to watch the stories online at the KSTP website soon (no link yet).

4x6 prints available

I've had multiple requests for prints of the pictures I've been posting. Unfortunately, the size of the digital images I've been able upload from Iraq are too small to do enlargements, but on consideration they should print fine at 4x6.

And so 4x6 prints are now available of all the photos I'm posting from Iraq for $5.00

After I get back I will update all photos to full sized digital originals, and you will be able order prints of you soldier up to poster size 20x30.

Help bring Max the interpreter home

I think I've found one cause where we can actually make a little difference on the war here in Iraq with this little project.

Max is an 18 year old Iraqi man from Baghdad, he has been working for the coalition forces as an interpreter since he was 16 years old, first with the Marines, and for the past year with Bravo company. Max appears in several pictures I took on yesterday's patrol, in every picture his face is covered to protect his identity, and we take extreme care to make sure we don't do anything that might reveal his identity.

He has been in combat almost daily for 17 months. He wears the same uniform and carries the same weapons as our soldiers, but he has no formal military training. He has been IED'd multiple times, and holds his own in every fire fight. There is no doubt that if he were to return to Baghdad today he would be killed, and so he has no choice but to keep doing what he is doing.

Max's father is unemployed, and he and Max's mother and two brothers live in a dangerous part of Baghdad (they all are I guess). Max sends most of the $1,000 dollars he earns each month home to support his family.

Captain Chip Rankin, the Bravo Company commander, is launching a full force campaign to bring Max home to the US with Bravo Company. There are 8 interpreters with Bravo Company, but only one Max, he has given a great deal, essentially given up the rest of his life in Iraq to support his family, and he is still one of the most cheerful, charming, exceptional people you have ever met.

Max's ambitions are modest. He would like to finish high school, and then maybe join the US Military. The military is the only thing he knows, and so I think his eyes may open to broader options when he gets to US, and sees that there is more to life than war.

Unfortunately the official waiting list to get Max to the US is years long in Max's circumstances, and there are no easy answers. So what can we do to help? Get the word out, and make sure that our elected officials know Max's story.

Governor Pawlenty, Senators Coleman and Kolbuchar, and all Minnesotans serving in government, you assistance is greatly appreciated.

Thanks for your support

Thank you to:

Rod Stroud
Paul Brazelton
Betsy Bowen
Deborah Doran

For your additional financial support!

I'm going to work on posting more soldier portraits.

A few notes about pictures

A) I will probably take several thousand pictures over the course of this trip. I took 617 today, and had to cut them down to the 17 that I felt were the best, and told the story of the day.

B) I am uploading the pictures at a size that is too small to print well, because my bandwidth is very limited and expensive from Iraq, and so I have disabled printing for now.

C) After I get back I will put full-sized originals of all the decent pictures up on my website, and you will be able to purchase prints or digital originals.

First patrol and new pictures from Day 4

I went out on my first patrol today with 3rd platoon of Bravo Company, and we searched a small village near the Pump House Barney FOB (Forward Operating Base) for weapons and intelligence. This patrol was very quiet in contrast to the Blue Bongo story I wrote several days ago. And this story is far more typical of what Bravo Company soldiers do 5-6 days a week.

Here is a link to the best pictures from the day:

Each picture has a caption, and together they form a photo essay of the patrol.

Daily Live Interviews on WTIP at 10:15AM Central Time

Eric will be calling into WTIP daily for about a week starting today (Monday). He will be on air at 10:15 AM. The broadcast area is Grand Marais (90.7 FM) and the Upper Gunflint Trail (91.7 FM). You can also listen through the web by going to and click on the Moose on the left hand side.

You can listen at 10:15 through the radio or on line!

Sunday, February 11, 2007


I'm working on a couple of larger articles that aren't ready to go yet, but I just wanted to make a comment about the attitude and emotional state of the Minnesota soldiers I have the pleasure of covering.

Everyone seems to exude a sense of quiet confidence... "We've been here for a year, and there isn't anything we can't handle."

And after a year here everyone still seems quick with a joke and a smile. I hear a lot of laughter and see a lot of good natured ribbing.

New photos from Fallujah Day 3

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Internet problems and expenses

The internet here on Camp Fallujah has been having huge problems ever since I got here. There are two free options available to me:

1. Use a military computer in somebody's office. Unfortunately, this has been brutally slow. 15 minutes to load a web page (not kidding). And in order to do this somebody has to unlock their office, and log me in with their official military username and password (not a practical option at 12:20 am).

2. There is also a public internet cafe on post, but it only was about 15 computers, and the line to use them is several HOURS long 7x24. And these computers don't have usable USB ports or CD drives, which prevents me from using them to upload pictures.

I have had several military family members email me saying they hadn't heard from their sons at Camp Fallujah. Don't worry they are fine, they just can't get to their email.

That leaves me with one EXPENSIVE personal option: I have a BGAN internet modem with me, which is an amazing battery powered clam shell device that looks just like a laptop, except that when you flip the screen up it is really a flat satellite "dish". This is great except that to use it to upload 6 pictures, check my email, and make some blog posts this evening cost over $60 dollars! Ouch!!!

Just to remind all my readers: This mission is a self-funded money losing venture. Your DONATIONS to help defray these costs are greatly appreciated!

Special thanks to KSTP, the Crookston Daily Times, and my co-worker Paul Brazelton for their financial support of this project.

New photos from Fallujah - Day 2

The Blue Bongo Battle

Camp Fallujah, Anbar Province, Iraq - During February 9th and 10th elements of the 2nd Battalion of the 136th Infantry Battalion of the 34th Brigade Combat Team of the Minnesota Army National Guard conducted a mission in the area around Camp Fallujah in Anbar Province to prevent insurgents from launching indirect fire attacks into Camp Fallujah while a large number of VIP's visited the base.

On the morning of February 10th the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force under Major General Zilmer officially transfered control of Anbar province to the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force under Major General Gaskin. The ceremony was attended by numerous general officers of US and Iraqi Armies from all over Iraq, as well as the next Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps. Also in attendance were numerous civilian VIP's including the Iraqi governor of Anbar province, and the US Ambassador to Iraq.

The ceremony was held in a large auditorium that has not had it's roof retrofitted to withstand rocket and mortar attacks. There was significant concern that if word of the event leaked out in advance that insurgents would be motivated to launch a coordinated indirect fire attack against the base.

Bravo Company 2/136 was tasked with the mission of preventing this potential attack. After assessing the mission Bravo Company commander Captain Chip Rankin, a highschool teacher and wrestling coach from Lichfield Minnesota, requested additional troops from battalion to be able to effectively conduct the mission.

While this mission was going on, Twin Cities television stations were covering a special ceremony being held in Captain Rankin's honor at the sectional wrestling tournament at Lichfield High School.

Lieutenant Colonel Parks, the 2/136 battalion commander is also a high school teacher from Walker Minnesota. Lieutenant Colonel Parks and elements of Alpha Company 2/136 drove 2 hours from their home base on the other side of Fallujah to reinforce Bravo Company on the mission. "Don't tell my wife I drove.", quipped Lieutenant Colonel Parks. Elements of an Army Engineer Company stationed on Camp Fallujah with specialized IED clearing capabilities also joined the mission.

Several UAV's were tasked to support the mission. UAV's are small quiet unmanned aircraft equipped with cameras that can be used to spy on enemy activity. The UAV's provided an "eye in the sky" that allowed the team to covertly observe locations that insurgents were known to have previously used to fire rockets and mortars into Camp Fallujah.

This observation paid off, and a UAV spotted 6 men in a blue Bongo truck digging holes for IED's next to a road. The Bravo Company mortar section ran a fire mission on the target which is believed to have killed or wounded two of the insurgents. A Bongo is the ubiquitous flat bed truck of Iraq. It is prefered by insurgents, because the bed lifts like a dump truck, and it can be used as an improvised rocket launcher.

The other insurgents loaded their casualties onto the blue Bongo, and fled the area, unaware that a silent predator was stalking their every move from the air. For the next 5 hours the UAVs followed the Blue Bongo around Anbar Province while the team's soldiers followed at a distance in Bradley fighting vehicles, and tried to coordinate an attack. The team's progress was slowed by numerous IED's along the road, and on several occasions they were engaged by small arms fire from other insurgents.

The team identified about 10 IED's during the day, two IED's detonated, and the rest were disarmed before they could explode. In one case the wire from the IED led 300 meters through a village to a cemetery. Apparently the insurgents believe that the Americans are less likely to attach them in a cemetery.

One soldier who did not want to identified, because he did not want his family to know what had almost happened, told me how he had looked over the side of his Bradley, and realized that they had parked on top of an IED. The Bradley quickly pulled forward out of the kill zone, and stopped. They started to dismount the vehicle, and discovered they had parked next to another IED!

Later in the day and significantly outside the normal Bravo Company battle space, the blue Bongo parked at a known insurgent house, next to multiple other vehicles. The location was outside the range of the Marine Corps 155 mm howitzer battery at Camp Fallujah, and so the team attempted to call an airstrike on the house, but there were no air assets immediately available.

As the team planned an attack on the house, 4 insurgents re-loaded the truck, and inexplicably headed back the way they had come, toward Camp Fallujah and the advancing US soldiers. The result of this was a hasty and one sided meeting engagement as the blue Bongo encountered the lead Bradley in a village. The Bradley engaged the Bongo with it's main gun. The result was two injured insurgents, and a damaged Bongo, but the other two insurgents were able to escape temporarily.

But now the insurgents had driven back within range of the 155 mm howitzers on Camp Fallujah. Using the UAV to observe, the team called an artillery fire mission that killed the remaining two insurgents. The return to Camp Fallujah involved several more hours of clearing IED's, and the team finally arrived back on base after 10:00 pm, with no American casualties. This was just another day at the office for the men of Bravo Company.

While many of them were pursuing the blue Bongo, Colonel Bristol the Marine commander that Bravo Company reports to, was delivering the following remarks about Bravo at the transfer of authority ceremony where he turned over his responsibilities to the new incoming Marine commander:

" my sons from the heartland of America. The brilliant men of Bravo Company 2nd of the 136th. I have commanded three times in combat, and they are the finest group of Americans that I have ever had the privilege to command."

High praise by any standard, but particularly coming from a senior Marine Corps officer.

Friday, February 9, 2007

No photos of damaged vehicles

Camp Fallujah, Iraq, with Bravo 2/136 - In the Bravo Company motor pool there are two seriously damaged vehicles that I would love to be able to show you, but I can't. There is a very strict policy against publishing photos of battle damaged vehicles or equipment. The point of the rule is to prevent the enemy for using the photos to assess and improve the effectiveness of their weapons. This seems like a reasonable rule, but it does mean you are missing out on some interesting sights.

Currently there are two "destroyed" Bradley's in the Bravo motor pool. One was damaged by an accident (taking pictures of this vehicle is totally fine... uploaded one earlier today). The other Bradley was severely damaged by an IDE, and I can't take any pictures of it, or describe the damage to you. There is also an up-armored HMMV that was hit by an IDE.

The Ugandan connection and international forces in Iraq

Camp Fallujah, Iraq - Those of you that don't know me personally, are probably unaware that I have a brother who lives in Uganda. How is this relevant you ask?

1) Uganda, as my brother pointed out in an email today is in the same timezone as Iraq (GMT +3). Random but somewhat interesting.

2) The facilities guards around Camp Fallujah are all from Uganda. Very bizarre to an outsider...

If I try to get into the Marine Corps Head Quarters I need to show my ID card to a Ugandan soldier who will then inform me that I need an escort to enter the area. I also need to get past the Ugandans to get into the chow hall for breakfast, but in that case I do not need an escort.

Here is a list of all the different nationalities of soldiers and/or police trainers that I have seen here in Iraq in the past few days:

El Salvador
Denmark (embassy guards I believe)

Fallujah Day 1: Generals and more generals

Camp Fallujah, Iraq with Bravo Company 2/136 - Camp Fallujah is the headquarters of Multinational Force West, and the Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) responsible for Anbar province. Most Army forces in Anbar report to the Marines, and Bravo Company is no exception.

Today marked the official "transition of authority" from the Marine Corps 1 MEF to 2 MEF. At the top of the chain of command that meant that Major General Zilmer was replaced by Major General Gaskin. This change also meant transitions for most subordinate Marine Corps units. This means that the Marine group Bravo Company reports to is now headed by a new colonel, and a new sergeant major.

This also means that a group of Marines that arrived in Fallujah after Bravo Company arrived, is going home before Bravo Company. As you can probably imagine this is a bit of a sore spot with some Bravo soldiers.

As is common with military events like this there was a major ceremony to celebrate this transition, held in the base chapel. Ooriginally built in the Sadam era, the chapel was originally designed as a large auditorium.

The ceremony brought dozens of Army and Marine Corps generals and sergeants major from all over Iraq to Fallujah. There were enough generals in the audience that some of the one star generals were sitting in the third row of seats. There were also quite a few civilian VIP's in the audience, including the US ambassador to Iraq and the Iraqi governor of Anbar province, as well as the most senior sheik in Anbar province.

Most of Bravo Company has been out in the field since before we landed her last night, and so we didn't have much else to do this morning, and so we went to cover the transition ceremony. The ceremony itself was very predictable, if you've ever been to a military change of command, but afterwards I was able to participate in two in-depth interviews with the outgoing Major General Zilmer, and the most influential sheik in the province.

Most of the questions were asked by Tom Bowman from NPR, and a reporter from the Associated Press, but I managed to ask a couple of questions too, and shot the only video of both interviews. Very in depth stuff, with some decent potential for national news interest, in my opinion.

I was also able to ask General Zilmer the outgoing commander if he would be willing to make an on camera comment about the Minnesota National Guard's contributions to his command, and he had some VERY complimentary things to say. I'm sure you'll see that clip on KSTP in the next week.

Later in the day there was a separate transition of authority ceremony for the Marine Corps Group that Bravo Company reports to directly, and the outgoing Colonel Bristol gave a very stirring and colorful talk to the troops, which included glowing compliments for Bravo Company. You'll be seeing these on TV also I'm sure.

Meanwhile the majority of Bravo Company was out in the field hunting terrorists, and missed all the ceremonies and the glowing compliments from their outgoing chain of command. That probably has a lot do with why they deserved the compliments.

The Bravo company mortar section, which is permanently emplaced here on Camp Fallujah fired multiple HE (high explosive) fire missions through the day in support of the Bravo troops in the field. And the Marine Corps 155mm howitzer battery also ran a fire mission in support late in the afternoon.

As I was finishing typing this, CPT Rankin, and LTC Parks, the battalion commander just walked in. It is 10:15 pm here, and they are just getting in from well over 24 hours on a mission. The short situation report was no Bravo casualties, and lots of IED's and small arms fire. CPT Rankin is going to give me a full briefing on the mission in the morning, and I'll hopefully have time to post it later in the day. LTC Parks is staying across the hall from me tonight, and I'm going to interview him tomorrow also.

New pictures posted from the day in Fallujah (February 9th)

Here is a link to a few of today's pictures taken in Fallujah today:

We're having some serious internet issues here today, and so I'm using my Bgan satellite internet modem to upload these. Bandwidth on the Bgan costs $12/megabyte, and so I'm having to severely limit the amount of stuff I upload, and the amount of time I spend on email (your donations welcome to support this).

I'll have an article about the days activities in a few hours...

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Helicopter ride to Fallujah

Fallujah, Iraq - At about 6:00 pm a guy in civilian clothes walked into the heliport where we had been waiting for a ride to Fallujah all day, and figuring me for a press guy, came over and introduced himself as Tom Bowman, the National Public Radio Pentagon Corespondent.

Well it has been quite a day for me and NPR. It turns out that Tom was also on his way to Fallujah, because of a fairly major news event that will be occurring HERE in the next couple of days. I'll post the details as soon as we confirm them in the morning.

Tom is going to be staying here in Fallujah the next week also, and so I'm looking forward to spending some more time with him, and learning about military reporting from one of the true experts in the field.

At 7:15 pm we were lounging around in the heliport office watching "Finding Nemo", and chatting with Tom Bowman when the specialist running the desk announced a little excitedly that his computer was showing that our helicopter was already on the ground (15 minutes early) and we should grab our gear and hustle out to the helipad.

We threw on our body armor and picked up all our gear, and trotted out to look for our helicopter. I turns out that there were 2 Marine Corps Sea Stallions (? need to confirm designation ?) sitting out there on the pad with their rotors spinning.

We hustled over to where the loadmasters were forming up some other passengers who had been waiting somewhere else, and I proceeded to listen in on the coversation/negotiation going on between the loadmasters, one of the specialist from the heliport office, and a Iraqi man. The Iraqi man had 4 men that he was trying get on the flight to Fallugah, the specialist from the heliport office was trying to get us on, and it wasn't quite clear how many spaces there really were available.

Some passengers, like Tom Bowman, had what amounted to confirmed reservations, but CPT Lappegaard and I and two well armed serious looking guys who weren't wearing any military insignia on their nomex flight suits were all on standby. Apparently the 4 Iraqi's were also on standby, and their manager was getting pretty heated with the crew about getting his guys on. I think he was irritating the loadmasters pretty severely because one of them finally just grabbed the 4 of us ambiguously military looking guys, and took us out to his helicopter leaving at least 2 of the Iraqi's on the pad.

We got to talking to our other 2 mysterious standby passengers after we landed in Fallujah, and it turned out that they were NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigation Service) Agents on short term assignment to Fallujah. One of them said he normally works on cold case murder investigations. Sometimes life really is like TV.

Back to the flight to Fallujah: We loaded up on the helicopter and I got to sit right behind one of the waist door gunners. There was another machine gun setup on the ramp, and we flew the whole way with ramp down and the tail gunner perched out there on the edge.

The gunners all charged their weapons as soon as we took off, and we flew totally blacked out over the city. The view with the side windows open and the ramp down was pretty spectacular as we flew out over the city. I was surprised by how many lights there were. It really looked a lot like flying over any smaller American city. Tons of street lights and some cars driving, but no obvious city center.

Flying at night with all the doors and windows open is COLD! Next time I'm definitely putting on my long underwear first.

We made one stop along the way to drop off some people at another airfield, and then on to Fallujah. Fallujah was very dark, and jogging off the helicopter carrying a ton of gear toward somebody waving a chem-light definitely felt a little tactical.

And so 65 hours after walking out the door of my house in Minneapolis I'm standing on the side of a dark LZ (landing zone) in one of the more notoriously dangerous cities in Iraq.

Happily the LZ is in the middle of a large and well secured base, and so we gratefully take off our body armor, and start looking for a place to sleep for the night.

We can't get Bravo Company to answer the phone, and the Marines we are with don't know where they are, and so we head to the Marine Corps transient billets (another big tent on a concrete pad) to get some sleep. We'll figure out where Bravo Company is in the morning.

Why no "real" photos yet?

Some of you are starting to wonder why you haven't seen any "real" photos on the blog yet of soldiers and helicopters and military stuff in general?

I have been working under a very specific, and very limited, set of rules of engagement over the first few days of the trip. Basically, I was not allowed to take any pictures of military stuff, or do any other military "news gathering" until I arrive in Fallujah, and connect up with the unit I'm embedding with. This means I've seen some great shots, and been forced to leave my cameras (all 3 of them) in their hard cases.

I've made a judgement call that the few photos that I have taken are purely autobiographical, and don't violate the letter or the spirit of the Embed Rules that I signed and initialed in over 30 places this morning. At worst violating these rules could get me immediately kicked out of the country, and I'm taking them very seriously.

Happily, I just arrived in Fallujah this evening, and I should be free to start taking real pictures tomorrow morning!

Waiting for a helicopter

Washington Army Heliport, Green Zone, Baghdad, Iraq - This was the point where our little journalistic band of brothers separated, with CPT Lappegaard and I going one way, and the Fayetteville reporters and the cartoonist that I have been traveling with since Amsterdam going some others.

Our ride to the heliport was with CPT Kunkel, who showed up half way through lunch, and radiated a strong unspoken sense that we shouldn't keep her waiting. We threw the rest of lunch in the trash and scrambled into our body armor, and loaded our gear in her SUV for a short ride across the Green Zone to the heliport.

Once again we are low priority, space available, passengers. Fighting the war is more important that giving rides to journalists...

There are rarely direct helicopter flights from the Green Zone to Fallujah, and so our plan was to catch a ride to Al Asad Air Base, and then catch another flight from there to Fallujah. As it turns out there is direct flight to Fallujah tonight leaving at 9:30 pm. We're manifested for it, and hopefully we won't get bumped. CPT Lappegaard thinks this flight has a better chance of getting us all the way to Fallujah today than the Al Asad route.

Waiting for this flight means we have 9 hours to kill at this heliport which is really just a couple of hard wooden benches under a camouflage net, with a lot of really loud helicopters coming an going. Fortunately the main PX is just across the street, and so we have a good supply of snacks (aka "pogie bait"), and I bought some souvenirs including some stickers to put on my hard camera cases.

The stickers are smaller versions of the big red and white Arabic and English signs that appear on the back of US military vehicles at the ends of convoys, and at the front gates of military installations here.

The first one says:


And the second one says:


There were other signs with phrases that included things like: "DANGER EXPLOSIVES" and "DEADLY FORCE AUTHORIZED", but I decided I should avoid stickers that could be misconstrued to be referring to the contents of my Pelican cases.

Sitting here is good people watching, just like any other airport. I've seen well dressed Iraq civilians (Iraqi government officials presumably). There are Peruvian (yes you read that correctly) soldiers pulling security around the heliport, and checking ID's when you enter the area. There was a group of Australian soldiers earlier. And there is a steady flow of civilian contractors, mostly slightly overwieght American men in their 40's with long hair or beards.

The US soldiers have been heavy on colonels and command sergeant majors over the last hour, although all ranks have been represented. Surprisingly, (to me) it has been almost an even 50/50 split between males and females.

With 6 hours to go, there will probably be more to this story before we catch our flight...

The flight has been moved up to 6:30 pm (good), but there are more people trying to get on it (bad). If we don't make this flight it could mean an extra unproductive day. I'm hoping for the best.

We just had a flight of British Puma helicopters come in and drop of a bunch of British troops. I used to ride on British Pumas occasionally when I was on active duty in Europe in the 80's, but I haven't seen one since. Peacetime Puma rides were a lot more fun than peace time American Blackhawk rides. The British forces were strong believers in "train like you fight", and Puma rides were always VERY low and VERY fast.

We just had annother gaggle of American colonels (various branches of service) come through, all catching a helicopter to BIAP, to catch a flight to Qatar on a 4 day pass.

Hangin' at the CPIC

John McChesney, National Public Radio editing audio in the press room at CPIC

Combined Press Information Center, Green Zone, Baghdad, Iraq - We were at the head of the line this morning, and I know have my official CPIC "Press ID", and we are free to head out of Fallujah.

We have a ride to the helicopter LZ at noon to try to hitch a ride to Fallujah. In the meantime we're hanging out in the press lounge chatting with some of the other journalists that are here.

I had a nice chat with John McChesney of National Public Radio. I'm a big fan of NPR News, and John is definitely somebody I admire a lot.

CPT Lappegaard had an extended conversation about the current political situation in Iraq with a Urban Hamid, a Swedish journalist, who comes to Iraq regularly, and because of his nationality is a little more free to travel independently and meet with Iraqi leaders.

CPT Lappegaard has been in-country for almost a year, Urban has made numerous trips here, and so I pretty much kept my mouth shut and paid attention. No sound bites, but definitely an interesting international exchange of political ideas.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Kuwait to Baghdad

Boarding the bus for our flight to Baghdad. Photo by CPT Mark Lappegaard

Green Zone, Baghdad, Iraq - The bus for our flight from Kuwait to Baghdad really did leave at 5:20 pm as advertised, and the trip proceeded at military speed (hurry up and wait).

The trip from the "terminal" (a BIG tent on a concrete slab), took us on a scenic tour of the air base. As far as I could tell we circled the entire perimeter of the base, nearly back to our starting point, to get to our C130.

A highlight of this tour was looking at battle damage from the first Gulf War. There were dozens of huge concrete aircraft hangers scattered around the base that were originally each designed to protect a single fighter aircraft from bombing. In can now tell you from first hand personal observation that a big box made out of 10+ foot thick concrete is the last place to you want to hide an aircraft that you would like to protect from bombing. Every single hangar had one and only one big jagged hole punched in the top or side by a precision guided US bomb.

We boarded the aircraft in the dark, and then proceeded to wait. If you've ever ridden in a C130, you know that it's not the most comfortable aircraft to sit around in. There are 4 red fabric benches facing each other down the length of the aircraft, and they are so close together that your knees touch the bench facing you. You end up alternating legs with the people across from you like a zipper, and you literally have no room to move. If somebody needs to get up to use the facilities they have to walk on the people in the seats next to them, because there is no place else to step.

First we waited for the pallets with our luggage to be loaded on the tail ramp of the aircraft by a forklift, and then we were informed that we were going to have to wait for some additional passengers... a general officer and his entourage apparently. An hour later the general and friends finally boarded from the front of the aircraft (because the pallets were blocking the tail ramp now) and we took off for Baghdad.

I've heard stories about steep zero g dives and evasive maneuvers on the landing at BIAP (Baghdad International Airport), and I can now tell you that they are greatly exaggerated. We made a relatively steep descent, and some hard banking turns, but I've had commercial airline landings in bad weather that were equally exciting. The load-masters watched for ground fire with night vision goggles through the windows in the rear troop doors, but other than that it seemed pretty routine.

As soon as we landed the general and his party exited through the front door, but we had to wait for the pallets to be (quickly) unloaded so that we could use the tail ramp. By the time we were walking down the ramp the general's flight of black hawk helicopters was taking off to whisk him to the green zone presumably.

We hiked over to the "terminal" (another temporary structure), collected our baggage, and found the bus to Camp Stryker, which is another area on the grounds of the airport. At Camp Stryker we signed up for a Rhino ride to the green zone.

We waited around until 10:00 pm to get in line to manifest for the bus ride, departure time TBD, and then come back for a briefing at 11:00 pm. It turns out that the earliest possible departure was 1:00 am, and it could be as late as 3:00 am. Good news, the DFAC opens at 11:30 pm for midnight chow.

Hike a half a mile to the DEFAC in the dark, and find it after a couple of missed turns. French toast and Frosted Flakes makes the fact that none of us have had more than a couple of hours of sleep in the past few days seem much more tolerable. Hike back to the bus stop.

The Rhino convoy finally arrives with a load of people from the Green Zone around 2:00 am and we form a human chain to load all of our baggage onto a semi-trailer. We are expressly forbidden from taking any pictures of the Rhinos or the trip, and so I should not describe them in detail either, but suffice it to say they are big bomb proof buses designed specifically for this run back and forth from the airport to the Green Zone.

The Baghdad Airport road has the reputation as the most dangerous stretch of road on the planet (see Wikipedia), but tonight the ride was uneventful. Actually, I slept through almost the entire ride, and so I can only report second hand that nothing happened. And apparently that has been the norm for the past year or so. I am also sorry to report that I have no idea what Baghdad looks like, having slept through my tour (I promise to pay more attention in Fallujah).

After another human chain to unload all our luggage from the semi-trailer, and a lift in an SUV from some friendly Green Zone PAO (Public Affairs) soldiers we finally arrived at CPIC (the Combined Press Information Center) at 4:00 am. A good 6 hours after the general on his black hawk probably arrived in the Green Zone.

Rank has it's privileges...

First article in the Crookston Paper

UPDATE: And a second article (reposted from my blog):

Thanks for your support Mike!

Minnesota Nice

Unnamed Airbase, Kuwait - I've been waiting for a flight to Baghdad with two reporters for the Fayetteville Observer, and CPT Mark Lappegaard, my personal escort from the 34th Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs Office. Mark is Minneapolis native who currently lives in Duluth with his wife Edel, a native of Norway.

Flying standby is a game of wishful thinking followed by dashed hopes with any airline, and the US Air Force is no different. We were originally hoping to manifest on a flight at 10:30 am, but our names weren't called (hopes dashed). At 3:00 pm we gathered again with guarded optimism that this time it would be our turn. As they went down the list they called out one of the Fayetteville reporters names and then my name, but CPT Laapegaard and the other Fayetteville reporter were not called (confusion). They had managed to break up both of our parties, which didn't do any of us any good.

We discussed the situation, and I volunteered to give up my seat to the second Fayetteville reporter so they could stay together, and CPT Lappegaard and I would standby for the next flight at 7:00 pm. The Fayetteville guys were surprised and very grateful that I would do this. I explained "Minnesota Nice", and started getting my gear together to go to the internet cafe for a few hours. Fortunately, before I could leave they announced that there were more open seats on the 3:00 pm flight. CPT Lappegaard and I both made to revised list, and all four of us were on the plane.

Ah, the power of good kharma!

(Still waiting for the "3:00 pm" flight that apparently really leaves at 5:20 pm...)

Breakfast of champions

Unnamed Airbase, Kuwait - I'm killing time waiting for a flight to Baghdad. I'm 9 hours off my normal timezone, and I should be catching some sleep (I'll need it later). But between the timezone and the excitement I had a hard time sleeping, and so I headed to the DFAC (chow hall) for breakfast as soon as it opened at 5:30 am.

As it turns out the DFAC here doesn't allow backpacks, and so I detoured next door to Mcdonalds which was more accomidating of my baggage. McDonalds here is a 24 walkup window, unfortunately they don't do a breakfast menu. I ordered my McBurger and fries (the burger had some vaguely Middle Eastern name, but it was really a "Big and Tasty"). When my order was ready, I found a place to sit at a picnic table with SPC Nanni of the Oregon National Guard.

Unnamed Airbase is transient hub for all troops in Iraq and Afganistan going on leave and returning from leave. SPC Nanni was heading back to Afganistan after emergency leave back home. He's in an infantry unit and has another 5 months left in his tour. Luckily for him troops in Afganistan aren't having their tours extended like the Minnesota National Guard in Iraq.

UPDATE: 5:00 pm - I just found SPC Nanni sitting on his duffle bag reading a copy of Stars & Stripes. We're not the only ones playing the waiting game.

Should I drink the blue latte or the red latte?

Kuwait City Airport, Kuwait - Starbucks Coffee and Caribou Coffee sit right next to each other in arrivals area of the Kuwait City Airport, seperated by a neutral Cinnabon. In one of these familiar establishments lurks the white rabbit ready to offer me the red pill (this as reference to the movie, The Matrix, for anyone that is throughly confused). Take the red pill and start a strange trip into another world.

Every night he sits there, a blond man with short hair in civilian clothes, who seems to know everybody that works in the airport. SSG Kevin Buckley picks up arriving journalists everyday, 24 hours a day, and expertly sheperds them out of the airport, through the desert, and into another world at an Unnamed airbase in the Kuwaiti desert.

The transition from the polished chrome of the airport to dirt roads and a tent city in the desert is dramatic. The Kuwait City Airport shows no sign that a war is being fought just a few miles to the north, but out in the desert our passports are triple checked, and a serious and heavily armed security team searches our vehicle for explosives. We spend the night in a brown tent that flaps in the wind, and the air is thick with dust.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Target in sight

Iraqi airspace, north of Mosul - I'm not sure why I find this surprising, but there is no war in the air at 30,000 feet over Iraq, civilian aircraft are welcome. Our flight path takes us directly over Mosul, a little west of Kirkuk, east of Baghdad, and on into Kuwait.

I realize the insurgants don't have an air force, or long range surface to air to air missiles, but I would still have thought the airspace would have been restricted. The US Air Force is obviously flying combat missions in this airspace all the time, but close air support doesn't happen anywhere near this altitude.

The power of a photo

Photo by: Joe Rosenthal

KLM flight 457, somewhere over Romania - With no photos to process, and no stories to write yet, I decided to watch a movie. I'm a WWII buff, and I picked Flag of our Fathers, without knowing anything about it except that it was made by Clint Eastwood, and that it is set in WWII.

Little did I know that this is a movie about, a single combat photo. Specifically, the famous picture of the Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima. At the beginning of the movie the narrator claims the ability of a photo to win or loose a war, and contrasts the flag raising photo with another famous photo from the Vietnam war of a South Vietnamese officer executing a prisoner with a pistol shot to the head.

The movie was definitely a serendipitous choice, and food for thought. I'm under no delusions that I will ever take a picture this powerful, but it's still a heady reminder that a camera has a power of it's own in war.

But the story is also a cautionary tale about "truth"... The photo actually shows a team of men raising a second replacement flag later in the day, not the original soldiers who were the first to the top of the mountain. The men in the photo became heros, and the men who fought their way to the top of the mountain are virtually unknown.

Phase Line Amsterdam

Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam - First leg of the trip from the US completed, getting ready to board my flight to Kuwait.

I lived in Europe for several years in the 80's, but there are still things that surprise me just walking through the airport. For instance finding a female janitor mopping the restroom floor under the urinals as the male visitors (myself included) go about their business a few urinals down. This isn't new to me, but it's been 15 years, and I was still a little taken aback.

For international readers: In the US they put up a closed sign when they are cleaning the restrooms, and there would NEVER be a female in a men's restroom unless it was closed.

Sierra Papa (start point)

North Atlantic, 100 miles south of Iceland - A Northwest Airlines Airbus A330 is a pretty comfortable troop transport compared to the troopship my grandfather and his men road across the Atlantic to North Africa 64 years ago as Combat Engineers in World War II.

I've taken this Northwest flight from Minneapolis to Amsterdam many times before, en-route to vacations in Scandinavia, England, and Italy. This flight isn't much different, but my eyes have changed. As I board I notice a scattering of ACU (the new digital Army camouflage pattern) backpacks in the overhead compartments. There are only a few men in uniform, but the others are fairly obvious if you are looking for them. Men with "high and tight" hair cuts and casual civilian clothes who don't look like tourists or business people. American soldiers on their way back to another war in a desert.

There are undoubtedly service women on the flight too, but they don't make themselves so obvious. I'll have to wait to see who picks up those ACU backpacks in the overhead compartments when we get off the plane.

Most of the soldiers on this flight are probably on their way back to Iraq from a leave at home with their families. Being able to hop on a plane, and in 24 hours be home with your family makes the war feel civilized to me, just another business trip. But I know it's not.

In the gate area in Minneapolis a young soldier in the ubiquitous grey sweatshirt with ARMY across the front and a baseball cap was saying goodbye to his mother while a pretty girl with tears in her eyes hung on to him tightly. How long will it be before he sees them again? Six months? A year?

For me this really is a business trip. I'm going to spend a couple weeks in Fallujah taking pictures, and appearing on TV and radio, and then hop back on Northwest Airlines. My wife will pick me up at the airport, and I'll be back to my comfortable life before I know it.

But I suspect that when I get back I'll have a new perspective on the war, and hopefully I'll have had an opportunity to share it with many of you. It's not civilized, and it's definitely not routine, and ignoring the problem won't make it go away.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Getting equipment ready

Here's a quick shot of the kitchen table this evening. Getting things organized, and putting the finishing touches on my plate carrier. A plate carrier is a vest that holds armor plates, and has lots of molle loops on the outside to rig gear (one of the big pains about body armor is that you loose access to all the pockets on your shirt). Mine currently has a satellite phone, a maglite, a leatherman, and a couple of pouches for extra camera batteries, memory cards, and video tape (photojournalist ammunition).

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Status Update

Minneapolis, Minnesota - I've been busy at the "day job" wrapping up things in preparation to be gone for 3 weeks, and so I'm a little behind on some of my communications. I'm planning to get caught up this weekend... stay tuned!

FYI: My current expectation is that I will arrive in Fallujah on the 9th, so that will probably be when the first "real" stories and photos start appearing here and in the media

Why I think this is important

Minneapolis, Minnesota - I've been getting some nice emails from the family members of Minnesota National Guard soldiers in Iraq, who are becoming aware of what I'm doing. This is the sort of thing that really reinforces my resolve that this is worthwhile project!
I got the message about you going over to Iraq to follow our guys - THANK
YOU - more than you will know!!!! I personally have 2 sons over there and
all information that we get seems sketchy at best. There has been lots of
disappointments along the way. It is good to see some active coverage of
this for our guys who have been gone so long. The only coverage or
recognition they seem to get is if someone comes home in a body bag. Then
and only then the media is reminding us that they are over there. Many
people from MN have forgotten that these soldiers are there day in and day
out and have been for about a year now and not sure of homecoming date. So
thank you for doing this for our guys and us back home.
And another:
I am looking forward to your trip... my husband is currently serving with the MNANG- should be an interesting trip for you! Good luck and thanks for doing this!
Thanks for your support!

Day by Day, by Chris Muir (updated daily)

Chris Muir is the cartoonist that I met in Kuwait. He spent two weeks in Iraq at the same time I was there in February 2007, and so thought it would relevant to showcase his work on my site. Here is a link to Chris' humorous travelogue of this Iraq trip: