Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Different View of Iraq

If you have visited any of my soldiers' blogs (click on a soldier portrait on the right to visit another blog) you have likely seen some of the photos and stories they've produced about our great men and women in uniform serving here in Iraq.

In contrast, I thought I'd share a few photos of some of the people in Iraq whom we serve and who we hope will find a positive benefit to our service here.

Yesterday I joined one of my soldiers, SSG Mark Burrell, on a mission out to some of the more rural areas of Baghdad. While there, I captured a few images of the men, women and children we met.

For the most part these folks were friendly and talkative. I don't mind telling you that there is some reticence for soldiers to totally buy into the friendliness exhibited since there have been occasions in this conflict when once-friendly greetings turned to soured relationships. That said, the families we met yesterday were cordial, pleasant and there were enough smiles to go around for everyone.

We visited two small villages and were greeted promptly by the family elder, then quickly mauled by the children of the house. While it is a breath of fresh air to have such a greeting, the fact remains that we operate in a dangerous place and social moments surrounding our arrival can be distracting when we are trying to establish a defensive posture to protect ourselves from unknown threats.

However, we were out with some great soldiers who maintained their focus and a keen watch on the surrounding area that enabled us to get our job done without any hitches.

On the way back from our trip I asked the group of soldiers in my Humvee how they felt about their efforts out here. At the top of their responses were comments about the kids and how when they see these kids they are reminded of their own. The majority of the response wasn't about shooting guns, how the operation went or how the surge worked famously, it was about the kids.

I could understand that, I have three children back home too; a son and two daughters. For a parent in this situation, it's hard not to gravitate to the innocence of these children. It's a reminder that the future of Iraq just as the future of America, is in the hands of our children, in the hands of their children.

At our second stop, one of our soldiers brought out a soccer ball to give the kids. This is a normal practice that helps establish commonality between the local populace and U.S. forces; it's an ice breaker. Before long the kids, their fathers and our soldier were playing a little soccer. I'm not saying that soldiers bearing soccer balls in Iraq are going to change the world. But, I can tell you this, in that moment, amidst the smiles and laughs of adults and children, and the bouncing of a soccer ball, life here in Iraq was a great deal less threatening and more peaceful.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

What It Takes to Tell The Story of the American Soldier

Be there! That's the simplest answer I can offer - not just physically but emotionally.

The story of the American Soldier is told from a variety of different perspectives. There are network and newspaper reporters, freelance journalists, comics, entertainers, politicians, commentators, even the enemy who all want to tell our story.

But, hard as these folks may try, they can never tell our story the way we can. I'm not saying they are incapable of telling the truth or of relaying the actual facts of our work here but, what they cannot do in their dispatches is tell the story from Our Point of View.

My soldiers aren't here for a few weeks to cover an event or operation and then retire for the evening to a well appointed hotel or return to the comfort of their living rooms back home. At the end of the day an Army Journalist puts his camera and pen down but, keeps his rifle only to live the same life as those whose lives he documents.

But, what about those civilian journalists who embed with the troops on the battlefield, aren't they essentially living the life of a soldier? No, they aren't! My soldiers are volunteers who do this not just for a living but, in most cases to justify the life of freedom they lead. We aren't here just to tell a story, but to tell our own story - to document our own sacrifices.

We are not merely journalists on the battlefield, we are also combatants on the battlefield. With one eye we look through our lens in order to capture the historic moments of our battle buddies while we keep another eye peeled for enemy threats to ourselves and our comrades in arms.

If an enemy engagement breaks out, our first responsibility is to the team not the network executives back home. We drop the camera and bring out the M4. The enemy doesn't see our camera as a reason to withhold fire but our weapon as a reason to direct fire upon us. This makes telling our own story different than those outside the uniform. Our sweat and blood contributes to the success of the teams we cover. Our boots on the ground walk the same path as the boots of the soldiers with which we live. At the end of day we share in the success of the mission we cover because it's our mission too.

To date my soldiers have produced more than 600 print, video, radio and photo stories for release to the world. Many of these stories are used in part or in whole to fill the pages and airwaves of newspapers, magazines, radio and news programs around the world. It is rare, if ever, that you will see the names of my soldiers in the by line or photo credits and you know what? that's okay, because when it is all said and done, seeing a photo in a newspaper that we captured or hearing a sound bite on TV, that we collected, means we did our job, we told our own story - we accomplished
our mission.

It's ironic really that by tradition army journalists don't toot their own horn and write or produce stories about themselves, and yet the very completion of the stories we produce about the American soldier truly is a story about ourselves.

This past week my soldiers reported on foot patrols, air assaults, humanitarian events, civil improvement projects, the Iraqi culture and a huge variety of other subjects happening in and around the Baghdad area. Their mission? Tell the story of America's men and women in uniform, one soldier at a time. Their stories represent hours of walking, traveling, interviewing, transcribing, editing, sweating, contemplating and not much sleeping.

Before we left Bryan, Texas we used to joke around about how we were going to Iraq to report the stories of real soldiers; the story of the infantryman out on the front lines; the story of the private standing watch in an observation post in the middle of the city; the story of a team of soldiers patrolling the streets of Baghdad in a Stryker fighting vehicle; the story of the sergeant who drives dangerous roads to distribute supplies to bases around the theater; the story of the soldier that cleans the dining facility three times a day so everybody has a clean place to get a bite. You know - real soldiers.

The truth of the matter is, my journalists are "real soldiers". They spend their days and nights doing a dangerous job to capture the smiles, sweat and tears of their brothers and sisters on the battlefield - not for the glory, not for the money but for each other. That's what a real soldier does - they take care of their battle buddies. My soldiers do what they can to tell the story of America's sons and daughters - from another soldiers perspective.

It may sound corny to some, even a little bit of a stretch to others, but when my soldier is in harms way doing a job our Commander in Chief asks them to do; to leave all the comforts of home and family behind in order to tell the world of the sacrifices we make to maintain liberty and stability in a dangerous world, I call that unselfish heroism. I'll bet their families feel the same way.

So, here's to my soldiers, my journalists on the field of battle; doing what it takes to tell the story of the American soldier - their story, our story. Thanks.


Sgt. Jon Soles, an army photojournalist from South Carolina, assigned to the 211th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, documents an indirect fire threat deterrence mission with the 2nd Battalion of the 112th Infantry Regiment in Baghdad. (photo by 1SG Anthony Martinez)

While on patrol in Baghdad, 211th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment video journalist, Sgt. Stephanie Logue of Corpus Christi, Texas, takes a moment to let an Iraqi child see the images in her camera. (photo by SSG Mark Burrell)

211th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment print NCOIC, SSG Mark Burrell, a native of Chicago, Ill., captures images of soldiers in a Baghdad market. (photo by Sgt. Stephanie Logue)

Sgt. Erik Fardette who hails from Honolulu, Hawaii and is assigned to the 211th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, prepares for a ground shot of MND-B soldiers on patrol in Baghdad, Iraq. (photo by SSG Mark Burrell)

211th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment photojournalist SSG Peter Ford, who calls Texas his home, gets ahead of the action to capture images of soldiers on Patrol. (photo by SSG Mark Burrell)