A reporter looks back on invasion of Iraq

Iraq war was the first for journalists to ride along with troops in the thick of combat

nophillips@thestate.comMarch 19, 2013 

  • Timeline Among key dates in the Iraq war:

    March 19, 2003: President George W. Bush announces the start of a war against Iraq.

    April 9, 2003: Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s rule collapses as much of Baghdad comes under American control. Across much of the capital, Iraqis take to the streets to topple statues of Hussein, loot government ministries and interrogation centers, and welcome advancing American troops.

    May 1, 2003: Speaking from the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln beneath a banner reading “Mission Accomplished,” Bush declares victory. He vows to continue to search for banned weapons in Iraq.

    Dec. 13, 2003: Hussein is arrested without a fight by American soldiers, who find him crouching in an eight-foot hole at an isolated farm in Tikrit.

    June 28, 2004: Fifteen months after Hussein’s removal from power, American authorities transfer formal sovereignty of Iraq to its new leaders.

    Sept. 7, 2004: American military deaths in Iraq surpass the 1,000 mark, the Pentagon says.

    Jan. 30, 2005: Iraqis vote in the country’s first free elections in 50 years.

    Oct. 19, 2005: Hussein goes on trial for the killing of 148 people in 1992. He refuses to recognize the court’s authority. It is the first of two trials Hussein will face before he is executed.

    Oct. 26, 2005: American military deaths hits 2,000, the Pentagon says.

    Dec. 30, 2006: Hussein is hanged.

    Dec. 31, 2006: American military deaths hits 3,000, the Pentagon says.

    Jan. 10, 2007: Bush sends an additional 20,000 American troops into combat to quell sectarian violence.

    March 23, 2008: American military deaths reaches 4,000, the Pentagon says.

    Nov. 17, 2008: Iraqi Parliament ratifies an agreement that calls for American troops to pull out of most Iraqi cities by summer 2009 and to leave the country completely by the end of 2011.

    Jan. 25, 2009: New U.S. Embassy dedicated in Baghdad

    June 30, 2009: Iraqis celebrate the withdrawal of American troops from their cities.

    Aug. 31, 2010: President Barack Obama declares an end to combat in Iraq, saying the United States has met its responsibility.

    Sept. 21, 2011: Defense secretary Leon Panetta proposes a plan to keep 3,000 to 4,000 American troops in Iraq to continue training Iraqi security forces.

    Oct. 21, 2011: Obama announces the last American soldier would leave Iraq by the end of the year.

    Dec. 15, 2011: U.S. forces declared a formal end to Iraqi operations during a ceremony in Baghdad, even as violence continues to plague the country. Panetta thanks the more than 1 million American service members who have served in Iraq.

    SOURCE: The New York Times

  • More information

    By the numbers

  • More information

    64: Number of military personnel with ties to South Carolina killed in the Iraq War

    5,000: Number of S.C. Army National Guard members deployed to the Iraq War

    1,211: Number of sorties flown in Iraq by the S.C. Air National Guard’s 169th fighter wing

    289,800: Pounds of munitions dropped by the 169th Fighter Wing

    8,452: Number of sorties flown by Shaw Air Force Base’s 20th Fighter Wing

    $806 billion: Cost of the Iraq War, according to 2011 Congressional Research Service report

    4,487: American troops killed in the war

Ten years ago today, a war started in Iraq.

I was there. But I was asleep.

This is what I wrote in my journal the next morning as a reporter embedded with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division:

“Sometime during the night, while I was asleep, the war against Iraq started. How anticlimactic to travel to a war zone and sleep through the start. I think the small pox shot must have kicked me down again.”

For the next month, sleep would be hard to come by as I traveled with the division, experiencing the fear, amazement, sorrow and sometimes even laughter that comes with war.

At the time, I was a reporter for the Savannah Morning News, where I had been covering the military for six years. It was the first war where the military allowed journalists to ride alongside troops during combat. But I was on my third trip to the Middle East as a reporter, including having spent a month in late 2002 covering Army war preparations in Kuwait.

Throughout the war, I rode in a Humvee with John Carrington, a photographer at the Savannah Morning News and my long-time travel partner, Capt. Christopher Northam and Sgt. 1st Class Carl Lockhart, a veteran of Operation Desert Storm and a calming, confident presence during our journey.

John and I were embedded with the 3rd Forward Support Battalion, a unit based at Fort Stewart, Ga., that carried the gas, bullets, water, food and other supplies for the division’s 1st Combat Brigade Team. The 1st Brigade’s mission was to get to Baghdad as fast as possible and capture the airport.

While the war began the night of March 19, it would take several days to get the entire 3rd Infantry Division across the border.

Our Humvee crossed at 11:30 a.m. March 21.

The night before had brought my first true feeling of panic.

I was running a fever because of a reaction to a small pox vaccination. I had fallen asleep, when a loud boom jolted me awake. I remember sitting up in my sleeping bag and watching the glare from rockets flying overhead.

In the wide open, pitch black desert, and under the fog of fever and sleep, I was disoriented. I could not tell which direction the rockets were traveling. My heart banged against my chest.

“I was scared for the first time,” I wrote in my journal. “I thought, ‘I sure wish I could find a way out of this.’

“It’s kind of creepy because it’s real and people will die. We’ve seen so much training, training, training. But those shells and rockets were hitting cardboard targets. Now, they’re hitting real buildings and real people.”

War up close

Over the next several weeks, I would witness death and destruction. I would have those feelings of raw fear several more times, and these are a few that I described in my journal.

On March 28, when I saw the aftermath of the 1st Brigade’s battle for a bridge in the town of Al Kifl along the banks of the Euphrates River:

“The Iraqis’ tactic was to load three to five men in a car, truck or van and drive as fast as they could toward an M1A1 tank or a Bradley fighting vehicle. The soldiers on the tank would fire their machine guns to get them to stop but the Iraqis would keep coming. So, the American soldiers would be forced to fire their big guns on them. The Iraqis were just slaughtered.”

On April 1, the 3rd Infantry Division fought Saddam Hussein’s Medina Division at Karbala Gap as we sat in a Humvee and watched Bradley fighting vehicles fire throughout the night:

“At one point, a red fire ball exploded on the horizon. A few minutes later, a sinister thunder rumbled for 15 to 20 seconds. It was an Iraqi missile. Once again, it missed us. Also, artillery and multiple launch rocket systems fired all night long.

“We could hear and see fighting to the southeast.”

On April 5, when our section of a convoy got lost in a neighborhood outside Baghdad as the 1st Brigade made its charge to the Saddam International Airport:

“The whole drive was like something out of the Blair Witch Project. I kept hearing noises and seeing shadows and my imagination was running wild. Mostly, it was dogs barking and frogs croaking. It was still nerve-wracking.”

On April 7, when I rode with a supply convoy assigned to fetch more water and ammo for troops fighting in Baghdad:

“One minute a young Iraqi girl in a red dress is blowing me a kiss. The next, some unseen Iraqi shoots a mortar round at us. So goes the life of supply convoys.”

Surprisingly, war had its moments of boredom, too.

For the first few days, we sat in a Humvee in what felt like the worst traffic jam in the history of transportation. My knees and butt ached from being so cramped for so many hours. At times, the 1st Brigade would pause for hours for rest and for its commanders to plan the next operation. Paperbacks would be our only entertainment while we waited.

Memories and stories

Ten years later, the horror stories are not the ones I tell, if I even talk about the war at all.

In fact, I was reluctant to write this essay, because these aren’t things I want to dwell on, and I don’t want to appear to be glorifying myself. Especially when the soldiers I covered spent more than a year in Iraq, and many would return as the fight drew out over eight years.

If asked about my experience, I describe miserable living conditions with no hot food, no showers, no toilets, no air conditioning and no sleep. I talk about the curious Iraqis standing along the roads as we rumbled by, on our way to Baghdad. And I laugh over my constant dreams of food, or some of the personalities of the soldiers we wrote about.

While I don’t talk about it a lot, I do think about the war.

I sometimes wonder what happened to the Iraqi families I encountered whose lives had been torn apart by the invasion.

A smell or a sound can send the whole experience roaring back into my mind.

Looking back, I’m glad I had the experience.

Last week, while interviewing veterans for a Sunday story in The State newspaper about the war’s anniversary, they shared some of the same emotions I am experiencing as we look back.

The war taught me that I can endure misery and fear.

It hit home just how wealthy Americans really are.

It brought a deeper appreciation for my family and friends, who worried nonstop about me while I was gone.

And it made me hope that U.S. political leaders never, ever use war as a first — heck, make that a second or third — option to solve an international problem.

When asked if I would do it again, I hesitate.

If my husband is around, he will answer for me. “She would. She’s a reporter at heart and couldn’t stand not to.”

Phillips has been a newspaper journalist for nearly 21 years. She has been with The State since May 2004. Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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