ON THE ROAD TO BAGHDAD - I'm sitting in the back of an amphibious assault vehicle, and my stomach is turning, over and over. The cracking of the machine guns being loaded with magazines and the chic, chic, chic of pistols being cleared of dust is seeping into my thoughts.
I look around with deliberation, and my eyes rest on the stretchers hung behind me and the many boxes of ammunition. Infantrymen are lined up on a makeshift bench with half their bodies poking out of the hatch of the vehicle.
Finally my eyes focus and I read, silently, "100 Cartridges, Cal 50, LC 92D621L437, " and I keep reading those words and letters and numbers over and over again, just because I can. I can do that. Of that, I have control. But of the situation I have put myself in, I have none.
I may have joined a suicide mission.
As dawn emerged that day, I found myself in a hurry for no apparent reason. As soon as I packed up my sleeping bag and my belongings, I found out that the infantry division attached to the 2nd Tank Battalion was leaving on a mission into central Baghdad.
Word had filtered in that Fox Company 1/5 had faced terrible adversity in Baghdad with a number of casualties, and Fox Company 2/5 was asked to come to Baghdad to help.
The sergeants were yelling orders, and the men hurried to pack their meager belongings and prepare their weapons. The air was full of dust and pulsing with tension.
I was trying to glean information about the mission when my pal, Rob, of CBS Radio, encouraged me to go on the mission. I asked whether he was going, and he said, "No! Do I look nuts? Go!"
Rob has been my second eyes on this trip and has often been the source of many of my photos. It's occurred to me that it's the people around me who make me a better journalist. I somehow find myself surrounded by people who care, who look out for me, who share information with me.
Serendipity plays a large part in my life, and I have learned to listen to the signs that clarify the path. They are subtle, and they require me to let things happen with only mild guidance. Not an easy task for someone who likes to be in control.
But in the end, I am always surprised by how right and clear the path appears. Serendipity brought me to the 2nd Tank Battalion so that, as an embedded journalist, I was one of the first to enter Iraq. I have also been one of a handful of women covering the war from the front lines.
So I approached Capt. Terry Johnson, commanding officer of the Fox Company 2/5 Infantry Division, asked if I could join his men on their mission, and he agreed.
I went through my minimalist mental checklist: two cameras, batteries, flashcards, gas mask, Kevlar helmet, protective vest, water bottle, toilet paper. Check. Good to go, as Marines say.
There have been times in the past few years of being a photojournalist that I have asked myself whether I am crazy for doing what I do, and this was definitely one of those times.
If this were my last day, is this the life I wanted to live? I could die around men who know nothing of me. I am as anonymous to them as they are to me. They are in their camouflage uniforms; I am in my newfangled journalist khakis, custom-sewn by the finest military tailor in Kuwait. They call me "the Reporter."
These men refer to themselves as grunts. Their uniforms are ripped from digging fighting holes. They are wild. They are trained to clear buildings, combat the enemy at close range, flush out enemy combatants and secure the perimeter of encampments. They work like dogs. These men are courageous and insane.
A sergeant announced from under his communications helmet that we were taking sniper fire.
"It's starting, " said Navy Corpsman Cesar Espinoza, who promptly yelled "Snipers!" to the grunts.
I watched every movement of these camouflaged men in the hatch, memorizing each glance passed from man to man, each movement with a weapon that is so purposeful and practiced.
The tension was evident in every limb, the acute awareness of their surroundings. Every gesture seemed so full of meaning, and I felt somehow every moment should be recorded for posterity, because if this mission went bad, any one of them might not make it. The words Black Hawk Down were whispered among them.
* * *
We drove through Baghdad and were met by cheering crowds.
Families positioned themselves in the doorways to wave, smile and give us the thumbs-up. Women stared in disbelief and pointed me out to other women, waving excitedly. In the past, during other advances through villages, Iraqi women seemed very relieved to see me, a woman, in the midst of all the camouflage. I suppose they figure the Marines must be civilized if even one woman is present among them.
© 2003 Cheryl Diaz Meyer. All Rights Reserved.
The chances of an attack were high in an urban environment, where any tall building might have had snipers or rocket launchers. The men remained on high alert until we arrived at the campus of Baghdad College.
Hot tea in a kettle was discovered, two brand-new, looted diesel generators were parked near an office, and a puppy was found sleeping under a desk. The men also discovered showers, bathrooms and running water, of which many took advantage for laundry and bathing.
At this stop, I ran into Letta, the Newsday reporter who still had her hair in cornrows from before she left the camp in Kuwait. She was in a big, bad hurry to find a bathroom.
Our conversation led to topics such as how she fared in the field regarding privacy needs. She, too, had been embedded with several hundred Marine men. Since we left the camp in Kuwait, she apparently had suffered, trying to restrict her needs until nighttime.
But half the battalion was equipped with those pesky night-vision goggles. She said she was simply trying to "minimize the collateral damage."
I shared with her the secret of the poncho, for which I must credit Master Gunnery Sgt. Frank Cordero, who took pity on me my first day in the field. So with some embarrassment, I have been the Poncho Queen of the 2nd Tank Battalion. Once, we were in a convoy receiving enemy fire, and I successfully fulfilled my mission.
The other day we made a five-minute service stop. The area was entirely flat, so I picked the real estate to the front of the vehicle because only seven other vehicles were in sight, instead of 12. As I went under the poncho, I caught a glimpse of three men lined up about 20 feet to my right. As in a choreographed scene, they glanced back over their shoulders in unison, and when they saw I had picked my spot, they collectively agreed to settle in, too. These men, so tough, tiptoeing because there's Cheryl, armed with her poncho.
© 2003 Cheryl Diaz Meyer. All Rights Reserved.
* * *
One very long, impenetrably dark night, I was in a Humvee with Staff Sgt. Joseph Foster (nicknamed "Staffie"), 1st Sgt. Lew Dusett ("Big Joe") and Cpl. Ryan Jarreau ("Gyro.")
After days and nights of sitting for hours in the vehicle weighed down by our Kevlar helmets and protective vests, the topic of conversation kept wandering to diaper rash.
For me, those long days and long nights of convoys are over, for today I am leaving the 2nd Tank Battalion to settle in central Baghdad, where I will finish our photo coverage with stories of peacekeeping, policing and restoration efforts.
Camp has been pretty quiet since I returned two days ago, but today a rocket-propelled grenade landed in the midst of several Humvees. Fortunately, it did not detonate. A round of fire followed that, but no one was hurt.
Just when things seem to quiet down, more crazies come out of the woodwork. I think this will continue for at least another year.
I am sad to be leaving my pals at the 2nd Tank Battalion. Near-death experiences shared with others can be very bonding. They have given so much to me that I walk away from them feeling humbled and honored to have been a part of their efforts. They are brave men. Surprisingly sentimental men. Tough men. Gentlemen.
* * *
The transfer out of military life involved hours of waiting and being moved from one Marine installation to another. In each installation, I was less than 10 miles from downtown Baghdad but had no way of renting a vehicle on my own with any degree of security. After surviving so many adventures for the past few weeks, hasty choices didn't seem worthwhile.
I have arrived at the Al Safeer Hotel in downtown Baghdad today, a bombed-out fortress of a place that opened just yesterday to accommodate the hundreds of journalists pouring into the city and others exiting from weeks of being embedded with the troops.
My room overlooks the Tigris River and, on the opposite shore, one of Saddam's palaces.
Weeks of being around other people every single moment of the day has been feeding a desperate need for privacy, and the structure and routine of military life has left me wanting to reclaim my own rhythm and spontaneity.
EPILOGUE: 1st Sgt. Lew Dusett passed away on Feb. 1, 2016, at the age of 55.