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In the midst of war in Iraq, I listened to my heart, not my head



Published: Wed, April 23, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



By ANDREA GERLIN

KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

BAGHDAD -- At times, I felt like Bonnie with 1,000 Clydes.

Traipsing some 500 miles all over Iraq with the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, and stepping, deliberately or accidentally, into one gunfight after another, I might well have been.

The Marine unit I was with was on or very near the front lines for three weeks during the U.S.-led charge to Baghdad. It set off from a tent city in northern Kuwait in mid-March and settled at a cigarette factory in east Baghdad on Wednesday.

The road to Baghdad was paved with dirt, and home was usually a bug-infested mud hole. Most nights it was a different hole because the battalion, like nomads or gypsies, was constantly on the move.

If it stayed in one place too long, it became a target of a ragtag but bravely persistent force of Iraqi solders and irregulars.

It was at Camp Matilda in northern Kuwait, where journalists embedded with U.S. forces linked up with their units, that I had my first doubts about what I was getting myself into.

During yet another briefing about chemical and biological preparedness, a Marine spokesman advised us to write our blood types and Social Security numbers on our body armor and boots.

When we left for Iraq, less than a week later, calm and focus prevailed. The Marines had a buoyant sense of American optimism, mixed with the kind of confidence that sometimes turns to arrogance.

Being part of history

There was also a sense that history was being made and, as a journalist, I viewed it as my job to turn in the proverbial "first rough draft." What would be the price?

The first leg, a 30-hour trip in an amphibious assault vehicle, was about as difficult and bone-jarringly uncomfortable as travel can be.

By the time we reached our destination in southern Iraq about 100 miles from our start, known as Assembly Area Spartan, my back was sore and aching, a feeling made worse by the extra 30 pounds of body armor and Kevlar helmet I carted around.

We had passed nothing more menacing than Bedouins and their camels, but the breakdown of 20 percent of the battalion's amphibious fleet put everyone on edge. The battalion commander did not like the idea of taking these land-challenged amphibious vehicles into a combat area.

At the next stop in Nasiriyah on March 23, war's bloody cost suddenly filled the air above us and changed the relaxed and confident mood. A steady stream of helicopters went clattering back and forth over our post.

They were carrying more than 30 dead and wounded Marines who had encountered surprisingly strong Iraqi resistance. Eleven Marines had been taken prisoner.

Officers now berated young Marines who had been hanging off the tops of their vehicles, like surfers cruising the beachfront in convertibles. Suddenly the war seemed to be going very badly.

Ambush Alley

The next day it was our turn to make the run through Nasiriyah and what came to be known as Ambush Alley. Even before we got to that notorious stretch of road, the rear of our convoy was ambushed by gunfire.

It happened just as I was transmitting a story about the Marines' reaction to the bad news of the casualties of the day before. I was lying prone in the back of a moving humvee, juggling my satellite phone and computer keyboard.

We hurried to a garbage dump that was the staging area for the trip through Nasiriyah. A feeling of dread pervaded the air, and flies by the hundreds buzzed around the inside of our amphibious assault vehicle.

As the convoy crossed through the hostile town and paramilitary forces opened up on us, the drivers had their gas pedals hard to the floor.

With bullets whizzing overhead, I tried to work out the best angle to position myself so that if a round came through the vehicle's light armor, it would either miss me or hit one of the plates in my protection vest.

Then I realized that it was impossible to predict where a bullet might come from. I took a few deep breaths and hoped for the best. I understood better why so many Marines had gotten baptized during their last Sunday church service before the war.

As we stepped out of the vehicle at Ash Shahtrah a few hours later, the local Iraqi militia welcomed the battalion with the sound of "pop, pop, pop" and little puffs of white smoke rising from the grass in an adjacent field.

I had just gotten on the phone with an editor in Washington, whom I and a photographer called after deciding that the war was too dangerous to cover and it was time for us to leave, even if only a week had passed. Fortunately, nearby gunfire and the abrupt end to our conversation sounded persuasive if he begged to differ.

The battalion's executive officer, Philadelphia native Maj. David Holahan, told us that he couldn't guarantee anyone's safety in a war zone, but we weren't yet facing a hopeless situation.

We told Holahan we wanted to get on the next helicopter out. One was due to arrive shortly to pick up some injured refugees.

I really didn't want to leave, even if staying meant sacrificing my safety. As the war grew more intense, it seemed more important to cover it, and I didn't want to abandon my post. I knew the risks now more than ever, and I felt defeated either way.

A call to home

Sitting on a bare dirt slope, I used my satellite phone to call my fianc & eacute;, who I knew would be home in London glued to the news. I couldn't bear to punish him any longer, but I couldn't bear to leave. The conflict was tearing at me. If I stayed and died, would he hate me for my decision?

No, he said, he wouldn't. He told me he had been checking my e-mail and had read the messages pouring in from the parents, wives and siblings of men with the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines.

He said they appreciated the journalists' presence and that people out there were counting on me. I should leave if I thought it best, he said, but he would understand and respect my decision if I stayed.

My head was still telling me to leave, my heart to stay. I am the kind of rational thinker who usually listens to her head, but in that moment I took a leap of faith and listened to my heart.

The helicopter failed to arrive, and the next day, after we came through the mess that was Ash Shahtrah after an all-night battle, I told Holahan to cancel my request for the helicopter.

As the only woman with this battalion of 1,000 men, I encountered particular difficulty in one aspect of hygiene: answering the call of nature with some privacy. In the open desert, this was often impossible.

I would scout for a shrub or natural obstacle, though in some environments, such as areas with land-mine risks, I didn't want to wander too far.

My worst nightmare was lived out by one unfortunate Marine in the battalion, who was evacuated by helicopter after shrapnel from a live round struck him in the buttocks as he was tending his business in the field.

Over time, I learned to find a young private or corporal on guard duty near a good obstacle and consult him about my choice of location.

If anyone should disturb me, I asked, "Please shoot them." Unfailingly polite, the young Marines always responded with an enthusiastic, "Yes, ma'am!"




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