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Field Notes
Nachtwey
Photograph by David Honl
James Nachtwey

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

One night a badly torn up Marine lance corporal was brought to the Surgical Shock Trauma Platoon at Al Taqaddum. A team of doctors and nurses flew into action, and the concentration was so intense it could be cut with a chain saw.

Outside the tent that served as the operating room, 40 other marines lined up to give their own blood to replace that of their fallen comrade. After hours of strenuous work, the surgical team hooked the marine up to a complicated battery of portable machinery and medevaced him to the Air Force Theater Hospital in Balad, en route to Landstuhl, Germany, and then home. According to one of the doctors, the marine had roughly a one percent chance of surviving the operation. That was a good day.

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

Unless you're one of the victims, it's not possible to say which tragedy is worse than another. One night, in the 10th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad, more than a dozen Iraqi children were rushed into the emergency room, flown in by a procession of U.S. military helicopters. A suicide bomber had blown up a market north of the city, and a lot of kids were very badly damaged. Most of them had been taken to the American military hospital in Balad. Baghdad got the overflow. One boy—who couldn't have been more than 10 or 11 and had the face of an angel—died on the gurney after a desperate struggle to save him. For hours afterward, the ward was filled with the cries of children. That was a very bad day.

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

I was in Baghdad photographing a platoon of American soldiers for Time magazine in December 2003. While they were on night patrol, someone tossed a grenade into the Humvee I was riding in with correspondent Michael Weisskopf. Mike made a move to throw the grenade out of the vehicle, and it exploded in his hand. He saved the lives of everyone in the Humvee, but in an instant he had lost his hand.

Mike, two of the soldiers, and I were taken to a military field hospital, then medevaced to what is now the 10th Combat Support Hospital. We were treated in the emergency room, operated on, and then flown to the American military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany.

Working on this month's story for National Geographic took me back to the very same places to document the same process, but from exactly the opposite angle. It was a through-the-looking-glass experience. What was doubly clear was the outstanding level of medical care—from either side of the scalpel.