Published: December 2006
Neil Shea

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

I suppose that if there were a "best" coming out of my experience in Iraq, it involves the people I met. The soldiers and civilians, many of them occupied with the complicated business of staying alive from day to day, were open, honest, and generous with me in a way I didn't expect. Marines looked out for me during dangerous patrols. Iraqi interpreters and civilians took time to explain the intricacies of their culture and voice their frustrations. U.S. Army nurses and doctors gave unparalleled access to even the most sensitive medical procedures. Most of the people I talked with wanted to be understood, wanted their stories told. Not all of them believed in the war, but nearly all went out of their way to help others in a country where chaos and violence often seem to rule. The best thing I can imagine now would be for those individuals to emerge from this war whole, with their limbs and their lives and their families intact.

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

Something that sticks with me is the unique feeling of dread fueled by roadside bombs. I remember the first time it flooded up in my stomach. I'd joined a platoon of U.S. soldiers patrolling northern Baghdad; they'd lost two men to a bomb just a couple of weeks before. One afternoon in a narrow alley—barely wide enough for our Humvee to squeeze through—we watched a small boy look at us, clamp his hands over his ears, and head in the opposite direction, as if anticipating an explosion. The sergeant in the passenger seat saw him and swore. His men tensed; sometimes children know when an attack is coming. There was nowhere to go, nothing to do but keep steering down the alley. And nothing happened.

There were a few more moments like this until, eventually, the fear dulled, as it does for most soldiers and marines. You get used to it, or, more likely, you grow too tired to care.

Returning late one night from a mission in Ramadi, I was nodding off in the back of a Humvee when a roadside bomb blasted the truck. The marines inside started screaming. Dust and smoke filled the cabin. In a few moments, they had figured out that they were all OK. Then one of them told me to check my arms and legs to see if they were still there.

I left Iraq a couple of weeks later, but the marines had to wait months, dealing with the fear each day.

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

People dealt with the stress or the boredom of war in some surprising ways. Soldiers played a lot of pranks on each other—or me—and made grim jokes about violence and death. They also built a lot. Some banged together skateboard ramps with salvaged plywood. Others put up porches, sundecks, and coffee bars in their spare time. At one base, helicopter crews lit a bonfire in a leftover oil drum almost every night. They sat around it smoking and talking, looking at the stars, wishing for home as wild dogs or jackals howled in the desert.

But one of the weirdest things I witnessed was wrapped around the neck of a reporter. He was a tall thin man from Nevada with a wispy beard and many tattoos. He'd worked in Iraq and Afghanistan and noticed, as many people have, that at a certain point it became popular for insurgents in both countries to behead their enemies and hostages. Everyone in the press and the military is a little worried about this; no one wants to be captured and cut. Most people just don't talk about it. But this reporter decided to get a bluish-green dotted line inked around his neck. Tattooed below it were the words "Cut Here," in English and in Arabic. He thought it was pretty funny.