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Breathing the Fire

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Breathing the Fire: Fighting to Report -- and Survive -- the War in Iraq

Breathing the Fire: Fighting to Report — and Survive — the War in Iraq

Fighting To Report — and Survive — the War in Iraq

A Story of Tragedy . . .

NIGHT BEFORE MEMORIAL DAY, MAY 29, 2006

I hate these nights. Stare at the ceiling, turn left. Turn right. Can't sleep. Dread tomorrow's assignment, as usual. In the morning adrenaline will pull me through, as it always does. Tonight worry is getting the better of me, as it always does.

The aircon is noisy, and the thick hotel drapes (of cheesy pseudo-velvet) block out the spotlights on the catty-corner mosque nearby and the lights from across the river. The drapes are meant to catch any flying glass, should a rocket hit the side of the building. But that's only ever happened once, so in my mind that's not the problem. The problem is the next day's patrol.

I'm “safe” here. I've transformed the 12- by 15-foot room into a cocoon fortress-a yoga sanctuary in this half-star hotel floor turned network bureau. I live here about two-thirds of the year. Over three years my personal possessions have migrated to join me. The place is like the Big Brother house crossed with a rusting, peeling, leaking Soviet-era submarine, where the carpet sticks to your feet. We've sealed the corridor with steel doors and installed cameras to eyeball would-be visitors.

A ragtag crew of CBS and Iraqi hotel guards protects us (when they bother to stay awake). Our foreign security advisors try to sneak downstairs at odd times of the night to ensure the perimeter guards are awake. They have to make it past the slumbering upstairs guards; otherwise the game is up — the Iraqis upstairs furiously dial their cell phones and wake up all their colleagues at the hotel gates below.

Sleep, damn you.

Tossing and turning is a personal tradition I despise. It happens when I do embeds. I will spend tomorrow morning with a U.S. Army patrol. My two-man crew — my colleagues and friends, cameraman Paul and soundman James — will film the U.S. Army patrol, and I'll trail them. The truth is, after three years as a late-comer network reporter, I'm still a newbie to the two of them — someone they put up with between assignments with “the boys,” such as news legend Dan Rather, with whom they've worked for years.

For this shift, they're stuck with me: a workaholic news nerd. They've watched me climb my way from radio to affiliate to network TV. No matter what I think I am, to them I'm the former wannabe who is still trying too hard.

I'm also the only reporter I know who has a family with a U.S. military background. My father was a Marine in World War II, surviving the campaigns of Guam and Iwo Jima.

That's probably why I went on assignment with the military a lot, which didn't always make me popular. Sometimes crews said no to my ideas.

But to those of us involved right now, tomorrow's assignment makes perfect sense: There is no other place to be on Memorial Day in Iraq than with U.S. troops.

The three of us had done our preshoot security briefing this evening, not that I could provide much detail. The military press officer who had set up the embed couldn't tell our producers much over the phone, except that the patrol would take place in central Baghdad (so we could get back in time for the 7 a.m. eastern time live shot on The CBS Early Show, which airs at 3 p.m. local time). You can't say much over the phone because the insurgents are thought to be monitoring the phone lines.

We don't know exactly where we are going or what we'll see, but the story has something to do with U.S. troops training Iraqis. Since tomorrow is a patriotic day, I suspect the story will be along the lines of “As they stand up, we stand down” — the mantra of the U.S. commanders.

My crew and I suspect this will also be what we call a “dog and pony show,” something so sanitized for our cameras that it will be hard to get anything more than an Uncle-Sam-knows-best commercial out of the troops.

But we know that whatever we film will air on the morning show and almost certainly on the CBS Evening News. You can't NOT make air on a patriotic American holiday when you spend the day with U.S. troops.

And Paul always said, “Don't risk my life unless we're going to make air.”

God, what a horrific way I kept that promise.

A Story of Survival . . .

I also became aware of the countless other souvenirs left behind, lodged in my body. In my right hand and arms, I could see red and black flecks of shrapnel floating under the skin. In my X-rays you could actually see some marble-size chunks of molten car metal floating in my hip, a couple in my leg. There was even a small speck on the bridge of my nose and a couple tracing the outline of my right jaw.

In Landstuhl, I wanted it out — all of it, immediately. The doctors explained that unless it was a large piece or located in a spot where it could do damage, most of it would stay right where it was. They told me it actually did more damage to dig around the soft tissues to remove it.

Nancy brought in some of the chunks the doctors had removed from my leg. She had them gathered in large plastic bags and specimen cups. The first — a flat piece of metal, twisted by the heat of the blast, which spilled over the sides of my hand — was recognizable as some sort of car part. It had been embedded in my right leg.

A second piece was a completely intact metal wheel weight from one of the tires, about the size of the top of a finger. I never even noticed that part on a car before. Every time I spot a wheel weight on a car now, I think of the one that was lodged somewhere in my thigh.

What Nancy didn't explain then was just how close I'd come to losing my right leg. I didn't learn that until months later when I revisited Landstuhl with Nancy to film for the CBS News program on the bombing, Flashpoint. She said in the first 24 hours, my right leg turned nearly black. As I mentioned earlier, doctors in Baghdad had relieved the pressure in my lower right leg with the fasciotomy, when they'd sliced open the skin from knee to ankle down to the muscle in 2-foot-long cuts on either side of my calf.

But the blood circulation was still far from normal. The black color could mean my leg was bruised and still struggling to flush out the bad blood from so much damage. Or it could mean my circulation system had been irretrievably destroyed, so there was no way to oxygenate the leg's muscle tissues, tissues that might already be dying.

 

From Breathing the Fire: Fighting to Report -- and Survive -- the War in Iraq by Kimberly Dozier, published by Meredith Books. Copyright © 2008. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. www.kimberlydozier.com.

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