A reporter's view: Soldiers show courage under fire on Haifa Street
BAGHDAD — As a veteran reporter of many military conflicts, I have never heard, smelled or felt anything like the firefight I witnessed Sunday on Haifa Street.
And I cannot believe that the men of Company C, 1st Battalion, 9th Cavalry do this every day.
Before we began the mission, company commander Capt. Chris Ford had some simple instructions for me: stay with him and do whatever he told me to do, when he told me to do it.
We headed out. It was a 10-minute trip in Ford’s command Bradley fighting vehicle to our drop-off point.
There was little conversation in the oven of the Bradley, with the engine’s roar throbbing over our earplugs.
Suddenly, the Bradley stopped and the rear hatch dropped open.
“Let’s do it,” someone muttered, and we dismounted into the dusty street.
The smell of raw sewage was strong. Wary, unhappy Iraqis watched us.
For the first minute, all was quiet.
Then, the sound of gunfire.
I heard the smack of AK-47 fire in the air. It seemed to be coming from several blocks away.
I ran awkwardly after Ford, who was dashing down the street and yelling into his radio.
As it turned out, the fire was “friendly” — Iraqi police forces on a raid.
The patrol continued, but about a block down, we heard an explosion. We all ran for cover, American and Iraqi alike.
As I was running, my left ankle caught the edge of a pile of trash and twisted. I went down hard, into a puddle of muck.
A U.S. soldier promptly turned and, without missing a beat, yanked me back to my feet.
“Are you OK?” He yelled as we kept running.
“Yeah,” I yelled back.
In truth, I was pretty messed up, and I still had more than a mile to go with the patrol before we could link up with the casualty evacuation point.
My breath was harsh in my ears, my heart pounding from the pain as I half-hobbled, half-jogged along, camera bouncing against my body armor.
The shooting got closer: Insurgents had realized they could use the Iraq police fire to cover their own efforts against the American foot patrol.
There was incoming fire and more explosions — possibly grenades, maybe makeshift bombs.
But Company C was used to all this. Each soldier was swapping positions and moving with the precision of a company trained by a choreographer.
It was about to get worse: We had snipers on our hands.
We were near the end of the foot patrol route when I heard a crack.
I knew what that cracking noise meant: When bullets traveling the speed of sound get very close to your head, they sound like fingers snapping.
Three soldiers and I made a dead run for the evacuation Bradley.
I heard the crack again, then a few hundred feet later, again.
But I made it safely to the Bradley, and the soldiers continued their mission.
I wasn’t afraid — it is my eighth combat deployment since 1994. I’ve been shot at in Africa, Afghanistan and Kosovo. I was in the Pentagon when an airliner slammed into it on Sept. 11, 2001.
But I was embarrassed that I had fallen, and angry to think I might have jeopardized the patrol by my slowness.
Most of all, I was amazed at the courage and cool of the soldiers who have been doing this every day since March.
“They are competent, they are brave … they are every adjective I can come up with,” Ford later said of his soldiers.
“Maybe history will someday reflect that.”