Iraqi troops 'saved the day' in attack that hurt ABC newsman Woodruff
February 17, 2006
CAMP TAJI, Iraq — First Sgt. John McFarlane thought the anchorman was dead.
Bob Woodruff, the ABC newsman, wasn’t speaking or moving. “His eyes were fixed,” said McFarlane, the first American to reach the reporter after a roadside bomb exploded. The blast wounds to Woodruff’s face and neck were grave.
But Woodruff didn’t die in the bomb attack, or in the following hail of insurgents’ AK-47 bullets on Jan. 29. The reason he didn’t, according to McFarlane and Maj. Mike Jason, advisers to the Iraqi army unit Woodruff was reporting on that day, were the Iraqi soldiers themselves.
“I had a bunch of jundis kicking ass and taking names,” McFarlane said, using the Iraqi word for “private.”
“I saw hatches being opened and soldiers pouring out and clearing flanks and returning fire in a disciplined manner,” Jason said. “We were getting shot at from four different directions and we were walking around — walking around — because the Iraqis had our backs. I thought we were looking at some show for congressmen. It was that perfect.”
Woodruff’s injuries, along with those of his cameraman, Doug Vogt, signaled to many in the United States the continuing chaos and dangers of Iraq — for soldiers, journalists and Iraqis. But to U.S. soldiers working closely with Iraqi forces, it meant something else: an increasing competency within the Iraqi army.
“A new democratic army was out in the fight, leading the fight,” Jason said.
Jason and McFarlane are among 110 U.S. soldiers on 10-man Military Transition Teams brought to Iraq from a variety of previous commands, working in the Taji area about 12 miles north of Baghdad to train and advise Iraqi soldiers.
In the two months or so since McFarlane and Jason arrived on Camp Taji to live and work among soldiers of the Iraqi army’s 1st Battalion, 1st Brigade of the 9th Division — the army’s only mechanized division — the two say they’ve been deeply impressed with the Iraqis’ professionalism and dedication.
Both are a little impatient with talk about a civil war between Shiites and Sunnis, corruption in the ranks or ties to terrorism, saying it doesn’t reflect their experience. Although most of their soldiers are Shiites, much of the leadership is Sunni, and they say the two groups work together well. Although they patrol some Sunni areas, the Shiite soldiers are respectful to that population, the U.S. advisers say.
Woodruff was reporting on the training team and Iraqi soldiers. He started out from Camp Taji in one of six up-armored U.S. Humvees on the patrol. After about an hour of traveling on the main road where bombs are set nearly every day, he switched to one of two Iraqi armored vehicles on the patrol. McFarlane said it was likely insurgents began plotting the attack knowing a news crew was about.
After Woodruff was injured, there was discussion about whether it had been wise for him to get into the Iraqi vehicle, which is described as “lightly armored.” But McFarlane and Jason said it wasn’t the vehicle that was unsafe — Iraqi soldiers sitting inside it were uninjured.
What made Woodruff and Vogt vulnerable, they said, was their standing up in the vehicle hatch to film their report. They said Iraqi soldiers routinely stand in the hatch.
“He wanted the Iraqi perspective,” McFarlane said. “And he got the Iraqi perspective.”
After the bomb went off, McFarlane rushed to where the two journalists and an Iraqi noncommissioned officer lay injured. Machine-gun fire came from all directions, McFarlane said, from 10 or so shooters.
The unit’s Iraqi interpreter — whose patrols have seen 37 roadside bomb attacks, 25 of them on his own vehicle, three of them wounding him and one sending him to the hospital — told McFarlane that the blood splashed all over him was not his own and that he was uninjured.
Doctors say the immediate treatment Woodruff and Vogt received, and the fact that both were wearing body armor, were crucial in their survival. ABC News called McFarlane, Jason and other U.S. soldiers on the patrol heroes, and did a story on them.
McFarlane and Jason, however, credit the Iraqis. “They saved the day,” Jason said.
Though some have criticized the journalists’ decisions and the coverage of their injuries, McFarlane and Jason said they had no problem with any of it.
“I thought, ‘OK, they’re going to put my boots on. They’re going to drive a mile in my shoes,’” Jason said. “This was soldiers and a reporter from the free press, out there to tell a story. And then action happened. Violence was visited upon us.”