April 2003: It was the biggest flat-screen TV I’d ever seen. This thing covered half the wall of the tent. The picture was so sharp, it hurt the eyes. That should be the Defense Department’s motto: Go Big or Go Home.
I was in the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) facility at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. This is a large tent erected for the sole purpose of letting troops act as if they were still in America. There were banks of phones, computers, TVs, and even video games.
I was there with several hundred other servicemen and women, watching footage of the battle for Baghdad. Eventually, most of us in the tent would end up in that city, or at least close to it. But first, the Army, Air Force, and Marines had to wrestle it from the hands of Saddam Hussein and his forces.
On the screen was one of those struggles. It was enfolding barely 450 miles away, but it might just as well been on the moon. An element of the 3rd Infantry Division was under a highway overpass designated Objective Curly. This location was significant to seizing Baghdad because it was an intersection between major routes running east-west and north-south. The unit had seized control of it, but now they were in danger of being overrun. Insurgents brought in from Syria by Saddam Hussein had completely surrounded this particular unit. They were taking fire from all points of the compass.
The battle was being broadcast live by NBC News. They’d had a reporter and a cameraman embedded with the 3rd ID soldiers. The reporter, David Bloom, had died suddenly the day before of a pulmonary embolism. His photographer had stayed with the 3rd Infantry Division to document the taking of Baghdad.
We sat transfixed as soldiers moved in and out of the frame, some carrying wounded soldiers, others carried water and ammunition to their comrades. Most were firing back at the same time.
Suddenly, above the constant small arms fire, we heard the voice of a soldier off-camera, speaking to the cameraman.
“You’re not in the military, so I can’t order you to do anything. But I would pick up a weapon and start firing if I were you.”
There was an audible gasp in the tent filled with soldiers. I can’t speak for the others, but I was thinking:
If the situation there is that bad: that a newsman has to fire a weapon to defend the perimeter, how would I act in the same situation? Would I be able to keep my cool? Would I be effective as a leader? Would I make the right decisions? Would I have to rely on a cameraman to help?
It was at that point, in that huge tent in the desert, that I began to worry if I would measure up, if the 17 years I’d spent training for such a situation had prepared me adequately. I worried that I would let my soldiers down, that in the middle of a firefight, the wrong decision would be made, and someone would die or be maimed forever.
I looked around the room. Based on the bug-eyes and the slacked jaws on everyone there, I could tell that I wasn’t alone in my thoughts.