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They were escorting a handful of engineers from the Stryker Brigade who had been ordered to collect trash.The “sanitization mission” would eliminate insurgents’ IED hiding spots among the garbage and, as a bonus, place the trash-collecting Americans in the community’s good graces.
The engineers were told unconditionally that they should remain in their vehicles.
The area was full of snipers, and the roads were lined with bombs.
The only people who bought my justifications were my editors at the They thought another rotation was a great idea.
I felt pretty confident, and a little champagne-drunk, when I fell asleep in the plane on the runway a few weeks later.
I got his unit—“18th engineers, 3rd (Stryker) brigade, 2nd I. The next time I saw him, he was under a camouflage poncho. If I had taken the photo, I would have been lynched by his comrades.
D.,” my notebook reads—his surname (Gardner) from his flak jacket, his rank (sergeant) from a patch on his chest, and ran back to the truck. When corpses are around, every eye in the zone, teary or angered, is on me, ensuring I don’t get too close and take a picture.We took off for Amman, and I spent the twelve hours sleepless, wondering what I was doing, what exactly the story was I thought I was chasing, and how much luck I had left—if it hadn’t already run out completely.* * * * I’d been out of the country for over a year, so I couldn’t go on any embeds without getting a new Combined Press Information Center (CPIC) ID.These military press cards (which, incidentally, nine out of ten New York City bartenders prefer to my Australian driver’s license) are only attainable in person at the center in the Green Zone.When I arrived at the checkpoint, the Iraqi and Peruvian thugs guarding the door told me that there was no press conference that day, so I could come in, but my cameras could not.The dummy (left), once used to draw sniper fire, was discarded after insurgents realized the ruse.An infantry unit was heading to the nearby neighborhood of Ameriya, a 100 percent no-go zone for unembedded press, which runs parallel with the infamous airport road.By bulldozing the rubbish, they said, the engineers made it even easier for insurgents to hide their lethal bombs in the torn-up ground.I didn’t have a picture from this embed yet, and out of sheer desperation I asked permission to walk around with the engineers.I just wanted to be back behind the armor of the Humvee. I’m the outsider, but they don’t know that deaths like Gardner’s overwhelm me for days, months, sometimes years. It doesn’t matter if I didn’t know the person or didn’t even have much contact with him: just being there when it happened is enough.Another engineer was shouting at him, “Get off the sidewalk.” They were frightened of bombs buried beneath it. The gunner made the only sound, a ratchet-click of the spinning turret, while he searched for the man who triggered the bomb. With Gardner, though, I ended up being the guy who engaged him in his last conversation. A few hours later, I was having lunch at the huge chow hall on Camp Liberty.