After a quick mission brief in the house courtyard, the soldiers and I loaded into the waiting vehicles and made our way toward the new operation objective some 15 minutes away. We kept our minds off improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by filling the air with idle chatter. That was a hard task considering the bob-and-weave routine down the scorched, pitted, potholed road. I drifted off—until my chin hit my body armor, jolting me awake. Thank God, I had my helmet on as I clanked my nugget on the doorframe for the hundredth time. In an effort to stay alert, I took the opportunity to check over camera settings.
That had become “my thing”—taking portraits of the soldiers. Not good ones in every case, mind you, but something to remember them should the worst happen. I learned the hard way that I might not see them again, so I captured one portrait, good or not. It gave me comfort knowing I had something to gift to the families of those who gave everything. Something indelible.
I hit the camera’s playback button and began thumbing through the pictures on my LCD screen. So many young faces weathered, hardened by the burdens of war. Some of the guys couldn’t abide having their portraits taken alone, so they clung to their battle buddies and donned placid, stoic expressions in an attempt to disguise their true emotions underneath. I knew them too well, though, and the façade never lasted long. All I had to do was wait. In some cases, time wasn’t a luxury we could afford, and I had to make do with the surface-insta-snapshots. Better than nothing.
As the vehicle slowed to a stop a fair distance from the objective, I took another look over my camera. The soldiers prepared their guns, and my camera was at the ready. Before opening the vehicle door, I recited my usual prayer and relinquished my life into God’s hands.
We all exited the vehicle and the soldiers assumed their rehearsed positions. Enemy fighters got the drop on us. I could hear small arms fire coming from two directions. At a run, we made our way through the narrow, debris-riddled streets. I zoomed out my lens for a wide shot and held the camera over my head, pressing the shutter release button down for a rapid fire of frames. Maybe one would turn out.
As we came upon the objective, the soldiers made ready to break the front door down. I stepped back a safe distance to capture the initial entry, which often involved flying leaps, kicks or shoulder slams. I lay on the ground to separate my subject from the cluttered background and snapped away as kicking quickly became exhausted and futile against the impassable bolted metal door. Other than the surrounding external small arms fire, it seemed eerily quiet inside the house. The squad leader sent two soldiers to an alternate entrance while we waited in the courtyard. After a brief moment, the soldiers returned to inform us they’d gained entry but spotted a trip wire.
My heart skipped. My mind instantly thrust back three months at the moment I found out my friends were killed in a house-bourne IED explosion. They were my favorite guys. I didn’t tell them. I should’ve. I was supposed to be with them that day. I should’ve been. As my consciousness straddled the present day and memory, the faces of the fallen materialized and vanished. The familiar pain of regret rushed over me. Suddenly, I was overcome by the image of my best friend and battle buddy who’d been shot and wounded by a sniper in a courtyard similar to the one before me. The hair on my neck stood erect. I got an instinctive urge to run and moved with the squad toward the alternate entrance. As we rounded the side of the house, a tremendous rocket-propelled grenade explosion impacted where we were just standing. Thank you, I say under my breath, acknowledging the divine intervention.
As one soldier after another filed into the house, I took note of the dark room and again adjusted my ISO. Since I’d be in closer proximity to my subjects, and under less strenuous pace, I switched to Single Servo focus and readied myself for room-to-room clearance. I’d photographed scenarios such as this many times before, so I anticipated where to be in order to capture the best images. Always staying ahead of the action. Shooting into the shadows. Waiting for the right moments. Making 10 frames of each composition with varied action, if possible. Moving on to the next room. This all happened in a matter of minutes.
The soldiers systematically cleared each room and eventually made it to the rooftop, where a firefight ensued. A cacophony of rifle fire was exchanged at a deafening decibel over the rooflines. Damn. I’d forgotten my earplugs again. A whistling high-pitched tone began ringing in my head.
Despite having a limited angle of view, I made the most of my position and covered the events as I witnessed them. The enemy fighters were just one or two houses over, nearly face-to-face. It took helicopter support to neutralize the nearby fighters. I saw the sunrise from that rooftop. I saw sunset, too. Like every other operation I went on, I documented the hell out of it. We made that house our home for the night, which meant another foam bed on the floor, another shift on the rooftop over watch position, another beef jerky dinner and then it all started again in the morning. Or you could say the day just continued to the next.