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Broadband of Brothers
by Rob Collins
Combat is nothing like television. What is seen with the eye may appear the same. An explosion in a movie is no different than an explosion seen by the naked eye, but it’s the other four senses that truly define combat. The smells of gunfire. The loud ping of bullets bouncing off of metal. The vibrations of grenades exploding nearby. The taste of your own fear climbing up into your throat. This is combat. And no matter how many times you experience it, you learn one more thing about yourself and you’re always happy to be walking away.
—Sminklemeyer, a.k.a. former Staff Sergeant Fred Minnick, on his blog “In Iraq for 365”
Combat photographer Fred Minnick tried to count how many car bombs he’d documented in the past two months. He honestly couldn’t say. The Oklahoma native arrived at the scene with three or four Humvees to seal off an area of Mosul, Iraq.
En route, Minnick snapped the terror casualties.
“Debris everywhere,” Minnick wrote. “Puddles of blood. It was an image I had become all too familiar with.”
Located 150 yards from the fighting, Minnick needed to photograph enemy fire “to avoid an international incident of attacking a mosque,” he wrote. Coalition forces sought definitive proof that insurgents had fired at them from the mosque since that hadn’t happened before in northern Iraq, Minnick said.
“It was hard to keep my camera in focus—you’ve got bullets literally pinging off feet away from you and you’re trying to cover it,” Minnick said.
“After that fighting kind of subsided, there was a white van that pulled up real quickly. The side doors opened up and a couple of guys got out and one guy was holding an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] and pointing it right toward me and my buddy. And he shot it right at me.”
The RPG, which aurally resembled a really lame techno song, dangled overhead like a baseball bat with a tail of fire. Minnick thought he was going to die as the grenade bounced off the cement 10 feet in front of him.
“I just stood there watching it, and was fascinated by how non-ominous the RPG was now,” Minnick wrote. “It was a dud.”
What happened to the attackers?
“Each one of them died by American soldier bullets,” Minnick wrote. “Their deaths were dramatic. The first man to fall must have died instantly. Even from 75 meters away, we could see volumes of blood leaving his body. The others tried to run, but they all fell. Just in case their car was a bomb, we lit it up, too. And after 100 spent rounds, into five men, we left.”
Minnick, then a staff sergeant with the 139th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, wrote about the events of June 24, 2004, with the pseudonym Sminklemeyer on his blog, “In Iraq for 365” (http://desert-smink.blogspot.com/). This article’s account of his near-death experience comes from his blog postings, interviews and a provided excerpt from his unpublished book, Camera Boy: How I Sold the Truth (And the Lies) About Iraq. Minnick’s literary agent is currently shopping his book around to publishers.
Minnick’s blog is a new combat-reporting phenomenon making waves in publishing circles. Historically, war correspondents have filed news reports directly from the field while the Department of Defense issued approved press releases. But soldiers’ written accounts, subjected to military censorship, wouldn’t surface until the letters arrived home much later, according to Matthew Currier Burden, a former US Army major and author of The Blog of War.
“Today, with digital cameras, Web cams, cell phones and Internet access readily available, the letter home has taken on an entirely new form, with a new honesty and urgency,” Burden wrote. “The soldiers are telling their stories through blogging, instantly publishing expert on-the-ground accounts from the war zones.”
“Engaging a mosque”
Jesus Christ, I can’t believe I’m actually shooting at a holy place of worship.
—former Army Specialist Colby Buzzell of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, from his book My War: Killing Time in Iraq
Colby Buzzell of the Stryker Brigade Combat Team didn’t know the US Army was allowed to fire on a mosque. In the fog of war, he also didn’t realize Minnick was photographing him taking fire from the mosque while his group was providing security. Both Buzzell and Minnick would live to blog about the intense events that occurred in Mosul on June 24, 2004. Their unique, firsthand accounts differ greatly from a military press release issued about the incident.
Here is Buzzell’s version: Earlier that day, the machine gunner had heard car bombs detonate. He now sat locked and loaded behind an M240 as his military vehicle rolled out of the operating base onto the main route in Mosul and arrived at the Sheikh Fatih police station. It was under siege.
The 1st Platoon sat to the right of Buzzell’s Stryker, joined by the 3rd Platoon and fortified by a missile guidance set and mortars. “They were all engaging the police station and the huge mosque that was located right next door to it with .50-cals and small-arms fire as soon as we got there,” Buzzell wrote.
“While this was going on I was in total disbelief that we were actually engaging a mosque. Like isn’t this against some kind of Geneva Convention thing?”
“Locked and loaded”
The day following the ambush, I went directly over to the Internet café to check my e-mail and to search the Internet for any information and/or press about what happened. I found little to no press about the firefight, just a couple paragraphs here and there, just stuff along the lines of what CNN wrote on their Web site. It kinda made me wonder what else goes on here in Iraq that never gets reported to the people back home.
—Colby Buzzell, My War: Killing Time in Iraq
Buzzell had no plans to author a book when he started writing in his journal about his Iraq experiences. He learned about blogs in a Time magazine article and viewed them as an alternative form of media reminiscent of the ’zines he read in the 1990s. He discovered an Internet café located nearby to surf for blogs emanating from Iraq.
“But I didn’t end up spending too much time reading these soldier-written blogs, because some of them had been shut down and most of the ones that weren’t shut down were just saying a bunch of brainwashed rhetoric, like, ‘Oh, the Iraqi people love us, we’re doing the right thing. I love the Army, I love my job, I love my country, I love our president.’ That gets old after a while, and if I wanted to read stuff like that I’d go to the official US Army recruiting Web site,” Buzzell wrote.
“I looked around and I couldn’t find a single blog out there that was written by somebody who locked and loaded their weapon every day, went out on missions, and saw for themselves up close and personal what it was really like out there.”
Buzzell, a skateboarder turned soldier, started posting under the name of CBFTW—a reference to his initials and the “Fuck the World/Fuck the War” tattoo on his arm—in June 2004 during his eighth months of deployment.
As icing on the cake, Buzzell said he added a disclaimer to his “My War” military blog (http://cbftw.blogspot.com/) that he copied and pasted without permission from an officer’s blog. It said, in part, that the opinions on the site belonged to him and not the US military. Buzzell thought it would protect him, but it didn’t.
“Soldiers don’t have freedom of speech”
If it weren’t for Colby Buzzell and “My War,” milblogs may have never taken off. People can say what they want about who was…the first milblogger, but “My War” was so raw and real that it made New York gay Democrats and Montana goat farmers care about Iraq.
—Sminklemeyer, “In Iraq for 365” blog
Buzzell’s blog attracted more eyes. One reader e-mailed the soldier to announce cancellation of a New York Times subscription because his free blog was more informative. The blogger also was contacted by an Iraqi reader living in Baghdad.
“I think many countries are willing to put Iraq in this situation so they can go on with their plans and this is all part of a big game in which you and me are just players,” the Iraqi wrote.
The war games continued. An insurgent firefight in August 2004 received scant media coverage. However, a newspaper report from Washington state covering Buzzell’s Fort Lewis, Washington-based detachment later noted the disconnect between the “My War” blog and the Pentagon’s claim that Buzzell’s brigade wasn’t involved in the fighting, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.
Buzzell had an idea.
“I noticed there were some media reports and the Army was saying, ‘We’re not trying to censor soldiers and they have freedom of speech,’” Buzzell said. “And I was like, ‘No, they don’t. That’s full of crap. Soldiers don’t have freedom of speech.’
“I wanted to test what the Army was saying. [Punk musician] Jello Biafra is someone I always highly respected and he’s a strong freedom of speech advocate. So I contacted him and told him what I was going through and asked him if he could do a guest post on my blog, and he did, and the Army totally blew a head gasket after that. At that time, the Army was saying soldiers could say whatever they wanted unless it jeopardized the mission, and I knew that was a lie.”
Although Buzzell was never demoted, he said Army officials were breathing down his neck because they couldn’t control soldiers sending unfiltered digital dispatches from the front lines. Eventually, he pulled the plug on his blog when his chain of command started previewing his comments for operational security concerns before posting.
“Once Colby kind of got in trouble, it was a very sad deal,” said Minnick, who considers Buzzell the Rosa Parks of military blogging. “Nobody wanted to see that happen—everybody even within the ranks. I was there, I heard the meetings and things that were said about him. Everybody thought what he was doing was good for the Army and was especially good for people back home. He brought a side of war that people didn’t get to see. The way he wrote was so present tense and it was so free from editing or censorship.
“The only thing that kept him from being able to continue was the Army’s fear. The Army feared that he would say too much, say inappropriate things. They didn’t know how to contain him, so they just stopped him. It was a sad day for the Army.”
“Sometimes the facts get skewed”
A car bomb went off in Iraq, 30 dead, 100 injured, two soldiers killed, three wounded. That’s it. A little small blurb, you know, AP-style journalism. We become desensitized to that over a period of time. We just look at it as numbers or sentences and words on paper. It doesn’t hit close to home. But when you read a soldier’s blog that’s over there and he’s writing about his fears, his concerns, his hopes and what he’s going through, then it’s like the war becomes way real to the reader.
When Minnick wasn’t working at his desk, the combat photographer would join infantry, special forces or support units in the field. Officially, he would take photos and provide coverage with military approval but couldn’t always tell the full story through press releases. Minnick said he continued to blog surreptitiously by avoiding red flags and censoring himself to stay in touch with his family in eastern Oklahoma County.
“I learned now that I was [censored],” said Minnick, who was honorably discharged after nine years in the military. “I was being read, but no one came to me. Even when I thought it was [incognito], I was being read. People have come back and told me. I’ve had captains come back and tell me. Centcom [United States Central Command] kind of like goes through all the blogs.
“They’re trying to figure out a way to use them to their advantage. I’ve had people from Centcom tell me they’re trying to figure out a way to use them. They went as far as thinking about having people do that as their job: to blog.”
Minnick said blogging is important because the human side of the story is lost in a time when events are reported and debated literally minutes after they occur.
“Sometimes the facts get skewed,” said Minnick, who now lives in Louisville, Kentucky and works as managing editor for two food service trade publications. “Nearly most of the time, someone doesn’t hear all the story.
“I’m a journalist; I work my ass off to try to be objective. But it’s hard to say that CNN is objective, the New York Times is objective, when I have been there and observed the same thing come out as a totally different story. It’s hard to say the national media is always objective.”
Minnick said one news agency hired an English-speaking Middle Eastern resident as a reporter to get “in quick with the insurgents” in Iraq.
“We’ll be driving through on a convoy,” Minnick said. “We’ll see two photographers up here and suddenly, boom, one of our Humvees or Strykers gets blown up. And that happened a lot. They would get the information from the insurgents of when they were going to plan the attack. They were waiting in advance.”
Minnick also blogged about a Fox News cameraman making him drive slowly in a dangerous area—twice—to get the perfect pan of a building.
And don’t mention Geraldo Rivera.
“If you ask me, Geraldo is a piece of crap not worthy of a roll of toilet paper when he’s taking a number 2,” Minnick wrote. “That’s a horrible feeling and by the way, we have to place our paper in the trash can because Iraqi toilets can’t handle toilet paper in their sewage lines.”
Most embedded journalists cut and paste Army press releases without checking facts, Buzzell said. Instead of slumming with the grunts for a lengthy time like war correspondent Ernie Pyle, current embeds want a quick Iraq tour so they can write a little report and then hawk a book.
“We were looking for weapons,” Buzzell said about a routine checkpoint covered by an embedded journalist. “And this reporter wrote about it like it was World War III. I remembered that day and we were all bored out of our minds. Nothing happened that day.”
“There is so much rage in me”
In my mind, I’m still in Iraq, looking for the cowards behind the black masks…I feel like I’m in a dream where I tell myself everything is fine and nobody here wants to kill me, but I can’t stop myself as if I am simply programmed to be suspicious and alert. My eyes automatically look at everybody as if they’re touting an AK-47. I scan for cover at every turn and am nervous when I see objects on the roadsides.
—Sminklemeyer, “In Iraq for 365” blog
Two weeks after Minnick returned home from Iraq, he camped out in the backyard of his parents’ home in Jones, Oklahoma. The Iraq war veteran blogged about loving the Oklahoma country, where the bullfrogs were boisterous and the moon was bright.
“As a kid, I slept outside all the time,” wrote Minnick, who is one-sixteenth Cherokee. “This time I fell asleep in the back yard within a matter of minutes.
“My little bro said he was looking for me in the back yard when I started yelling ‘Get down, mother-f-----! Get down, or I’ll shoot!’ I was chasing him with my arms at the ready. I chased him to the house and I was yelling for my friend ‘Sammy,’ telling him to get his weapon and that Haji is everywhere. I then proceeded into the house at 3 a.m., pounding on doors, telling everybody that Haji is everywhere and that we need to go. At first, they thought I was playing a joke until they looked into my eyes…they knew I was dreaming.”
Minnick awoke crying, yelling and hugging a defoliated crape myrtle in the front yard, according to his blog.
“I was relieved I was just dreaming… as the experience felt real,” Minnick wrote. “In the dream, I manned a guard tower at my parent’s house. We had a strong perimeter set up and somehow black man dresses surrounded the area.”
As he returns to civilian life, Minnick said blogging is helping him readjust to American society.
“It is so hard coming back,” said Minnick, age 28. “Even though people are supportive, there is so much rage in me.”
Buzzell, who is now hanging out in Los Angeles after being honorably discharged two years ago, said he drinks heavily since returning from Iraq.
“I don’t know, it seems nobody here really gives a shit about what’s going on over there, about the guys over there,” said Buzzell, now 30. “We keep on hearing all this rah-rah about ‘support the troops.’ But that rah-rah all dies once the troops come home. We kind of forget about our veterans…
“No one really gives a fuck about you and no one’s out to really help you. A yellow magnet on the back of the car, a handshake, a pat on the back. It’s bullshit, you know? But then again, I don’t really know what people can do.”
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