WASHINGTON – In May of 2006, I went to Iraq for the first time as the National Security Correspondent for WTOP Radio. I came home a different man.
After a month of travel across the war zone and into Africa, Afghanistan, and eight other countries, the war became a state of mind for me. The people I met, the places I went to and scenes I witnessed are still with me and will likely stay with me my whole life.
I remember the thick black smoke after a suicide bombing in Hillah. I remember meeting a 22-year-old soldier who had lost half of his face in an improvised explosive device attack.
One significant memory is May 30, 2006. I remember being at the Contingency Aeromedical Staging Faciltiy (CASF) field hospital the day CBS News cameraman Paul Douglas, 48, and soundman James Brolan, 42 were killed in an explosion. I recall when CBS’ Kimberly Dozier, now at the Associated Press, came into the facility, seriously wounded.
I remember realizing that even though I was traveling with the Air Force, I was still vulnerable.
I remember the real sense of fear that this adventure might not turn out so well, if I’m not careful. Below are just a few snapshots from that time frame:
Balad, Iraq: May 2006
It was about 7:30 am. Already, the day was incredibly hot. The sun was bearing down through a fine orange-like haze. I recall thinking these conditions are just not suitable for helicopters. But in Balad, Iraq, a place that came to be known as the “bloody Sunni triangle,” helicopter was the only safe measure of short- distance transport. My traveling team and I boarded a Blackhawk helicopter; strapped in and in a few short moments it thundered skyward along with another Blackhawk. We began to fly low and fast across the desert. There were two door gunners sitting on either side of the chopper, with their fingers caressing the triggers on .50 caliber guns and their eyes scanning the palm trees and the desert floor.
I remember flying over the infamous Abu Gharib prison facility, where explosive evidence of U.S. prisoner abuse emerged, which we were not able to shoot video of or photograph at the time. Our trip took about 45 minutes and we landed just outside of Baghdad.
While in Baghdad as a war correspondent, I divorced myself from an opinion on whether the war was warranted or not, because I felt the outcome would best address it. Instead I focused on the places, issues and most of all the people I met.
JJ with F 16 fighter pilot Amy Ringwald as she gives a tour of her jet
There were a lot of experiences that changed my thinking about journalism — what to report, what not to report, when to report and where. The learning curve of working in a war zone is steep, but it makes it so much easier to work back here at home, where the daily grind is nothing compared to what people in a war zone deal with every day.
So, obviously I came back home, continued my career, but not a day goes by that I don’t think about those men and women who didn’t get that option. I mean the military personnel, American civilians, the foreign nationals, the journalists and countless Iraqi citizens that were killed in the war. I’ve been asked several times today, “did we win the war?” My response is, “it’s not over.”