Editor's note: We’re pleased to publish an exclusive excerpt from a book by Fred Minnick, who spent more than a year in Iraq as a U.S. Army public affairs photojournalist, “Camera Boy: An Army Journalist's War in Iraq.” In the book, he accompanied combat troops on missions ranging from raids on suspected terrorist strongholds to public relations events including the opening of a school for girls. Being assigned to public affairs did not shield Staff Sgt. Minnick from the horrors of war--including the deaths of two close friends--or from the devastating effects of PTSD upon his return home. The book includes 32 pages of photos taken by the author. It’s available via the publisher, Hellgate Press.
We left at midnight. Under the stars, we lined up our four vehicles in a sixty-vehicle convoy. Our commander was overly excited. Up until the moment we left, he conducted five random inspections, checking for water and ammo and asking soldiers their general orders.
The first sergeant didn’t say a word, and the only ones who seemed at ease were the females. They were acting like kids, singing “Like a Virgin” and talking about the hottest boys they’d ever seen.
I guess we were all dealing with crossing the Iraqi border in our own way. I tried not to think about anything to keep me
focused on objects on the road.
In my vehicle, Friedman couldn’t stop talking about how scared she was and how upset the whole war made her. Joe sang, “She’s got…hungry eyes” over and over as if we were on our way to the movies.
And Larson was quiet as usual. It wasn’t until we crossed the Iraq border that there was complete and utter silence from all of us.
We drove for a couple of hours and stopped at a small base in southern Iraq. A company within our convoy was stopping here, while we—the smallest element in the mix of mostly Guard and Reserve units—continued to our destination of Mosul the next day.
When we left the next morning, we were each issued five, one-liter bottles of water, and since we couldn’t stop at a convenience store to urinate, the empty bottles came in quite handy on the long trip.
The females cut off the top portion of the bottle and used it as a funnel. When Friedman was “going” in the backseat, Sanchez and I both wanted to gag while Larson looked out the window, probably praying for the moment to end.
The smell of sharp ammonia filled the air as a broken faucet noise seemingly replaced the vehicle roar. She chucked the bottle out the window when she was done.
When children waved at us from the dusty roadsides, Joe threw candy at them. The more he threw, the more other kids stuck their fingers in their mouths to symbolize their hunger. They bobbed and weaved past vehicles, diving for Tootsie Rolls and Starbursts, literally risking their lives for a piece of candy.
He did this for about an hour when finally the convoy stopped and a man from the very back came sprinting toward our vehicle.
“What the hell are you doing?” the officer asked Joe Sanchez.
“Sir, I was...” Sanchez tried to reply before the officer interrupted.
“Shut the hell up. You realize you are gonna get a kid killed? Where’s your commander?”
The officer described the situation to Maj. Hastings, who then scolded Joe just as the other officer did. Then, Maj. Hastings told Top, who scolded Joe even more, placing emphasis on “you’re an NCO, boy. Act like it.”
When you screwed up in the Army, several people chewed you’re ass. And the more intense the situation, the bigger a**hole your superior was. We all started out hating this aspect of the Army, but eventually, we too became a part of the leadership system and gave as good as we got.
In fact, the night before, Joe and I gave one such ass chewing to Sharpee and Flynn for not being social enough with other soldiers their rank. A dumb reason for sure to discipline a soldier, but we had an itch to yell at somebody.
On this day, we camped out in Balad, at Camp Anaconda, and waited for another unit to link up with to take us to Mosul.
We could not travel alone because our vehicles were without radios and we had no heavy guns, just M- 16s and a 9mm. If we were to drive without gun trucks and soldiers familiar with the roads, we’d be sitting ducks for the enemy.
But our commander was determined to get us to Mosul on time, so, while we were at Anaconda, he spoke with every officer to see when the next convoy left for our destination.
He was almost begging to find a convoy to hitch a ride with, which probably wasn’t covered in his military science classes at Texas A&M. When he found a convoy, he called the unit together for one of his motivational speeches.
As he began his spiel, we heard explosions. Mortars were falling somewhere near within the camp and we were running around like headless chickens.
We ran to the bunkers, leaving weapons and other sensitive items behind. We didn’t care; we just didn’t want to die. Other soldiers just walked nonchalantly, as if this was nothing new. They probably looked at us, thinking: look at the fresh meat.
In the bunkers, we were all huddled together. Some shook. I drank a bottle of water. And the first sergeant yelled at the NCOs.
“Get a head count on your people, NCOs.”
I didn’t see the point. I mean, if you turned around you bumped into everybody in the unit. But, nonetheless, I counted my three soldiers twice.
When the total count was given to the first sergeant, he said, “Welcome to Iraq.”
After the mortar attack, Joe and I showered. The shower tent was much cleaner than in Kuwait. The water was hot, providing the best two-minute shower I’ve ever had (to conserve water, you weren’t allowed to take long showers, but it felt good anyway).
On the way out, Sanchez and I sang stupid songs. During our fun, we got lost and walked into the wrong tent, an all-female tent where every girl was sleeping, tucked in their green wool blankets.
While they were probably wearing pajamas, I imagined them scantily clothed in pink thongs and no tops. It was a nice little fifteen-second thought of breasts. Luckily, none of them noticed us and we returned to our quarters without incident.
We awoke bright and early, and Sanchez was panicking.
“Minnick, do you have my boots?”
“I think I left them in the shower last night. Cover for me. I’m going back over there.”
He took off in a dead sprint wearing his Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) bottoms, brown shirt and tennis shoes—a uniform unbeknownst to any military manual I’ve seen.
As we were loading the vehicles, I was asked ten times where Sanchez was. Each time, I answered that I didn’t know. We were
about five minutes from our starting point when First Sergeant grabbed me.
“Minnick, I know you know where Sanchez is. Now, you better tell me. Is he AWOL?”
Just as I was about to answer, guess who came walking up?
“Sorry, First Sergeant, I had myself a case of explosive diarrhea. Had to be the chow.”
“Alright, next time tell somebody where you’re going. Get your s**t and let’s go.”
On the way to the truck, Sanchez told me that the gate to the shower was locked. He had to scale a ten-foot-high fence with concertina wire and pick the lock to the shower tent.
“Why all that for a pair of boots?”
“Because, man, I didn’t want to get in trouble. I’m already on First Sergeant’s s**t list.”
Here we were in a combat zone where death lurked at every turn, and his biggest concern was getting in trouble with the first sergeant.
You can buy the book via the publisher, Hellgate Press.