He didn't have to go, it wasn't his job and nobody paid him to do it. But Michael Yon says he went to Iraq because he wanted to see for himself what was going on.
The 41-year-old former Army Green Beret, self-published author and world traveler didn't know exactly what he was going to do when he got to the war zone last year, nor did he have any particular plans to report what he saw to the world at-large.
But that's what he did.
After getting himself embedded as a freelance journalist with troops last year, he used his Internet blog, http://michaelyon-online.com, to report on the car bombs, firefights and dead soldiers. But he also wrote descriptively about acts of compassion and heroism, small triumphs in the country's crawl toward democracy and the gritty inner workings of the military machine.
Yon's dispatches have been extolled by loyal readers as gutsy and honest reporting by a guy who's not afraid to get his hands dirty. He has been interviewed and his blog quoted by major newspapers and TV news networks, and he has drawn comparisons to Ernie Pyle, the renowned World War II correspondent who shared the trenches with fighting soldiers.
Actor Bruce Willis is a fan and has said he wants to make a movie about the exploits of the 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment — aka the "Deuce Four" — which Yon followed through battles against insurgents in Mosul.
"Deuce Four is an overwhelmingly aggressive and effective unit, and they believe the best defense is a dead enemy," Yon wrote in one dispatch. "They are constantly thinking up innovative, unique and effective ways to kill or capture the enemy; proactive not reactive."
In May, a poignant photo he shot of a soldier cradling a dying Iraqi girl after an explosion in Mosul was printed in major U.S. newspapers and brought even more attention to his unpaid mission. A subsequent appeal for donations on the Web site brought in thousands of dollars.
And at one point he crossed the line from observer to participant.
In August, during a fierce firefight in downtown Mosul, Yon and witnesses say he picked up an M4 rifle, reloaded and fired three times at insurgents inside a shop as two of the battalion leaders lay wounded nearby. That's a no-no for embedded journalists, and it brought a stern reprimand from the Army.
"As soon I saw the rifle, I just grabbed it," he says. "It was just a reflex."
The slant of Yon's blog is unflinchingly pro-military, but he has frequently criticized Army public affairs officers in print over how news out of Iraq is managed. He hasn't shied away from describing the horrors of war, and he once wrote about an Iraqi taxi driver killed by U.S. troops during a fire fight.
"They know I don't follow the party line," says the soft-spoken Yon, whose broad, solid physique makes him seem taller than his 5 feet and 6 inches. "Like when our guys get killed, I'll write about it and I'll write about it the way it really happened, which sometimes is pretty graphic."
Lt. Col. Erik Kurilla, the Deuce Four commander who was wounded in the downtown Mosul battle, says Yon was effective because he stayed with the unit longer than most embedded reporters.
"Mike, by spending five months with us, understood the unit, the idiosyncrasies, the good and the bad, and how we made decisions," Kurilla says. "You don't get that from coming in for 48 or 72 hours."
A native of Winter Haven in central Florida, Yon is a professional adventurer of sorts. His tales range from establishing a vending business in Poland to tracking cannibals in India, all after serving five years in the Army in the 1980s. In 2000 he self-published a memoir called "Danger Close," which includes details of the 19-year-old Yon killing a man in a bar fight, a case later determined to be self-defense.
At the urging of friends connected the military, Yon went to Iraq a year ago, began blogging a few weeks later and within a few months had a good Internet following. It really took off when he started writing about the Deuce Four in Mosul, and in the last four months of 2005 the site logged around 1.5 million hits.
"I think Michael set out to chronicle what it was like for regular rank-and-file soldiers who went out outside the wire every day in a city that has been a very dangerous place," says Richard A. Oppel Jr., a New York Times reporter who was in Iraq with Yon.
Not being a journalist by trade, Yon says he initially had trouble being an objective observer when the explosions and gunfire started.
"In the beginning I would just help people, and I wouldn't get any photos," he says. "I realized that I could do a lot more with my camera and my pen than I could with my hands, and so I disciplined myself to just stay out of the way and photograph, unless somebody really, really needs me."
He felt that was the case in the downtown Mosul battle in August when he got involved in the battle. But before picking up the rifle, he shot a stunning sequence of photos of Kurilla crumpling to the ground as an insurgent's bullets pierced both his legs and an arm.
Kurilla and the rest of the Deuce Four are home now, with dozens of Purple Hearts among them. Lately Yon has been traveling in the United States and interviewing them for a book about the unit and the Battle for Mosul.
He recently bought new body armor and, if all goes as planned, he'll return to Iraq later this year.
"It's a very complicated world and you can't learn about it by sitting back and reading about it," Yon says. "Not the way I wanted to learn about it anyway."