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Witnessing death drives home cost of Iraq war

In my nightmares, the helicopters still come out of a dark sky, two black spots barely visible against the backdrop of night.
Iraq Through  Looking Glass
Russian photographer Dmitry Chebotayev, left, is seen at an undisclosed location with U.S. troops outside Baghdad, Iraq, in this March 7, 2007, photo. Chebotayev was killed on May 6 by a roadside bomb blast that also killed six U.S. troops. AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

In my nightmares, the helicopters still come out of a dark sky, two black spots barely visible against the backdrop of night.

Their swirling blades grow louder until they finally touch down on earth and fall silent. They look like giant steel bugs from another planet, bulbous robots with eyes of glass coming to take away their prey: seven human beings who woke one day in Iraq not knowing they would be dead by noon.

Six American soldiers. One Russian photographer.

"Ever been a pall bearer before?" a soldier asks in the darkness.

"No," I say. "What do I need to do?"

"Just carry him."

There are no lights on this American base because of the threat of attack. And so it is dark, and quiet: a heavy, physical quiet with a body and a shape, one that bears down on my shoulders and makes it hard to breathe.

The soldiers are carrying stretchers to the aircraft. I help carry the last — on it is a large black pouch containing the body of my friend.

It is much heavier than I thought.

We push the stretcher through the open door of a Black Hawk, and I lean forward to rest my palm on the bag one last time.

I close my eyes, picturing my friend's eyes closed inside. A soldier reads the 23rd Psalm.

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death ..."

I step back, sobbing, and the helicopter blades start up again, slowly at first, spinning faster, growing louder, irreversible clocks forcing this moment to evaporate.

As they lift off I remain behind, sitting alone on a pile of sandbags, watching them vanish into the fluorescent, speckled backdrop of eternity overhead.

Death count
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, 3,987 American soldiers and at least 128 journalists have died in Iraq since the U.S.-led war began. But to me, they were all just numbers until last year.

I first met Dmitry Chebotayev in April 2007. Just 29, he was on assignment for the Russian edition of Newsweek and several photo agencies.

At the U.S. military press center in Baghdad, I saw him poring over an online magazine spread of soldiers patrolling a grassy palm grove outside Baqouba. I was going there, and said he should, too.

As a teenager, I had gazed for hours at history books filled with similar images from Vietnam. I had always wondered what it was like.

Dmitry, I think, was afflicted by a similar curiosity — a profound hunger for experience. The lure of a war is illogical, impossible to explain. When you feel it, going is rarely a choice.

A week later, Dmitry joined me in Baqouba. We quickly became friends.

Like him, I had a woman in my life for more than six years whom I loved but had not married. Like him, I was using the lens of journalism to explore the world.

We shared meals, drank coffee late into the night and slept on cots in a tent full of soldiers. Especially, though, we searched for stories, and in Baqouba that meant searching for the war.

One of those days, May 6, 2007, began like many others.

We got up before dawn. We moved out with a platoon of four 70,000-pound armored vehicles known as Strykers. And we spent the morning at a police station mostly bored — until Army helicopters spotted a group of men apparently planting a bomb on a street corner.

We rushed to the Strykers and drove deeper into the city.

We paused on a broad dirt road Americans called "Trash Alley."

Everything was fine, until one of the Strykers began turning left — and somebody, somewhere, set off a massive bomb buried in the sewage system underground.

In my nightmares, I can still see the burgeoning, hellish ball of smoke filling the color TV monitor inside our vehicle.

The back hatch opens, and I am trailing soldiers through a tunnel of blurred vision and dust as yellow and red smoke grenades cast bizarre shadows.

I see a dead Iraqi man lying beside his mangled bicycle, crumpled against a wall from the pressure of the blast.

I see the Stryker's wreckage belching jet-black smoke as sparks rain down from the sky. Flaming hunks of debris are scattered among body parts and charred ammunition. A surreal mist is blanketing the ground.

The blackened, flesh-strewn hulk of twisted steel is barely recognizable, upside down. A severed leg is dangling off the back.

'You OK?'
Soldiers rush forward with stretchers, looking for survivors. Only the driver is alive, pinned inside a front compartment, his hand crushed.

I can hear things sizzling, and I feel something is about to explode.

Then, we are ambushed again.

Insurgents fire and bullets ping off the Stryker's carcass. Soldiers crouching inside it and on surrounding rooftops fire back.

When the gunshots ease, I survey the scene nervously.

I circle around one body in particular: a man in a maroon shirt, lying face up. Carefully, deliberately, I take photo after photo, capturing it at different angles. The Stryker is just behind, shadowed by a large golden-domed mosque across the street. I think this is an Iraqi civilian in a dishdasha gown, perhaps one of the attackers.

I am expecting Dmitry to come running with his camera, but he does not appear. I think soldiers are keeping him back — photographing American casualties is often taboo.

Inside an abandoned house where we seek shelter, I ask where he is.

"Out front," a soldier says. "You OK?"

I am relieved, thankful.

Dangerous times
I know we will share these stories later: a dangerous time, a brush with death, but we escaped unharmed.

Desperate to talk to Dmitry, I wander outside again. I still can't find him, and ask somebody else where he is.

Inside the house, a dozen red-eyed, mourning soldiers are sitting against the walls, staring angrily toward the harsh light outside.

Until this moment, I am an observer.

When a soldier answers, I become one of them.

I am numb.

Dmitry is outside on the ground near the door — the one wearing the maroon shirt. His blue flak jacket, helmet and sunglasses are gone. His smashed camera is on the ground beside him. His face is covered in dust.

When I gain the strength to go out and look, he is gone. Soldiers have carried him away.

Now I want to ask him: Can you forgive me taking your picture?

And I ask myself: Why was I taking his picture, any of these pictures, at all?

War's new face
For a journalist, the world unfolds as an infinite stream of events. Your job is to witness them, capture them, explain them.

But they build up inside you.

I traveled to Iraq half a dozen times for the Associated Press over the years. I saw families crouching in their homes while Americans fought on their rooftops. I heard the screams of a dying Iraqi soldier as we crawled on a roof under a boiling midday sun. I watched helicopter gunships fire rockets across a twilit sky at insurgents holed up in palm groves below.

Unlike everybody else, I was always able to hop on a plane and leave it all behind, returning to a world where you did not cringe, where you could walk — not run — down the street, without worrying about trip wires or bombs or snipers.

I was always able to leave it all behind — until Dmitry was killed.

That day, I crossed through a kind of looking glass, and saw the war in Iraq from another side.

To the daily churn of news, it was just one more tragic story.

To me, it was far more profound. It reverberated through lives thousands of miles away, changing them forever.

I think about all the stories we have written — all the headlines and statistics that comprise the daily death tolls.

I do not look at them so casually anymore.

At the end of May, I traveled to Moscow for Dmitry's funeral and met his parents, sister and girlfriend.

They didn't really know what had happened, and telling them, between shots of ice-cold vodka, was one of the hardest things I have ever done. (Dmitry, it turned out, had never told his parents he was going to Iraq. They thought he was in Jordan, shooting pictures of refugees).

His death forced me to slow down my 100 mph life. In less than a year, I had traveled to Iraq twice, with 20 countries and a coup in Thailand in between.

My fiancee and I took a long vacation visiting family and friends, swimming with giant turtles in a sapphire-blue Hawaiian bay. We got married. And now she is pregnant with our baby boy.

I could not be happier — except when I think about what happened.

I have not returned to Iraq, but I've been back many times in my mind.

Often, I see Dmitry smiling.

Often, I see him dead.

In my dreams, I lean down and hold what is left of him. I do not care about the blood.

I press my forehead to his — as I did not have the chance to do — then tell him I am sorry, and say goodbye. It is important for me to recognize him, to treat him as a human being — not the object of a camera lens.

I take no pictures, and I am finally at ease.

But this is not a peaceful place.

'Be careful what you wish for'
Nearly a year later, I still wonder what we could have done differently. I feel stupid for seeking the war out. And I'm haunted by the words — "Be careful what you wish for" — that one soldier said to us the day before Dmitry died, as we resolved to go out with the Strykers again.

Now I am left with questions, memories and hundreds of digital photographs that I can no longer look at, that I cannot show anyone and cannot throw away.

I wish for the impossible: that I could open these two-dimensional worlds up, walk through them to that time, change that sequence of events.

But I know it cannot happen — except in my dreams. So I try to make the memories last, filtering through them carefully, over and over. And I often come to these:

In the last hours of Dmitry's life, we spent the morning bored, joking, hoping something might happen. We wondered if our helmets would protect us, and I knocked my fist lightly on his. "You'll be fine," I said.

Then Dmitry led the way to a sandbagged rooftop machine-gun post, where we peeked out into the palm-fringed city as the odd gunshot rang out.

I took his picture three times. Not long afterward, he took mine as I stood beside the back ramp of his Stryker, and we prepared to head out.

"C'mon," I said, begging him to take a few more. "Nobody ever takes my picture here."

"Don't worry, man," he replied in his heavy Russian accent, narrowing his eyes with a smile. "I'll take some great ones of you later."

In the dream, I want to open the black bag and see his face.

The soldiers at the morgue refuse and tell me it's too late.

"Open it!" I protest. I scream.

They say no.

Finally, they relent.

My hand zips the bag open, downward, revealing a pale discolored face, covered in dust.

I am relieved. It is not my friend.

It is not anyone I know.