The Suicide Bombing of December 21 and What Came After
The shopping bag lying in the street appeared harmless. Black and plastic, it looked like a piece of garbage that had drifted into the middle of the road, though this one sat in the crater of a bomb that damaged vehicles a few days earlier. I wanted to jump into the action immediately that night, 15 years ago in Mosul. After I arrived, I joined some U.S. combat engineers racing to investigate the bag. As we watched from a safe distance, a pair of bomb disposal troops piloted a remote-controlled robot with plastic explosives in its claw. “Fire in the hole!” one of the troops yelled. The explosion vibrated through my chest. In the debris the soldiers found pieces of an anti-tank mine, batteries, and a remote control receiver. The experience was a reminder of the peril in Iraq, perhaps a hint of what would happen four days later on Dec. 21, 2004, when I would nearly be killed, a warning of the trauma that comes from reporting on war.
I am the son of a decorated Vietnam War veteran. My family moved often as we followed my father’s career in the U.S. Air Force. We flew on cargo planes, lived in base housing, and went to military hospitals. Now settled in north Georgia, I have reported for newspapers for 25 years, often about the military. I have written about the stress families endure during combat deployments. I have written about the massive backlog of veteran health care applications. I have written about the alarmingly high veteran suicide rate. I believe it is my responsibility to write about these things because I grew up in a military family and because of what I survived in Iraq. I believe I owe something for that.
I felt compelled to go there in 2004. The war was the big story then, and it frustrated me that I wasn’t writing about it. Young and ambitious, I craved more adventure than covering city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Subconsciously, I also wanted to report on the war to better understand and be closer to my father, who killed himself after doctors found a lesion on his brain and diagnosed him with multiple sclerosis and an abnormal heart rhythm. I was 14 when he dropped me off at high school one day and never returned home.
I wasn’t worried about the dangers in Iraq, or maybe I was naive. I learned the 276th Engineer Battalion—a Virginia National Guard unit—was hunting roadside bombs, fortifying military outposts and aiding civilians in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. I invited a photographer at the newspaper, Dean Hoffmeyer, to go with me. An Indiana native, he has a self-deprecating sense of humor and is passionate about his work, though he doesn’t sensationalize what we do as journalists.
We flew to Kuwait, where we caught a military flight to Forward Operating Base Marez, a sprawling post that encompassed a graveyard of Iraqi tanks as well as Iraq’s oldest Christian monastery. Once there, I wanted to write about an Iraqi man I met who worked as a contractor at Marez. He made friends and money painting portraits of troops. But Dean and I needed to get lunch first. We headed to the chow hall, a huge white tent sitting atop a hill. It operated like a school cafeteria with warming trays full of burgers, chicken fingers, and fries. Insurgents repeatedly fired mortars at the tent, once killing a female soldier outside it the summer before our arrival.
Scanning the food line, nothing caught my interest. I craved something different, something like Cincinnati chili, or pasta topped with chili and cheese. I left Dean in the line and headed to the pasta bar in the center of the tent. A smiling contractor stood at attention there, wearing a white apron. He had just served me a bowl of macaroni topped with tomato sauce when I heard it and felt it. A massive explosion behind me radiated through my body, knocking my tray out of my hands. I cringed, gritting my teeth. Spinning around, I saw a huge fireball burning through the top of the tent. Soldiers scrambled toward me, fleeing the flames. Instinctively, I turned on my heels and ran after them through a side exit, finding a concrete blast shelter full of troops. There was little room left. I felt absurd standing half inside it and was curious about what had happened. I headed back, worrying about Dean.
I jotted down in my notebook what I observed. Someone screamed, “Medic!” A soldier cried, complaining she couldn’t hear. Troops bravely rushed into the tent. They brought out one soldier whose face was pale and greenish and who was gasping for air. Another soldier with a serious head wound was already dead. His comrades gently slid him into a body bag. I turned away, wishing I hadn’t seen that and knowing I would never forget it for the rest of my life. I went back inside the chow hall. Slippery with blood, the floor was strewn with half-eaten food, kitchen utensils, and overturned tables and chairs. Torn flaps of tent hung down from the ceiling like the shredded skin of a gaping wound, allowing sunlight to pour in. The blast hit where we sat the day before. I had just walked through that area on the way to the pasta bar moments before the explosion and was probably going back to that spot to eat. Counting my steps, I measured the center of the blast to the pasta bar where I stood: 50 paces. That’s what separated me from serious injury or death.
Dean was much closer. The explosion turned everything around him bright orange and knocked him to the floor. Through the ringing in his ears, he could hear a man scream. Dean shot photos through the doorway leading into the seating area. Men crawled on all fours. Bodies were sprawled on the floor. Turning around, Dean spotted a soldier lying on his back a few feet from him. Much of his throat was missing. Blood squirting from his wound soaked Dean’s pants. Troops and kitchen workers rushed to the wounded man’s aid. Tasting burnt metal on his tongue, Dean crawled into the seating area. He aimed his camera at two troops carrying a comrade. Next, he snapped photos of troops rushing into the tent to help. They transformed the overturned tables into stretchers. Struck by their courage, Dean kicked away chairs, clearing a path for them. One of the soldiers asked him to leave: For my men, will you please go outside? Dean complied, heading out to look for me.
I wandered back outside and found Dean. We locked eyes on each other and then got back to reporting amid the dazed soldiers wobbling around and the medics triaging the wounded. We suspected the insurgents had finally succeeded in hitting the tent with a mortar. Or maybe they hit it with a pinpoint rocket attack—that was what one of the officers on the scene speculated. That evening, I interviewed the brigadier general in charge of that region. Tears rimming his eyes, he told me the blast possibly came from a planted bomb. Twenty-three people were killed and dozens were injured. Among the dead were the bomber and 14 U.S. service members, including two from the Virginia unit we were covering. Four U.S. contractors and four Iraqi troops were also killed. My reporting and Dean’s photos were picked up by the Associated Press and published around the world.
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The Pentagon eventually confirmed what happened: There was no mortar or rocket attack. An insurgent dressed as an Iraqi soldier—Iraqi troops were being trained by U.S. forces at Marez—snuck onto the sprawling base, without passing through one of its official entrances. News reports identified him as Ahmed Said Ahmed al-Ghamdi, a 20-year-old Saudi medical student. He sat down in the most crowded part of the tent during the busiest part of the lunch hour and detonated a suicide vest packed with ball bearings. Ansar al-Sunna, an extremist Islamic militant group, took responsibility and then released a video claiming to show its preparations.
Dean and I spent several more weeks reporting in Iraq before returning home, exhausted. We are not victims and do not seek pity, just understanding of what journalists experience covering war. We also do not compare ourselves to the soldiers. Our respect for them grew as we witnessed what they endure. Many saw sustained combat. Most were away from their families for much longer than us. They had no choice but to stay, while we chose to be there and could leave whenever we wanted. Many were required to go on missions outside the wire. Dean and I could choose to stay behind. Many were seriously injured in the suicide bombing. We didn’t suffer a scratch. Or at least we had no visible wounds.
Dean suffered from anxiety long before Iraq. It got worse afterward. He became paranoid, seeing snipers in Richmond who weren’t really there. He changed lanes beneath Virginia overpasses to avoid people dropping bombs on him. His stress strained his marriage and made it difficult for him to work. He remembers shooting photos of a high school girls basketball game just days after returning from Iraq and thinking, What is the point? Today, he worries much of his journalistic curiosity has been burned away by what he experienced.
The Richmond newspaper referred us to the same therapist when we got back. I saw him once, spilled my guts about losing my father and about what I experienced in Iraq, and then I never returned. I worried about being stigmatized. In retrospect, I know I should have gone back for more help. Like Dean, I was jumpy when I got home. Slamming car trunks unnerved me—the whoosh of air around me felt like a bomb going off. A garbage truck dropping a dumpster back in place made my heart pound. I had nightmares about trying to escape Iraq. One day, someone left a bag just outside the window of a restaurant where I was having lunch with my wife. I couldn’t focus on anything until the restaurant staff removed it. I scanned the sides of roads for suspicious objects. At times, I was impatient and had a hair-trigger temper.
I had also become addicted to the life-and-death stories I wrote from Iraq, the adventure, the adrenaline. It was hard for me to resume covering government, development, politics. They weren’t nearly as compelling to me as the war. Months after returning from Mosul, I took a new job reporting for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I wasn’t there long before I volunteered to return to Iraq, where I spent 10 weeks covering a Georgia National Guard brigade in Baghdad and western Iraq. I worried my luck was running out, yet I volunteered to return for a third visit to Iraq spanning six weeks. On that last assignment, I reported on a Marine Reserve unit from Georgia that retrieved the remains of fallen U.S. troops.
At some point, I started tallying my close calls. One evening, a rocket sailed over me at a military outpost south of Baghdad. Another time, insurgent mortar rounds exploded around me at a different outpost in a region nicknamed the Sunni Triangle of Death. In all, five convoys I rode in were attacked with roadside bombs. When Dean and I reported in the city of Tal Afar, an improvised explosive device sprayed the Humvee in front of ours with shrapnel, flattened two of its tires, engulfed it in smoke and shook up the military chaplain inside. The next year, an IED struck the Humvee in front of the truck I was riding in near Mahmudiyah, blowing much of its front end off and causing one of the soldiers inside to rocket out of his seat and bite off part of his tongue. The blast knocked out the driver, slamming him so hard against the steering wheel that he bent it.
On Thanksgiving Day in 2005, I finally felt what it was like to be in a vehicle hit by one of these bombs. The blast struck the side of the Humvee I was riding in through western Iraq, enveloping me and the soldiers inside with thick smoke and sand, and dizzying our gunner. I felt the explosion suck the air from my lungs. I was so full of adrenaline and so alert that evening that I couldn’t sleep.
In retrospect, these events made me feel more alive. My preoccupation with them reflected my urge to be as close as possible to the action—to the story—my addiction to adrenaline, my addiction to living on the edge, my romantic view of my job as a journalist, my vanity, trauma on top of trauma. It all amounted to a bright glowing neon sign warning me that I needed to go home to my wife and infant daughter, to stop testing my luck, to write about other things. I saw that sign then, but I could not read it. Now its message is clearer.
I became desensitized to much of everything else while reporting in Iraq. I hung onto the military beat, writing about more troop deployments, treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, and efforts to recover and identify the remains of missing troops. Eventually, I was assigned to cover immigrants and refugees in the United States and found their plight particularly compelling. I also began reporting on the opioid abuse epidemic, a deadly crisis that has grabbed my attention and won’t let go. It took years, but I finally rediscovered my passion for writing about a variety of subjects—my purpose—and now I find the work deeply fulfilling again.
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This year, I met a bearded and bespectacled man named Khaled Nasser at a reporting workshop in Amman, Jordan, organized by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. A family counselor based in Beirut, Nasser has treated dozens of journalists who report on war and other traumatic events. Strangely, he comforted me when he told me the troubles I have experienced—hypervigilance, nightmares, alienation—are common among the journalists he sees, that I am not alone. Journalists who report on war, he told me, should thoroughly plan not only for their perilous assignments but the healing that must happen after them. For me, that healing has partly come from officiating NCAA lacrosse, reading, and writing, all things that force me to focus on the moment.
I often think about Dec. 21 and wonder why Dean and I survived. If we had missed our connecting flight in Amsterdam to Kuwait—as we almost did—we wouldn’t have been there to report on the attack. If we had been quicker that day, we probably would have sat near the suicide bomber. If I had not craved Cincinnati chili, I could have ended up like the soldier who died next to Dean. The precise time we woke up that day, however long it took for us to get dressed, the ride we got to the mess tent—all of those things put us in position to bear witness to that tragic event and report it to the world. I have grown much stronger, though sometimes I wonder what trauma will come next, whether I can brace for it, how I will report on it, how I will heal from it.