Reflecting on Ramadi a decade after an encounter with an IED

(CNN)Hearing the news about Ramadi last week made me light-headed. Made the usual ringing in my ears more pronounced.

It was Christmas Eve 2004 and we were almost back. The traffic circle outside of Camp Hurricane Point, on the west side of Ramadi, was just ahead. I was starving and thinking of the Christmas Eve dinner the Marines were serving later on the base. I was beginning to relax, to breathe easier. Then a flash of searing heat, a massive boom. I felt what I can only describe as somebody hitting me on my helmet with a baseball bat. Hard, Yaisel Puig hard. My vision was hazy, but I could tell the Marine next to me was wobbly and looked like he was going to vomit. My head was ringing, my whole head.
It had happened in a second: a flash, bang, crack! Buzz. It was so crazy and surreal and it was over in an instant. A photojournalist for CNN, I had been in the middle of gunfights, mortar attacks, flying RPGs. I could process those things and still do my work. But the randomness of improvised explosive devices -- IEDs -- was my biggest fear. I had been on many patrols and had seen the immediate results but had never been directly hit by a roadside bomb.
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    But now an IED had blown up right behind me on the side of the Humvee. If the vehicle had been a few feet to the right, it would have blown up underneath me and everyone would be dead. As it was, my bell was rung and it was nearly lights out. The cheap piece of steel that some Marine had slapped onto the side of the Humvee had saved my life. So had the helmet on my head. Through the ringing, I heard the gunnery sergeant in the cab of the truck yell at the driver to keep moving. I wasn't sure the truck still worked, but it managed to lurch forward and roll inside the gates of Hurricane Point.
    Now the ringing from a decade past has become louder, because Ramadi is once again in a state of chaos. And this time the central Iraqi town, the capital of Anbar province, is no longer in the hands of the United States or the Iraqis that the U.S. fought alongside but the very forces the Marines were there to root out. The home of the so-called Sunni Awakening -- in which Iraqis switched from killing Americans to opposing the forces sowing violence in the region and arguably helped turned the tide in the Iraq war -- had fallen to ISIS.
    I had been on a patrol with Golf Company, 2nd Battalion 5th Marines. Ramadi was pretty much the most dangerous place on earth at the time. Marines and soldiers had just taken Fallujah, about 30 miles to the east, so fighting had ramped up in Ramadi and was fairly constant. Insurgent groups were laying IEDs everywhere. Marine Corps and Army personnel were engaged almost every time they went outside the wire of the camp. And even when they remained in their combat outposts, they routinely faced mortars and sniper fire. The center of the city lay in ruins.
    I had been sent on that trip in 2004 with correspondent Chris Lawrence for a pretty straightforward assignment: Get holidays stories with the troops. But assignments in Ramadi were never simple.
    We arrived at Camp Hurricane Point on December 24 and were there less than an hour when we were told that the home of the mayor of Ramadi had been blown up. It was no light holiday story, but we wanted to report on what had happened. We jumped in the back of a Humvee truck and headed out with the Marines to investigate.
    The mayor's house had been totally destroyed -- retribution, the Marines said, for cooperating with the Americans. Family and staff were picking through the rubble. All the Marines could offer them were a couple of cases of bottled water. I could hear gunfire in the distance. I shot some video, Chris took a few notes and we loaded back into the truck. A Navy doctor and a couple of Marines were sitting in the bed of the truck with Chris and me.
    We rolled down the main road linking Ramadi to Fallujah called Route Michigan and headed back towards Hurricane Point. At the time what passed as armor were big steel plates, welded and tied up to form a wall around the bed of the truck. The top of my Kevlar helmet was sticking up over the wall exposed to the Ramadi air.
    That's when I felt the explosion. The Devil Doc quickly checked to see if I was okay. I gave him a thumbs up. He moved on to the Marine sitting next to me who had blown ear drums.
    I thought of my wife and kids back home in LA. What were they doing right then? The truck pulled up to the headquarters of the camp. Marines came over to help us out of the Humvee. Once it was clear nobody was terribly hurt, we all started joking about the blast. Chris was shaken but okay. I felt horrible. Concussed. But I was stupidly afraid of looking like a "whiny reporter," so I didn't say anything, even to Chris. We just kept working and I tried not to think about it. We were housed in a structure the Marines called the boathouse -- a canvas tarp over a wood frame sitting next to the perimeter wall. I flopped onto my rack and lay still trying to regain equilibrium. The ringing in my ears was so strong, it became a permanent part of me. All these years later, the ringing is still reminding me of that day, and many others.
    I hadn't attended mass since I was a kid. Midnight Mass was being held at the chow hall, so Chris and I decided to go shoot video of it. After the mass, a young Marine who was in the Humvee with us walked over to give me a bear hug and say "Merry Christmas." I spent the rest of the night editing and transmitting video. I listen to the Marine guards on the wall next to the boathouse fire their machine gun at something in the pitch-black night.
    Christmas morning. We got ready to move out on a convoy to a combat outpost on the east side of Ramadi. A Marine dressed as Santa Clause was walking around with his M4 carbine. I took a photo with him. My ears were still on fire but I smiled big, because it was Christmas and I was alive.
    My last trip to Ramadi was in the spring of 2007 and it was remarkable. On the heels of the Sunni Awaking, the city was in a relative state of calm. The movement began around the fall of 2006, when after years of common cause against U.S. forces, ISIS predecessor al Qaeda in Iraq had managed to completely alienate Sunni tribes in Anbar with their brutality, murder and corruption. The U.S. Deputy Commander of Anbar province, Maj.-Gen. John Allen, had helped incubate the movement of local tribes who would partner with their old nemesis the Americans in order to defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq.
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    Allen had given Marines and soldiers the difficult task of working with and paying various armed Sunni groups like the Sons of Iraq to secure and patrol the streets of Ramadi. These were the same men who almost certainly fought as insurgents and had killed Americans troops in the past. Naturally, it was a slow process building the trust necessary to work and fight effectively against al Qaeda in Iraq. But by 2007, the plan was working.
    While covering meetings between Allen and Sunni tribal leaders, CNN correspondent Nic Robertson and I went out on a foot patrol in Ramadi with US Army soldiers of the 3rd Infantry. We were actually able to walk the streets and speak with civilians. Markets were open, kids were playing in the open, repairs to infrastructure were being made. It almost seemed like a normal city again.
    But stark reminders of the violence that was once a part of everyday life in Ramadi still existed around many corners. We walked past a small house and in the front yard was the rusting carcass of a Marine humvee. The machine gun turret lay overgrown with weeds on the other side of the road. It had clearly hit a massive IED years earlier, most likely killing everyone inside. A fate I had narrowly avoided on that Christmas Eve.
    Before that last trip in 2007, what I witnessed in Ramadi was a city under siege. U.S. Marines guarding the symbolic provincial government compound in the center of the city, fighting off one attack after another day and night. Collapsed buildings, bomb cratered streets. The streets and alleys were shooting galleries that took the lives of many Marines, soldiers and residents. Havoc. And this history is what makes the fall of Ramadi to ISIS forces all the more difficult to watch. The hard-fought battles. The uneasy alliances. The suffering. The blood spilled.
    Now the U.S. forces are gone, and the Sunni movement that once held together a fragile peace has long ago been disbanded by the Maliki government. Once again the people of Ramadi find themselves living day to day, under siege.
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