We've only been in Ramadi, Iraq, a few days. Maybe it's the heat, which is in the low 120s, and a few long nights, but it certainly feels much longer.
It took Michael Ware, cameraman Neil Hallsworth and me about four days to get here. The few fights to Ramadi only fly at night, and after mechanical failures, sandstorms and changes in flight plans, we ended up spending several nights on the still-hot concrete of a helipad in Baghdad. Finally, we jumped a ride to Falluja. Honestly, I felt like we were hopping a freight train as we threw our bags onto a Chinook heading vaguely in the right direction and hoped for the best.
We wanted to join a military operation unfolding in Ramadi, and we knew our window of opportunity was rapidly closing. Even with our detours, we managed to show up at the doorstep of the 1-6 Infantry just in time.
Operation Pegasus was nothing if not complex. The aim was to hit four targets simultaneously -- one by a land team, moving in Humvees and Bradleys, another target from the air, with troops dropped in by Blackhawks, and the last, the sea team, which came in on boats sneaking up the river Euphrates.
We ended up hanging onto the back of one of the boats. The troops were equipped with night vision goggles, but we were not. As we moved up the river in the dark, I had to rely on the light from a half moon, which wasn't so bad, but it did make every shadow in the reeds look rather menacing.
After spending time with the soldiers of the 1-6 and the brigade recon troop, I was struck by how tight of a group they are. Most of them are young, perhaps even shockingly so. As cliched as it sounds, these guys act like brothers. They take taking care of each other very seriously and give each other a hard time at any opportunity.
Riding in a seven-ton personnel carrier to the boat launch point, it was quiet for a while, and a little tense, until the soldier behind me turned to one of his platoon mates and said with a very dead pan delivery, "If anything should happen to me, tell your mom I love her." I guess if you can't tell a mother joke before you're sent into combat, then when can you?
Once they hit the ground, no one made any more jokes.
It was a hard night for the brigade recon troop. They were lucky no one was hurt, but they missed their target and an Iraqi grandmother was accidentally shot and killed. You could tell who in the platoon knew what had happened; you could see it in their faces. These soldiers are like most Americans, with varying views on this war. But none of them wants something like that to happen. As tense and full of nervous energy the ride out was, the way back was somber.
The raid lasted about four-and-a-half hours, yet felt like minutes. As we waited for the boats to return and pick us up, the night had become extremely dark. The half moon in the sky had set at some point. We all laid down in a field next to the river, still staying low. Neil and I were just saying that we can't remember ever seeing so many stars.
This isn't an easy tour for these soldiers and the men that lead them -- Captain Dan Enslen, Captain Chris Kuzio, and Captain Danny Pedersen -- just to name the few that I have been able to spend a little time with. These are guys my own age, who over coffee instantly seem familiar. Yet I cannot imagine the lives they are leading, American and Iraqi alike.
As we were leaving for the operation Captain Pedersen looked at me and said, "There is no way I would go past the wire with just a camera." Truth is I am not sure I could go out there with what he has to carry.