We are leaving Iraq after a week; seven days that my photographers -- Jerry Simonson and Damir Loretic -- and I will not and cannot forget.
This past Monday, we covered the story of a U.S. Air Force squadron that helps train Iraqi police in proper police techniques. I thought it was an interesting story in itself. But what I ended-up finding more compelling was the squadron's dangerous quest to get to Iraq's police stations.
The 14-member group travels five days a week through some of the most hostile regions of Iraq. They travel in armored humvees, and there is good reason they are armored. Over the four months this group has been in the Tikrit area (where Saddam Hussein was born and raised), they have been hit by improvised explosive devices five times. On four of the occasions, they were scared; only their vehicles suffered damage. But on the fifth one, one of their own -- Senior Airman Jason Nathan -- was killed.
Jason was one of the gunners, the person who stands up through the turret and operates the huge machine gun that rotates 360 degrees. Jason was doing his job when an IED came his way and cut him down. His horrified colleagues could not save his life. They went back to the Balad Air Base, took a couple of days off, and then went back to work.
They told us this story as we joined them on a 35-mile journey to a small town police station. We drove through neighborhoods known to be full of insurgents and their supporters. We passed by dozens of cars -- any of which could hold bombs -- parked along the roads. The police station had one way in and one way out, so anybody with a bad thought in their head would know exactly where the four-humvee convoy was going.
The driver of my humvee told me before the trip that if she was hit by an explosive and incapacitated or killed, I was to climb forward from the back seat, move her body, take her foot off the accelerator, put the humvee in neutral, and bring it under control. It took me a few seconds to realize she was serious, and only a few more seconds to realize how brave and selfless these Airmen are. Some of them told me they were scared to do this job, but considered it a patriotic duty.
The following day, we paid a visit to the largest U.S. military hospital in Iraq. Between my videographers and me, we have seven children. But we weren't prepared for what we saw in this hospital: a 14-month-old toddler burned over 45 percent of his body; a beautiful six-year-old girl with a burned face and an amputated leg; a little boy with a gunshot wound in his arm. Two of the children we saw in the hospital were by themselves. The staff at the Air Force Theatre Hospital had no idea what happened to their families. Despite all this, the children smiled and laughed with us just like our own kids. But we take it for granted that we can shelter our own kids from this kind of violence.
People always talk about numbers: the number of troops killed, the number of civilians hurt. But traveling alongside these troops and meeting these children has affected us more profoundly than any number ever could.
-- By Gary Tuchman, CNN Correspondent