The men trod back through the cemetery and I felt much less exposed than when I had trailed them earlier, veering around and over graves at a rapid pace. Running through a cemetery seems a violation of those lying beneath. I was glad when we got back to the houses.
It was at just that moment--when I felt the most secure--that all hell broke loose.
It began suddenly. Insurgents had crawled into positions covering all sides except the one where we had just entered. They let loose a continuous barrage on the house. Marines scrambled to their feet to fight back the ambush. "Roger, we are taking heavy fire. You need to orient to east, over the mosque complex," the commander coolly relayed into the radio.
The rumble of machine guns and the returning crack of AK-47 rounds flying toward the building pounded in my eardrums. In the next room a Marine fired his machine gun from the second-story window. I was photographing the seriousness on his face as he fought the onslaught. At that moment a flash of fiery orange enveloped the room. An RPG had scored a direct hit at head level of the firing Marine, the wall of the home saving him from certain death. It was so sudden and violent that I only have a blurry frame to serve as a reminder. The Marine was screaming as he was knocked to the ground, stunned by the concussion and deafening roar of the grenade.
He took only a moment to regain his composure. He was clearly pissed. He went back to the window and began firing with even more resolve. It wasn't long until another RPG crashed into the same wall. Insurgent forces were determined to score a kill. Inside the room the barrels of two M-249 machine guns became so hot from the rapid succession of fire that they melted and seized.
On the roof, another battle was raging. The Marines were in such close contact with the insurgents that the two were lobbing hand grenades back and forth. Shrapnel was shooting all over the roof, tearing into the Marines. A Marine who was on a second-floor balcony yelled, "I'm hit!" One of several thousand rounds fired in the opening 30 minutes of the battle had found its target. He gave an agonizing scream and yelled again that he was hit.
Moments later Sgt. Josue Magana was dragged by the grab handle on the back of his flak jacket into the room where I was hunkered down. He had been shot through the back and was in severe pain. While corpsmen were concentrating on his injury, I could see that he was beginning to fade. His eyes were empty and began to close. He was mumbling about a letter from his daughter, and I feared he was conceding that his life would end right there.
I grabbed his hand and assured him that he would see his daughter again. I looked him straight in his eye, telling him to look back at me, then to squeeze my hand so I knew he was still with me.
I felt caught between being an objective journalist and responding as a human being. I apologized to a news crew that was trying to film the scene, realizing that I was out of place, a photographer not being a photographer. "I have to be a human first," I heard myself saying awkwardly. It was a lesson I had learned early on from a photography professor who had a profound effect on my life.
I shot only a few frames to depict the scene, some as Magana was being dragged into the room and then after he was stabilized. I felt satisfied that I had done my job and also done what was right. Rounds were cracking off all sides of the building and now a second wounded Marine made his way to the doorway. Everything seemed to be unraveling. Here was a group of men, 37 in all, whom I viewed as courageous warriors, well-trained and well-equipped, and they seemed to be falling one by one right in front of me. I began to wonder: Is this it? What if, by sheer numbers and the great desire of those opposed to them, these Marines and I were about to be gunned down, right here. I wondered if the Marines on the bottom floor were fighting to their last bullets.
For an instant, I imagined the following scenario: As I peer from the doorway, insurgents rush up the stairs, firing at those working on the wounded Magana. Three easy kills for the insurgents. What would I do? Would I cower and scream "sahafi, sahafi" ("journalist, journalist") and hope to separate myself from the Marines? Would I find myself, the barrel of a gun pushing into my skin, begging for my life? Would I be killed instantly, no distinction made, in a hail of gunfire? Or would I pick up a weapon myself and fight for my own life and for those around me?
These decisions are guttural, instinctive. Every move seems to be analyzed in some split-second process. When the fight was raging, I was making decisions based on saving my life and doing my job--in that order.