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GUEST VIEWPOINT: MICHAEL YON, THE “ERNIE PYLE OF THE IRAQ WAR” REFLECTS ON THE YEAR by Charles G Print E-mail
by Special to DallasBlog.com    Fri, Dec 30, 2005, 03:45 PM

Michael Yon’s voice sounds younger on the phone than his 41 years. The independent journalist and former Green Beret was in Tacoma to attend "The Punisher’s Ball", a black tie event for the soldiers and wives of the 25th Division’s 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment. For many "Deuce 4" soldiers, November 5, 2005 would be the last reunion with their unit before moving on to new Army assignments or civilian life. It would also be an evening for remembering their fallen comrades.

Actor Bruce Willis, who has traveled to Iraq to entertain the troops, was the guest of honor and keynote speaker at the ball. Willis was joined by the producer of his The Sixth Sense and Armageddon films, Stephen Eads, who is hoping to make a film portraying Deuce 4’s heroism in Iraq.

For Michael Yon, his week in the Pacific Northwest was also a chance to slow down, to spend some time with the families of the soldiers he had befriended, and to reflect on the past year. How had he arrived at this point?

He wrote, shortly before returning home with Deuce 4: "I started with the premise that this war was extremely important, whether or not many people agreed. While I hear radio and television crews often lamenting about how it takes a whole day just to file one story, it can take me two weeks of dangerous research, photography and writing to get a single major dispatch out. I am not a war correspondent or journalist. I am only a writer who came to Iraq after it became apparent that we might be in trouble, and I did not trust the news. I had never covered a war before and, with any luck, never will again."

In late 2004 Yon wondered if the reporting he was reading from Iraq was accurate. He had spent most of his Army career (1982-1987) in Special Forces as a weapons specialist, primarily based in Germany in the twilight of the Cold War. Michael’s contacts in the Army insisted that the grisly headlines from Iraq were not telling the whole story. So in January 2005 he decided to fly to Baghdad and become embedded with a combat unit, with the idea of writing a book about his experiences. At that point he had no intention of posting dispatches online, he said, but began to read soldiers’ web logs ("blogs") telling their own stories about the war.

When he arrived in Middle East, he immediately noticed how difficult and expensive it is for reporters to operate in Iraq. His airline ticket was $2,000, and the cost of a hotel room in Kuwait City, while he waited days for a flight into Baghdad, averaged more than $250 a night. While reporters with major publications and wire services could afford the thousands of dollars for equipment and travel expenses, as an independent operator he had to secure his own financing. In addition, he had no Iraqi "stringers" to serve as guides to help him avoid dangerous situations and generate leads.

Yon described to me how he quickly learned to hitch rides with Army convoys and helicopters, often by mentioning to somewhat skeptical soldiers and pilots that he had served in the Army as well.

The first unit Yon embedded with, the 1st Infantry Division, was headquartered in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit. The 1st ID was also responsible for the city of Baquba on the outskirts of Baghdad. For three weeks Yon wrote nothing, but observed as soldiers hunted house to house in Baquba for insurgents. A week before the January 30, 2005 Iraqi elections he started posting dispatches on his blog, www.michaelyon.blogspot.com.

Yon posted that if the elections could be conducted successfully, the insurgents would suffer a major defeat. At the time many pundits were calling for the elections to be postponed indefinitely, and insurgents were expected to wreak havoc on police stations and polling places. Instead, an unexpected quiet prevailed over Baquba and most of Iraq, and millions of Iraqis boasted purple fingers at the end of election day.

After the elections he wanted to see how units were doing in other parts of Iraq. He made an appointment to visit the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment of the Tennessee National Guard, stationed on the Iranian border. The regiment had been in the news in December 2004, thanks to a question posed by one of its soldiers to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at a press conference. A Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter embedded with the 278th, Edward Lee Pitts, later acknowledged the question came from him. Yon befriended Pitts and some of the Tennessee soldiers, but yearned to get closer to the fight against the insurgency. Shortly before the 1st ID was to be relieved by the 3rd ID and rotated back home, he asked one of its brigade commanders, Col. Dana Petard, which unit he recommended for Yon’s next post. "Col. Robert Brown and the 25th ID in Mosul," was Col. Petard’s reply.

Mosul in the spring of 2005 was the most dangerous place in Iraq. In the aftermath of the Battle of Fallujah, the city was teeming with insurgents, and the Iraqi Police force in Mosul had broken and fled when the enemy launched a major offensive against police stations in the city.

He embedded himself with the unit in late April 2005. Deuce 4 and other coalition forces in Mosul were under constant attack from insurgents. On April 23, a convoy near Yon came under attack when a suicide bomber rammed a car packed with explosives into a Stryker armored vehicle. Yon recalls a Kurdish Iraqi interpreter, whom he refers to in his dispatches as "Jeff", kicking the hand of the suicide bomber in the street. It was all that was left of the attacker. Two U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter were killed in the attack. Four soldiers from another unit were killed the same week in Mosul.

Yon’s dispatches were building his reputation in the blogosphere, but the incident that brought his work to the attention of the mainstream media and the wider world was recorded in a photograph he took on May 2, 2005. That was the day insurgents attacked Deuce 4 soldiers while they were being mobbed by Iraqi kids. As screaming, wounded children were being rushed to field hospitals, he snapped a photo of Major Mark Bieger cradling an Iraqi girl in his arms. The picture was picked up by the Associated Press and the Economist. It brought Yon a flood of emails from around the world. Yon wrote a dispatch in fluent German thanking his readers in Europe for their kind words.

If this were a different, more popular war, that photo might earn Yon a Pulitzer prize. Instead the Army, which released Yon's photograph to the world without attribution, contends in writing that all photographs and material created by embedded journalists can be used by the government without permission. In addition, it seems unlikely in the present political climate that the Pulitzer committee would select a photograph proclaimed by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) on the Senate floor as an example of the compassion of American soldiers in Iraq contrasted with the ruthlessness of the enemy.

The Iraqi girl did not survive her wounds, but Yon vowed to stay in Iraq to continue telling Deuce 4’s story until the end of their tour. He later reported another story about how another little Iraqi girl from Mosul, named Rhma, received a new lease on life, thanks to the compassion of Army doctors, who raised enough support to send her to the U.S. for open-heart surgery.

Yon had several other close calls in Iraq, but one that stands out happened on August 19, 2005. That day Lt. Col. Eric Kurilla was shot three times while pursuing an insurgent, when a dusty alley in western Mosul became a shooting gallery. Yon snapped photographs recording the moment Kurilla was hit in both legs and the bicep. Command Sergeant Major Prosser returned fire, shooting Kurilla’s assailant several times before dropping his empty M-4 rifle to chase the gunman into a building. In the confused melee that followed, Yon’s Army weapons training kicked in, and he picked up Prosser’s rifle and reloaded it to return fire. Yon didn’t see Prosser rush the building after the enemy, but fired several rounds through the doorway to draw fire away from Kurilla. Yon’s shots into the room hit a propane canister and sent it flying into the alley, but the gas somehow failed to ignite. "Boy were we lucky!" he recalls.

This month, Prosser received the Silver Star for his actions that day. Yon’s dispatch about the shootout, "Gates of Fire", drew more than 80,000 visitors a day to his website and led to a series of articles in Northwest U.S. newspapers. The post was named for the bestselling Stephen Pressfield novel about ancient Sparta’s warriors that Kurilla had assigned as reading for his soldiers.

I spoke with Yon one more time the week before Thanksgiving, when he was in Boston to speak about juvenile safety to a firefighters conference.

"I do have a life outside of the dispatches," he said with a laugh, and then added that he would be returning to Iraq soon. He still hadn’t decided whether he was going to become embedded with Danish troops in the Shi’a south, or head for the "wild wild west" of Iraq’s Al-Anbar province.

"They have a little Ho Chih Minh Trail going there," he said, referring to the ratlines for jihadists and weapons stretching from the towns along the Tigris and Euphrates valleys, to wadis and trails worn by decades of smuggling between Syria and Iraq.

Another election in Iraq, another milestone for the Iraqi people, and more brave Americans in harms way are calling him back.

Charles Ganske, a Fort Worth native, is a Seattle-based writer for Discovery Institute’s Technology and Democracy Project. He has worked as an intern for the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Hudson Institute. He earned a B.A. in history from the University of Texas.

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