|Copyright (c) 2003 Greensboro News & Record|
|Iraq War Photos|
|Photograph by Yancey Christopher|
This is the first day that I wore my new bulletproof vest that the faculty, staff and students at Randolph Community College (Asheboro, North Carolina) bought for me. I truly was touched by how supportive everyone at RCC was. Thank you, RCC.
Click on Photo to see William's Iraq Photographs
Date: November 9, 2003 Edition(s): ALL
Page: D1 Section: LIFE
Source: TOM STEADMAN Staff Writer
He's back home in Asheboro, where the leaves are turning and the mornings are crisp with autumn and a day on active duty means a drive to the Army Reserve Center in Greensboro.
Army Capt. William Thompson may have escaped the 130-degree heat of Baghdad and the ever-present threat of suicide bombers or snipers, but the images of Iraq are still as vivid to him as they were the day he left.
Thompson, a photography instructor at Randolph Community College and a reservist who was mobilized in January, captured his Iraq tour in thousands of photos.
One of the most gripping images shows members of his seven-man team caught in a firefight at Saddam International Airport the day they rolled into Baghdad.
Thompson says he and his men were worn out and frazzled, frankly too tired to be very scared by the artillery and sniper fire. Mostly, they were irritated.
"We were sitting there trying to eat and being shot at," he says.
Thompson, 35, left for Kuwait in February with the Army Reserve's 422nd Civil Affairs Battalion. In August, he was sent home on indefinite emergency leave after his wife, Theresa, underwent surgery.
During the months in between, Thompson sweated away 30 pounds in the desert heat, eating mostly Army-issue MREs (meals ready to eat), living in a former student dormitory and dealing with the daily headaches of trying to rebuild the Iraqi infrastructure.
Thompson's team was charged with oversight of Baghdad's Rusafa district, one of nine in Iraq's capital city and the one containing key government offices and one of the city's main school districts.
One of his photos shows soldiers passing out medical supplies at an Iraqi clinic. Others show Iraqi citizens, hired by the Army, cleaning up Baghdad's debris-laden streets. One of them is shown turning in a pay voucher for his work.
Getting basic services back into operation was a major focus for his team. Schools were a particular priority, Thompson said. At one point, his team escorted a truck carrying hundreds of thousands of dollars in U.S. currency to be disbursed to Iraqi schoolmasters. Guarding the cash was a Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle and Thompson's seven-man team.
"It was a heck of a process, but we got it done," Thompson says.
Another photo shows Thompson with a local sheik whose fundamentalist troops took over an Iraqi hospital to prevent looting and then had to be persuaded to give up control. Negotiations were handled by Thompson and his team.
There are pictures of looters detained by soldiers and of other looters making off with their spoils.
One photo, taken early in the war, shows an American sergeant holding a U.S. flag as troops cross the Kuwait border into Iraq. The soldier stood there with his flag much of the day, Thompson said.
Some Iraqis greeted the troops warmly. One picture shows a girl decorating a Bradley vehicle with blossoms. Another shows a grinning G.I. surrounded by children on Baghdad's streets.
But there were many nervous moments, such as the daily trips by Humvee through a Baghdad traffic tunnel named the "tunnel of terror" by locals because of attacks that have occurred there. Thompson's vehicles always made it through unscathed.
Mainly, there were much more mundane tasks, such as borrowing city sewage trucks and heading into parts of Baghdad that had raw sewage standing in the streets and cleaning out sewers that hadn't been maintained for years.
Such simple acts invariably drew an appreciative crowd, Thompson says.
Make no mistake, Baghdad is still a dangerous place, maybe even more dangerous than during the so-called "shooting war," he says. But would-be bombers are decidedly in the minority.
"Ninety-nine percent of the people in Iraq are very appreciative of us being there," Thompson says.
Thompson's team was one of 10 teams from the 422nd working to rebuild the country's infrastructure.
Maj. Brent Gerald, a captain with the Greensboro Fire Department, worked to procure new fire trucks for Baghdad. Already 150 of the trucks have been delivered; another 150 are expected in November.
Other teams from the unit are working closely with the city's school systems, hospitals and other districts of the city.
Thompson says he left behind some new friends in Baghdad, such as a photo shop owner who has called twice by satellite phone to check up on Thompson's wife and an Iraqi district leader who nearly came to tears when he learned that Thompson had been shipped back home.
While in Iraq, Thompson and other members of his Civil Affairs team weren't totally cut off from loved ones back home. Satellite phones and the cell phones they were issued for their crucial roles in rebuilding Iraq allowed them to stay in touch with their families.
"It was a privilege most of the soldiers in Iraq don't have," Thompson says.
Fortunately, the cell phones had New York numbers, meaning that calls could be placed or received at a relatively inexpensive rate.
Photos aside, Thompson has plenty of other daily reminders of Iraq. There is the TV news, where stories of fresh deaths or fresh bombings, such as the recent deadly blast at Baghdad's International Red Cross headquarters, bring it all back with a vengeance.
"I had friends there," Thompson says. The Red Cross headquarters is in the district overseen by Thompson's unit.
Another flashback comes whenever he opens his closet at home and sees his desert-camouflage armored vest, bought for him with $1,300 raised within hours in March by colleagues and students at Randolph Community College.
"It was a heck of a thing to do," Thompson says.
It was during a satellite phone call to his wife, on her birthday in March, that Thompson asked her to buy an armored vest and have it sent to him in Iraq.
Like thousands of other U.S. troops not directly involved in combat situations, Thompson initially did not receive full body armor from the Army. He had thought about buying his own before shipping out but decided to wait.
Then, moving with a lead battalion of the 3rd Infantry Division into Iraq, Thompson felt he needed the protection a vest would give him.
"He said, 'Honey, I love you. Please get that bullet-proof vest. Send it now. Send it soon,' " Theresa Thompson says.
Soon after, she was talking to Chuck Egerton, another photography instructor at Randolph Community College. She mentioned that her husband wanted a vest. Egerton took it from there, putting out the word via the e-mail system at RCC.
Within 12 hours, hundreds of faculty, staff and students had donated a total of $1,330, enough to buy more than Thompson had asked for - a custom-made interceptor vest - and have it shipped to him at the front.
"The war was on at the time," Egerton says. "We were in the throes of it; people felt it was something they could do - to give him some protection."
When the vest finally got to Thompson in Iraq, he found it was somewhat unique: desert camouflage instead of the green Army-issue vests. He brought home a photo of himself showing off the vest so the folks who had bought it for him could see his appreciation.
The gift of the vest was far from a token gesture, Theresa Thompson says.
"For him, it was an ice-breaker on his job," she says. "It allowed him to explain that he was a teacher and that people cared for him back at home."
Contact Tom Steadman at 574-5583 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Memo: MORE ONLINE
View more photos from Bill Thompson's tour in Iraq by visiting http://www.doghousephoto.com/
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I left my wife, Theresa, and our son Makai standing in the middle of a “pack shed” for paratroopers early one February morning at Ft. Bragg, NC, and boarded a C5A transport plane. I turned to look at them as I crossed the tarmac about midway to the airplane but could not see them any longer through the dense fog. As I continued to walk carrying all my military equipment, M-16 and camera bag staring at the lights in the aircraft, I kept thinking I would not be gone long. This really isn’t going to happen I kept thinking to myself. After 24 hours on the plane and a three-hour stopover in Spain we landed in Kuwait. Even in February, the desert heat blasted us as we stepped off the plane.
We spent a couple of hours downloading all of our vehicles and other equipment from the plan. Another hour on the road to Camp Arifjan, four days of inprocessing followed by an eight-hour trip north into the dessert where we spent most of March waiting. Most of our time was spent planning, rehearing, and still more waiting. All the while wondering what was in store for us, the soldiers around us, and the American people if we really did “go over the berm.”
Twilight-6(Civil Affairs Team-1/422CA Battalion; The first CA unit in Baghdad) From left: Spc. Quinton Brown; Sgt. Larry Deal; Free Iraqi Forces Dalshad David (our translator); (Me), Cpt. William E. Thompson (team leader); Sgt. Keith Mitchell; SSG. Matt Harshman (team NCOIC); Spc. Duke Calfas; and Spc. Yancy Christopher. This photo was taken in April after the war, at the main electrical distribution center where we lived for more than a month.[/quote]
As a photojournalism instructor and part-time soldier, the decisions to take photographs to be published, and take pictures to just be remembered during combat is sometimes blurred between two communities, the public back home and the families of the soldiers on my Civil Affairs team. My decision to pursue a military career and still be a working journalist and teacher while maintaining objectivity in an international, history-making event has presented several problems when it comes to my publishing photographs during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
For myself and the soldiers on my team, not only were we adjusting to our new environment, but also we were getting readjusted to a new way of life, the Army way. As a Reservist, deployments are something that are only supposed to happen once or so in our military careers. But for most of us on the team this was our second trip to “the sand” or some other god-forsaken part of the world. Being called up meant I would not be able to finish my semester of teaching photojournalism at Randolph Community College in Asheboro North Carolina.
Most of my students visited me in my office before I left saying that they would miss me and “would I be back in time for their graduation.” Like most of the answers I have given for the past six months, I could only say “I don’t know.” One student, who was not in my class but wanted to be in the photojournalism program in the fall, wanted to interview me. She said she was shy about the interview because she didn’t have any journalism experience, but I found myself answering some very though questions anyway.
It was obvious that she had thought through her questions and she was genuinely concerned with our country’s involvement in Iraq. These were also questions I was asking myself before I left. I had only shared my concerns with my wife and I was still not able to put my finger on why it was that the United States was really going to war and why it was that I would be involved. I managed to answer her questions basically saying that “it is on our country’s best interest and that I am fulfilling my duties as a reserve soldier.” This was the same line of reasoning I used to convince myself. She thanked me and wished me luck. I may have even convinced her to hold off on making her sign for the next anti-war protest.
The journalists here are mainly concerned with the big picture, the overall state of the country and the terrorist attacks on the military. My team is concerned with the small problems of everyday life for the population. I consider myself to be a community journalist and I feel this helps when dealing with people on an individual level.
As a journalist, I would have loved to cover this war. The daily stories have been both dramatic and interesting involving everything from the military units engaged in combat to the implications of what it means for Iraq to be free in an international community again.
As a Civil Affairs soldier I am ready to come home. My job here consists of fixing problems, the problem that are only in my control to fix. So far we have managed to do quite a lot and some of it has been very interesting and satisfying, some has not. Tomorrow my team will begin a project to remove 45 looted and destroyed hulk vehicles from a municipal building in downtown Baghdad.
But the majority of our projects end up being frustrating. The payment of 18,000 teachers turned into a riot, as did the payment of employees from the Youth and Sports Ministry. The initial feelings of satisfaction that we are actually getting something done inevitably turns into the disheartenment of trying to control an angry crowd. This has been how most of our progress has been made so far.
As a photographer, I thought I would be shooting photographs everyday, but after being here for this long I have become accustom to, if not desensitized to, the state of this community and these people.
There is so much destruction here and the people themselves have done most of it. The sewage system in Baghdad does not work because the people looted all of the machinery. The electricity does not work because people are stripping the power lines from the poles and selling the copper on the streets. There is no security because there are so many retribution killings, car hijacking, smuggling, and the looting still continues.
As a journalist I feel I could make a difference here by telling these stories and exposing the world to all that is wrong here. But as a civil affairs soldier I have become more concerned with the safety of the soldiers on my team and getting them through the rest of our tour alive.
There are so many stories here. The 15-year-old girl who used to clean the floor of the university dormitory where we live, was killed because she disgraced her family by not wearing her traditional Muslim abaia while she worked around the Americans. She was shot three times in the chest and once in the face at close range outside the gate. Her killer got away. Who will tell her story?
A school headmaster was shot three times in the back while crossing the road. My seven-man team was the first on the scene. I checked for the man’s pulse while my soldiers tried to secure the area. I could not tell if the pulse I was feeling was his or mine. His dilated eyes told me he was dead. There were no witnesses to the crime on the crowded street. Who will tell his story?
When I crossed the berm on May 21, during the initial attack on Iraq, I remember thinking how exciting it was to be in the front seat of history. I photographed an engineer who had spent all night digging through the berm between Kuwait and Iraq with his unit. When we passed him, he was waiving a large America flag as all the combat units passed through the lane. I later found out he continued to waive the flag for the rest of the day as combat and combat support units continued to flood into the country. I was able to publish the photograph in the Providence Journal. One of the embedded journalists traveling with the infantry unit we were with sent the photo back with one of his stories on his InMarsat system. It turned out that the soldier’s mother saw the photograph in the newspaper and asked for a copy. She said she was very proud to see her son on the cover of the paper. I later met the soldier and he also thanked me for the picture and told me how happy his mother was.
After 14 days of fighting heading North toward Baghdad, we finally arrived at the city. My team was attached to Task Force 2-7 Infantry Battalion. Driving all night, the battalion was the first to enter Baghdad stopping at an overpass at the entrance of Saddam International Airport. I photographed the sign to the airport when we passed it. I photographed burning debris along the road. When we stopped under the overpass this is when the fireworks really started. We were taking continuous sniper fire along with artillery bursts every few seconds. The infantry soldiers destroyed two T-72 Iraqi tanks just a few hundred yards away and one of their Bradley Fighting vehicles was hit by an enemy tank while crossing the overpass we were under.
One of the unit’s soldiers who was killed during the fighting has been put in for a Medal of Honor for fending off more than 200 Iraqi soldiers single handedly.
During the battle I photographed my driver taking cover from a sniper behind a HUMWV tire. The photograph was one of my better ones. Although I thought about trying to publish the picture, I decided I did not want to worry his wife if she saw the picture, a decision I made as a soldier and leader. The decision totally went against my views as a journalist. Three months later, my driver will sometimes comes to my room and looks at the picture on the computer screen. He once said “thank you for not letting my wife see this picture in print that day.” Soldiers have their own community. I feel I made the right decision.
The engineer soldier’s family and his community was very proud of him the day he stood waiving the American flag for the invading U.S. Army. I know my family and community are also proud of me. My school raised enough money in one day to purchase a bulletproof vest for me. There was enough money left over for the school to have a concert honoring the school’s deployed soldiers and to purchase phone cards for them. I know I am now a bigger part of my community and my school family. Our country deeply cares about its soldiers.
When we return to our homes and the families and the jobs we left behind, I am hoping I will be able to tell some of the stories of the Iraqi people I met here. I will also have plenty of material for my teaching. Perhaps I will even be able to put together a book of photographs and text describing this war and the subsequent rebuilding of a nation. I am sure the book will provide some insight of what it was like to serve here but I am afraid the book will only be a collection of images documenting life during and after a war. I feel I will still be left with the same question asked of me by the first year photography student: “Why are we going to Iraq?” only now it will be “Why did we go to Iraq?” Perhaps I will come away with the feeling that we, my team, were able to accomplish something and we had a hand in the rebuilding of this country. But after almost six months here I am still not able to answer the questions I had before leaving. I am still telling myself it was in our country’s best interest. I hope my photographs of Iraq and its people can be the beginnings of the sign I plan to make.
- William E. Thompson