Journalist experiences war in Iraq
Published: Tuesday, February 28, 2006
Updated: Saturday, June 16, 2012 01:06
Three years ago, Darrin Mortenson climbed out of an amphibious assault vehicle near the city of Nasiriyah in southern Iraq at 2 a.m. He was at a military choke point between two bridges, one spanning the Euphrates River and the other the Saddam Canal. Bright flashes of gunfire pierced the cold, dark night. The Marines were holding back insurgents as they attacked with snipers, mortars and AK-47s. A military convoy of nearly 1,500 vehicles had to get through this stretch of battleground and push north. The Marines had to make that possible. The captain gave Mortenson a choice: Either join the convoy and get out of the line of fire, or stay with Lima Company and take his chances. Mortenson, without hesitation, stayed - he came with Lima Company and he left with Lima Company.
After an agonizing month of waiting in a Kuwait hotel, Mortenson and Hayne Palmour, a North County Times photographer, traversed a highway of death to the border of Kuwait and Iraq where they made contact with Lima Company.
After joining the Third Battalion's Lima Company, also known as the "Thundering Third," Mortenson and Palmour were issued gas masks and chemical suits along with rudimentary chemical-attack training.
It was official: Mortenson and Palmour were members of the media, going into Iraq to cover a war with an unpredictable enemy, embedded with a troop of Marines who were still unsure about them tagging along.
"They didn't trust us or just didn't care in the beginning," Mortenson said.
A week after Mortenson and Palmour joined the troops, the battalion received its orders to cross into Iraq. On March 18, 2003, the troops moved into attack position. Two days later, the ground war began.
Once the Marines realized Mortenson and Palmour were going to stay with the battalion during the fighting in Nasiriyah, their perceptions of the journalists began to change. An atmosphere of trust and camaraderie was born.
The Marines soon realized they were dealing with a guerrilla conflict, Mortenson said. "The people attacking them were in civilian clothes and included women and children," he said.
Some of the Marines claimed they saw women and children with AK-47s. This was not the war the Marines thought they were fighting. For first time, they realized they were not going to be fighting uniformed Iraqi soldiers. The enemy was not clearly marked. This changed the war, Mortenson said.
A vehicle carrying the journalists parked near Marine corpses covering the ground, he said.
"I think it really sunk in when they saw what could really happen," he said. "They suddenly seemed a lot older and more serious."
The Marines were experiencing a war that would change them forever, while their families were back home in a standstill - waiting for word from their loved ones.
One family sent a grateful e-mail to Mortenson and Palmour explaining that mail from their son was taking between four and six weeks to reach them. They said they checked the North County Times' Web site several times for Mortenson's reports. It was their only means of tracking their son's movement as he fought in Iraq.
The troops moved through to Baghdad. On Easter, the Marines pulled back and moved to southern Iraq where the atmosphere was a little less hostile.
After a few days, it was obvious the fighting was over for that unit; Mortenson and Palmour returned to the United States.
Back in Southern California, they began work on a special section for the North County Times and a book of photos and stories about the troops. It was not long before they received word Camp Pendleton troops were headed back to Iraq. Mortenson and Palmour were determined to go with them.
"On Oct. 25, they had this huge ticker-tape parade in Southern California and ... like 10,000 Marines marched through the streets, and the whole community was out and it was this huge welcome home," Mortenson said. "It wasn't a week later that they got the order to go back."
Mortenson and Palmour began sending letters to commanders trying to find another opportunity to embed with a Marine battalion.
On March 1, 2004, the journalists left the country with a different battalion. They replaced a U.S. battalion in Fallujah, Iraq.
"When they went back to Fallujah, they found that it was just an all-out dirty guerrilla war," Mortenson said. "Within 48 hours - their first trip into town - they were attacked with mortars and small arms, and there were 19 soldiers and Marines who were wounded."
One Marine and an ABC cameraman were killed, in addition to about 20 Iraqis, Mortenson said. The troops had to run out of town under fire, he said.
The town of Fallujah was in an uproar for a week after this attack. On March 31, insurgents killed a convoy of contractors. The contractors were ambushed, mutilated, strung up and displayed.
Mortenson and Palmour were not only reporting the news, but the stories of the men and women who were making it.
Mortenson witnessed the U.S. military using white phosphorus on insurgents - after the government had stated the U.S. would not use chemical weapons in Iraq. He reported this information back to the North County Times; the report echoed through the media.
"It will burn anything. It burns flesh to the bone," Mortenson said.
It is called "shake and bake" - one white phosphorous round followed by one high explosive round, causing fire and explosions, he said. Mortenson said it rarely happens, but he witnessed it in Fallujah.