Recollections of Operation Iraqi Freedom
In mid-September, 2003, Christopher Reese ’96 returned to the United States after more than two hundred days on active duty in the Middle East. A staff sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, Reese had a tour of duty that included about fifty days in Iraq. He faced incoming missile attacks and malaria-carrying mosquitoes; met generals, Congressmen, and celebrities; took a dozen flights in CH-46 and CH-53 helicopters and C130 airplanes; and managed to shoot over three thousand photographs. He provided Web Extra with this exclusive report:
In September, 2003, I returned to the United States after participating in Operation Iraqi Freedom. It had been a long journey for me, physically and mentally, and the memories will live inside me forever. In February, I was packing boxes and preparing to move into my first house when I received the phone call. Within a week, I was in California to process for my eventual work in the Middle East.
I landed in the dark in Kuwait on March 17, 2003, without much of a clue as to where I really was. Everything I would need to survive for the next year I carried on my back. My mind was no longer on my new house or my family. I now tried to focus on the war that had yet to be formally declared.
For a gallery of Reese's pictures, scroll down.
Within two days of my living in the sands of Camp Commando, Kuwait, the war was announced and became all too real. A seersucker missile landed about three hundred yards from our tent and the concussion shook the ground. Our training and survival skills immediately kicked in and we ran to the closest concrete bunkers built just for such an incident. This drill would occur more than three dozen times over the next two weeks. Only one other missile actually hit the ground as the Patriot missile batteries beat the odds and shot down nearly everything the Iraqis threw at us. There were nights when Marines would sleep outside on the open ground in their chemical protective suits with gas mask in hand because there were so many sirens going off. Getting acclimated to three-digit temperatures is easy; getting accustomed to being under missile attack was not.
After a couple of weeks, the missile launchers were destroyed and our planning for missions began in earnest. I belong to the Fourth Civil Affairs Group in Washington, D.C., and our unit was split up into teams and disseminated among the south central region of Iraq to support the various battalions in civil military operations. A few days before departure into Iraq, I had suffered a painful knee injury. I was placed on the commanding officer’s team and tasked to photograph the other teams as we went from region to region to check on their progress.
Our road trip was a week and a half long and we covered over five hundred miles. We visited Diwaniyah, Karbala, Najaf, Hillah, and Babylon before driving back to Kuwait. In May, we focused our efforts on sending supplies and mail to our teams. I eventually made several more trips into Iraq via C-130 airplanes and CH-46 helicopters.
At one point I was introduced to a lieutenant from First Battalion Fourth Marines stationed in Hillah. His mission was to purchase video equipment to outfit a team of “news reporters.” After talking about my video production background, I was asked to join his team and we traveled to Kuwait City to purchase $10,000 worth of equipment. I later joined him in Hillah for nine days to shoot and edit some programs and conduct a production workshop. This was my single most memorable experience of the post-war operations.
The workshop included a dozen Iraqi men with varying degrees of experience and interest in video production. I had been an instructor at the Art Institute of Washington for two years prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom, so I felt comfortable teaching video to this group. In the single full-day workshop we could only brush the surface of video production. Everything I said had to be translated by our interpreter, Mohammed. Every question asked by the group also had to be translated.
During the nine days I was in Hillah, I truly felt that I contributed to the war effort. However small my actions may seem, I understand the power of the media and how messages can be sent to the masses. However, I never expected the messages to have life-threatening repercussions. Mohammed was not only our interpreter but also the co-host of a short weekly show that highlighted many of the accomplishments the coalition was making in the region. It seems that some members of the former regime did not see this show as being in their self-interest, and they visited his home. Their message was clear: Mohammed was to quit the show or his family would suffer. Faced with this option, we all agreed that Mohammed would be replaced but would still play an integral part behind the camera.
I returned to Camp Commando to wait a few more weeks before going home on what we now called the “Freedom Flight.” But as the military will often do, I was instead transferred to a unit back in Iraq. I became the Operations Chief for the First Marine Expeditionary Force, G3 Future Operations, in Babylon. Since this group would only be functional until the turnover to the coalition forces on September 3, I knew that my time was short. My main focus was to assist in breaking down the camp. My own freedom would have to wait a few more weeks.
Throughout my time in Iraq and Kuwait, I grew to understand the Arab culture better. I arrived with many unanswered questions, received many answers, but left with new questions. Can the Iraqi people help themselves? Will they be able to put aside tribal differences for the benefit of the entire country? Can they fend off the fundamentalist extremists that continue to infiltrate the country and attempt to undermine coalition progress? Will the Iraqi people be happier and healthier ten years from now?
My hopes for a thriving Iraqi culture and economy are not without merit. I have seen the dark side of the country, but I have also seen the great potential in these ancient lands. Our government has lifted the passport restrictions to and throughout Iraq. I suspect that with some investment into travel, safety, and basic amenities, this region will eventually become a booming tourist spot.
Imagine staying at a four-star hotel (actually a former palace) overlooking the Euphrates River, with the ruins of Babylon being excavated by archaeologists nearby. Want more adventure? Imagine staying at smaller hostels in cities like Al Kut or Nasariyah where you can canoe down the Euphrates between river banks that look strikingly Biblical. Looking for trendier spots to vacation? Fly directly into Baghdad International Airport and walk the capital city streets full of boutique shops and vibrant architecture.
None of this exists yet, but I believe it will. Perhaps it will take us a generation to truly understand the profound significance of Operation Iraqi Freedom. For the time being, I believe that the country—and more importantly, the citizens—are better off now than they were a year ago.
Christopher Reese is a 1996 graduate of the IUP Department of Communications Media. He currently teaches video production at the Art Institute of Washington and has been a media production consultant for the past three years. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.
This photo was taken at an airfield in Iraq named “Three Rivers” after the Pittsburgh stadium. Many of the airfields during the war were named after baseball stadiums.
This man runs his taxi, but seems to be taking a break in this photo.
The man in this picture sells his tea in the street. The water likely came straight from the Euphrates river or from runoff in the street.
This photo was taken in an ice cream parlor in Al Kut. The men in the picture are marveling at the female Marines that were part of our group at that time.
Another shot of me (with camera) shooting an interview in the old part of the Babylon ruins.
Here I am with an Iraqi man who has experience in directing television. We are editing a basketball game between a Marines and Army team and a team of Iraqis.
I took this pic as we were driving through a demonstration outside of the government building (city hall) in Al Kut. We are always in close proximity of the Iraqi people and therefore the risk of danger is always present.
A picture of the walls inside the Babylon ruins.