Bearing Witness

By Brian Palmer '86 / September / October 2005
April 27th, 2007

Like cats cornering stunned mice, we surround the two wheelchair-bound marines. Each of the young men - Lance Corporal Eric Timothy Knutson, age twenty-one, and Corporal Jamel Daniels, age twenty-five - sits with his right leg skewered by the thin steel armatures of a medieval-looking brace, stoically answering questions pitched at them by the gaggle of reporters assembled to cover the event.

Christopher Smith '87

Knutson and Daniels were injured during the deployment to Iraq of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), a deployment that lasted from July 2004 to February 2005. Now, on a gray March afternoon at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, they, along with more than 2,000 comrades, family members, and reporters, have come together for a memorial service honoring the fifteen marines from the MEU killed in Iraq. I spent roughly three months with the unit during two stints as an embedded journalist, one in the summer of 2004 and one this past winter. During my first stay I shot still photographs that I'd transmit by satellite to the New York City photo agency that distributes my work. I also wrote weekly dispatches for a documentary-photo Web site, My purpose was to report what I witnessed and to struggle to make sense of it, both for me and my readers. On my return trip early this year, I chose to concentrate on video, in the belief that moving pictures would capture the immediacy of the marines' experience better than still photographs. I shot for MTV's news and documentary division and for a documentary of my own. Camp Lejeune was to be my final stop with the MEU, I thought.

"What do you tell others when they ask you why you served?" a reporter gingerly asked Knutson before the ceremony.

"I'd like to tell them that it was a great pleasure serving my country," he answered. "If I could do it all over again, I would, even if I did know I was going to be injured."

I stare at Knutson's exposed leg and his affectless face. I wonder how much pain he and Daniels are enduring to keep their Semper Fi composure. As I watch him, I feel a sadness verging on nausea, similar to what I felt on the bloodiest days in Iraq. I am part of the event, and yet I am oddly apart from it. I am like a ghoul, hovering over the injured men with my video camera. I want to stop shooting and embrace their pain - and my grief - but I need to document this day and their damage. I want to show the price of war even amid the celebration of warriors and of selfless sacrifice. So I keep rolling.

In a February radio broadcast, war correspondent and author Chris Hedges spoke of the "false sense of loyalty" to soldiers that many reporters develop when they embed, and I feel that here today. My sadness seems to emanate from the clash between my truth-telling journalistic creed and my growing affection and respect for these human and fallible marines. It's a clash that quickly became apparent during my first trip to Iraq, when I believe I failed to live up to the high standards I had set for myself as a reporter. I had covered conflict before, but never combat. I had never been fully immersed in the military, and not only did I become subsumed into the world of the marines, I became isolated from those outside it.

Remaining objective about men and women who were quite literally keeping me alive proved difficult. On my very first full day on base in Iraq, mortar rounds exploded only yards from the building in which I slept and worked, and within seconds of the first blast, Master Sergeant Allen Benjamin and his commander, Captain Ray Spaulding, had ordered me to don my flak jacket and helmet, then shoved me toward a bomb shelter. Things were happening close and fast, and the gravity of the experience nearly overwhelmed me.

Out of an odd sense of propriety - and perhaps out of a subconscious protectiveness toward the young marines with whom I lived, ate, and patrolled - I sometimes backed off in my reporting. I stayed silent when I could have asked uncomfortable questions. I retreated when an anguished young marine, covered with a friend's blood, confronted me as I attempted to photograph in the first-aid station after that first mortar attack. (His friend, Lance Corporal Vincent Sullivan, died from his injuries.) In these instances, I ceded the critical distance I needed to be an effective witness to history.

Christopher Smith '87
A senior officer talks to Lance Corporal Timothy Knutson.

I returned to New York in August 2004 shell-shocked and confused after my first embedded stay. I had spent a month and half with the MEU, and I left with the commanding officer's permission to return later to the unit's base in Isakandariyah, just west of Baghdad. But I was hesitant. I was relieved to be home, away from the gnawing 24-7 fear of mortars, the tedium and occasional absurdity of patrols, the monotony of the marine diet, and the upsetting reality of a battered country and its brutalized citizenry.

Then two pieces of news that fall jarred me in a strange and visceral way. The first was that a member of the 24th MEU, Sergeant Edgar Lopez, a twenty-seven-year-old from Los Angeles, had died in "enemy action," according to the Pentagon, which left vague the exact cause of his death. And then I learned that Lance Corporal Brian Schramm, a laconic twenty-two-year-old whom I had accompanied on many sweltering patrols through the dusty streets of Iraq's Babil province, had died in a mortar attack. Schramm and I had occasionally talked over the roar of the Humvee he drove, speaking idly about nothing profound or memorable, but spending enough time together for me to know that he was a linchpin of his team and a good, sincere young man.

Back in Brooklyn, sitting at a comfortable bar and contemplating the deaths of these young men I had known, I felt sick. I sensed that I had failed Schramm, Lopez, and every American and every Iraqi who died - and who would die - by not having confronted the fundamental questions of war in my reporting every day, every moment. Why and how were people dying - and killing? Who were they? Did the rhetoric of our leaders match the reality on the ground? I believed my mission as a journalist was to ask such hard questions and depict what I saw - the mundane, the heroic, and, yes, the ugly. It dawned on me in that bar that asking tough questions and eliciting uncomfortable truths is the best way for a reporter to honor the dead. Compassion for the marines and commitment to telling the full story of their role in the war were not - and would not be - mutually exclusive.

I decided to return to the unit. But there was one thing I had to do first: I knew I had to visit Brian Schramm's parents, Keith and Mary Ellen. I wanted to connect with them as someone who knew their son, but I also needed to speak to them as a journalist. I needed to probe them about their loss, as invasive as that sounds. Committing to visit the Schramms was scarier than venturing into a war zone. I would be confronting two very real parents who had lost their oldest son. There was nothing abstract about this.The Schramms welcomed me into their home, embraced me warmly, and fed me well.

Were they angry with anyone - the military, the president - for Brian's death? I asked. "They say that you'll get angry, but who is there to get angry with?" Mary Ellen replied, her face red from crying. As mysterious and painful as it felt, the Schramms told me, they believed this was God's plan for Brian.

"I'd like to smell him one more time," Mary Ellen said to me later, just before dinner. "Sounds funny. Everybody has their own smell. I can't smell it on any of his clothes upstairs."

I began my second stay in Iraq determined not to repeat the mistakes I'd made during my first. The stakes were too high; to my mind, too many people were dying while our leaders back home offered too few honest explanations for the sacrifice of blood and treasure that inexorably unfolded, daily, in northern Babil province. So this time I pushed and probed. I asked marines why they were fighting in Iraq. "I signed the contract for four years," Lance Corporal David Matteson told me with a shrug during a lull in an afternoon mission. "Whatever it entails in that four years, you gotta do." A more voluble and thoughtful marine, Private Damon Broussard, laid it out for me: "Some of us might not like being out here," he said, "but we signed up, and in our contract and in our oath it says, 'Enemies foreign and domestic,' and we can't pick and choose our fights."

I found that after seven months of getting mortared, blown up with devices concealed in dog carcasses and trash piles, and chasing shadows through unfriendly streets, the gung-ho spirit among these marines had largely been replaced by a kind of warrior's resignation. The greatest priority was getting home alive - and bringing home one's squad mates in one piece. "Military personnel that are focused on the big picture are dudes that don't even come out here and do what we do, that don't lose friends that we've known for two years," said Corporal Roger McNulty while he was manning a checkpoint in Musayyib, the occasional gunshot popping off in the distance. "They're the type of guys that stay in a building, you know, and call shots from a radio or something, you know? They don't see what it's really like out here."

I asked the marines of the 24th MEU how they handled the death of a squad mate. Most declined, politely, to dwell on that topic, even as they watched five more of their comrades die in mortar attacks and roadside bombings during the last month of their deployment. I queried grunts and commanders about civilian casualties the MEU had caused, and filed Freedom of Information Act requests for documents after I got less-than-complete answers.

I returned again to New York in February, this time deeply upset over the loss of life in Iraq, as well as over what I increasingly believed was the gap between the dismal boots-on-the-ground reality and the Bush administration's rhetoric. This time I returned reasonably confident that I had performed my job with compassion and integrity.

Today, I still follow the lives of some of these marines. Many may be sent back to Iraq this fall, some for a second tour and others for a third. They know they are going to serve, to kill, and, possibly, to die.

At Camp Lejeune, Corporal Daniels is crying uncontrollably by the end of the memorial, which turns out to be a brisk martial affair presided over by the MEU's commanding officer, Colonel Ron Johnson. Daniels's composure is gone. I videotape marines and civilians hugging him tenderly, mindful of his shattered leg. Then a lanky young man, a relative of one of the dead marines, asks me to stop taping. Daniels has had enough, he tells me firmly. I have, too. I have pushed and probed all the way to the line of propriety. I don't need to cross it.

I join the others at the reception that follows the memorial. After a while, I gather my things and head for the door. Then something unexpected happens. "You're two-four, too!" Colonel Johnson shouts after me. I nod at him, too stunned to reply. We talked several times in Iraq. He was cordial, even chummy, but I always felt like a supplicant around him. Now, suddenly, Johnson is acknowledging that I shared something with the marines of the 24th MEU, including some of their pain. I am both honored and saddened by his words. I have mourned with the MEU. But at that moment, I also feel a definite distance: I am a witness standing apart from the marines, bothering a collective wound that they themselves would rather not touch.

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September / October 2005