RAMADI, Iraq—The Marines of Second Battalion had been barging into houses for two hours Saturday, looking for an insurgent on their most-wanted list. I was with them, taking photographs.
We were turning the corner of a cinderblock wall when we heard the pop, pop, pop of small-arms fire. Capt. Kelly Royer, of Echo Company, barked the order "Stand firm," which meant for everyone to get down on one knee and hold his position.
Something jerked at my right arm. I thought the man behind me had tried to pull me down. Then I realized I had been grazed by a bullet.
It was an ambush—the start of a intense, hours-long firefight, waged in the streets, from rooftops and from behind palm trees, in which one Marine would be killed and 10 or 11 wounded.
My little line of Marines threw itself face down in a drainage ditch that ran at the base of the cinderblock wall. It was filled with animal or human waste, but it was the only place in that shooting gallery that offered even a few inches of cover.
Even I, a civilian, could recognize the sounds of the AK-47 rifle fire and PK light-machine-gun fire coming at us from what seemed like all directions. Bullets rang off the wall.
I had been with these Marines for 10 days. I had been with them Tuesday at the outset of the fierce attacks on U.S. forces here, when 10 of them were killed. I had heard mortars hit close to me.
I had been in other war zones, too—Afghanistan, Bosnia, the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
But I had never experienced anything like this.
I said to myself: "If I don't panic, if I listen to the captain, I'll come out of this. ... If I keep my body as flat as possible, I think I have enough cover."
At 6-foot-3, I was also thinking, "a big target."
I had a Kevlar helmet and flak vest, like the others. But the camera bag on my back must have stuck up like a camel's hump.
I was waiting for the bullet that was going to hit me in the neck or the belly. I was scared. Very scared.
A Marine suddenly was atop me. I still don't know if he was protecting me or using me as a firing platform. But fire away he did.
One Marine, the last guy in our line, ran back to a house and got up on the roof to give us covering fire. He rejoined us; I don't know why. But he broke his leg as he dove into the ditch. I remember seeing it dangle from his knee.
On our bellies, we retreated the length of the wall. On orders, and with other Marines now covering us, we got up and ran across a field. I could see the bodies of at least five cows apparently killed in the crossfire.
We made our way to another house. Then that, too, was fired on.
We were ordered to run again, in groups of two. We made it to some trees, and from there to the protection of a seven-ton armored truck.
Nadeem, the captain's Iraqi translator—also unarmed—looked at me. We shook our heads. Neither of us could believe we had made it.
The Marines fought on. Nadeem and I ended up on the roof of a house, protected from fire by a parapet. We drank our water and smoked our cigarettes.
Finally, two American helicopters—a Huey and a Cobra gunship—came in. They flew over a grove of palm trees and raked it with fire. That quieted things down. For an hour.
Then began the wailing. Women had begun to cry at the discovery of their dead.
Who knows how many Iraqis died? The captain said it was about 40. But sometimes, the Iraqis remove the bodies of their people after a fight before a full count can be made.
A corpsman bandaged my arm. Nothing serious. The bullet took a little skin and flesh from the inside of my upper arm.
The doctor gave me a five-day supply of antibiotics. I called my wife, Laila. Our 2-year-old has a birthday next week.
"I have good news and bad news," I said. "The good news is, I'm not going to do any more patrols; I'm leaving Ramadi. The bad news is, I had a little graze from a bullet."
Now I'll wait for a helicopter ride back to Baghdad. The roads are too dangerous.
(Knight Ridder correspondent Tom Infield contributed to this report.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-RAMADI