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photo of edward jarvisproducer's notebook by Edward Jarvis

Co-producer Edward Jarvis (photo courtesy Tom Roberts)

The six-lane freeway stretches away into the distance as the heat drills through the five-inch window on my right; the bulletproof glass a mandatory piece of armor for U.S. Army vehicles in this part of the world. Peering through this small keyhole I get my first real glimpse of Baghdad. It is early November and the sun beats down on the cracked road that stretches east from the airport, the main artery into this liberated city. Called "Route Irish" by the Americans, it has gained a reputation for being the road of death -- the legacy of near-daily car bombings, ambushes and killings. As a Westerner embedded with an occupying Army I am told I am a prime target for any one of the myriad insurgent gangs, ideologues and bandits who practice terror in this city.

As the road arcs to the south, the occasional palm tree flashes by and patches of wasteland play graveyard to burned out wrecks and debris: terror's testimony to those who have died. As the tension mounts, my thoughts flash back to the call from FRONTLINE asking if it would be possible to document the life of the ordinary GI in Iraq. After a few calls it becomes clear the Army is keen on the idea, as they feel their story is not being heard. We select a group, get Pentagon approval, and after tearful goodbyes, we are off, accompanied by feelings of apprehension and guilt.

"Watch this guy, watch him," warns the vehicle commander. Crack, a warning shot is fired. "Move!" shouts the gunner, bringing my attention back into focus as the passing car pulls sharply away to the side. We drive on, the soldiers' faces masks of heightened concentration. This is no place for daydreaming. As we start to bake in the heat, the realization of the pressure-cooker world that is Iraq begins to dawn.

A line of cars begins to form on the side of the road, waiting in line for gasoline. Ordinary Iraqis walk by as we turn off the road into a heavily fortified military base. Camp Falcon is to be our home for the next month. We unload our cameras, microphones, and supplies of videotape into a barrack room surrounded by enormous blocks of concrete -- blast barriers -- and sandbags. Then we meet the senior officer, Col. Stephen Lanza, for our first proper briefing on the full spectrum of operations assigned to the awkwardly-named 5th Brigade Combat Team (5BCT), a Donald Rumsfeld-inspired amalgamation of Army units pulled together specifically for Iraq. Lanza and his fellow officers have an impressive grasp of the real difficulties they face: building a rapport with the local population and kick-starting the shattered economy while dealing with local rivalries and fighting a murderous insurgency. This is not a job for the faint hearted.

As we struggle with the weight of full-body armor, heads sweating under our protective helmets (mandatory dress code), we realize the physical effort necessary to properly document the reality of the soldiers' lives. After the first rocket lands nearby we quickly become thankful for this protective shell.

Despite this physical sense of siege and daily reminders of the imminent battle for Fallujah, just 45 km. to the west, our first days are quiet, filled with what can only be described as a gentle sight-seeing tour of the al-Rasheed District. Still, we only ever venture out in a convoy of three heavily armored Humvees. There are few visible signs of war but much evidence of poverty and neglect, hard to comprehend in a land with the world's second-largest oil reserves. The rundown Shi'a neighborhoods provide ample evidence of Saddam Hussein's deliberate policy of neglect and the effects of years of crushing sanctions. In the complete absence of any political structure, it has been left to the Army to organize repairs and rebuild the basic necessities of life, such as power, water and sewage for the 1 million-plus inhabitants of this part of Baghdad. But we were about to discover how easy it would be to disrupt this activity.

It is difficult to adapt to the physical demands of this harsh environment as well as the daily challenge to keep our equipment working. But we find the soldiers pleasant and friendly, although they are also apprehensive as to how they will be portrayed. Our goal is to find a company of soldiers who we hope will provide a window into their world in Iraq. We ask for a unit with duties across all the Army's mission, and several are suggested. As we are being introduced to Lt. Col. John Allen, of the 1st Battalion 8th Cavalry Regiment, two huge explosions shake the building.

Exhausted from a full day's filming and low on batteries and tape stock, we nonetheless accept the invitation to join the quick reaction force, or QRF, as it scrambles to deal with the threat. The mood is tense and we are warned there may be a follow-up assault. But what follows defies the imagination: We pull up at a police station moments after it has beaten back an assault, bullets still pinging through the air. The police chief greets us but is clearly terrified and we wait for American reinforcements to arrive. Next stop, St. Matthew's Church, where members of Iraq's Christian minority -- one of the world's oldest Christian populations -- worship.

We turn into a narrow side street and are warned to be on our guard. The crowd parts to reveal a scene of devastation. The church, five houses, 12 cars and numerous windows have been virtually destroyed by a 1,000-pound bomb. We are told that 15 men, their faces disguised in red masks, had arrived in three cars, one wired as a bomb. There is at least one casualty -- a doctor from the house next to the church has been killed; his wife or daughter is in the hospital. It is the day the Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Sistani has met with Christian representatives and it seems the attack is designed to send a message that the insurgency is alive and well. I interview a soldier who wonders what will come next. It isn't long before we find out.

The streets are quiet as we head back to camp. I look out of the window and see a series of small bright flashes in the distance. Almost simultaneously I hear a short sharp burst of gunfire from behind and our gunner yells a warning. We turn and head directly into the area from where the shots had come. It is impossible to see where we are going but the gunner suddenly shouts, "To our right dude, to our right!" before opening up with his weapon. Gunfire, shouts and curses fly back and forth, and I try to hang on to the camera as we are thrown around in the back of the Humvee; our driver taking evasive action. The occasional ping and a strange whizzing sound provide evidence the gunfire is not only coming from the soldiers. The fight is over almost immediately. I nervously peer out of the window as the vehicles come to a stop. I watch as soldiers dismount and fan out to search the area. The insurgents, we are told, had attacked from two positions but had fled the moment the Americans engaged them. I am told the strange sound I had heard was a rocket-propelled grenade. Fortunately it missed. There is one casualty: a passenger in a passing taxi has sustained a fatal head wound from a ricochet. An innocent Iraqi is killed and the Americans will probably be blamed. It is an intensely unsettling experience. I try to concentrate on the job but am acutely aware of the constant dangers. I arrive back at base completely exhausted.

Hours later, at around 3 a.m., we head out again on another mission. I'm bleary-eyed and extremely tired. For the past week a Sunni mosque has been broadcasting troubling messages exhorting locals to kill all Americans and their Iraqi collaborators. Today's mission is to lockdown the area and enable a group of Iraqi commandos to bring an end to what is called "anti-Coalition activity."

Dawn breaks and I find myself in an armored vehicle chatting with a soldier named Spc. Travis Babbitt. He is a gunner and we are manning a roadblock. We smoke and chat as he keeps a watchful eye on the road ahead, continuously scanning the rooftops. It's the kind of conversation I would end up having with many soldiers in Iraq. He tells me of his strong feelings for his fellow soldiers -- "They are my brothers out here" -- and speaks movingly about the Iraqi children he has met. He talks of his family whom he has recently visited on a two-week trip home. The operation comes to an end, and we leave to check on the churches that had been bombed the previous night before heading back to camp. As he drops me off at our barracks I tell him, "Thanks for the ride." He answers, "No problem," before leaving with a half wave of his hand. A few hours later he is dead.

It is the grim looks of the soldiers that signals something is up. We are roused from our snatched sleep by the sound of soldiers gearing up to go out. We go to the tactical operations center where Capt. Jason Whiteley, the commander of the Misfits, whom we had been with on patrol that morning, is calling his men together. Fighting back the tears he tells us Babbitt is gone. "He died like he should," he says. "He went out fighting. We knew they were down there waiting on us and we went down there to do our job. Babbitt went through over 100 rounds. He got hit, came back up, continued to fight, mortally wounded. There is nothing more we can ask from anybody on our team than that level of dedication." The mood is somber as the soldiers reflect on the death of a popular man. Many are in tears. It is the start of an intense period as the entire unit finds itself engaged in a series of gun battles with insurgents attempting to divert the Army's attention from Fallujah.

The following week our crew, like the soldiers, survive on minimal sleep, sometimes only managing one or two hours before heading out to respond to an ambush or darting and weaving through the backstreets in a bid to flush out the enemy. Additional patrols and searches are introduced as the Army concentrates all its efforts on defeating the insurgency. Most rebuilding comes to a halt.

It is around this time we realize we have found the people through whom we feel this story can be told. Our original plan was to join several units before deciding which one to stay with. But this idea fell to one side after the outbreak of fighting. One week later we are still with Dog Company and it makes sense to stay with them.

We try to keep up with the pace of events but there is little time to reflect on what is happening or deal with the traumatic events we are witnessing. We have to adapt to the new environment as we attempt to relate the experience of the ordinary soldier fighting a full-blown insurgency.

Another soldier is killed, Spc. Raymond White, a scout who had greeted us with mild curiosity when we had first arrived. Others were to suffer injuries. A soldier nearly loses a leg after his vehicle is hit by an RPG. I reflect, "Why him and not me?" after learning I had been sitting in the same seat in the same vehicle only hours before. In the fight some 24 insurgents are killed and many weapons are confiscated.

Soldiers perform acts of bravery and heroism, such as the soldier who drove his vehicle directly at an insurgent aiming a rocket-propelled grenade at him. An RPG needs to be fired from a certain distance in order to reach the speed necessary to pierce the Humvee's armor. This soldier's quick thinking meant the insurgent was too close when he fired. He returned to base with it sticking out of his windshield.

At Spc. Babbitt's memorial service, nearly everyone is present. Sgt. Gabriel Garcia gets up to make a speech. "I've learned one lesson by being out here with all of you," he says. "The hardest part of war isn't putting your life on the line for your soldiers, but saying goodbye to those who have fallen." Our job is to record these events but we are all deeply moved. The long-term effect is something we also will have to face on our return home.

The Army goes on the offensive and begins to get a grip on the violence, giving us a glimpse of their counter-insurgency methods. I realize this is no army timidly hiding behind its fortifications, calling in air support in lieu of face-to-face combat. We see them fight hard on the streets, firing in short bursts at very specific targets.

By the end of the month, the insurgents have been either killed or captured and the immediate violence peters out, although the threat always remains. But the wider mission to rebuild the district has been knocked off course and more lives have been lost. Furthermore, plans for new health clinics, water and power stations and local political structures have been further set back by constant threats, kidnappings and killings.

The objective of the film was to document the realities of life in Iraq for the average American soldier. To this end, we were left to our own devices and allowed to film everything, with no restrictions. The only time we were asked not to film was when a personal threat was made to an officer, and his men were asked if they wanted to leave the team because of the heightened threat level; in the end none did, but they didn't want the presence of the cameras to inhibit this decision. We selected the unit we wanted to be with and we chose those whom we wanted to film. Under the terms of our embedding agreement, the film was shown to a Pentagon official prior to broadcast for security clearance only; they had no editorial control at all. Their only request was blur the name of an intelligence officer named in a document which appears briefly in the film. Everything else is a faithful documentation of this company of soldiers during the month we spent with them last November.

Edward Jarvis is the co-producer of "A Company of Soldiers." He is a print journalist who has been working on documentaries since 2001. He has worked on a number of critically acclaimed investigations, including several for the BBC's Panorama series.

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posted feb. 22, 2005

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