- The Washington Times - Monday, December 19, 2005

THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Staff photographer Maya Alleruzzo attached herself to an Iraqi army battalion and their U.S. advisers as an embedded journalist in late August, determined to tell in pictures the real story of the men and women who risk their lives every day to secure Iraq against terrorists and criminals.

During the subsequent weeks, she accompanied the military unit through a series of events ranging from the mundane to the truly hair-raising, including roadside bombs and insurgent ambushes.

“As I shared their food, their trucks, their lives and their risks, I came to know these men as brothers,” Miss Alleruzzo said.

Her first ambush came on Sept. 1 during a raid on a farm in a village called Himbus, where the soldiers thought weapons were hidden.

“They fired a rocket at our convoy, then shot at us, then after a big chase and some house-to-house searches, set off a roadside bomb beside us,” Miss Alleruzzo says. “We were running for eight hours in a cat-and-mouse game — through a village, palm groves and fruit orchards.”

No one in her group was hurt in that exchange, but injuries were sustained on other occasions — such as when an insurgent managed to lay down a roadside bomb while the battalion was searching another village.

“The Humvee closest to the blast was in bad shape, and for a moment the colonel feared the very worst,” Miss Alleruzzo said. “The dark street was aglow with fragments of hot metal. The guys started searching homes nearby.

“Sergeant Richard Wormsbecher had several injuries but insisted on kicking down doors anyway. It was dusty and furious and fast.”

Two Iraqi soldiers were injured on Oct. 7 when a rocket hit their barracks as they were sitting down to break their Ramadan fast, Miss Alleruzzo said.

Later in the hospital, “they both entertained a stream of visitors, each of whom insisted on kissing them. First Lieutenant Ismael, who sustained a small head wound and a cut on his foot, joked with the doctor that he wanted to make sure he could still have children. Corporal Laith suffered a head injury and was given 10 days’ rest.”

As the Oct. 15 referendum approached, Miss Alleruzzo accompanied a truck carrying what she thought were ballots. The convoy was hit first by a roadside bomb, then by machine-gun fire and finally by rocket-propelled grenades.

“Captain Furat kept shooting, so close to me that the brass casings from his AK-47 bounced off of my helmet,” Miss Alleruzzo says. Only later did she learn that the convoy had been a decoy and that the real ballots were elsewhere.

Election day itself went smoothly, but the previous night her group suffered the violent deaths of a much loved lieutenant and a sergeant.

“Soon enough, they had to go back out and find the killer and still secure the city for the elections. Somehow, some of them, still wet with tears, rolled right out of the gate. Captain Furat, who lost his roommate in the attack, was still sobbing as his truck pulled away.”

When it came time to say goodbye at the end of October, Miss Alleruzzo found it much tougher than she had expected.

“When I first got there,” she said, “soldiers waved to me from afar and I panicked because I wasn’t sure who they were. Now that I know them, it’s hard to imagine leaving.”

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