Photographer discusses dangers in covering Iraq

Published 6:00 am Tuesday, January 31, 2006

A former DAILY LEADER photographer with who spent a monthembedded with the 155th Brigade Combat Team in Iraq saysjournalists are well aware of the dangers when they accept amilitary assignment in a combat zone.

“You know the risks when you go. It’s part of the job,” saidThomas Wells Monday, the day after two members of an ABC news crewwere injured in Iraq.

Wells, who worked at The DAILY LEADER from 1995 to 2000, wasembedded with the unit from March 23 to May 6, 2005. He said heencountered several close calls while covering the 155th BCT, whichincluded more than 3,500 Mississippians.

“We came under fire 14 times while we were there,” said Wells,who covered the team’s activities for his current employer theNortheast Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo. “It’s prettyscary.”

ABC News co-anchor Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt werereturning to the United States today after being seriously injuredby a roadside bomb in Iraq. They had been recovering for the pastfew days at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in westernGermany.

The pair were filming a stand-up report in the open hatch of anIraqi military vehicle while traveling in a convoy near Taji, about12 miles north of Baghdad, when the bomb went off, according topublished reports. An Iraqi soldier was also hurt.

Wells said the danger is the primary reason most journalists inIraq report from Baghdad and “don’t venture out into the countrylike we did.”

“It’s extremely dangerous,” he said. “We came under fire aboutevery other day. You know at some point it’s going to catch up withyou if you go out every day.”

Wells discussed some of his close calls.

On one occasion, Wells was visiting Forward Operating Base, orFOB, Kalsu, about 65 miles south of Baghdad. He was riding with apatrol and they noticed a group of Iraqis in a clearing on the wayout, but the Iraqis did not appear hostile.

When they passed through the clearing on the way back, however,Wells asked the driver to slow down so he could get a picture of acoyote crossing the road. The move probably saved their lives, hesaid.

“They had timed us the first time through,” Wells said. “When weslowed down, two rockets and two mortars landed where we shouldhave been. It was really surreal to see those rockets comingin.”

It was an encounter with an Improvised Explosive Device on April23 that really rattled windows, Wells said.

He was traveling in a four-vehicle convoy on an unnamed roadoutside of Musayyib when an IED made of 10 152mm artillery shellsdetonated about 150 meters behind his Humvee and in front of thelast Humvee in the convoy. Fortunately, no one was seriouslyinjured, he said.

“It picked my Humvee up,” Wells said. “We got dirt and shrapnelthat hit the Humvee, but it was armored and nothing got in. Icouldn’t hear for about 10 hours after the explosion.”

Armor, both individual and vehicular, have saved many lives,Wells said. The military services require journalists to bring bodyarmor with them before they can be embedded, but are not particularabout the type of body armor the journalists wear, Wells said.

“A lot of the journalists don’t wear the right type of bodyarmor,” he said, adding most wear police-style vests instead ofmilitary-style flak jackets. Wells said he did a lot of research onbody armor and the one he wore cost around $4,000.

Wells said he doesn’t know what type of body armor Woodruff waswearing. But by the description of the injuries, he would guessWoodruff wore a good one.

Woodruff sustained head and neck injuries and some broken bonesin the explosion.

“There’s very little protection for your extremities,” Wellssaid. “That’s where most of the injuries are coming from.”

The armor becomes a part of a person in Iraq, where the battleline is fluid and there is no front line or rear area, Wellssaid.

“You just get used to wearing it,” Wells said. “About the onlytime you take it off was to go to bed.”