Diary of a combat photographer
Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Nick Radloff, a combat photographer from Onalaska, stands at the front door to Saddam HusseinÕs palace in Tikrit.

The following is Lance Cpl. Nick Radloff's journal of his experiences as a combat photographer in the Middle East, written the day he arrived in Kuwait.

Feb. 26

I arrive in Kuwait City, Kuwait, after a 27-hour trip that began at Marine Corps Air Station, Miramar, Calif. When we stopped in the northern part of Maine, we saw snow outside, but weren't allowed off the aircraft for security reasons. After an hour on the ground, there we were off to Germany for our final stop before arriving in Kuwait.

When I got off the airplane along with the 208 Marines that came over with me, it was an eerie feeling being in a faraway land that I have only seen and heard on the news and vaguely in school. It was about 6:30 a.m. local time and the sun was beginning to creep up on us.

It was nothing but sand everywhere you looked, just horizon and sand. There were TCN's (third country nationals) driving us around from spot to spot. After sitting around loading and unloading our seabags and other gear, we boarded minibuses that would take us to our camp.

They told us to keep the shades closed on the sides of the buses because they warned us about possible snipers in the area.

After about an hour and a half ride past, it seemed like, 20 different checkpoints, we arrived at this place called Al-Jabber Air Base. This is what used to be where Saddam would send his pilots to learn how to fly years ago before the Gulf War. Now it's a permanent duty station for the Air Force.

So we start unpacking our bags and kind of looking around, taking in our surroundings, still trying to climatize ourselves in this strange and distant country. While I'm waiting to rummage through all of the seabags to find my two bags, someone called out "Radloff," but it came from behind me so I knew it wasn't someone that found my bag.

I turned around and there was a Sgt. Hizer, Lance Cpl. Andrade and a PFC Smith. I walked over to them and said, "Yo, I'm Radloff, who are you?"

The sergeant spoke up and asked, "Are you combat photo?"

I replied, "Yes, sergeant, we just got here."

He said, "You'll be living with us."

I said, "OK," and they went on about their business, as did I. I found my two seabags and sat there in the blazing sun for a couple hours till someone came and got me. I saw everyone walking around with their gas masks, so I figured I should pull mine out of my bag and strap it on my hip like everyone else has.

For one thing, I didn't want to get yelled at by someone who is just waiting to snatch someone. I pulled it out and stared at it like it was an alien. The last time I had put a gas mask holder on was about seven months before at MCT - Marine combat training, the three-week course all Marines must endure after boot camp that teaches you all about surviving in war. NBL attacks, squad rushes, etc.

Eventually, a guy named Sgt. Bowman came up to me and said, "Let's go, Devil Dog."

I said, "Yes, Gunny."

About two minutes after I grab my things, Sgt. Hizer came back and said, "Follow me." So I carried my two seabags as Gunny Bowman carried my duffel bag and Sgt. Hizer grabbed my cot I would be sleeping on. We walked across the gray granite rock that had been laid down to keep the dust down as much as possible.

I got to the "hooch" that I was going to live in. There were about 15 Marines living in this tent with openings on either end of it and light bulbs attached to the main beam above, and plywood was laid down for our floor. After what seemed to be the longest day of my life, I finally laid down to try and get some sleep.

Feb. 28

A couple days have passed But I'm writing this entry from my rack. I've been SIQ (sick in quarters) for the last two days now. I've been given five IVs in two days and got what they call the silver bullet. Need I say more!

Came down with some nasty stomach virus or something worse. I haven't gotten much sleep. Between not being very comfortable in my surroundings yet and the seven to eight times a day I've been throwing up, there's not much a person can do to get sleep, unless you got some good meds. Don't feel like writing much today.

March 4

I've gotten much healthier since the last time I wrote. So far, war isn't anything I was getting hyped up for, but I don't want to speak too soon.

Today I went over to the headquarters tent where our workstation is set up at. We have three laptops and one desktop set up for downloading images we shoot and document. I haven't taken one picture yet, and I'm starting to wonder why they sent me over here when they already have four other photo guys and two video.

Oh yeah. The team I'm working with consists of Sgt. Hizer, our section head. He's photo. Sgt. Isham is photo as well. L. Cpl. Fitzgerald, L. Cpl. Andrade and me that make up the photo side. Then there's L. Cpl. Hawkins and PFC Smith, which those two are video.

So, yeah, I'm really wondering why they sent me here, especially right out of MOS with no camera gear, which you'd think would have been a clue to whatever officer made the call to send me here. But, hey, I'm here. I might as well learn something from it.

So back to me being at our little work area inside the headquarters tent. I saw the telephone sitting on the wooden desk next to a laptop of ours and was wondering if I could use that to make a morale call home and let my mother and father know that I made it here OK. So I was shown by L. Cpl. Andrade how to dial out, and I called home, not remember the 11-hour time change.

I don't remember what time it was when I called, but it must have been early because my mom answered the phone and she sounded like she was still sleeping. I said, "Hello?" She answered with "HI NICK." She sounded worried, enthusiastic and disheartened all in one.

We talked for a little bit. I couldn't talk too much longer before I would be crying. I already felt a tear well up just form hearing her voice. It felt like that day at boot camp where we finally got to call home. Especially for me, being close to my mother, sister, father and the rest of my family was very important growing up. So being away from home for long periods of time were getting normal, but still hard to deal with at times.

The Marine Corps definitely taught me how to live on my own, but any one of my family members or any female I've dated can tell you I'm a mama's boy just because of growing up with just me, my mother and my sister. I love my father to death, I just have a different relationship with him than I do with my mother.

Now that I've explained that, after talking with my mother I called my father and talked to him for a while. It was great to talk to my parents, who from day one were a little hesitant about this Marine Corps thing, but always supportive, which is the best medicine.

It's about 5 p.m. now. Sun's starting to fade down, but the heat isn't. I'm gonna go eat some supper. What I'd give for some Mexican stuffed shells right now!

March 10

It's been pretty boring so far. It's about 12:30 p.m. right now. Today was about as normal as any other day starting out with the 0730 formation. We've been waking up around 6:50 every morning to have enough time to shave, brush your teeth and maybe enjoy a morning chow or cigarette with the gang.

After morning formation was over, usually me and Jay and Dre would go to breakfast at the chow hall they called the "Snailback" because it looked like a huge snail's back, all curved and round.

After breakfast, we came back to the hooch just to chill until Sgt. Hizer would let us know what the plan was for the day. That's when we heard, "GAS-GAS-GAS!!"

I scrambled for my gas mask and headed for the closest bunker, now knowing if it was a drill or an actual attack. I started thinking about what this moment was really like. Within 20 minutes we got an "all clear" over the loudspeaker.

I removed my mask and went back to the hooch. At this point, Sgt. Hizer had given me his camera gear, so I felt a little better about doing my job. About an hour went by and Sgt. Hizer came back and said, "Radloff, you and Hawkins are gonna work the sergeant major retirement ceremony."

Finally, I've gotten a chance to actually do my job. The last time I had taken a picture was a little over a month, so I was a little apprehensive about my first big shot. I wanted to show my sergeant that I knew how to do my job and didn't need my hand held.

So that afternoon, me and L. Cpl. Hawkins shot the retirement ceremony for Sgt. Major Payne. It went really well. We went back to the headquarters tent to download our imagery and burn a CD for the sergeant major for a gift. Had chow and played some spades before going to bed.

March 12

Today was the day that everyone started moving all their gear around and getting ready to move north to a place called Camp Coyote. There was gonna be three different convoys for our company. Our company included three sections: HQ (headquarters, which I was a part of), EAF (don't know what E stands for but AF stands for air fuels) and CFR (crash, fire, rescue).

They split up everyone in groups for these convoys. Each convoy was about 30 to 40 vehicles varying from fuel trucks to Hummers with .50 cal. On top to LAVs (light armored vehicles) and five 7-ton trucks.

I rode in the back of a 7-ton with Sgt. Hizer and Pfc. Smith. The other guys had already left on their convoys two days before and yesterday, the 11th of March.

The ride was rough. It took us about two hours to get to Camp Coyote. On the way, we were on a main highway near Kuwait City. We had Kuwaiti civilians waving at us and kids smiling at us. It was really weird being in their world rolling down the highway with all my gear and my 9 mm locked and loaded.

So we finally get to Camp Coyote around 7:30 p.m. and it took another hour just to meet up with the rest of our crew and find our tent. That night was the worst dust storm I've been in. You couldn't see anything inside of the tent from all the dust being kicked up. It sucked.

We went from hardback wooden floors, light and power to dirt floors, no power and no lights. I started thinking, "It's just gonna get worse, suck it up, Nick."

It was hot, I was disgustingly dirty and I hadn't eaten but an MRE early around 10 a.m., so I wanted something to eat, but with all the dust everywhere and no lights, I said out loud, "**** this (stuff)!" I was pissed and couldn't hide it.

Oh well, I had a feeling that everyone was a bit irritated. After all, we're living in a goddamn desert full of nothing. What a day! Ha.

April 11

(First day of convoy north to Baghdad.)

This morning I was awakened to "Radloff!! Grab your (stuff). You're going on this convoy with me."

This was Sgt. Hizer talking. The night before I had said I was going on the "RRR" convoy, which wasn't supposed to leave until 10 this morning. It's about 6 in the morning right now and I packed all my things I had with me to this point.

Sgt. Hizer said bring everything because we were briefed that we would be gone anywhere between five and 25 days, which was quite a time frame to work with. So we got our convoy brief about 7:30 a.m. and got everything ready. Around 8:30 a.m., our 35-vehicle convoy headed north to Baghdad.

I can't believe I'm going to where Saddam's been ruling for over 20 years. It was history in the making and I was part of it. There were lots of stops until it got too dark for us to continue.

Since we were driving with lights out, we drove until we got to this checkpoint called "Yankee." We have about 10 checkpoints starting from Jalibah north to Baghdad all named after baseball parks. I liked that!

So we have traveled around 100 miles today, and it took us about 10 hours to get there. I've set up camp for the night just outside this little town we passed through right before we stopped.

There were Iraqi children and adults waving and cheering and smiling at us rolling through town. If I ever wondered what it was like to be famous, it was then I felt what it was like.

This town was a rathole, but these people seemed so humble and lonely and lost. I would wave and smile at the children. I felt so bad for them, I wanted to give them my water and food.

A moral dilemma. Want to give your food and water away but you won't have any yourself. What do you do?

The kids look happy enough that you wave back and give them a smile. I hear "American" and "Mister," broken English but they know some. And "thank you."

So that night we set up camp as I was saying and I had security watch from 0400 to 0600. Bad draw of the hat, I guess, since it was already 10:30. I better get to sleep.

April 12

I sound reveille at 0530 to wake everyone up because we got word passed by the captain that we're pushing out by 0800. I get off security watch and go pack my things up and hop on the back of the Hummer and get ready for another long day of riding toward Baghdad.

Still a little nervous knowing that these towns we're going through aren't secure yet. And nights before there was a firefight by the grunts. But that feeling passes by in an instant and adrenaline replaces it.

We roll down Route 8 on the way north to Baghdad. About an hour down the highway there's a huge explosion. We feel it bug don't see the plume cloud until about 10 seconds pass. In front of us down the road there's a huge, thick black smoke stack rolling off the side of the car sitting there.

I felt the heat brush my skin. I quickly grabbed my camera and started shooting. Then we stopped and we jumped out of the Hummer, and someone said, "Everyone DOWN!! PROVIDE SECURITY!!!"

I put my camera down and grabbed my 9 mm from my side, wishing I had my M16 now instead of this "peashooter." But at least I had that.

We all got down in the prone position and there were two houses on one side of us and highway and field on the other. In front of the two houses there were Iraqi civilians, about eight to 12 of them. I think they were staring at us.

I was just waiting for one to pull out an AK-47 or something just to give me a reason to pop off my 9 mil.

After about two minutes of a staredown, one of the Iraqis started shouting something in Arabic and waving his hands, probably saying, "Don't shoot" or something of that nature.

We hopped into the Hummer and pushed north toward our destination, which was a little town called Tikrit, which had an airstrip we needed to secure, and that's what we were gonna use for our FARP.

We finally reached our last stop but about two hours before we got there we were rolling through this really run down ghetto part of east Baghdad around 1630 or so and we slowly came to a halt. We sat for about 10-15 minutes and a Marine came down toward the end of the convoy where we were out in the lineup and said, "The colonel wants five Marines with E-tools up front NOW!"

I sat and looked around for a minute or two and saw no one else was gonna do it, so I grabbed my E-tool and said, "**** y'all, I'll go do it." I muttered something under my breath in hostility and went marching to the front in a fast not-so-friendly pace.

When I got to the front there was one of our wreckers sunk into a mud/(stuff) hole. I thought, "This can't be a good omen." The vehicle that is supposed to get us out of a mess is now engulfed in one itself.

I got down and started shoveling the garbage and dirt combination from under the truck. After about 20 minutes I had to stop. This slop looked and smelled like some god awful soup of chicken feathers, garbage, feces and who knows what else. I gagged at the thought of digging in it anymore.

After a two-hour delay, we got the two truck out and left the Iraqi children and adults behind us and reached our FARP location. This airstrip must have been Saddam's private airstrip, just outside his hometown, Tikrit.

I couldn't believe I was in Saddam's hometown. Who would have thought.

We secured the airstrip and started to form up the vehicles. We got out and had a formation for accountability. We set up our cots and slept next to the Hummer. Long day!!

April 13

I woke up to a beautiful sunrise and a good crap in a dirt pile. Nothing like having a dirt pile and a Newport and a sunrise all to yourself at 0630 in the morning when everyone is still sleeping. How peaceful it is.

Well, Sgt. Hizer wanted me to go take pictures of the runway and the RRR team, which stands for rapid runway recovery team that are composed of a couple different MOS's and together they restore runways that are damaged and have them up and running in less than 40 hours.

This is a must when you need to go operational before the enemy locates your position and starts throwing down mortar and artillery on you.

So I went and took a couple shots of them repairing the runway when there's about eight to 10 loud BOOMS with about three-second intervals. It's about a little past noon when this is happening.

Now I'm wondering if it's our EOD (exploded ordnance detail) setting off ordnance or it we're getting bombed. I walk the half mile back to our cammie netting spot where we've set up our racks and gear.

It's about 20 feet off the runway, so when the Cobras and the CH-46s and Hueys and Blackhawks are landing and taking off, we get blasted with rock and sand every time. It's quite irritating, but the pilots believe it's quite funny to blow our (stuff) everywhere.

So I get back and start asking around if anyone knew if that noise was EOD or enemy artillery. No one really knew. One person was saying it was us. Another would say it's the Republican Guard attacking us.

It's funny how everyone was so nonchalant about what was going on, even myself. By now, artillery rounds and gunfire was a passing by sound in your ear. Like your mother told you as a child, "In one ear and out the other." Pretty much the same scenario.

Never found out that night if it was us or them. It was past sunset now and I had pulled out an MRE from under my rack. With my flashlight on my lap, I opened my vegetable stew meal and started heating it up. While I'm waiting for it to get warm I light up a Newport and walked the 10 to 15 feet to the other side of the cammie netting close to Sgt. Hizer's rack.

He was sitting there reading and puffing on his Marlboro Ultralights that he so much depends on out here when there's a huge explosion to our west, across the field past the concertina wire fence.

This initiated blast after blast of ammunition going off like the 4th of July. It was a light show of a different kind for me. This went on for most of the night. I ended up getting my camera out and getting some good night vision shots with a special lens adapted with night vision technology. About an $8,000 lens.

Regardless, I took some nice shots of plume clouds and the continuous light pop-ups in the sky. This action was going on about four, five miles to our west.

There was some intel that leaked back to us and was reportedly some F-18 Hornets and a few AH-1 Cobras bombing an artillery dump for the Republican Guard of Saddam's army. So this was good news for us.

After about 10 to 15 minutes of taking pictures, I went back to my rack, ate my MRE and went to sleep. Or I tried at least.

It's nice weather up here in Tikrit, though. I gotta admit that I wouldn't mind staying in this climate until I leave. Reminds me of Brice Prairie.

April 14

I woke up about 11:30 a.m. Sgt. Hizer had let me sleep in for staying up late the night before taking pictures of the bombing and ammo dump/artillery dump exploding, plus captioning all images in the laptop.

See, every picture we take needs to be captioned before we can send it off to the respective receivers.

So it's almost noon already, and it's another beautiful day up north. I dreamt that I was fishing on the Mississippi back home with my best friend, Ryan, and my sister and her friends were with and they were just floating behind us on an inner tube that seated seven while we pulled them once in a while when me and Ryan were tired of fishing.

Woke up this morning and thought I was camping down at Pettibone or some park back home, then saw all the Humvees and military vehicles around and snapped to and realized I was still in Saddam's hometown. A little farther away from the Mississippi than I thought I was.

But I came to my senses and crawled out of my sleeping bag and proceeded to get dressed. By this time I was the only one left at his rack, or under the cammie netting for that matter. Which I didn't care. It was some nice peace and quiet for me.

I wasn't sure where Sgt. Hizer was. My camera bag was still under my rack, so I know that he didn't go to take pictures, so I figured he'd gone over to the MTVR-7 ton where we have a laptop set up plugged into its AC plug so we can caption.

I finished tying my boots and blousing my trousers. I walked across the runway to the other side where the fuel truck has been set up with all the fuel guys over there. That's where they had the boxes of MREs and where I would pull my two MREs for the day.


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