Friday, July 29, 2005

A Small Measure of Good

 
The word “unique” has got to be one of the most irritating words in the English language. And not just because it looks so French — which it is, from about the 17th century but originally, of course, from Latin. Mostly when it’s used the speaker is trying to communicate something extraordinary or quite unusual.

So maybe Michael Yon is not unique. It’s just that we don’t hear of anyone else who’s gotten permission to embed with a group of soldiers and who seems to be planning to stay there till the fat lady sings. Or until they carry him off in a body bag.

Yon is a photo-journalist but he doesn’t belong to anybody, especially does he not belong to the MSM. No doubt a best-seller awaits the final compilation and editing of all his stories. It is a book that all of us who subscribe to his newsletter will line up to buy. The book will be full of the stories of “ the Q” and of Lieutenant , and Rat…and, of course, the formidable Command Sergeant Major Jeffrey Mellinger, the alpha male soldier in Iraq at the moment.
     My first day in Baghdad, about six months back, the sun was rising as I walked to the mess hall. It was cold and there had been explosions through the night, automatic weapons fire, and "flares" floating down on parachutes casting long, flickering shadows before their fires burned out. Helicopters zooming all around. There was a lot more war going on than I had expected; and I had done my homework.
But the birds were singing like they do at sunrise. War or peace, I can depend on the birds to sing in the mornings, and I selected that sound to hear as I walked out of the tent and headed for the mess hall. A group of soldiers, loaded for combat, were gathered in front of the mess hall. With serious expressions, their attention was trained on a map they'd spread across the hood of a Humvee. The soldiers were preparing for combat.
As I approached, one soldier in particular took a step toward me in a way that spoke loudly and said, Alpha. In a synchronicity that still registers as bizarre to me, the soldier was Jeffrey Mellinger, the Command Sergeant Major for Coalition Forces in Iraq, the very man I most wanted to meet.
The Command Sergeant Major is the right-hand man of the top General in Iraq, the premiere Non-commissioned Officer for every Soldier, Marine, Airman and Naval enlisted person. This includes all Coalition members such as the Poles, the Estonians, Koreans, and all the rest. In other words, Mellinger is Alpha. His principle job is to walk the line, whether it be in combat in Mosul, or a ship in the Arabian Gulf. Because he walked the line, he was the man; and his first question to me was, "Who are you?"
My passport was already opened to the page—I did not yet have an ID card—and I handed it over to him, saying I am an author and wanted to go to Tikrit. I asked if he was headed that way. "You aren't one of those journalists who will sit in a Baghdad hotel room and write about the war, are you?" It was as much accusation as question.
"Sergeant Major," I said, "I didn't come to Iraq to hang out in a hotel. I am trying to get to Tikrit."
"We're going to Mosul."
"Can I hitch a ride?"
The translation of his answer was "no," but it wasn't a complete shut out. He gave me his card, saying I should contact him if I wanted to get out and see what the soldiers are really facing out there. "I'll be in contact," I said, and I asked to take a photo and he okayed, then a soldier instructed me to wait while he covered the map.
Yon is that rare photo-journalist whose writing is almost as good as his pictures. “Almost,” because no words could convey what he accomplished when Yon managed to get a photo of Major Bieger hurrying, a dying child in his arms. There are no words for the futility, the grief, the heroic effort you see in the red-striped blanket, the bent form of the major sheltering mortally wounded Farah, her tiny, bloody ankle hanging from the blanket as he runs, runs eternally in that brief snippet of reality.

There are lots of requests for donations from blogs. People want to defray the costs of their time and effort and this is understandable. But in Yon’s case, the request is uniquely justified, uniquely worthwhile. He really is bringing you information you wouldn’t get otherwise. Yon’s war journal is worth the price of a subscription.

If you feel the same gratitude because he gives you the opportunity to know things you can’t get from anywhere or anyone else, go Michael Yon’s blog, scroll to the bottom of the screen, and click the Paypal link to make a donation.

It’s definitely your unique opportunity to add a small measure of good to the total in this bloody war.