Breathing the Fire

Kimberly Dozier, Meredith Books
Breathing the Fire: Fighting to Report -- and Survive -- the War in Iraq
Fighting To Report — and Survive — the War in Iraq

A Story of Tragedy . . .


I hate these nights. Stare at the ceiling, turn left. Turn right. Can't sleep. Dread tomorrow's assignment, as usual. In the morning adrenaline will pull me through, as it always does. Tonight worry is getting the better of me, as it always does.

The aircon is noisy, and the thick hotel drapes (of cheesy pseudo-velvet) block out the spotlights on the catty-corner mosque nearby and the lights from across the river. The drapes are meant to catch any flying glass, should a rocket hit the side of the building. But that's only ever happened once, so in my mind that's not the problem. The problem is the next day's patrol.

I'm “safe” here. I've transformed the 12- by 15-foot room into a cocoon fortress-a yoga sanctuary in this half-star hotel floor turned network bureau. I live here about two-thirds of the year. Over three years my personal possessions have migrated to join me. The place is like the Big Brother house crossed with a rusting, peeling, leaking Soviet-era submarine, where the carpet sticks to your feet. We've sealed the corridor with steel doors and installed cameras to eyeball would-be visitors.

A ragtag crew of CBS and Iraqi hotel guards protects us (when they bother to stay awake). Our foreign security advisors try to sneak downstairs at odd times of the night to ensure the perimeter guards are awake. They have to make it past the slumbering upstairs guards; otherwise the game is up — the Iraqis upstairs furiously dial their cell phones and wake up all their colleagues at the hotel gates below.

Sleep, damn you.

Tossing and turning is a personal tradition I despise. It happens when I do embeds. I will spend tomorrow morning with a U.S. Army patrol. My two-man crew — my colleagues and friends, cameraman Paul and soundman James — will film the U.S. Army patrol, and I'll trail them. The truth is, after three years as a late-comer network reporter, I'm still a newbie to the two of them — someone they put up with between assignments with “the boys,” such as news legend Dan Rather, with whom they've worked for years.

For this shift, they're stuck with me: a workaholic news nerd. They've watched me climb my way from radio to affiliate to network TV. No matter what I think I am, to them I'm the former wannabe who is still trying too hard.

I'm also the only reporter I know who has a family with a U.S. military background. My father was a Marine in World War II, surviving the campaigns of Guam and Iwo Jima.

That's probably why I went on assignment with the military a lot, which didn't always make me popular. Sometimes crews said no to my ideas.

But to those of us involved right now, tomorrow's assignment makes perfect sense: There is no other place to be on Memorial Day in Iraq than with U.S. troops.

The three of us had done our preshoot security briefing this evening, not that I could provide much detail. The military press officer who had set up the embed couldn't tell our producers much over the phone, except that the patrol would take place in central Baghdad (so we could get back in time for the 7 a.m. eastern time live shot on The CBS Early Show, which airs at 3 p.m. local time). You can't say much over the phone because the insurgents are thought to be monitoring the phone lines.

We don't know exactly where we are going or what we'll see, but the story has something to do with U.S. troops training Iraqis. Since tomorrow is a patriotic day, I suspect the story will be along the lines of “As they stand up, we stand down” — the mantra of the U.S. commanders.

My crew and I suspect this will also be what we call a “dog and pony show,” something so sanitized for our cameras that it will be hard to get anything more than an Uncle-Sam-knows-best commercial out of the troops.

But we know that whatever we film will air on the morning show and almost certainly on the CBS Evening News. You can't NOT make air on a patriotic American holiday when you spend the day with U.S. troops.

And Paul always said, “Don't risk my life unless we're going to make air.”

God, what a horrific way I kept that promise.

A Story of Survival . . .

I also became aware of the countless other souvenirs left behind, lodged in my body. In my right hand and arms, I could see red and black flecks of shrapnel floating under the skin. In my X-rays you could actually see some marble-size chunks of molten car metal floating in my hip, a couple in my leg. There was even a small speck on the bridge of my nose and a couple tracing the outline of my right jaw.

In Landstuhl, I wanted it out — all of it, immediately. The doctors explained that unless it was a large piece or located in a spot where it could do damage, most of it would stay right where it was. They told me it actually did more damage to dig around the soft tissues to remove it.

Nancy brought in some of the chunks the doctors had removed from my leg. She had them gathered in large plastic bags and specimen cups. The first — a flat piece of metal, twisted by the heat of the blast, which spilled over the sides of my hand — was recognizable as some sort of car part. It had been embedded in my right leg.

A second piece was a completely intact metal wheel weight from one of the tires, about the size of the top of a finger. I never even noticed that part on a car before. Every time I spot a wheel weight on a car now, I think of the one that was lodged somewhere in my thigh.

What Nancy didn't explain then was just how close I'd come to losing my right leg. I didn't learn that until months later when I revisited Landstuhl with Nancy to film for the CBS News program on the bombing, Flashpoint. She said in the first 24 hours, my right leg turned nearly black. As I mentioned earlier, doctors in Baghdad had relieved the pressure in my lower right leg with the fasciotomy, when they'd sliced open the skin from knee to ankle down to the muscle in 2-foot-long cuts on either side of my calf.

But the blood circulation was still far from normal. The black color could mean my leg was bruised and still struggling to flush out the bad blood from so much damage. Or it could mean my circulation system had been irretrievably destroyed, so there was no way to oxygenate the leg's muscle tissues, tissues that might already be dying.

My doctors were faced with a stark choice: They could gamble and hope what they were seeing was temporary bruising. But if the tissues were actually dying, that meant the doctors were giving the bacteria breeding in the dead tissue a chance to course through the rest of my body and kill me.

Many doctors new to the field will take the more conservative course of action. They'll amputate the limb and save the patient. But my surgeons had been deployed in a war zone for about two-thirds of their yearlong tour, some of them for more than that. They'd gambled before and won. Nancy explained that after some debate, they took a chance with me, putting heating pads on my legs, changing them frequently, to help stimulate the circulation.

After about 36 hours, the gamble paid off. By the time I was awake enough to be aware of my legs and what had happened, the risk of amputation had mostly already passed.

It remained a possibility the doctors wouldn't openly share with me, though. The jagged, burning chunks of shrapnel had done major damage to my quadriceps, the four major muscles that power my upper leg. So many muscles were shredded that by the time the dead tissue was painstakingly removed from the living, my broken femur bone was exposed. In later surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital, the remaining muscle had to be rearranged to cover it. And then doctors could only hope the grafts they put on the massive burn, a foot and a half by 8 inches, would take. If they couldn't cover the femur again, they'd have to consider taking the leg off. (They opted not to tell me about that possibility until after the surgery had been carried out and had worked.)

In order for my muscles to heal and for those later grafts to take, the surgeons at Landstuhl knew they had to clean the area of the damaged flesh, dirt, and bacteria that the blast had blown in. Otherwise the area would contaminate any future grafts and slow or stop healing.

So, according to my mom, every day at Landstuhl, surgeons would powerwash the dirt and dead, burned tissue from my legs. Picture strapping a patient to the operating table and turning a fire hose on her at full blast. It was Nancy's bandage change on overdrive. These “washouts” were so painful they had to be done under full anesthesia and each one counted as surgery. By the time I was discharged from the last hospital weeks later, the surgeons had lost count of how many procedures I'd undergone. The guesstimate was “at least two dozen.” Detailed records hadn't been kept at the Baghdad or Balad trauma hospitals. The doctors fixed me and moved me on.

A Story of Recovery . . .

With the dozen or so surgeries to close me up now over and all the progress I was making, you might think I'd feel a huge sense of relief: The danger was past, I was out of the woods, except for the healing and recovery.

Instead whenever I wasn't doing physiotherapy, I was ambushed by all the other things I'd been able to silence until then or at least muffle in my psyche.

Now I had nothing but time to think about the bombing, Paul and James, and their families. Images of them repeatedly hit me, and each time my mind said no. I didn't see their bodies at the bomb scene. I hadn't seen their funerals. For me they remained frozen in time, doing a Memorial Day shoot.

And I saw every memory through the fisheye of narcotics, intensely magnified and leavened by the multiple nerve depressants that were meant to control my physical pain. From hour to hour my emotions roller-coastered, mostly crashing down.

Mornings were the worst, when physical and emotional pain would one-two me the moment I opened my eyes. They hammered me my third and fourth weeks at Bethesda Naval Hospital. I never slept much, and the nurses and doctors interrupted my sleep periodically from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. or so as they did their morning rounds. After their rounds I'd try to catch another hour of sleep before breakfast arrived and I stirred. I'd realize that opening my eyes meant facing the day, so I'd try to shut them and will myself back into unconsciousness.

Finally I would be forced to rise, blinking, looking around at the IVs, the tubes, and the bandages. Reality would hit, and I'd start sobbing.

The nurses and corpsmen were unfazed by my tears. I was just one of many on that hallway who had lost someone. The women corpsmen, especially, told me it was tough sometimes to walk into a room of a strapping, tattooed 6-foot Marine who was bawling his eyes out because he just woke up from a nightmare about his buddies. “You never know what to say,” one told me. “When someone who looks that tough and that strong is sobbing like a baby, it breaks your heart.”

Or the corpsmen would find a soldier propped up in bed with tears rolling down his face because he'd opened his eyes in the morning and locked on the stump where an arm or a leg used to be. So the corpsmen would walk into my room with my morning meds, catch sight of my tear-streaked face, and ask, “Anything I can do?”

I'd usually mutely shake my head, and they'd nod, walk out, and leave me be.

When the hearing specialist stopped by to assess the damage to my shattered eardrums, she got as far as “I'm the hearing specialist, and I . . . ” Midsentence she saw my red-puffed face and stopped halfway to my bed. “And I won't be doing your hearing test today,” she said with a small, sad smile. She neatly turned and walked out.

. . .

“So my heart stopped twice?” I asked Pete.

“Who told you that?” he asked too quietly. I'm glad Schieffer had left the building by then. Kiwis aren't diplomats. They bluntly say what's on their mind, and Pete would have done just that.

That's when I realized my own family was keeping details from me. They'd been told I wasn't capable of handling it, and they believed it.

So I was on my own, holding the line against the medicate-it, make-it-go-away therapy when a team of visiting psychiatrists came to my room to offer me drug therapy. They wanted to discuss my options regarding which drugs might help and why. I was already on an old-fashioned upper, amitriptyline, but not for mood treatment. Dr. Burns had explained that I was receiving a small dose but not enough to have a mood-lifting effect. He said the drug had a secondary benefit: alleviating nerve or neurologic pain throughout the body that comes from the breaks, the burns, the grafts, etc. But I thought even the little I was getting was enough. I didn't want anything else added to the chemical soup in my system.

“No psychotropic drugs, no antidepressants,” I said. “No Prozac Nation nonsense. All it does is hide the pain, not treat it. That's not for me.”

“But, but,” was their reply. “You should be aware of the options . . .”

I was resolute.

“I want to talk about how I'm feeling, why I feel like bawling my eyes out, how freaked out I am by how my body's been shredded, how I feel about losing my friends,” I told them. “I don't want to cover it up.”

I asked them if I could talk to a counselor or join an injured troops support group, where everyone in the room would understand because we'd all gone through the same thing. The psychiatrists didn't reply. Maybe they thought I was avoiding the issue by avoiding drugs. Or perhaps there are no such support groups. Or maybe there are, but they thought an outsider, especially a reporter, would make it even harder for injured troops to open up.

“Well,” one of them began. “You might want to consider antidepressants for a short time.”

“No,” I said, and I meant it. Now I was going to have to explain. I told them I'd learned that talk therapy worked for me, helping me cope after being beaten, menaced, and threatened both as a child and an adult in the Mideast. Then it helped me figure out my divorce and ultimately gave me the coping skills to survive the ever-present tension of living in Baghdad's Red Zone for three years, without developing posttraumatic stress disorder.

“Ah, our patients don't usually come in with that kind of background, nor those types of coping skills,” one of the delegation said. They might not have believed I was making the best decision by rejecting their expertise, but they respected my choice.

Thankfully, two visitors appeared who were of like mind regarding talk therapy. First was Brother David, a Franciscan monk who stopped by in full brown-robed wool regalia and a painstakingly trimmed white beard. I always felt bad when he had to put the disposable surgical gown and gloves over his already hot outfit to visit my often-sweltering room. I wasn't Catholic, and it didn't matter. Brother David had worked with 9/11 victims, and in a former life as a fire chaplain, he'd seen plenty of loss and grief. He'd already guided many others through what I was dealing with. He told me about the people he'd met and how they'd managed. He told me about some of the other troops on my hallway and how they were coping and not coping.

Most of all, he reminded me in the gentlest way possible that “God has a purpose, and you're part of it. You know that.” He handed me a Franciscan prayer that basically said: This will pass. And with faith, you'll get through it.

When I doubted my ability to turn this experience into something more positive, he said, “After all these weeks of talking with you, there's one thing I know: You have a great internal compass. Listen to it.”

And he told me to write as soon as I could. I wasn't ready to step back and absorb the whole story yet, so I started with smaller bites. I answered the 1,500-plus emails, which had piled up since Memorial Day, from friends and hundreds of people I'd never met, except through being on TV.

From Breathing the Fire: Fighting to Report -- and Survive -- the War in Iraq by Kimberly Dozier, published by Meredith Books. Copyright © 2008. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

Posted on BrainLine August 11, 2008.