If you’ve watched the news in the last ten years, seen a picture of the flag raising at Iwo Jima, or seen a documentary of any battle on the History channel, you’ve seen our work. We are the Combat Camera operators. The men and women who embed in infantry units during wartime are the eyes and ears of the world.During the time of the Revolutionary war, people would watch the battles take place from a safe distance. It was everything short of setting up bleachers to watch the big game and could be seen as the first documented case of “tailgating” as we know it today. War since then has evolved far past lining up and shooting each other, so this hasn’t been possible since then.
In WWI, trench warfare had to be documented from within the trenches - we’ve seen the images of the dead-eyed, thousand yard stare of those soldiers immortalized in photos. In WWII, cameramen went on patrols with their fellow soldiers and Marines - we see them today on the History channel. Stanley Kubrick's epic war film, Full Metal Jacket, featured Joker and Raptorman, a photographer and correspondant he uses to bring the audience into the forefront of the events of the film. Like them, the audience views the conflict as outsiders, through a lens.For every conflict this country has seen, the American people have been able to see it from the Combat Camera’s perspective. That’s how we show the world the truth of war. And while we fight the physical fight with boots on the ground, we are also fighting a different battle simultaneously; we’re fighting the battle of information. History is always written by the winner, as they say; we’re there to gather the proof.My contribution to the documentation of America’s role in world conflict started as a Combat Camera Videographer in the second battle of Fallujah in 2004. This battle to rid the insurgency from the city would later be known as the largest battle the Marines have seen since the battle of Hue city in Viet Nam. (That’s the battle depicted in Full Metal Jacket.)[caption id="attachment_9914" align="aligncenter" width="604"]
Me, just outside of Abu Ghraib, close to Fallujah.[/caption]I was told the battle would last 4 days, so I diligently packed 6 pairs of socks, 4 skivvy shirts, a few packs of cigarettes, and a huge load of camera gear. The battle would go on to last over 30 days for which it turned out, I was not packed for. Adapt and overcome as they say, so I adapted in a few different ways, other than just turning my socks inside out every other day.I was shooting on mini-DV tapes, and news organizations in the area needed their hands on footage as soon as they could so they could air the latest action each day. I couldn’t dropbox it to them, so as medevacs and supply runs would come through, I would have to put tapes in someone’s hands and burden each of them with delivering them to my Captain in the rear. These would be some of the shots they would be seeing on the news back home before I was even back from the battle. Surprisingly, this annoying extra assignment wasn’t taken lightly and each package of footage made it into the right hands in a reasonable amount of time.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JWXpiVcCsOAJust 7 days into the battle, I joined a squad on a patrol through grid 998818 in the middle of the city, kicking in doors and searching for caches or insurgent hideouts. The third or fourth house had an unlocked front door. This was not normal, and we put our guard up as we filed into the house. Three insurgents waiting inside opened fire and we fired back in extremely close quarters. They fled out the back and tossed a grenade into the room as they ran away. Sgt Rafael Peralta smothered the grenade with his body, saving the marines around him from the blast. That day we dragged a hero out of that room and loaded his body into a medevac headed back to base, all the while I had my camera rolling.
I didn’t know how important this footage would be until a year later when the squad’s statements and an account of what happened fell on deaf ears in congress as Sgt Peralta was denied the Medal of Honor for his actions in that room on November 15th. In an unprecedented move by Secretary Gates, a forensics team was hired to review the minimal data they had that day to refute the validity of our claim that what he did was intentional.It wasn’t until years later that I learned that no one had seen any footage from my camera that had been rolling only seconds after the incident had occurred. After many emails and phone calls, the footage finally made it into the hands of a fellow Marine Congressman named Duncan Hunter, who added the footage to his dossier of solid proof that our statements were valid and made it his mission through the next few years to get Sgt Peralta his due respects.I wish I could say that everything worked out from there and Peralta was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, but politics rears its ugly head in many of these types of situations. Reversing the decision of a previous Secretary of Defense is not a good look for a successor, apparently.I only tell this story to illustrate that as Combat Camera, my job is not just to show the average news viewer at home what war looks like (although it is important.) It is also to create an inarguable accounting of every detail that could be scrutinized later. Images of war that we remember are our way of carving history into stone. Images are powerful, and they humanize the people involved. The images that we remember the most are not as much the images of demolished buildings or craters left by artillery, but they are that of people. The face of a tired soldier, the teamwork of Marines raising a flag on a hilltop, the weathered faces of civilians caught in the crossfire. These are the ones we remember, and it is the responsibility of the camera man to paint a vivid picture of what is really happening in the world so that the truth will be remembered as it happened. It’s a heavy burden, and we’re honored to do it.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3d9nI2XOiUI