I had raked through my thoughts on the two-hour drive from Temecula to Santa Monica. My mind drifted off as my hands gripped the steering wheel and I felt that hot engine blast. I’m 21 years old again as Bravo Team Leader, 3rd Squad, it’s night time at BIAP (Baghdad International Airport) and my infantry unit is headed for Taji, a rural town about twenty-five miles northwest of Baghdad. “Chalk three, let’s roll!” my squad leader shouts as we take the circular path and walk onto the flight line towards our CH-47 Chinook. I pull my Oakley Nomex gloves tighter against my palms and grip my M4 confidently as I feel my first adrenaline rush in a combat zone. The smell of JP8 (fuel) burns my nostrils, but I kind of like it and, let’s be honest, it’s so much better than the smell of Iraq (my fellow OIF vets know what I’m talking about). I hear the pounding of the blades as I walk confidently towards the Chinook. The loadmaster from 1st Cav motions each of us onto the ramp. This is it. This is a war zone and I am here. Inside I’m fist pumping like a madman because truthfully I love this feeling. I sit back against the frame of that hulking beast that will take me to my first post in Iraq. The combination of my assault pack and IOTV (Improved Outer Tactical Vest) feels like 1000 lbs against my sweat drenched back, but I couldn’t care less. The cabin goes black and the only light I see through my fogging Oakley’s is the faint green coming from the night optics of the loadmaster. He takes his seat and grabs onto the M-249 SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon). I see my buddy Haynes across from me beaming, and he gives me the “thumbs up.” I can see his mouth moving… “Hell yeah.” We start to float upward and there we float suspended, flying higher and higher above the buzzing lights of Baghdad. I pray as I always did that the Lord would keep my hands steady and mind clear, no matter what happened over the next nine months. We pull an evasive maneuver and I feel my heart wrench as I begin to think “What would it be like to go down?”
I’m back in my car. My brain pounds as I try to work through my feelings and the immensity of what I’d seen that day. Journalism is one of those things where you stay on the outside of your feelings. What I mean by that is you never get too emotionally attached to the subjects of your stories. This process of detachment gives you a non-biased approach in your coverage. It’s impossible for me to do with the project because these are my brothers and sisters. In order for me to remain detached, I would have to ignore what I love most about this journey. Camaraderie. It means everything to me. So when Kirstie Ennis sat there and began the process of pulling off her prosthetic, I saw it very clearly for a minute and I saw a warrior. I imagined the screams she heard as her helicopter fell rapidly to the earth. I imagined the panic in the cabin as vertical became horizontal. I quickly picked up my camera and took the shot.
Most of all, I saw the amount of sacrifice and wondered if there was any way to quantify that. A lost limb in service of a nation you deeply love. I felt that chill run up and down my spine that I’ve become so familiar with. I am grateful Kirstie. I will forever be grateful for your sacrifice, and just know that I will never be able to thank you enough. The world finds many things inspiring but what I find the most inspiring is brothers and sisters that unquestioningly enter the furnaces of combat, and come out forever changed.