The Message

Blood and Sand

For the next two weeks, Brennan spent the majority of his time at Camp Virginia, where troops killed time before the real killing began. Writing about a waiting game isn't easy, but Brennan did better than most, capturing a spicy bull session between several soldiers and profiling Wojdakowski and Lieutenant Colonel Michele Putko, a 41-year-old mother of six who served as the de facto mayor of Camp Virginia. He was also subjected to a scud-missile alert that was all the more unnerving because warning sirens failed to sound due to a malfunction. Word of a possible raid was delivered by shouting soldiers.

Brennan skipped over the siren snafu in his News account of the episode, but not because his keepers instructed him to hush things up. While critics of embedding argue that the procedure puts reporters at the mercy of the military, making them little more than civilian propagandists, Brennan says he had few restrictions placed upon him. For example, he asked on two occasions if writing about potentially ticklish topics would be problematic, and in each case, he was allowed to do so. However, he concedes that he occasionally engaged in some minor self-censorship -- like omitting the siren item -- so as not to freak out his family. He took the same tack during the handful of phone conversations he had with Erin. "We'd talk about the big snowstorm or the Oscars, and she'd fill me in on the world I was missing rather than me telling everything about where I was. I was trying to put on a sunny face, because if they'd known the full story, it would have been a lot harder on them."

Things only got tougher when Brennan traveled with the soldiers into Iraq on March 22. That first day, the Humvee in which he was traveling came upon a Bradley Fighting Vehicle that had just been struck by a rocket-propelled grenade. Two soldiers inside were hurt (an elbow splattered, a foot blown out of its boot), and as the V Corps soldiers cared for them, Brennan provided a pack of Marlboros that he'd brought as an icebreaker. He's an ex-smoker, and despite the temptation, he didn't light one up himself.

Charlie Brennan, back at the Rocky, still has 
dreams about his Iraq stint.
Mark Manger
Charlie Brennan, back at the Rocky, still has dreams about his Iraq stint.

The next day, near an abandoned pumping station, Brennan and his Humvee comrades found a white Toyota pickup containing some shoulder-launchable missiles and a man lacking much of his head. Afterward, the soldiers drove around the area looking for stray enemy, but came up empty. Then, an hour later, "they said they wanted to go back and check out the guy again," Brennan recounts. "They weren't operating under an order, and one of them said, 'If anyone asks, we'll say we're trying to find the general,' so they had a cover story. It seemed to me they were doing it almost in the spirit of looking for a thrill when there wasn't any reason to expose themselves to more danger. And I had to go with them, because it was either that or start walking, and that wasn't the kind of place to go on an unaccompanied walk." Brennan wrote dramatically about the discovery of the Iraqi cadaver, but in deference to Erin and Casey, he left out any mention of the second inspection of the body, which went without further incident.

The odyssey that followed was longer and more surreal than Brennan expected. The rear command's original mission to Iraq -- ostensibly to check out Camp Adder, a newly constructed logistical staging area, and just-captured Tallil air base -- was supposed to take two days. Once this was accomplished, though, Brigadier General Charles Fletcher, the man in charge, "wanted to keep going," Brennan says. "He was monitoring how the supply chain was working, and to do that, he felt he needed to go as far north as he could to make sure the fuel and so forth were getting where they needed to go."

Hence, V Corps's destination became Objective Rams, a new command post near Janaf, about a hundred miles southwest of Baghdad. There the Americans were pummeled by a sandstorm Brennan says was positively biblical. The weather system was still raging when he made his call to Goeken and asked to leave, but under these conditions, his departure could hardly be immediate. He finally made it back to Kuwait on March 29, a day after one last bit of black comedy. Around 2 a.m., V Corps types were told to hit the road immediately because of the threat of attack -- but when Brennan and his Humvee mates tried to do so, they couldn't find Buffalo News reporter Zremski. A terrifying half-hour delay later, the missing journalist finally popped up. He'd been hiding under a truck during the entire search.

Today, Brennan can laugh about Zremski's disappearing act, just as his wife and daughter can relax knowing that he's far from any Iraqi pockets of resistance. He's gotten a good response on the job as well: "Everyone has been really supportive and welcoming. No one's said anything like, 'Back so soon?'"

Nonetheless, the scenes of a liberated Baghdad and celebrating Iraqis that regularly appear on assorted TV channels can't help but stir emotions in him that he's still processing.

"It's really one of the more conflicted feelings I've had in my career," he says. "I would have liked to have seen this event through to its conclusion, but I made a decision to put my family and their welfare first. And I'm at peace with that."

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