This diary, compiled by Gunner Palace directors Mike Tucker and Petra Epperlein, consists of notes from the production of the film in 2003-2004 and emails sent from 2/3 FA soldiers during their 410 day deployment to Baghdad and Najaf.
See No Evil
We arrived in Amman. The armored cars that F. said were arriving tonight are sitting at an airport somewhere in Europe. That means that F. and I will drive in with a taxi to Baghdad.
P--Arrived in Baghdad. The trip was uneventful. Didn’t see one Army vehicle until Ramadi--the desert is, well, deserted. There isn't any security out there.
One car full of Ali Babas did check us out, but they lost their interest and drove on. Five trips on that road is enough. I promise not to do it again.
Heh P: Good news and bad news. First the good news: The 1AD PAO has set me up with 2/3 FA, an artillery unit from Germany based in one of Uday Hussein’s palaces-or what is left of it. It sounds like something right out of “Gone with the Wind"-plus, it's sitting in the hottest sector in Baghdad, so I think we'll get what we need. Of course, the fact that is has a pool doesn't hurt either.
The bad news:
An Adult Paradise
Heh P: My driver took me to Adhamiya today. Ironically, he lives across the street from the Palace, so he promised to check in on me to make sure that I'm OK. Only in Iraq: he's worried about me.
Heh P: Finally found email. Lots going on here. I think I should stay as long as possible. Pretty safe, although the Palace came under mortar attack two nights ago. At first, I thought it was controlled EOD explosion. By the time I got to my room, a third round hit and all the guys were just standing around like nothing had happened. In fact, somebody found a rat in the hooch which demanded their full attention--never mind the mortars.
It's Army tradition to have a last roll call at a soldier's memorial. They call out roll and soldiers answer with "here" as their names are called. When they came to Kimmerly, there was no reply. His named was called twice more, answered only by the quiet sobbing of his fellow soldiers.
One Night in Baghdad
Routine has settled in: Day=Patrol in the Sun. Night=Raid Houses.
It's getting a little intense. The other night, while raiding the home of suspected bomb builders, one of the suspects started talking to me as he was detained. He pleaded to me, "I'm a journalist. You get this wrong. They call this freedom?"
What´s going on, I didn´t hear from you since Wednesday... bombs are blowing up left and right, ....what are you doing ?! I hope you stay away from wars in the future. Petra
The guys I am with got hit by four IEDs on Weds--including the one that hit an Iraqi bus--many civilians dead, four police wounded and 2 MPs wounded. An uparmored going down a busy shopping street was the target.
Jackass Goes to War
Over the weeks, a rhythm has developed. Sleep late to avoid the heat. Try to eat an MRE. Drink water and lots of it. Smoke fake Marlboros from the Haji stand and wait for something to happen, anything. A patrol. An escort. An OP.
P: We were driving to BIAP the other day---someone cooked up a reason so we could go to the PX and Burger King (believe it or not). We took orders for something like 50 Whoppers. On the way down the airport road traffic suddenly stopped because there was an IED on the road. As we pulled over, we heard that a sniper was engaging the convoys ahead of us. All that for a Whopper.
Trying to Get Home
P: Sorry...I’m trying to get out of here. It’s not so easy to get a flight. Hoping to get on a flight home with a soldier from 2/3, to wrap-up the story. MT
I’m back in Berlin. Took three days to get out of Baghdad. There simply wasn’t any room and there were lots of guys who NEEDED to get home.
I'll be Home Soon Honey
Petra and I went to Giessen last week to visit 2/3 families. While in Baghdad, I made an effort to get guys to shout-out to their spouses and kids so we could edit a short video for the families in Giessen.
I feel a lot for these families. My Dad left for Vietnam on a troop ship on my first birthday. I thought of my mother, who spent three tours waiting for a doorbell to ring or a car door to slam. I spent the first sixteen years of my life around the army--and then another six, from age 17-23, in the Army Reserve. I guess, soldiers like Wilf remind me of myself and seeing these families and their quiet struggles, brings back memories of another time, another war.
I Killed The Rat
A few weeks after I left the Palace, SPC Stuart Wilf and SPC Tom Susdorf , my former roommates, started sending me regular updates about life in Baghdad.
Battle Buddies: Tom Susdorf (L) Stuart Wilf (R)
Hey Dude, all kinds of stuff blowing up everywhere, two of our guys got hit by a mortar last night (three impacted in front of Hellraiser's building), we've had over 10 mortars impact on our compound and SF’s over the past 4 days. Car bombs are supposed to hit in Adhamiya today, so we're all ready.
Lots of stuff still blowing up here. This dude made a potato gun-like rocket launcher the other day and tried to shoot it at the palace from across the river, but he was retarded and it blew up about 5 feet in front of him.
Three weeks away from Baghdad, I received an email from 2/3 informing me that LT Ben Colgan was killed. The news hit me hard. Just weeks before, I had been out with him and his Tombraiders when an IED exploded behind the Abu Hanifa Mosque—one of two IEDs that were meant for his patrol. He was killed in the same spot.
I knew where he died, but I also knew where he lived. He came from the Seattle area like me. I knew the kind of house he grew up in and the landscape he dreamt of going home to.
Everybody in 2/3 loved Ben—they felt safe with him.
War by Remote
I heard about Ben's death on Monday--I spent half the day looking at images of him in Baghdad--and the other half trying to get authorization to fly on an AMC flight to Iraq the next day. In the end, it was impossible to get to Baghdad on short notice.
All of us are very upset about Lt Colgan. I feel horrible for his family.
Multiple Launch Donkeys
Yesterday I passed an IED that didnt hit me, but got the convoy on the road behind us. They were MPs and the driver was the only one hurt (I was driving our convoy). That shook me for a while. When they run out of conventional weapons I’m sure we will see some off the wall stuff like the donkeys. Well not much else going on except a volley of 2 or 3 mortars a night now.
Message from 2/3:
BREAK BREAK BREAK (survey) and 2 Time reporters hit by grenade need medevac more to follow...........
Saddam Found in Hole
Tom's sitting next to me, he's an idiot. He passed up Paris Hilton's phone number! He could have got it but he's a dumb boy. But we do still have the possibility of Brittney Spears phone number. Nevermind, he lost that one also. Dumb.
I had a great Christmas dream last night. Our families came to visit for Christmas, it was like family day at basic training, only at war instead. My dad and little brother came driving up in this redneck motorhome, and my dad started unloading cartons of cigarettes from it (he doesn't smoke, I don't get that part). So I went into the TOC to do something, and this mortar hit right outside of the TOC Everyones families were crowding around the crater pointing to it and saying, "Wow! Look at that! Neat!"
Person of the Year
On December 10, Jim Nachtwey and Mike Weisskopf from Time Magazine were wounded while covering 2/3 for Time's Person of the Year feature. That feature came out on December 21st. Three soldiers from 2/3 were on the cover, including one of my subjects, SPC Billie Grimes, a young female medic from Indiana. Wilf, was the centerfold.
New Year, Old War
The Time article was ok, but not many people were thrilled with the satellite photo of the palace. Survey (Tombraider) is kinda passive on the whole thing. A mortar round hit our hooch wall last night, scared me. No injs/however some damage to HMMWVs and other equipment. I hope things are good at home. CSM Cooke was a great guy. Take care and HAPPY NEW YEAR.
Right now, I am trying to get permission to come back around Jan 20th for about ten days--AF will try to get me papers to fly as it doesn't look too safe to drive in from Jordan.
Think I could learn the Star Spangled Banner before you get back. I already know the beginning of it--I think that might fit in nicely. But I also thought about the whole playing naked thing. That would be awesome.
Back at the Palace
F and M&D drove me to Adhamiya today. Everybody is still here, but it feels very different. When you drive in, the first thing you see is the Alpha Humvee that was hit in December. We went out back and sat in the sun next to a very sad looking pool. It's heated, but the novelty seems to have worn off. The soldiers seem spent. Too many IEDs. Too many attacks. Too much stress. Everybody just looks forward to redeploying in the Spring. Some of them are already packing. Everybody is counting the days.
I was out at Charlie Battery last night when Supercop brought in Mohammed Tyson zip-stripped--he was the young Iraqi interpreter that I filmed with the detainee last time. They say he has been taking photographs of vehicles and passing intelligence on to an insurgent cell. If it is true, he is responsible for at least four deaths.
P: After I got off the phone with you earlier, I walked back to the TOC. When I was about half-way, a mortar hit up on the end of the compound. I kept walking. Then another hit. And another...
One thing that I've never seen mentioned in the news is that US forces are not allowed to drink during their deployment except during R&R. I know there is some illicit drinking going on--you can buy a beer right across the street at the banana stand and I assume liquor makes it in--but overall, this is a dry deployment--the first alcohol free American War: Krieg Lite.
When it is 120 degrees outside, beer tastes good and the Army knows that so they have sent thousands of cases of near beer to Iraq.
We Live in this Movie
This has become their movie, not mine—each person with their own reference. For the older officers and NCOs it's M*A*S*H. They brought aloha shirts for poolside BBQs. For others, it's Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. You can see it in the way they ride in their Humvees: one foot hanging out the door—helicopters with wheels. For the teenagers, it's Jackass Goes to War.
As much as they project cultural icons into their lives, through my viewfinder you can see that they are defining their own experience; a movie different than anything anyone has seen before. The other day, while recording freestyles, a young SPC looked at the camera, charged his weapon and said,"For y'all this is just a show, but we live in this movie."
Update: Some of the war tapes that the soldiers from Gunner Palace sent me from Iraq will be used on the dvd to tell their story--it could be the first war movie shot by soldiers themselves--I'm curious how it will be perceived.
I was drinking coffee this morning when three large explosions hit up the river. I went into the TOC and heard on the net the Kadhimiya mosque was bombed with dozens killed.
It's upsetting-- this happened as people were simply marching in a procession to the mosque.
HHB drove me to BIAP. We did the ritual PX/Burger King run. I said my goodbyes. Knowing that I'll see them in two months, made it easy.
I'm sure you've all heard from the news that we've been extended. Sadr thinks he's going to take over Iraq or something, and it's out of control here again.
We have another KIA and 2 WIA in the last 4 days. Bravo Btry soldier was the KIA. We were involved in a 6 hr firefight yesterday night and we have now found out we are extended in Iraq for at least 3 more months. We are going to move to another location to break the enemies back and corner him off. I cant say when or where we are going but its not going to be easy. -Tom
On April 5, 2004, SGT David McKeever was killed in an RPG attack. In the same timeframe, a young female soldier died at 2/3 after she was ambushed. The LT that replaced Ben Colgan was shot in the head, but his Kevlar saved him and he will recover. Others were wounded.
Of what I've gathered, this is what's going on: most of the ICDC are screwbags--have been taking pictures of the compound and distributing them to people that want us dead. We're supposed to have an attack on us real soon here, they want to raid the palace is the intel we've got.
All the new guys are here, and they're pissing me off by walking around like they've been here for a year, and they've been here for a week. I hate hearing them talk about "well 600 isn't really that many people to die when you think about it.”
When 4 of those 600 were people you knew, it's way too many.
I’ve got 5 months and 13 day's left in the Army, then I'm off to be a rockstar. Forget college. Forget jobs. Forget growing up, I'm GOING to be a rockstar.That's about all I can think of right now.
Mortar in the Pool
Orders for Najaf
This was sent about a year to the day that 2/3 deployed.
we're on our way to Najaf in the next 72 hours. Our unit, which has been here the past year (one year, 2 hours and 25 minutes as of now), will now deploy to one of Iraq's 3 hot spots to continue to die for Iraq.
This isn't the life for me.
This life is killing me.
2/3 has been in Iraq for a year now. They expect to be gone at least another two months. After seeing this war firsthand, I don't have any easy answers. In fact, I may have no answers. With each trip to Iraq, my opinions have become dulled--it's all become personal. When I watch the news, I think of people I know in Baghdad. I think of the families I've had dinner with, the friends that I've drank endless cups of tea with and the soldiers that I've rolled with. I worry about all of them. During the last year, if anything, I've learned that war isn't what most of us think it is: it has nothing to do with what most of us know and it's definitely not what you see on the news.
I've asked soldiers what they think about the war and their answers are surprisingly simple. After a year, the war isn't about WMDs, democracy, Donald Rumsfeld or oil. It's about them. Simple. They just want to finish the job they were sent to do so they can go home.