Iraq in Black & White : Photos/Essay by Michael Ortiz


Cheers to The Valiant Dead

A cold, unyielding and paralyzing fear can trickle down your neck and engulf your spine to overwhelm you with indecision and internal chaos. It is the actions you take at this point that portray you in that unflattering light most of us avoid. These choices and the people you affect are the only memories you can hope to take with you when you pass. How you react to this fear is undetermined, so you have to own it and seed a positive experience. For me, losing the people I love is terrifying, and in combat, losing my friends by an unseen enemy can unsettle an anger in me with a gullet forever parched and longing. My transgressions and accomplishments used to be the only aspects of myself I would address whenever I felt introspective. As I continue on to these devastating brushes with fear, I can only watch as I change for the better, or worse.

The first time I came home from a long absence, I noticed that the smells had changed and the colors seemed more vivid. After I had enough rest, I realized; I was the one who had changed and seemed dull. Nothing would ever taste quite the same and sounds would never carry the same depth as they used to. In November; I had returned home from fifteen months of hell on earth, feet sore, skin worn, and emotion misplaced. It was cold in Kentucky when we landed. Fort Campbell never looked so gloomily beautiful. I was tired and starving, yet in seconds, my tears welled up and the scorched soles of my feet rushed me over to my overwrought mother. I knew the son she once sent away never came home per se, instead I did, a shell of a man. I always wondered how hard I would have laughed if she asked, “ How did it go?” “Did you have fun?” As we drove away to annihilate the first Big Mac we spotted, I looked back at the airplane that brought me home, full of sand-covered seats, wishing we could have left this new “me” behind. It was just the rush of enjoyment and relief that harbored my pain. I never fully understood how much the extra recognitive baggage I carried with me weighed.

It is too easy to slump into a deep dejection from this experience, but not fair to the friends I made and the good times I had, even with those who never made it home. There was Steven Christofferson, a small, determined man and a good friend. Then there was Adam Kohlhaas, my best friend, nothing more and never less. Both Steven and Adam were killed in action during an attack in northern Iraq on a dusty April morning. Sorry, it seems too easy to focus on the affliction. Every time I try to forget, I remember Steven’s mangled body, or Adam’s fading breath as we hopelessly struggled to revive him. I thought that in the moments after the helicopters snatched them from us it would be done with and I would never feel this gaping, deep and painful sadness. Fear had an effect on me that I could not recognize right away. I always had too much pride to allow proper sensibility. When this much emotion needed to be processed, I just filed it away with the lesser of my issues, like not shaving or leaving the toilet seat up. I have had my entire life to create a void in my subconscious. Now I have these calamitous memories to repress and with great success… at first, I did.

Lo and behold, I could not help but feel guilt and remorse, anger and sadness whenever I relive that day, even now. You see, that day started off innocently enough, although it never entirely ended for some of us. We had a mission in a nearly desolate sector of the desert to clean house and simmer down any potential threats to the safety of allied military forces in our area. Naturally, none of us really cared about some crude village full of goats and dried up farmland. However, there was always that chance we might see some action and that always seemed to get our blood pumping something fierce. So we suited up and strapped down to drive out south to this barren oasis. We arrived early in the day to find some questionable males attempting to elude us in our stealthy 17-ton armored vehicles, so we swiftly questioned and detained them. With “enemies of the state” in our trucks and the rest of the day ahead of us, we headed east toward the main road to sneak up on some more goats and small children. Silence, then an explosion with such a force I could not react quickly enough to catch my footing and turn to see that one of our trucks was engulfed in smoke and dust.

There was not even time for a full sentence when I jumped out of the truck and ran toward the dust. Out of the smoke came the driver of the tossed truck, distraught and crying for help, he settled at the rear of another vehicle. I made it to the first body I could see, Steven, and he was the furthest from everything, surrounded by tons of twisted metal and kicked up sand. He rested there, eyes opened, dead and honestly, that is all I really care to recall. Almost immediately I ran into our platoon sergeant, limping out of the smoke and leaning on the truck. It seemed he had been severely wounded on one entire side of his body, so I walked him over to sit and had the driver tend to his wounds. Then I rushed over to help with an interpreter whose calves were torn from his legs. Even our medic, hemorrhaging and fingers broken, still tried to help with the wounded until we had to relocate him to a safer area. I stopped, turned and saw that

Adam was laying about fifteen feet from me; so I rushed over, leaving the interpreter with his handler. I slid my hand under Adam’s head to only feel fragments of sand and blood. All I can really choose to remember is trying to find a sign, if any at all, that he was alive. Adam’s lip would quiver, his chest would rise, and the attack helicopters, that could not land, hovered over us teasing with hope. Never in my life have I ever wanted someone to just say one word to me than when I cradled Adam in my hands. Fear birthed a new value to me that was not worth the cost. Time slowed as we carried him to the helicopter and felt the wind scrape our backs as it took off with the injured, and Adam. Then there was a silence; it was the most painful silence ever heard and I could not scream loud enough to extinguish it. Adam died; Steven was bagged and tagged along with the interpreter. There were ceremonies and condolences whispered. Then we prepared for the next ten months of our deployment. It was fear that created the silence that day. The same fear kept us alive the rest of our time there.

I always assumed good people go to a better place when they die, and the lesser go to some version of hell. Well, I doubt it matters what we do if everyone is going to die at some point, right? If I was going to find a purpose in what men like Adam and Steven died for, maybe I could sleep at night, but even sleepless, I reap this blessing; The fear that once ruled over me subsided and although the memories etch at my heart, it means I get to keep these men alive. Sometimes the hard choices are easy because we ignore the possibility of other options. No one ever “finds themselves,”What you really mean to ask is what it is everyone else wants you to be. “The brave die never, though they sleep in dust, Their courage nerves a thousand living men”. (Minot J. Savage).


Above : Iraqi Child with SGT Adam Kohlhaas and SGT Steven Christofferson – KIA Bayji, Iraq 2008

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One thought on “Iraq in Black & White : Photos/Essay by Michael Ortiz

  1. This was one of the most powerful posts I have ever read. I am so moved and changed on some level after reading this. Thank you for posting this. I am so sorry you have to endure such experiences. Thank you.

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