Iraq Notebook: Mike Tobin

Mike Tobin
Jumping out of helicopters, sleeping in body armor, walking into ambushes...FNC's Mike Tobin risked his life to take us inside Iraq and onto the front lines. FOX Fan Central finds out what being an "embed" is really like:

Watch Mike's reports

You were embedded with the 82nd Airborne. What was the overall feeling among the troops you came in contact with?

The paratroopers seemed to go through highs and lows when I was with them. They were enthused to get "in theatre" and do the jobs for which they are trained.  They were always very eager to execute a mission.  But they would get very frustrated with these people who are planting roadside bombs and ambushing the coalition forces.  In my opinion, the paratroopers believed in the mission.  They believed in helping the Iraqi people stand on their own, free of the Saddam Hussein regime. Then the foreign fighters and Iraqi insurgents make that goal more difficult to achieve by attacking the soldiers. It was very frustrating for them.  Overall, they were a terrific bunch of guys who made a commitment to serve the nation.  They are honoring that commitment.

Tell us about your day-to-day existence on the frontlines in this kind of conflict.

It depends what day you are talking about.  During August, the heat was unbearable. The combination of spending days wrapped in body armor and nights sleeping in a pool of sweat produced the same kind of rash babies get when they are swaddled too tight: prickly heat.  Just about everyone was covered with it. But since everyone was dealing with it at the same time, it never seemed that bad.

 "We in fact were standing on a chain of 10 bombs connected by a detonation cord."

Eventually the nights cooled off a bit and air conditioning units were installed.  Sleeping became a more pleasant experience.  The food is not so bad, especially for people used to bachelor living while at home.  MRE’s (meals ready to eat) are okay, at least during the first month.  They do get a little old after a while.

Some days were filled with nervous anticipation when you know a big mission is coming up.  Some days were very exiting.  Some days, you are stuck waiting for a ride. Some days were long and grueling. I pride myself on being someone who can work long hours and stay functional.  But on one particular raid/reconnaissance mission in Al Yousafiya we had been awake for so long I fell asleep standing up.  A handful of the paratroopers stood back and were watching me wobble and weave until I just toppled over.  When I picked myself up and gained my bearings the guys were having a good laugh at my expense.

There was great camaraderie every day.  The paratroopers of the 82nd, in particular the guys I traveled with, the 1-505 or 1-Panther battalion, they are a fantastic group of guys.  I hope to remain friends with some of them for years to come.

How much did you interact with Iraqi citizens?  What feeling did you get from them?

I interacted with the Iraqi citizens more after I left the 82nd and joined up with the FOX News crew working independently in Baghdad.  The majority of the people from Basrah to Mosul are glad to be rid of Saddam Hussein. In places like Fallujah there are people who prospered under the Baath party at the expense of the average Iraqi.  Those people will always resist the coalition forces because their days on easy street came to an end when the 3rd Infantry entered Baghdad.  Many people, particularly the undereducated Iraqis, are confused.  They thought as soon as the regime was gone they would be free and prosperous.  It is not working as easily as they thought, and some, in their frustration, are joining the resistance.  There are also those who fear that Saddam will stage another comeback.  Those are the people who attack their fellow Iraqis when they co-operate with the coalition.  With that and the foreign fighters you have assorted pockets of resistance.  Still, the insurgents do not outnumber the population of people who simply want to feed their families in a new Iraq.

Your most frightening moment?

Driving in the convoys is always scary, particularly around Fallujah.  The IED (Improvised Explosive Device) problem is quite prevalent.  There is no end to the amount of homemade bombs, which can be manufactured from the stores of old Iraqi munitions, which litter the country. 

On a reconnaissance near Fallujah with a platoon from Bravo company #1-505, the platoon spotted a white truck following us and acting suspicious.  They chased the truck, which turned down a dirt road.  The paratroopers headed off the white truck and detained the driver.  About that time one of the lieutenants noticed some pink detonation cord in the ground.  The paratroopers started investigating and traced the detonation cord to a bomb in the ground.  The explosives ordinance disposal team came out and found that we in fact were standing on a chain of 10 bombs connected by detonation cord.  The whole chain was rigged to a car alarm activator.  The design was made so someone could stand at a remote location punch the keypad activator and detonate all 10 bombs.  It appeared that the driver in the white truck was the bait and we had driven into an ambush.  Possibly the bombs were never detonated because the bomber would have killed the driver of the white truck.  Possibly the chain of bombs proved to be a dud.  Whatever the case, we got lucky and walked away from an ambush and one of the largest IED’s found in Iraq. 

Were there any good days? 

There were fantastic days.  Photographer Joel Fagen and I were taken along on an air assault of a compound belonging to a prominent Sheikh believed to be involved in manufacturing bombs and attacking U.S. forces. It is hard to explain the thrill of jumping out of a Chinook helicopter into combat, but it was one of the most exiting moments of my life.  Joel did a spectacular job of capturing all the action despite the swirling dust in the rotor wash of the helicopter.  The Sheikh captured was a big player in the Baath party. Not only was there a store of weapons in his compound, cash and photographs of the Sheikh with Saddam Hussein, but also he had a store of rice and beans stolen from the World Food Program. That food was meant for starving people; this wealthy Sheikh had horded it for himself. 

It felt good to report on some progress in the war.  I’m grateful to Joel for doing such a fantastic job and very grateful to the paratroopers for taking us along.  There is nothing like reporting right from the heart of the action.

Who were the other members of your newsgathering team and how did they help you get your reports out?

The crew was just Joel Fagen and myself.  We had a lot of high-tech lightweight gear. It has the advantage of being small and portable.  We were able to go live over the videophone but those of you who are broadcast savvy probably can tell now that the picture quality with the videophone is not so terrific. To get broadcast quality pictures home we loaded video into a laptop computer, and at the risk of oversimplification I’ll say we e-mailed it back to New York.  If you have ever seen your computer lock up mailing a single still picture you can appreciate how difficult and slow the process is to mail video over a series of satellites and have it arrive in New York.  Joel was responsible for all of that, in addition to shooting the video.  Joel’s performance in combat was spectacular. I cannot imagine a photographer doing a better job.

I also can’t imagine the reaction from the engineering department when we returned our gear.  It’s loaded with so much dust and grime; I think it weighed more when loaded on the airplane.  With that, let me extend our apologies on behalf of Joel and myself to the fine men and women in the engineering department.  I heard one of our cameras has been retired, or converted into a boat anchor…Sorry.