Ernesto Preps

Track Ernesto
Video: On the Gas Line

August, 28, 2006 2:20 p.m.

I took a step towards the camera, then stopped.

"Thought about it," RM said, then bent to pick up his camera. With some guys you never touch their cameras.

First stop was a gas station line. All I had to do was make sure no one hit him. I found myself standing there, grinning. No vest, no rifles, no sand, no furrowed brow, no security, no IEDs. Just people not happy about a two block gas line.

On the drive to the water there was a Starbucks on the left. We stopped. I asked for a venti iced coffee. The man apologized that there were no venti cups for iced coffee. I could have a tall or a grande.

"How about if I had it in a hot coffee venti cup?" I asked.

"No," he said, "the cold could warp the cup. It would be a disaster. I can't do that."

"OK," I said, smiling.

August 16, 2006 1:43 a.m.

Did a radio report today with Iowa. Talked to a nice man about the war for 20 minutes. No fancy questions, just about what's going on there.

I walked to the gate of the building where I lived. I did not like standing near the gate too long. I did not stick my head out to look down the road. I could not open the gate and walk down the road. After a few minutes, I walked back in the house.

In the Stryker vehicle the day before, there were two hatches in the back. Security told me it was safest to remain inside the vehicle, and that it was most dangerous to remain outside the vehicle. Sometimes there were suicide car bombers driving around just looking for a target.

It got cramped in an armored vehicle all day, with nothing to see. Gunners stood up in the two portholes in the back. When they left the vehicle, I moved to the back to stand up.

I was just over roof-level for most of the houses. It was a poor section of Baghdad, with houses piled on top of the other. Some of the roofs were made from mesh mats, with rocks piled on top of each other. They were the kind of roofs you could build with your hands in an hour.

Different colored electrical wires zigzagged from a maze of poles. Sometimes, the armored vehicles caught the wires. After a while, I had to stand up. I went back to the gunner's hole and popped out.

The sky was blue, it was sunny, and it was hot. I tried to keep my head below the metal. If I spread my legs, my head was not very exposed. I looked in each direction for someone pointing an RPG launcher or a rifle. It would be quite a shot, but why expose yourself just to get some sun and just to stretch your legs?

A tiny girl stood in front of one of the shacks. She looked up and saw my head poke out of the gunner's hole. I looked at her and she smiled and waved the way some little kids wave — by opening and closing her fingers in a fist. I waved to her and smiled, then thought it was time to pop back down the hole.

August 15, 2006 4:31 p.m.
Taji, Iraq
Indispensable Stryker

I thought it was the moon, but maybe it was the sun. Then I decided it was the moon. I was carrying a Styrofoam dinner for P. Rudden — ribs, mac and cheese, sweet potatoes, pecan pie and a Coke. I needed a second container for the pecan pie.

We had arrived at Taji the night before at 11 p.m. The colonel had worked all through the night before. The mission was going to start at 3:45 a.m. They gave us two bunks in a room of twenty, one lower, one upper, where people were already asleep. I looked at P. Rudden.

Someone tapped me on the shoulder at 2 a.m. I heard someone get up from a bunk in the dark and sing, quietly and slowly, "Beverly Hills...that'"

Strykers hit 600 IEDs in Mosul and only one guy, who was outside the vehicle, got killed.

I saw guys with coffee, and found the percolator. There was sugar, but no milk. I had three Styrofoam cups, each with three sugars.

Korn was playing outside on a distorted speaker. The song was a repetition of a phrase.

For the first part of the drive into Baghdad, I watched one of the screens in front. You could see the vehicle in front of us. I was watching to see if it blew up.

August 14, 2006 10:20 p.m.


"Where you from?"

"South Africa."

"Oh yeah? Who owns that now?"


"They don't let you kill anybody anymore."

"How many people did you kill?"

"Just one."


"That was the 14th time I was blown up by an I.E.D."


Don't know where we are going, don't know when we leave. A First Sergeant asked who wanted dinner. You never turned down food. I knew where they kept the Gatorade. I squatted down and put a warm, green one in and pulled out a purple Frost. Frost is the best Gatorade.

"Good, good." Another sergeant was standing behind me and saw me make the replacement move. The military was very big on if you take one out, replace one, and this guy was happy to see a civilian do it.

We were led into a warm room with ten other journalists already there. If they were taking this many of us, they must be up to something. A lot of print guys had Macs on their laps. Print guys would not know what to do if they were not typing. Some people were going out on Strykers, an eight-wheeled armored vehicle, others were going out on tanks or Bradleys. There followed a brief conversation where several journalists discussed the merits of each armored vehicle... which one had more room, which one had air conditioning. Part of the intent was to show everyone else in the room how many different vehicles you had ridden in. No one mentioned seven ton trucks. No one mentioned Cougars. No one mentioned that their gunner's head got blown off and no one could get to the Bradley to save him because he was already dead. No one talked about curling up and waiting for morning. They typed on their Macs and stroked their beards.

There was a smell of slightly-burned microwave popcorn in the room.

August 7, 2006 10:20 p.m.
BaghdadBarbershop Attack

I used to get my hair cut in a place called Frank's. There were three chairs, mirrors, and magazines. There were lollipops for kids, and a striped pole out front.

After Frank's disappeared, I went to Central. My uncle went to Central and the barber could tell I was a Harrigan by my head. He always asked if I was my uncle's son or my father's son. My father never liked anyone asking about his business, so whenever I got a haircut I always told him the barber was asking about him.

There was music, rhythmic clipping, and nothing to do but stare straight ahead into the mirror until your eyes closed. It was then that the cape was removed, your neck was brushed, and you rubbed the back of your head with your hand and felt the new edge.

A barbershop got attacked today in Baghdad. Four men were inside, waiting for haircuts. Two cars pulled up and fired automatic rifles. All four men, plus the owner, were killed.

August 4, 2006 12:02 p.m.

"How's Fallujah?"

"Two guys got killed this morning."



"We had mortars here this morning. I heard the two sounds — I thought it was them landing, then I heard the whistle and bam, bam."

"Where, in here?"

"Yeah, about six in the morning. I was outside the gate having a smoke."

August 3, 2006 12:43 p.m.
Fallujah Turnaround

There are four big-screen TVs in chow. Two on one end are sports, usually baseball; two on the other end are news. When we come through the line P. Rudden usually asks, "Sports or news?" although he always wants news, because he does not understand baseball.

The lunch news is usually a stock report, but after that Nightline was going to be on. I decided to stay and watch the headlines to learn what was the most important thing in the world last night.

I lost P. Rudden in the crowd and sat by myself at the edge of a long table. The audio was not good, so I sat at the table right in front of the screen. A Marine sat in the chair on my left. He had his rifle over his shoulder.

I was going with spag and balls, very soothing. There is a pasta line always open, so if you don't like the mains, you can get spag and balls. I had it twice yesterday. The pasta line could use some re-thinking. The sauce and balls come before the spag, so most people have to move through the line backwards, except for one very polite female Marine, who today got her spag, then got back in line for the sauce. The large spoons to ladle the sauce and balls also get quite hot. Sometimes I use a stack of napkins to hold them. There are suggestion slips on the table for improvement and I filed one under P Rudden about the spoons, but have yet to see its impact.

The Marine on my left reached carefully for a paper container of salt. I moved the plastic wrapper from my plastic utensils out of the way.

Here it was, the headlines. I had finished my spag and balls, but decided to watch. The Marine on my left was using his toothpick. I remembered there was a toothpick with the plastic utensils, and found mine, and put it to work.

Today's lead story is about U.S. soldiers murdering Iraqi civilians. The report promised to ask the question, “Were they ordered to do so?” in an exclusive interview with one of the soldiers from his jail cell in Iraq.

I kept looking straight ahead at the screen. Without moving my head, I looked left a little to see the Marine. He had his hands together, two thumbs under his chin, and two index fingers along the sides of his nose. Without moving his head, I saw his eyes move for a moment to the right, to see me looking at him.

July 30, 2006 10:26 p.m.
Fallujah Fighters

A 155 mm howitzer is a gun so big, that when it goes off near you it's like getting hit in the chest. You better have earplugs and cover your ears. Then it's like someone blew a fistful of gunpowder in your face. You can taste it while you wait for the air to clear.

The Marines that man the guns live out next to them for two weeks straight. They just got air conditioning. The wooden bunks are hand-built. A convoy of new arrivals just came in.

"Quiet ride?" I asked.

There was a pause.

"How many," I asked.

"Two," he said. "My vehicle hit one — the sergeant was shaken up pretty good."

"Do you travel much on the ground?" he asked me.

"I try and stay in the air whenever I can," I said.

They were firing illumination rounds that went about ten miles away in about a minute. You could see them hang in the sky. They lit up part of a highway. The goal was to light it, so terrorists would not plant bombs underneath the road and blow up the convoys on their way in.

"Have you been following the new soldiers getting sent to Baghdad?" he asked me.

"Yeah," I said. "Some of those guys have gotten extended."

"Some of them have already gone home. Then they get the call to report immediately — they are going back to Baghdad. Next year some of the Marines here will be on their fifth tour."

"How long is a tour?"

"Seven months. Seven months here, then seven months home, then back again."

July 28, 2006 2:09 p.m.

"How much longer you got left?"

"Eight days."

"Eight days. Damn. You better be careful."

"Yeah. I was running last night near the wall and there was a flash — I thought it was lightning, but there were no clouds. Then, a mortar hit just outside the wall."

"You better stick to the treadmill."

"Yeah, this guy in Psy Ops in Ramadi — he had two days left. He goes out on a patrol and gets shot in the back."

July 27, 2006 10:15 a.m.

Among all the ugly acronyms and euphemisms in military speak like FOB and PAO and incoming, there is one word that rolls out of the mouth with pleasure, untouched from war to war: chow.

And of all the uses of the word chow, the best, in my opinion, is midnight chow.

Midnight chow is not because you're hungry. Midnight chow is cause it's there. And you're up.

Back in Karbala, when the First AD would take us on real fights, Ed Wong was a regular at midnight chow. Four in a container and around 11 p.m. he'd start to say, "Let's go to midnight chow."

Of course it's best to go to midnight chow with a friend. Last night I went alone. I even got there early — about 11:28, and in the dark I noticed a long line of Marines sitting on a wooden bench. You couldn't really see their faces clearly. They were here early, waiting silently in the darkness for the same thing I was, midnight chow.

Midnight chow is often for people who work overnight shifts — guard duty. One guy will go with a box and a list and start filling it with circular, single-serving boxes of Cheerios.

But for me midnight chow is the journey. The same 500-yard trek through the dust and heat is different at midnight, when you can't see anything. Once through the doors the bright fluorescent lights and air conditioner hit. It is day again, order, lines and servings. It might be night in your bunk, dark, alone, but here it is all like it always is in the daytime. It is a visit to the day in the middle of the night, when you need it.

And the food doesn't hurt. You can eat anything you want at midnight chow. You can eat breakfast or you can eat dinner. You can get eggs with bacon and with sausage links and two home fried patties. You can wrap an extra home fries in two napkins so the grease soaks through and you can slip it in your pants pocket and throw it to the guy in your bunk when you get back, a treat from midnight chow, which he will wake up to eat in silence, groggy, with gratitude.

The air conditioners blow and the TVs roar and you can't hear incoming and it's not crowded or fast, walking people in a rush to go somewhere. Cleaning is going on and only half the cafeteria is open and loners sit at full, empty tables by themselves. You put your tray at a long empty table with a good view of yesterday's baseball game right under a blower... and after the eggs, sausage, and cherry pie you go back out into the night a little calmer and walk slowly home.

July 25, 2006 10:12 a.m.
Fallujah, Iraq

There's a big difference looking at these Iraqi soldiers, as compared to the ones we saw last winter. They walk differently, with much more confidence. The ones we saw last winter were new recruits.When the Iraqi base in Fallujah came under fire this week, the Iraqi soldiers ran back to the base to defend it. They were running to the battle.

I went off the main chow line because 130 degrees Fahrenheit is too hot for fried chicken. Instead, I went to the pasta bar. The midnight chow, also a staple here, begins at 11:30 p.m. It's scrambled eggs, sausage, cherry pie, and lots of iced tea to stay awake.

There was a large boom last night, and while I was in my bunk I thought to myself, it is far away. The next boom shook my head a little — it must have been outgoing. The next one after that shook the bunk and it made a squeak. I said, "Oh F" aloud, but softly. Then, I thought about waking Rudden, who can sleep through anything. After the next boom, I said, “Pete,” but he kept sleeping.

I looked up through the darkness and imagined all the possible places the mortars could hit, but then I turned in bed and changed the subject. After a hotel got hit in Baghdad, little Raf said that one night he just stared at the ceiling waiting — and he's not a good sleeper to begin with. If you go down that road you could end up like Triple R, sleeping in the tub with a mattress on top of you. 15 booms later, I realized they were outgoing — steady outgoing — hitting somewhere out there in the dark.

July 23, 2006 3:16 p.m.
Fallujah, Iraq

I got on an elliptical machine in the gym. There were five across — three silver and two black. The two black ones were occupied; they must be better for some reason. The Tyra Banks Show was on the Armed Forces Network on a big screen in front.

There was a large boom off to my left.

It may have been a controlled detonation, which is when the military regularly destroys captured explosives. It usually happens at the top of the hour, and it usually happens in the daylight. It may have been outgoing artillery; no cause for alarm. Or it may have been incoming. I glanced left.

The woman on the elliptical was not looking around, nor was the guy on my right, who had iPod headphones on. No one seemed to sense anything out of the ordinary, so I kept running. A few seconds later, there was another boom. It was hard to tell just what it was over the sounds of the machines and The Tyra Banks Show.

The Tyra Banks Show was following the standard format of choosing a model — all the models come up and one gets rejected in front of everyone.

There was another boom.

Each of the models had to act out one line that said, "If I don't get it, I will die."


I looked at the elliptical counter. In seven minutes, there had been 11 explosions. I always counted them. People took large bottles of water from a fridge and put in warm ones. "If you take one out, put one in," the sign read.


"If I don't get it, I will die." The models were not convincing. Their black and white still photos looked good, but when they had to talk it all disappeared. They were nowhere near being able to say, "If I don't get it, I will die." Not like that Korean hostage they killed. They had him plead on the air first.

I found the PX and realized I had been there a year ago. When I was inside, I remembered there was a mortar attack and everybody paused for a second in the fluorescent air-conditioned world, then went back to shopping. I walked by a building where I remembered taking cover during another mortar attack. I got between two concrete walls of the building, away from the glass, squatting down as low as I could go, until the lieutenant who was escorting me came and found me. That attack had killed one man in the camp.

A year or two ago, when you embedded, you (maybe) got a green cot that you had to put together to sleep on out in the hallway of a palace. Maybe you had a fan, if your producer didn't point it towards himself after you fell asleep, and in the morning you sweated through the green cot. Now there were containers, trailers with air-conditioning, and bunk beds. There were high-speed Internet connections. But at night, when you went to bed there were still explosions. They were off in the distance.

E-mail Harrigan

Hi Steve,

I returned from duty with the Marines at Fallujah in April and remember the 198s firing over our headquarter building in the afternoons. Every time I would go outside just to hear the boom and then crack as the shells went overhead. They made the most amazing sounds depending on the atmospherics and the firing direction. At night, I would observe the illumination rounds light up the sky. I got the chance to get a tour of the battery area and observe how the crews went about their duties and learn about their procedures and the guns.

Keep up the good work.

CDR Patterson
Dallas, Texas

Mr. Harrigan,

Thank you for writing about the daily life in Fallujah. My brother is a sergeant there, and he directed me to your blog. You give me some sliver of an idea of what my brother sees, hears, and eats during the day. This is priceless information for those of us with loved ones there.


Mr. Harrigan,

I just want to say bravo. You give the straight scoop with unbiased reporting. I was in the first Gulf War, and that doesn't hold a candle to what's going on now. My brother is on his fourth tour their now, and we couldn't be prouder of him, and all the men, and women in country. It's great to hear that the Iraqi soldiers are taking more of a lead role, and that the training is starting to pay off, albeit a little slow, but it's starting to build. I pray things get better in Iraq, for everyone. In the meantime Steve, keep your corners checked, stay away from walls, and help keep our boys safe.


Hi Steve,

I returned from duty with the Marines at Fallujah in April and remember the 198's firing over our HQ building in the afternoons. Every time I would go outside just to hear the boom and then crack as the shells went overhead. They made the most amazing sounds depending on the atmospherics and the firing direction. At night I would observe the illumination rounds light up the sky. I got the chance to get a tour of the battery area and observe how the crews went about their duties and learn about their procedures and the guns.

Keep up the good work.

CDR Patterson
Dallas, Texas

Thank you for the job you are doing. You have the touch, the ability to make it seem real to those who have never been there, and to bring into focus, once again, the memories of those who have. Other times, other places, other wars — keep it up, and be safe.


Your story on midnight meals brought back memories of Marines gathering to talk of what had happened on their watch, or of what to expect on the oncoming shift. Happy men going off or tired men just going on shift. It may not have been the greatest meal, but it was the one most looked forward to. Eggs, SOS, and large glass of milk what a combination. Only that was a time when the military was not as appreciated as they are now. Anyway thanks for the memories, God bless our troops and God bless the cooks.

Steve B.
Fort Wayne, Indiana


Thanks for being there and bringing a 'bird's eye view' of all that is going on with the unit you are embedded with. It helps folks at home get a firmer grasp of the environment of the 'grunt' in the field. It is a dangerous and grinding assignment, as much for you as for the average trooper in Iraq or Afghanistan. Stay safe. Please pass on to the soldiers in the sandbox with you that they are neither forgotten, nor unappreciated. No matter what the anti-war types might say, we are behind them, and the reporters who bring their stories home 100 percent. Remember the motto of the Corps: Semper Fi. Tell the truth as you see it.

Eden, New York

Just say thank you to the troops.


Dear Mr. Harrigan,

Reading your post regarding the 155 mm, I had a flashback to my own time as a red leg. With some fondness, I can still smell the distinct odor of cordite pervading the air after each fire mission. (Many artillerymen, both current and former, learn to appreciate the smell of cordite. After all, it is ubiquitous to the artillery operation.) As to the noise (it can be considerable), suggest that you stay up range and away from the flanks of the howitzers. Besides being hazardous to your health (although uncommon, rounds have been known to explode directly after arming. Not good if you are only 100 meters down range!), the audible report to a person closely located down range is far more noisy than that experienced up range or to the gun's flank). Stick around the guns long enough and you will learn to anticipate when to put your fingers in your ears. Suggest that, when given the opportunity, you visit a good audiologist and have ear impressions created for you and hearing protection made. Properly sized, they will filter out much of the noise while allowing you to talk to your co-workers.

Greg E.
Brea, California

I read your voices from the front, it took me back to 1965 — another place a different war. If you had said mud instead of sand it could have been the same war and the year 1965. I guess nothing changes but the years.

Army veteran
Orland, California

Hello Mr. Harrigan,

Thank you so much for your report on the training of Iraqi soldiers — fighting in Fallujah (Video: Fallujah Turnaround). The report was viewed on the Brit Humes Special Report July 27. It was nice to see and hear some positive news from Iraq about how the Iraqi soldiers are now starting to fight the enemy of their country with the help and training from the U. S. Marines. One the U. S. Marines you interviewed for that report was my nephew. His father, grandmother and I watch the report and were so proud of him and his positive contributions in helping the Iraqi people.


Your midnight chow story reminds me of a calmer era when I was a rifle platoon leader in the reserves (peace time). We would perform many night missions that would not allow for scheduled chow times. Although there was always a mess area set up near the TOC, the training mission always was completed first. Then at some time during the late ours of night or the early hours of the morning, all the grunts would eventually slither back to the rear with a nice coating of mud, grass, bugs and general filth on themselves and their BDUs.

For some reason, midnight chow in the field induced a special, warm feeling; even if you have to pluck a couple bugs out of your potatoes or chase your rain-soaked, floating eggs around your plate with a spoon. All of the sudden, we were more than happy-if not committed, to lowering our culinary standards and normal dining decency and etiquette.

Has this been the case with you, Steve?

I cried today when I read your blog. I am not sure why. Most likely, though, it was the thought of all those soldiers, sitting alone at the long wooden tables. Your description of such a simple event just seemed to bring it all into focus for me - these men and women are not just soldiers. They are someone’s son or daughter, husband or wife, father or mother. And they are there, instead of at home with their loved ones, because they care about this Nation, about me and about my family and for that, I am truly grateful. If you get the chance, please let them know how much their sacrifices are appreciated and that I pray for them every day.

Science Hill, Kentucky

I really appreciate the information you are sharing about what is going on in Iraq and Fallujah in particular. My son is a USMC Lance Corporal in Fallujah (Steve Brown). We don't get to talk very often and we really didn't know what the living conditions truly were. Reading about midnight chow and knowing he has difficulty sleeping easily explains how he has gained 20 lbs since he has been there.

God Bless you and keep up the good work. We appreciate it.



How different it is; midnight chow in the middle of Iraq vs. the midnight buffet in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on a cruise ship. The first is considered a privilege, an escape from the drudgery, fear, and loneliness of war. The latter, a bunch of overweight Americans who take it as a right of their fare payment. I'll never sit at a midnight buffet on a cruise ship again and not think of our soldiers who take this blessing of a late night meal to heart, and I'll sit there and stuff my face with crab and shrimp and give them thanks and prayers for allowing me to live in peace and comfort, even in the middle of the ocean. Thanks Steve for your wonderful reporting on the day-to-day life of soldiers and reporters across the world. Make sure you make that 500 yard walk back a little quicker.

Morgan Hill, CA

I think I have become addicted to your blog. You have a job I once would have done anything to obtain, now I am not so sure. I have watched numerous friends leave to Iraq, I sent a husband away and in return got an ex-husband. Now I prepare to send a young brother to Baghdad. Your blog gives me a sense of reality about a land that seems so distant and hard to comprehend. When I read it I can see it and if I can see it, everything becomes easier to understand in my heart.

Anchorage, AK


After I wake up my computer in the morning and give the news a quick read - the next click is to your blog. This is very much a war I still care about - it's true there are more explosions somewhere else right now but if you believe like I do that it's all the same war - then you just see the current battle as a different front - not a different war.

I am fascinated by your ability to bring us the mundane ( silence, candy bars, bathroom locations, elliptical machines) juxtaposed in an realistically awkward way with the world changing that's going on at the very same time. Between the lines I believe there is a great deal more - and I anticipate the book you should be prepared to publish someday.

The world still cares about this war - no matter where it is being fought. Please keep bringing us the experiences from your front. And if it's safest in a bathtub - under a mattress - then by all means - find a tub! The war wouldn't be the same without your perspective!


Dear Steve,

Your Iraq blogs are great. Your writings have a way of making connections from the real world to our hearts.

Amy from South Carolina

Hi Steve,

Should have read your blog before. Glad to hear you are back in Baghdad. I always enjoyed your no-nonsense reporting.


Mr. Harrigan,

I am a martial arts teacher and have run a summer camp for many years with our karate kids. This past summer I was reading to the children stories about people all different ages and professions who are martial artists and there you were! I told the kids they should look for you on Fox News and several told me they saw you during the hurricane coverage last month. (we here in Vero Beach are ALWAYS watching hurricane news after being hit dead on by 2 of them last year) It is interesting how they now like to keep track of you because you are interested in something they are interested in! Thanks for being an "Everyday Warrior" and for helping me teach the next generation through your reporting and the martial arts!

Cathy, 4th Dan
Vero Beach Karate Association

Dear Steve,

Your point of view is unique and enlightening, without dramatic hyperbole. Events speak for
themselves, you provide the insight of being there. I'll continue to read your reports now that I have found them.

Vicki and Gary K.

Steve, you are amazing and awesome. I can't wait to read your blogs each morning. Whether at home or away, you write with such human are a credit to us all.

Spring, Texas