Staff Sgt. Joe Cox, an avowed shutterbug, still believes in the power of a single picture.
“It's amazing what happens when someone decides to show the other side of the war,” he said from his front porch in Dallas, Texas.
Cox is safe in the U.S., back from his second tour in Iraq and now based at Fort Polk, La.
But when FOX News last talked to him on Memorial Day 2008, he was in constant danger.
Then, he was using his camera to change Iraq — one picture at a time — as his 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry regiment patrolled the blown-up towns of Diyala province.
“We've been told by families that they said, 'Stay away from the Americans, they're going to kill you, they're going to rape your women, kill your kids, you'll never see them again,'" Cox said. “At times it's taken us weeks to get over that fear.”
Getting a picture was a two-step process, and Iraqi kids were apparently a quick study. They posed, and then Cox printed out each picture back at base to take back on their next patrol.
“You go into houses you may see one or two old pictures per house. I took a photo of a gentleman and his family and that may be the only family picture they have.”
Most of Cox’s pictures were taken from the Stryker vehicle because, he said, it was too dangerous to be down on the street. “Most of these are mounted. Once I'm on the ground, game off on the pictures, you're fully exposed.”
But on Jan. 9, 2008, it was not him, but six of his buddies that were fully exposed in Sinsil, Iraq.
“They had been led into a house that was rigged to blow," he said. "They got the guys in the house. Someone stepped on what they call a 'crush wire' and it detonated, killing six of them instantly.”
"These guys had pick axes and bottle jacks that we used to change tires trying to get the roof off these guys," he said. "Sgt. Weeren, who had just been blown up, who had just dug all these people out, he looked, he saw the guy, grabbed his rifle, ran and chased thsi guy down the street and detained him."
Cox, pausing before he could continue, said: "To lose those six, not just six guys at once, but those six guys it took us months to recover.”
Cox’s buddies were SFC Matthew Pionk, SSG Sean Gaul, SSG Jonathan Dozier, Sgt. Christopher Sanders, Sgt. Zachary McBride, Cpl Todd Davis and their teenage Iraqi interpreter — who they simply called “Roy.”
Carl Dozier's son Jonathan was among those who died in seconds. When Cox's story aired on FOX News last Memorial Day, Dozier just happened to be watching.
“To me it was an awesome tribute, “ Dozier told FOX News at the family home in Chesapeake, Va. “I just went on and kept Googling for the report and found it on FOX. And then Catherine [Herridge] had a blog where people could send in comments. So I thanked her and I thanked Joe."
Cox also went to the FOX story online and was overwhelmed by the hundreds of comments supporting their mission. It was through the FOX piece, and the comments, that Cox became friends with the families of his buddies crushed in the house.
“After it ran, every chance I'd get I would go look on there because of all the comments it was getting," he said. "I started noticing Duane Pionk, Matthew's father. Sue Davis, Todd Davis's aunt. Carl Dozier was making comments — also Sgt McBride's mom."
When asked what it meant to have a connection to all those people now, Cox simply replied: “You didn't lose as much. I may have lost Matt Pionk but I found a friend in Duane Pionk and same with Carl Dozier. I don't know what it means to them. It gives us a piece back of them back.”
Cox minimizes his own brush with death. Last september, his Stryker was hit by an IED. He had a severe head injury, which still leaves him with some short-term memory problems.
Cox doesn't linger on the bad things, but concentrates on how he contributed to peace and reconciliation, by using his camera.
He said the pictures helped him build bridges. “It kind of broke the ice, now they'll go out and act silly and do stuff just to get their picture taken,” he said.
During his 27 months in Iraq, over a four-year period, Cox captured everything — the violence and the innocence — which included 7-year-old Iraqi girls herding cattle. Cox said these kids have nothing.
“My guys and I discuss it a lot. I see it on a daily basis, 7-year-old girls herding cattle. At times I think, you know, this may be the only happy period in this poor child's life.“
Every time he picks up his camera now, Cox honors the seven sons lost on that January day — six Americans and one Iraqi.
“By making him my friend (referring to the Iraqis) have I not destroyed my enemy?” Cox said.