Journalist  After 18 years as a journalist, my career has officially come to an end. Last night I completed and filed my final writing assignment. It's a bittersweet ending to my career. It's had its ups and downs, but for the most part I've certainly enjoyed my life as a newspaperman. I began my career as an editorial assistant at a local hometown newspaper..the paper folded (bankrupt) just 3 months after I was hired!  That should have been an omen because as we all know now, the entire media industry has been in a downward spiral for years. But later I got an internship and full-time job at The Washington Times, then USA Weekend and finally USA TODAY, where I worked in a variety of roles including entertainment reporter (read: celebrity gossip), London correspondent and  war correspondent in Iraq & Afghanistan. Then later as a self-employed freelance writer, I got to globe-trek as a travel writer for Lonely Planet. It's been a fun, whirl-wind adventure. But, it's time to move on. Until the next chapter...

Top 10 things you didn't know about my journalism career

1. I once took a leak next to Paul McCartney in London's High Court.

2. I survived a suicide bomb attack in Iraq in 2005. I've been to Iraq nine times; eight of those trips were for USA TODAY and one was on assignment for Lonely Planet.

3. Art Garfunkel's wife kissed me in the Kennedy Center.

4. Pamela Anderson and Busta Rhymes were the most surprisingly intelligent and interesting celebrities I've interviewed.

5. I interviewed Julie Christie in an East London pub. She had a salad and tea and I had a pint of beer. She rode to the interview in a rusty old bicycle. 

6. I once got lost in the back woods of Iowa with Sen. John Kerry's daughters.

7. Despite my Army background, I was embedded with the Navy during the start of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. I have more aircraft carrier 'cats & traps" (catapult landings & launches) that most career sailors on such carriers as the USS Enterprise and USS Roosevelt.

8. As a young Army military journalist stationed in Bosnia, I met my future boss, then First Lady Hillary Clinton. Whilst in Bosnia I also sat on Alex Trebek's lap, met Sheryl Crow and Sinbad and hosted an AOL chat live from the field with The Gin Blossoms. I kept a blog while stationed in Bosnia that some folks claim is the first "milblog" (military blog) on the Internet.

9. Kevin Bacon hand-wrote me a letter to complain about an article I wrote about him. Kevin misspelled "wasted." I framed the letter.

10. I have shaken the hand of every US President since Ronald Reagan, though I have not yet met President Obama.


Eight Lives Left

Originally uploaded by TwoCrabs.

(Warning: extremly graphic descriptions of war and death follows. For more photos, click on the "TwoCrabs" FlickrBlog link)


I nearly bought it today.

It was bound to happen sooner or later. I've survived five tours of Iraq and four tours of Afghanistan as a journalist without a scratch. Not to mention a six-month tour in Bosnia back in my US Army days. Until now, the closest I've come to dying was a few days after the fall of Baghdad when I was caught in the cross-fire of two rival street gangs. My luck ran out this morning.

I was planning on sleeping in today. Friday is the Muslim day of prayer, which means most stores and businesses are closed and folks spend lazy hours with family and friends. However, the powers that be had other plans.

At 8:12 a.m., I was literally blown out of my bed by a powerful explosion that tore through my hotel room like a tornado without mercy. The explosion made a sound I would not want to hear twice in my life. Shards of glass rained down on the bed where I had laid just seconds before.

For a moment, I wasn't quite sure whether I was awake or dreaming, alive or dead. I had barely stood up when my survival instinct kicked in. Suicide bombs are usually followed by a second suicide bomb. I was reaching for my body armour (bullet-proof vest) when the second explosion came not more than 20 seconds after the first bomb. Although less powerful than the first, it caused more damage to our room because of the position of the car bomber. The glass from the balcony doors were blown onto the computer desk where I usually compose my thoughts. Had I been sitting there, I'd be in a world of hurt. But the worse damage occured in my colleague's bedroom. The entire belcony door, glass and door frame were ripped off the wall and landed on his bed. Luckily, he was out of town today otherwise he would surely be dead, or at least seriously injured.

Funny things happen when you're gripped with terror. The sane reaction would be to get the hell out of there any way you can. My first reaction was to calmly change out of my pajamas and into my street clothes, use the toilet, brush my teeth, don my body armour and to grab my camera, notebook and pen. The whole process took me maybe 90 seconds. I was about to walk out when two armed security guards broke down and yanked me out of the room.

I made my way to the rally point and sat on the floor with a half-dozen other people, still wondering: is this happening? No way.

I kept replaying a line from Full Metal Jacket:

Animal Mother: "Are you some sort of reporter?"
Joker Man: "No. I'm a combat correspondent"
Animal Mother: "Oh. You seen much, COMBAT?"
Joker Man: "Well, I've seen a little on TV!"

I've seen plenty of suicide bombs on television news. I've also covered the aftermath of many bombs. But never been in the windtunnel myself.  After a few minutes I stumbled downstairs. The warmth of the Middle East sun was pouring through the now open-aired lobby. Pipes, cables, ceiling tiles and other bits of building were everywhere. There was a trail of blood leading outside, which I followed toward the exit.

The first thing was a leg. At least I think it was a leg. It was a piece of human flesh but I couldn't quite make out what it had been. Then I noticed another body part. A piece of hair. A tooth. A colleague later told me he saw a penis and an elbow but I luckily missed those sights.

The car bombs had hit a block away from our hotel. The first car bomb's mission was to destroy the blast wall that surrounded the perimeter of our compound. The second car bomber was to follow through the hole punched by the first bomber, and then detonate his explosives directly in front of the hotel. Can you say Oklahoma City?  But as usual, the bombers fucked up. The first bomb was too poweful, if there is suck a thing. The bomb left a huge crater and debris field in the road that the second bomber was unable to enter the compound, so he blew himself up right there at the gate.

Random thought: Palm trees smell really good when they are on fire, like roasting chestnuts. Human flesh smells like ground beef that has been left out in the hot summer sun for three days.

A woman wailed, hitting her own head and screaming uncontrollably. A U.S. soldier helped bandage another woman and her son injured by flying debris. Another man told of waking to the ceiling closing in on him.  He was lucky. The apartment building next door was no longer there. Just a 30-foot high pile of rubble stood where two families had lived. U.S. and Iraqi soldiers worked frantically with their bare hands, sifting through the rubble searching for victims.

Death hit close to home. Among the casualties were the family of Salam, the night manager of my hotel.  Salem is a quiet, gentle man; a short, stocky bald guy who reminds me of an Iraqi version of George Costanza who has been a good friend during my repeated visits to Baghdad. On Friday, Salem lost his 19-year-old son, a sister-in-law and a 7-year-old nephew. Dammit.

In the courtyard behind the hotel, the swimming pool was filled with shrapnel and bits of car. A piece of a car bumper landed on my balcony six stories above the pool, a good 100 yards from ground zero.

And then there was the head. The scalp and top-half of a man's face and ear were lying on the patio about a foot away from the pool. An undistinguisable piece of flesh was also nearby.  Later, an Iraq man with a red bag and gloves walked around picking up the bits of body. I watched as he meticulously picked up the pieces, scruitinizing between animal, plant, vegetable. But for some reason, he did not touch the head. He looked at it. He poked at it. But left it in its place as if some priceless artifact.

For the survivors, life goes on. I still had to work, write, shoot and file. I attended a meeting on our security situation. And I called home about 10 times during the course of the day. My editor asks me if I want to pull out of Iraq tomorrow. Nah. I think I'll stick around for a few days and help rebuild this place. Somebody fucking has to.  But I'll be home soon, inshallah.

Love, me