“I’m sure it was just a mortar,” said a soldier in the front seat.
She hoped he was right; mortars are notoriously inaccurate. But seconds after they climbed out of their vehicles for a 10-mile trek through fields and canals south of Baghdad, the radio crackled, “One K.I.A., three wounded.”
I was with the unit that had been hit, 20 yards or so from the blast. When the cloud of dust cleared, we could see that Sgt. Justin Wisniewski, a brash and funny 22-year-old from Michigan, had stepped on a homemade land mine. From behind dirtied goggles, I could see him lying dead near three bloodied soldiers and a large hole where the bomb had been buried.
A medic and a photographer ran toward them, and I followed, scribbling notes and trying to stay out of the way.
Several soldiers swore and said “I love you” to the wounded. The intensity of it all obscured the risk of another attack. Only after the medevac helicopters began to circle did we realize that the whole field could be mined.
A soldier screamed out a warning. And as we began to walk slowly in each other’s footsteps, leaving a safe distance between us, I started to think about Diana. I needed to contact her, to keep her out of the fields.
Safely on the road, I grabbed a tall soldier with a radio and asked for a favor. “There’s one of our reporters with another squad, and I need to get her out,” I told him.
Sergeant Wisniewski’s unit was heading back to the base, and another squad was preparing to take its place. Humvees and soldiers swirled around us.
“Listen,” I said. “I’m sorry to bother you with this. It’s just that the reporter isn’t just a colleague. She’s also my wife.”
His eyes widened, and he said he’d help. I felt awkward raising the issue. After all, Diana and I had willingly come to Iraq for The New York Times — I’m a reporter, she’s a videographer — and we had agreed to keep our relationship out of our work, especially around soldiers who already had enough to worry about. But I couldn’t help it.
Not that it did any good.
“Sorry,” the soldier said after checking. “They already started walking.”
There are a lot of things Diana and I didn’t know when we came to Iraq at the beginning of last year — that it’s harder to see your spouse at risk than yourself, or that you can grow apart even when you sit 10 feet from each other every day because the work is so consuming.
No one told us either that while the sorrows are deep, the moments of joy are electric. I remember near-narcotic laughter — at a prize-winning reporter reciting songs from “This Is Spinal Tap”; or a photographer cracking ridiculous jokes involving Glocks and cats. It’s a cliché of course, camaraderie in war, but it also rings true, even for husband and wife.
I say “even” because Diana and I went to Iraq unsure of whether this venture would work. We are not, it should be said, the first couple to cover a conflict. Shelley Mydans, a reporter for Life magazine, covered World War II with her husband, the photographer Carl Mydans, and later wrote a novel based on their 21 months in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. Even in Iraq, where the foreign press corps is small, a handful of couples have come through.
But by and large, war correspondence is still a job done by the single, the divorced or those with spouses at home. And in Baghdad, the circumstances are, well, a bit odd. Reporters live communally in guarded compounds, eating together, going out for work and not for fun.
I had spent July and August of 2006 in Iraq without Diana — my first time in the Middle East and in war — and I observed a culture that was part barracks, part fraternity and part ivory tower. Being apart during those first two months in Iraq was difficult, but would traveling and working together be even harder?
During our first week in Baghdad, the explosions arrived with rush hour, waking us every morning. Saddam Hussein had just been executed, and we were already dealing with a few minor surprises. The airline had lost our bags, packed with the pictures, mementos and movies meant to keep us from feeling homesick. Our room was freezing at night and one of the 40 cats in the compound had decided to turn our pillows into a litter box.
Another explosion. January and February, we later learned, would be the worst two months for car bombs in Baghdad since the start of the war in 2003. All I knew then was that I felt responsible for dragging Diana to Iraq; I was determined to keep us calm.
“It’s just mortars,” I told her. In fact, I wasn’t sure about the cause, which Diana could immediately see. “Stop trying to protect me,” she snapped. “Just be honest.”
It was a small squabble we would have repeatedly. For us, the stress of war was as much professional as profound, the fear of failing as gripping at times as the fear of getting hurt. But whether we were facing bombs or deadlines, we were repeatedly slammed against the extremes of each other’s personalities. My complaint was that she became too angry, too frustrated with things she couldn’t control, whether a slow Internet connection or a script that didn’t quite work.
Diana complained that I would isolate myself in what she called “the bubble” and then offer her unsolicited, condescending suggestions. Her anger did not signal a request for solutions, she said, but rather support. “Stop trying to fix it,” she said.
Diana quickly learned to ignore me and threw herself into the work, editing video until sunrise, then heading out onto the streets with other reporters and photographers, who always treated us as individuals and professionals. But particularly early on, I worried that our relationship would curdle if something went wrong. After all, wouldn’t I be the obvious one to blame?
The gunfire started at dawn. We were on Haifa Street, one of Baghdad’s most violent neighborhoods, enduring what the military would describe as a very kinetic operation.
It was my first and worst day of urban combat. But sticking close to the squad and Bob Nickelsberg, a photographer who had been covering wars for decades, I felt oddly calm. Moving from building to building, I managed to trust in what I’d heard my colleagues tell themselves: Everything is O.K. until it’s not. In other words, be careful, but don’t worry too much because the future is out of your control.
Just after 9 a.m., a soldier was shot in the head a wall away from me, while searching a kitchen. Staff Sgt. Hector Leija was the 27-year-old squad leader I had planned to profile, a warm and honest Texan who had kept me safe for the first few hours. And there he was, lying on the floor, barely alive, as his men desperately tried to save him.
As medics rushed in and carried him away on a green stretcher, I remember feeling powerful undirected anger — the kind that would never be relieved by kicking a wall.
The photographer, a half-dozen soldiers and I spent the next several hours sitting in the living room of the abandoned apartment where Sergeant Leija was shot. Then just before noon, we were ordered farther back into the building to protect us from a planned American airstrike. No one seemed particularly worried. But I knew that Diana could hear the battle; Haifa Street is only a few miles from the Times compound. So I sent her the simplest of text messages: “I’m O.K.”
Diana, seeing the message, was relieved but concerned. As she told me later, my “bubble” tendencies meant that I would send a message only if I was in danger.
She spent the rest of the day trying to stay busy as I continued through high rises and hovels with Sergeant Leija’s unit. After dark, his heartbroken unit discovered that he had died. When I returned to the house a day later, I greeted everyone in the bureau with smiles, then retreated to our room where I told Diana what had happened. I knew that I had to get it out by bringing Diana in.
We talked about it all, and, as we would again and again, we recovered through work. We wrote and edited the article and the video, crying at times while trying to show what it meant to be a soldier on one day in a long and difficult war.
After that, I would still occasionally feel guilty for persuading Diana to live in Iraq, but I never again questioned our ability to handle it.
A $5 glass of wine in Amman, New York or Bangkok will never taste as good as it does after two months in Iraq. Food with flavor, a massage, a pool, a bikini, a family having fun, bad television, good music and views without blast walls — these are colossal pleasures after time spent in a war zone.
Like most Western reporters in Iraq, we took breaks between 8- to 10-week rotations. The vacations were necessary and sublime. But they were not all easy. It usually took two weeks to stop thinking that slamming doors were explosions. We also had a hard time letting go of our tension and hyper-awareness. Long lines and inefficient service made our tempers flare.
Repeatedly, we found that frustrations with each other, which we ignored in Iraq, would suddenly spill over into arguments while on break. We had our most dramatic fight over the summer in San Sebastián, Spain, about French fries that I had ordered and she did not want. It was a silly example of miscommunication that turned into a two-hour shouting match that spread from the restaurant to the boardwalk and back to our hotel room.
In my mind, Diana didn’t trust my ability to make good decisions without her input. In her mind, I was an inconsiderate boob who never listened.
It took a couple of days, but in a hotel room in Barcelona, over a leathery steak from room service, we laughed at the fight. It was the kind of thing, we agreed, that belonged in a romantic comedy with Meg Ryan or Sandra Bullock. Or “The O.C.,” the television show we watched at 2 a.m. in Baghdad to unwind.
Khalid Hassan was a big lug of a guy, 23, a lover of trench coats and sappy romantic comedies like “The Lake House.” He had worked as a reporter and interpreter for The New York Times since 2003 and he was a lone constant in a compound of frequent change.
Khalid was the one who traveled with Diana to Arbaeen, the Shiite religious festival in the holy city of Karbala. He was the one who rushed to our bedroom late at night, huffing and puffing up the stairs, to tell us about breaking news.
When he was killed, we were crushed. The details were horrific: on July 13, gunmen in a black Mercedes opened fire on Khalid’s car, wounding him. Then they walked to his window and fired again. The killers were never found, the motives remained murky. As a secular Sunni who worked for an American company, Khalid could have been a target for a number of reasons.
Diana and I were in Spain when we heard, a few days from returning to Baghdad. Going back was the last thing we wanted to do, and yet we could not fathom staying away. We had made a commitment to our bosses, but Khalid’s death made clear that our loyalties had expanded. Diana and I were not just a couple anymore. The bureau had become a quasi family, from the Iraqi guards and drivers who guided us safely through the streets, to the domestic staff and administrators who kept the bureau functioning, to our colleagues — photographers, reporters, security advisers and translators in the newsroom.
Our bonds with Iraqis like Khalid, though, had built-in limits. We were visitors with a sophisticated infrastructure to keep us safe. Khalid went home every night to a neighborhood increasingly at war. Diana and I were together. Our Iraqi colleagues often lived alone, their families sent to Syria or Jordan to keep them safe. And Diana and I always had home to look forward to, while many Iraqis longed to be exiles.
Our cook, with characteristic dark humor, once asked if he could fit in our suitcase when we left. Then he came up with a better idea. When you get home, he said, you need to find someone who looks just like me and steal his passport.
Brooklyn. A long-awaited dinner with friends over sushi and beer.
“What’s it like over there?” “Are you O.K.?”
When we returned to New York earlier this month, we received many questions from friends and relatives, but most boiled down to these two. We’re still learning how to respond. Our emotions are still raw, and it may take years to know how the war has affected us.
I often think of the day that Sergeant Wisniewski died. Michael Kamber, a photographer, and I had been set on returning to the base with his unit. But when I found out that Diana had started to march, I knew I had to go. Part of it was an urge to get the rest of the story. But I also knew that if I kept walking with another platoon, I’d see Diana more quickly.
Mike and I walked back out with another squad, a few yards from where Sergeant Wisniewski had died. I stayed toward the back and when I finally met up with Diana, we abandoned all our rules about staying professional and not showing affection. When we reached the base, with the helicopter rotors still blowing behind us, I squeezed her arms. She’d had a tough time as well, at one point running to a house where a soldier had been shot. It felt unbelievably good just to touch her. We hugged. I gave her a kiss. A simple kiss, watched by a bunch of stone-faced soldiers.
I shouted to Diana over the helicopters: “You O.K.?”
She nodded. I saw love in her eyes.
We were together. We were all right.