Shooting on Iraq's front lines

Clark cameraman returns from war

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— On Friday, Joe Klimovitz was driving over Rabbit Ears Pass when a shooting star crossed the horizon. He flinched.

"Incoming," he thought.

Then he realized that he was no longer in Iraq. No bombs would be falling from the sky onto the Yampa Valley.

The war was behind him and he was less than an hour away from his two daughters, his wife and a Welcome Home sign in the kitchen of the family's Clark residence.

Klimovitz was an embedded cameraman for NBC News during the war. What most people saw on NBC, they saw through his eyes.

The comfortable living room is almost too quiet as Klimovitz settles back into life away from gunfire and sandstorms.

"It's like night and day," he said. "One minute I was there and the next minute, I'm not." His wife, Cathy Klimovitz, stays close, listening to his every word. Since February, she has watched news of the war, live from Iraq, like every other American.

"It wasn't easy from this end," she said. Her heart sank every time she heard the news announce the death of another Western journalist.

Joe Klimovitz left his family for Kuwait City on Feb. 18. He had already completed a training course in Woodstock, Va. where he learned how to put on a chemical suit, how to wear a gas mask and got a crash course in first aid.

He stayed in Kuwait's five star Sheraton Hotel with hundreds of other journalists, waiting for an assignment.

Kuwait City was a mini-America of McDonald's and malls, with sliding glass doors and food courts.

"The Kuwaitis don't work," he said. "They just count their oil money and hire Asians and Pakistanis to do all the work."

The wait came to an end when Klimovitz was asked if he wanted to go into Iraq.

"I had no idea what I was getting myself in for," Klimovitz said. NBC partnered him with correspondent Chip Reid and embedded them with the 1st Marine Division, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines.

Their first stop was Camp Grizzly on the way to the Iraqi border. Klimovitz went from cable television and daily showers at the Sheraton to a 100-man tent with a plywood floor and a sleeping bag.

"We got up every day at 5 a.m. and got one shower a week," he said.

The first attack was from nature. A two-day sandstorm forced the Marines and the journalists to sleep with goggles and a scarf covering their faces.

"There was more sand in that tent than there was outside," he said. "And you couldn't see a thing."

Klimovitz was surrounded by 18-year-old Marines, most of whom were leaving the United States for the first time for their first taste of combat.

"They were scared," he said. "But they were fighting machines."

They listened to the BBC and knew about the 48-hour countdown. The war hadn't started yet, but it was about to.

As Klimovitz and Reid prepared to record history, they were instructed by the military not to talk about two things -- casualties and locations.

"We couldn't talk about casualties until the families were notified and we could show bodies, but no faces," he said.

Their first mission was to fight the Iraqis guarding the oil fields. Eighteen to 20 Marines climbed into an armored vehicle no bigger than the inside of a van.

"The engine was in the back so it was hot and you probably had an ammunition box on your feet, so you couldn't move. You could stand up, but you would be breathing diesel fumes. It was unbelievable."

Klimovitz saw his first fighting almost immediately.

"These guys were the tip of the spear going into Iraq," he said. The Baath Party officials had armed the men in every village and ordered them to fight or watch their families die. There were two roads to Baghdad, Klimovitz said, and every three or four miles, men would appear and start shooting.

The soldiers and journalists lived on warm, chlorinated water and Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs, that tasted good "with enough salt and Tabasco."

Klimovitz was watching it all through his lens, but the reality of the situation hadn't fully dawned on him. Not until 4 a.m. when he awoke to the sound of someone screaming for a medic.

The unit's liaison to the press, Maj. Kevin Nave, had been sleeping near the wheel of a vehicle with a gunnery sergeant when an engineering tank, moving to refuel, rolled off the road and crushed him to death.

"I realized that you have no idea what's going to happen next," Klimovitz said. "This was war and people that I was talking to one minute could be dead the next."

It was a realization that would wash over him daily. A week and a half into the war, Klimovitz watched a 17-hour gunfight with mercenary soldiers hired from Syria and Ethiopia. They had new guns and wads of cash in their pockets, he said.

"I heard gunfire whizzing by my head," he said. "They told me that if you get shot at to get down and go to your left. So I did, and I didn't get shot."

In 17 hours, 500 shells dropped. Thousand-pound bombs and grenades exploded.

Klimovitz followed the soldiers with his camera.

"You heard shots, but you didn't know where they were coming from because they were hiding," he said. "And the Muslims drag their dead away immediately. It's tradition to bury them right away, so you don't know how many of them you've killed.

"It was worth it, but it was crazy," he said. "It was worth it to tell the story."

Klimovitz stayed with the Marines all the way to Baghdad. The outskirts of the city were nothing but miles and miles of shantytown. Iraqis fired from the windows of their houses.

The war was winding down. Reid and Klimovitz asked to go into Baghdad to watch it end.

The Marines gave them an escort into town. There were four checkpoints into the city, he said. The last one was at a bridge.

Klimovitz was in a car about five yards away from the checkpoint when he saw one man step out of a crowd and start walking toward the Marines.

"I thought it seemed strange," he said. When the man reached the Marines, he detonated himself and killed those standing near him. Klimovitz could see a leg in the dust, bleeding far from the rest of the scattered body.

Klimovitz returned to Steamboat last week with that and similar images rattling through his mind, but those aren't his only memories.

"After this experience, I respect the military more now that I see what they do," he said. "I know there are a lot of opinions out there about the war, but when I saw the smiles on the faces of the people, it was worth it.

"Seeing things like the bodies of Iraqis with their heads blown off, it's just another part of the job," he said. "It's just another phase. When you see it from behind the camera, somehow it isn't real. It is and it isn't.

"I'm just recording history."

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