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November 4, 2009

Book: Camera Boy on war, hell and the in-between

Local author shares his Iraq experiences

When Fred Minnick smiles or laughs, he seems momentarily transformed into a young boy, filled with innocence. Dimples form and his blues eyes seem illuminated.

But when the freelance writer and photographer talks about the year he spent as a U.S. Army public affairs officer in the Iraq War, he speaks in a serious, even tone. He is contemplative. The little boy is nowhere to be found. And yet he tells his story with assurance, aplomb and even a few smiles along the way.

Minnick, who lives in Prospect, is the author of the recently published “Camera Boy: An Army Journalist’s War in Iraq” (Hellgate Press), which details his personal journey through the ups and downs of a year spent in the midst of war, as well as his subsequent struggle with post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Minnick will read from and sign his book at Carmichael’s, 2720 Frankfort Ave., on Thursday, Nov. 5, at 7 p.m.; he will also have a reading at Barnes & Noble, 4100 Summit Plaza Drive, on Veterans Day (Nov. 11), at 7 p.m. The author recently spoke with LEO about his book and experiences.

 

LEO: At what point did you decide to write “Camera Boy,” and what was the writing process like?

Fred Minnick: When I returned home, I just had an awful time readjusting to society. I couldn’t stand to be around people, hated answering questions about Iraq and I drank myself to sleep nearly every night. My anger and irritation was so intense that when somebody dismissed my idea in a work meeting, I wanted to drive a stapler through their skull. I also battled intense nightmares that put me back in Iraq and there were many other things happening to my body and mind that were leading me down a path of self-destruction. At some point, I told myself I would not become another homeless veteran holding a sign under a bridge. I sought therapy and one of my therapists said I should consider writing a book since I wrote for a living. So, I started writing it. I also wanted to preserve the memories of my fallen friends. I had, and still have, great difficulties with how Michael Jackson’s death receive more press than a hero’s death in Iraq or Afghanistan.

As I would write a chapter, I would read it to my girlfriend over the phone. Jaclyn lived in Louisville; I lived in Milwaukee. Opening myself up like that with a girl in another state was very risky. But, she encouraged me to keep writing and as I wrote about the extremely difficult moments and my fallen friends. When Jaclyn and I married, in a weird way, I owed the book itself for helping us fall in love.

 

LEO: You have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of your time spent in the Iraq War. Do you mind describing the effects PTSD had on your life?

FM: PTSD is like an onion. An onion has many layers. Imagine at the very core is PTSD. When people with PTSD start to have problems, new layers are added. And before you know it, you’re divorced, you’ve lost your job, you get a DUI, you punch somebody in the face and you end up in prison. If we do not work on the core of our trauma, other layers can be added and we may never link our everyday problems to PTSD. I’ve been home since January 2005, and have slowly been unraveling my layers.

If we had this conversation two or three years ago, I would most likely vomit because I used to get physically ill when I talked about Iraq. I would also go into a spiraling depression, where I didn’t want to socialize or do anything other than lay down.

For some reason one year, when I was actually making a lot of progress in therapy, I decided to attend Thunder Over Louisville. We watched it from atop the Levy Building, and at some point with the helicopters flying by during the day, I had a flashback. For a minute, in my mind, I was on rooftop in Mosul, Iraq, not Louisville. That same night, I told myself I was better, and we went to the river to watch the fireworks display. Almost immediately, I started shaking and crying. Jaclyn covered my ears and we ran as fast as we could away from the event. For two weeks after that, I was a wreck.

In the workplace, I jumped at the sounds of the phone ringing. Once, my office’s air conditioner made a loud noise and I jumped, knocked over a row of cubicles and stormed out crying. Anything like smells, sights or noises that reminded me of Iraq would trigger deep pain. I am very fortunate that the Louisville VA has an incredible staff helping local vets. They have helped me cope with the little things that would make me angry, depressed or sick in the stomach. Today, I can talk about Iraq and not get the symptoms I used to, because I can control how I feel a lot better. The funny thing is, my former therapist is like a voice in my head. Anytime I feel depressed I start asking the questions she’d ask.

 

LEO: Can you describe what it’s like to be in the middle of a military conflict?

FM: From a “here and now” perspective, you get this fatalistic attitude about things. On the base, mortars and rockets were always falling. But on most days, they’d miss their targets by three football fields. And then they’d get lucky and kill soldiers in bunkers. On patrols, we walked around waiting for somebody to shoot at us so we could shoot back. And on raids, you never knew what awaited you on the other side of the door. A sniper? A bomb? Grenade? You just never knew. So from a soldier standpoint, you could do everything just right and proper technique and still get killed. The only way I could really deal with that was to accept death every day and just not care.

From an international point of view, it was extremely interesting to experience firefights, events and important meetings, and see them talked about on BBC or CNN. Because of my job as an Army journalist, I saw the whole war and really felt like I was recording history. 

 

LEO: What was the most difficult or disturbing thing you encountered during your time there?

FM: There were many. I recall a chunk of charred brain being stuck on a car like a piece of gum. I saw an U.S. Airmen die, just thinking and hoping he would live somehow. Once, we killed a sniper and I was left alone with his body. There was also a beheading chambers I photographed; it was located near where two friends were killed. But probably the most traumatic event for me occurred on June 24, 2004, when in the middle of an intense firefight, a rocket-propelled grenade was heading right for me. It landed in front and bounced over my head and did not explode. For whatever reason, my life was spared. That day, that long firefight has been what I have mostly focused on in therapy.

 

LEO: Specifically, how did your role there differ from that of your fellow soldiers?

FM: I always tell people I was like Joker in the movie “Full Metal Jacket.” It was my job to take pictures and write stories. I had a camera in one hand and an M16 in another. I mostly hopped from one infantry unit to another and occasionally followed special forces teams to document their operations. I took pictures of whatever was going on, from school openings to firefights to car bombs. Somebody in my unit actually photographed a ribbon cutting for a culvert, because it was such a big deal for the town.

My imagery would be used in classified briefings, sent to the media and even given to the soldiers. Only a handful of times were my images erased immediately because they were considered highly classified. I also managed a print newsletter, four magazines, and we sent hometown stories back to the U.S. My unit, the 139 Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, truly accomplished a lot. In fact, in my book’s foreword, General Carter F. Ham, U.S. Army Europe Commander, said we were the best public affairs soldiers he ever worked with.

 

LEO: Often the military is portrayed as an organization with a penchant for hiding ugly truths from the public. Can we expect to read about this in your book?

FM: Unfortunately, you can. By no means, am I derogatory about the Army, but I wrote about some sad events I experienced. On one occasion, another public affairs soldier errantly killed civilians and other soldiers constantly mistook me for him. And another incident I wrote about is a U.S. plane dropped bombs on an Iraqi school.

Fortunately, it was a night bombing and no kids were inside. But the school and nearby buildings were destroyed. My book also details the other side, that being the insurgents. They beheaded our Iraqi friends for working with us and killed so many civilians. I tried to show in my account both sides of what I saw, and I can tell you that in war, people die and buildings are blown up. It’s horrible, it’s tragic and there’s nothing glorifying about it as movies and video games make it appear to be. But it’s a fact of every war ever waged. The difference between the insurgents and us is Americans try to fix things they errantly destroyed, whereas insurgents could care less.

 

LEO: Politically speaking, what is your impression about the war in Iraq having experienced it first hand?

FM: I get asked this a lot, and my answer is always the same: I care about the people serving there and my fellow veterans trying to return to society. If I say we shouldn’t be there, that makes me feel like my friends died for no reason. I just know we have many great men and women fighting for us. And every one is my hero. That may sound like an easy way out of a difficult question, but please understand that I truly have no opinion of the war. I care about the people fighting it.

 

LEO: Did your opinion of the war going in change drastically as a result?

FM: I was there during the election year 2004, and Kerry’s Iraq platform really stuck out. He kept saying we need to train Iraqis faster, and I knew that it just couldn’t be done at a faster rate than what we were doing. We were training people with less than a fifth grade education through interpreters who could barely speak English. Their military system didn’t have an AWOL program like ours. So many times after they got their paychecks, they just didn’t show up. And as we would find out, many were just in so they could spy on operations since we normally shared bases. Today, however, because we have trained them the right way vs. trying to do it quickly, the Iraqi army is very competent. After that 2004 election, Kerry showed up to Mosul and met with soldiers. What respect he lost with his Iraq views, he gained right back by coming out to the trenches to meet with us after he lost the election. That took somebody who really cared.

 

LEO: What do you hope readers will take away from reading “Camera Boy”?

FM: I hope people feel and understand what it was like to be in Iraq in 2004 and to meet some great men I knew who died. Sgt. Ryan Jopek, Sgt. David Mitts, Staff. Sgt. Salamo Tuialuuluu and Samir Faisal, an Iraqi interpreter, paid the ultimate sacrifice and forever inspired me. If my book can just make one person appreciate a soldier or veteran, I will feel like I’ve made a difference.