View Full Version : "We're Americans. We're Okay."

05-07-03, 10:57 AM
An Exclusive Interview With Greg Mathieson

The veteran still photographer known for his daring dash "to beat the Marines to Kuwait City" in the first Gulf War (as seen on the cover of the May 1991 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings) is now a cameraman for NBC News, reporting regularly from Iraq. In April 2003 he talked with the Naval Institute's Fred L. Schultz by satellite phone from Sulaymaniyah.

Proceedings: Remember the last time we did a telephone interview?

Mathieson: It's like déjà vu from 12 years ago.

Proceedings: What's different this time?

Mathieson: I'm up north, instead of down south.

Proceedings: How did you get there?

Mathieson: I had come here through Iran, back in January, to sneak into Iraq from the north. All the embeds were coming in through the south. We figured U.S. forces would drop airborne guys or Rangers early into Kirkuk to secure the oil wells so Saddam wouldn't blow them up before the war started. And we wanted to be there to shoot it.

Proceedings: Who's "we?"

Mathieson: I'm working with NBC as a cameraman. You see my stuff every night. I'm also shooting stills for you guys and others.

Proceedings: Why did you decide not to go with embedding?

Mathieson: NBC offered me a good deal to be over here early. We have a guy here now, Tom Aspell, who got embedded with the 173d Airborne and sat in Fort Benning for almost two months. He got here only about a week or so ago.

The embeds are okay if you're in the right place. It was a crap shoot to see what unit you got, and then you hoped that unit went somewhere. A friend of mine, NBC's Kerry Sanders—a great guy—got embedded with the Marines. They got stuck in Nasiriyah and they're still sitting down there. He finally left the embeds a few weeks ago, because they stayed there and didn't move.
Proceedings: Did the news of journalists being killed have any impact on you?

Mathieson: A little bit. John Simpson is here, and he got bombed up north, just south of Urbeal. He was in a Special Operations convoy, and they had called in an air strike on some tanks ahead of them. They were also driving by some tanks that already had been destroyed. I don't know the details, but we thought that either the guy called in his own coordinates instead of the coordinates to hit, or the planes just hit the wrong tanks. Instead of hitting the active ones, they hit the dead ones and took out the convoy. Simpson's translator lost both his legs and subsequently died.

Then we had the BBC guy here. One of his guys stepped out of the car and onto a landmine. He lost his foot. And then the cameraman dove onto the ground, thinking it was incoming, and landed chest-first on another mine, killing him.

A lot of this stuff is just basically common sense and luck. I mark my vehicles with orange cloths, the same as all the military does, so I don't get hit by planes. I stay on the hard surfaces. I don't walk where there are green plants growing because that could be where mines are sitting. You want to travel routes that are hard-walked, paved areas and keep your eyes open.

Proceedings: What's been your most harrowing experience?

Mathieson: Okay. One of the best ones was a couple of days ago.

Proceedings: I said "harrowing," not "best"!

Mathieson: Well, I call it best. It all goes back to the U.S. Marines. We went to Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein and the site of one of his biggest palaces. Three roads come out of Kirkuk into Tikrit. The first one had Iraqi troops at the end of it, and we had to turn around. We went down another road and came to a bridge that had been blown up by U.S. planes, and we couldn't get across.

Then we started doing some back roads. Some people told us that the bridge farther down another road was only partially bombed and we should try that. We saw that U.S. planes had taken out two big chunks of the bridge but not all of it. If you got up on the sidewalk, you could manage to drive across and get into Tikrit. Not knowing if the bridge would hold us, we managed to get across and into Tikrit, where we came across some Arabs in the street. Our translator got out and started talking to them. These people said, "Who are you?" She said, "NBC."

Well, NBC sounds like MBC, Michael-Bravo-Charlie, right? And MBC is a Turkish channel. These people were talking about how the Americans were bombing their homes. They're poor people, and why are the Americans doing this? They were very anti-American.

Then she said, "Where is Saddam's palace?" And they said, "It's down the road. Why don't we take you down there? We want to go down there ourselves and defend it against the Americans. We'll kill them when they come here." All of a sudden we realized these guys didn't know who we were and that we'd better get out of there.

So we got in our vehicles and went down the road in the opposite direction. Sure enough, when we got to the edge of town, past the palace, we saw Marine LAVs [light armored vehicles] coming up the road. We slowed down and got out of the vehicle. Usually, I stop way ahead of them and get out and walk. By staying in your vehicle, you run the risk of them shooting you. They don't know who you are, and there are a lot of suicide bombers running around Iraq. All of a sudden, a taxi comes down the road carrying people with white flags. They get out—I got some great shots of this—and the Marines start yelling at them: "Get down on your knees. Don't move." The Marines don't know if these guys are suicide bombers, the Fedayeen who are sworn to kill people and blow themselves up.

While the Marines are yelling back and forth, I'm behind them, taking pictures. This goes on for a while and the sun goes down. We find out the Marines are going into the city in the morning and we want to go with them. So we want to stay close. Off to the side of the road is Lieutenant Albin, who tells us, "I'm going to put you guys by this little area of trees. And we're going to stay next to you tonight, so you'll be safe." We set up our satellite dish to do some broadcasting late at night.

We set up close to our vehicles so we don't go into the dark and get shot by any Marines. In the meantime, we let the Marines use our hand-held satellite phones to call home. None of these Marines had called home or received any mail in three months. So one by one, they were making calls and crying. One guy called his wife who had a baby a week ago. He hadn't known how it went, didn't know if it was a boy or girl. One guy was sitting there saying, "We'll keep it to two or three minutes." I said, "You guys can talk all night as far as I'm concerned." They're Marines. They deserve more than two or three minutes.

While the calls were being made, an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] came flying in from nowhere and lit up a truck parked in the trees not far from us. We have this on videotape. It's phenomenal stuff we shot with night-vision lenses on our cameras. Some Iraqi Army vehicles were there, and they apparently had been destroyed earlier by U.S. planes. One truck had a load of recoilless rifle rounds on it. The rounds started cooking off and blowing up all over the place. This was about 75–80 feet from us. It was like hell broke loose.

Proceedings: What time of night was this?

Mathieson: About 2200. As these rounds are exploding, the Marines don't know what's going on and they open fire. We have six LAVs around us in the area. They open up with their .50-calibers. Marines next to their trucks go to the ground and start firing their M–16s. They're shooting all over the place. You see tracer rounds, balls of fire. The Marines are grabbing us and telling us we've got to move back. "We don't know what this is," they tell us. They move us back about 100 feet. I've got Marines on LAVs yelling over the side, "Get back, get back. Get away from us."

And I'm yelling to them, "We're Americans. We're okay." As we get down into this little burned area, some Marines are keeping us down. They're lying on the ground. The rounds are still cooking off, and there are explosions in the air. In the darkness you can't tell who's shooting at what. The Marines are firing in the direction of what they think is firing back at them. It could have been ammunition, it could have been people, we don't know.

So, eventually things die down about 20 minutes later. The Marines check it all out and tell us we can pull up our satellite dish and get some of our vehicles out of there, but they told us to do it quickly because the rounds may keep cooking off for at least another 20 minutes. We push our vehicles back into the tree line. The LAVs pull up even closer to us and are right next to us all night. This lieutenant comes over and says, "You know, I'm really sorry I told you guys I had put you in a safe spot. Obviously it wasn't."

Two minutes later, about 50 feet behind me, gunfire erupts, and we all hit the dirt again. I've got black and blue marks and cuts all over me from hitting the dirt so many times that night. All of a sudden, I see little flashlights pop up in the trees, and a guy comes out of the tree line and starts yelling, "SEAL Team 3." I look in my camera, with night vision, and I see these guys with special helmets with all kinds of gee-whiz stuff attached to them. The guy comes walking up, saying, "I'm SEAL Team 3."


Greg Mathieson perched atop an Iraqi tank for this self-portrait. He was an NBC cameraman in Iraq for several months during Operation Iraqi Freedom.


05-07-03, 11:01 AM
walk over with a Marine, so that they would identify him in his uniform walking toward them. I'm filming all this stuff. He pulls the Marine across and talks to him. Then the Marine comes over to me and says, "They just killed a guy over there." Well, at first we thought it was friendly fire; we thought they killed a Marine. It turns out, it was a Fedayeen who had sneaked behind us and dug in with a Kalishnikov about 50 feet away, and was about to open fire on us. SEAL Team 3 came in behind this guy and took him out in the darkness. We didn't even know SEAL Team 3 was there. The Marines didn't know it, either. They just showed up out of nowhere. One Marine told me, "Yeah, that's how these guys are. They show up out of nowhere and they disappear into the night. We don't know how they get here, or how they get out."

I slept on the hood of our truck all night, with night vision keeping an eye on the tree line. At about 0500 the Marines just quietly packed up and moved out. When we woke at sunrise, we found ourselves sitting there in the middle of a little orchard of trees, with nobody around us. No more Marines! I got up and went across the road to see what the SEALs had done. Sure enough, there was a dead Iraqi lying there. He had been strip-searched. His body was half bare with bullet holes in his side and his head. They must have been using MP-5s because they made a different sound from the rifles the Marines are using out there.

Proceedings: Has that film been shown?

Mathieson: That night, actually, on NBC. Hours later we put the stuff together. First Tom Aspell called NBC on the satellite phone and called in the story, just after it happened. Later that night we pieced together the video and it aired on the NBC Nightly News. It was the same night that the POWs were found. Some of these same Marines had come up from the south and found the POWs. They told us they had been through 27 major battles in the past month or so.

Proceedings: What did you do in Baghdad?

Mathieson: I got a film of the 1st Marine Division taking money out of the Rashid Bank in Baghdad. Last night they caught some robbers who were going through the wall into the vault. The Marines grabbed these guys and then liberated them of basically a truckload full of cash. The Marines were coming out for about an hour with bags of cash; filling up the back of a deuce-and-a-half [two-and-a-half-ton truck] and taking it away to a safe place so people wouldn't keep looting the stuff.

Then I went up into Tikrit and ran into the Marines again. I went inside the palace and checked out things. I walked around through all the bedrooms and all the ballrooms. The ceilings in there are like 30 feet high. It's a phenomenal place. He's got 100 buildings on the palace grounds, each one of them about the size of the White House or bigger.

Proceedings: When are you coming home?

Mathieson: Hopefully in a few weeks. I've been here since January. The war is pretty much dying down, but there's still shooting. I was in Baghdad last night in a small hotel NBC is using there. I got this nice little room on the first floor, and I opened the window. They had no power there last night, no hot water. It was 0100 and I decided I was going to lie down and relax. When I heard the crack and bang of small-arms fire, I didn't budge. Somehow, it didn't bother me anymore.

Actually, some of my colleagues were sitting up on the rooftop of the hotel with a Pringles potato chip can, watching one guy in another room take pot shots at another guy down the street; back and forth, almost like a tennis match.

While I was sleeping, a machine gun started firing outside in the street. I just routinely rolled out of bed onto the floor. Then I had to decide—am I going to sleep on the floor all night, or am I going to sleep in the bed. I eventually said, "Screw it, I'm going to get back in bed. If they keep shooting, they keep shooting."

Proceedings: What would you most like to convey to the people who will be reading this interview?

Mathieson: Some Marines haven't been getting mail for three months. I got on WTOP (Washington, D.C., news radio) this morning at 0700 and I made a point of mentioning that Task Force Tripoli, First Marine Division in Tikrit, has not seen any mail in three months. Of course, the newsman laughed. I said, "Well, I wanted to get that across in case there are any generals out there listening, going to the Pentagon this morning." These guys really deserve to have some mail delivered after three months of nothing but combat and living in the dirt. They don't know what's going on back in the real world. I give them a phone whenever I can, when I'm in the area to use the phone. And sometimes I get back to a little base here in Sulaymaniyah, and I print out sports scores and bring them out to the guys. They don't care if they're three weeks late; they want to read something on sports.

Proceedings: What about the Turks? Did you run into any of them while you were in the north?

Mathieson: Actually, today in Tikrit I met a Turkish general who was meeting with the Kurds. It's the first time the Turkish general has been in Tikrit. There are 2,000 Special Forces working in the northern area up here, keeping an eye on the Kurds.

I don't know if you heard about the base al-Ansar and al-Qaeda had on the Iran-Iraq border [Halabja], the one that [Secretary of State Colin] Powell showed back in February at a U.N. Security Council Meeting, saying, "This is where they're making Ricin gas, and it's a bomb factory." When I first got over here, the Kurds and Special Forces were working on eliminating these guys in the mountains. So I worked on that for a couple of weeks every day, down by Jalibah. That's the city where Saddam gassed 5,000 Kurds in 1989. They were bombing the mountains. Then finally, they made an assault and they pushed about 1,000 of these al-Qaeda/al-Ansar guys into the mountains, killing a lot of them. They sent in cruise missiles on this base. I got up there the next day and matched it against this satellite picture Powell had shown to the U.N. I had brought some Ricin test kits with me from the States, so I put on my chemical stuff and did some tests of my own in the area. I came up with duplicate, positive hits on some chemical boots I found up there. They were like firemen's boots. We found positive hits for Ricin being in that area, and NBC did a story based on our own tests finding evidence of this. Later on, we had an interview with a guard of the commander of that base, who gave himself up in Iran in exchange for amnesty here in Kurdistan. We showed him the map, and he gave us a description of where the chemical lab was. And that corresponded exactly to the spot we where found the boots.

Proceedings: How did the Iranians treat you, when you were going through there to get into Iraq?

Mathieson: It was a long trip. We got into Tehran and had to stay a few days to get journalist credentials from the Iranians. Then it was about a 12-hour drive from Tehran to a town that was a two-hour drive from the border. We went through two snow blizzards that day, two to three feet of snow in the mountains. Our car spun around one time. We also broke something on the bottom of the car, so we had to abandon it.

The next day, we got to the border. We had to have every item in our possession itemized in Farsi on paper. So if I had two batteries for my camera, I had to have the serial numbers from the two batteries. My laptop, every disk, every flashlight, every battery was accounted for, in my kits. I think I had about nine pages of items. As they checked through the stuff, they would point to things on the paper and say, "Show me this." And we'd have to dig through our cases and pull it out and say here's my X-Y-Z cord and they'd check it against the list. It takes about six days of traveling between Tehran and getting into Kurdistan, between all the paperwork and driving.

Hopefully I'm going to get to fly out with the Air Force in the coming weeks and take a shortcut instead of having to go through Jordan or Kuwait. I don't want to go through Iran. Turkey is a little bit of a problem, too. Syria is definitely out. Either way, it's a long trip home.

Proceedings: When you do get back, we'll buy lunch.

Mathieson: You talk about lunch! Oh, God, I'm so tired of lamb. It's the Kurdish diet. I did it in '95 and '96. You come over here for three months and you're guaranteed to lose about 30 pounds.


©2003 GREG E. MATHIESON/MAI Marines move into postion in front of Saddam Hussein's palace in his hometown of Tikrit shortly after entering the city to sporadic attacks.


©2003 GREG E. MATHIESON/MAI Marines from the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Batallion, 29 Palms, California, move cautiously toward drivers pulling up to their postion as they enter the city of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's home town. Marines were on the alert for suicide bombers, who had been acting across Iraq in past weeks.