This story appears in the November 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.
For more than a century this magazine has told stories of war and its consequences. That’s also what journalist Martha Raddatz did in The Long Road Home, her book about a deadly Iraq War ambush, its casualties, and its survivors. A scripted series based on the book premieres November 7 at 9/8c on National Geographic.
Susan Goldberg: You covered the Iraq War from the beginning. Why was this the story that you wanted to tell?
Martha Raddatz: On April 4, 2004, in Baghdad, a platoon of the 1st Cavalry Division was ambushed and lost eight guys—the largest loss of life for the division since Vietnam. Just hearing the details later, I had to write about it. Truly, even after years of doing this kind of work, it was my first time telling the story of people in the battle for their lives.
SG: What did you find especially moving?
MR: There’s a quote in the front of the book from Lt. Col. Gary Volesky, who says, “Some guys have seen things that no one ever wants to see.…I understand now what it means when you go to a veterans’ ceremony and you see the old veterans get together and hug and cry, and you never really understood it. I understand it now.”
SG: For the 1st Cavalry Division the emotional impact of that loss must have been enormous. How did that play out?
MR: On one of my trips I saw Col. Robert Abrams, who’s the son of Gen. Creighton Abrams [a U.S. commander during the Vietnam War]. I was asking him about this battle, and he said, “It’s not us—it’s the families.” And he broke down in uncontrollable sobbing. He was just horrified that he’d done that. And I said, “Colonel Abrams, don’t worry about it. It’s a beautiful tribute to the men who died.”
Abrams wrote an email that day to [his commander] Gen. Peter Chiarelli. The general showed it to us, and it said, “General Chiarelli, I did an interview with Martha Raddatz today and I let the division down. I got emotional and I’m so sorry that I let you all down.” And General Chiarelli wrote back to him and said, “You would have let us down if you’d done anything else.”
SG: I’m about to cry.
MR: I know. How can you not?
SG: How well did you get to know the men who fought on April 4?
MR: Now I know them as guys in their minivans, with the car seats and their babies. I learned how they maintained their relationships with their families. I know the different personalities; they’re unique. Robert Miltenberger is nothing like Troy Denomy. Troy Denomy is nothing like Eric Bourquin—that man has struggled. He will always bear the burden of feeling like guys gave their lives for him. He has smelled his newborn baby, and the reason he’s been able to smell his newborn baby is because of the sacrifices of these men.
SG: What is the takeaway that you want people to have?
MR: That these are guys just like us; they could be your neighbor. That you should respect them. I don’t think yellow ribbons and “Thank you for your service” do enough. I think, at the very least, you should understand what it is they do and what their families go through.
SG: What is your reaction to people who might say, looking at Iraq now, that their sacrifice was in vain?
MR: I hate that term, “sacrificed in vain.” Your sacrifice is never in vain. It really isn’t. They go over there because they’re ordered to do that, because they signed up to do that. If Iraq goes to hell tomorrow, their sacrifice was not in vain. For that time they protected the people they were with; they fought to make those lives better. And they did the best they could.
SG: Have you kept in touch with the families of some of the men who died?
MR: Robert Arsiaga, who lost his life, I’ve been in touch with his family over the years. On the set in the last month of filming, [his mother] Sylvia was there. We walked out onto the set. It’s Sadr City, and it’s so realistic. As we walked through that town, she was crying, and she said, “So, this is what Robert saw? This is what he looked at his last night.” We looked up at the stars, and she said, “I don’t think he was afraid. And if he was afraid, he didn’t run away. He kept going to try to rescue his brothers.”
SG: This is a hard story to tell. How do you retain some objectivity as a journalist, yet get close enough to understand what people are going through?
MR: Journalists have to have a soul. They have to have something beyond the job they do, to understand, to be empathetic, to respect people. This story of what happened to those guys, objectivity aside, is about sacrifice and service. And it continues to this day, because those guys will not get over this. They’re changed, and their families are changed.
Thank you for reading National Geographic.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.