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Duluth native returns to tell of Iraqi war experience

She met Ollie North, survived a dust storm when her unit ran out of gas and out of food, and survived three rocket explosions, after the last of which, "My stomach turned to water and I (was) a walking basket case."...

She met Ollie North, survived a dust storm when her unit ran out of gas and out of food, and survived three rocket explosions, after the last of which, "My stomach turned to water and I (was) a walking basket case."

Duluth East and University of Minnesota Duluth graduate Cheryl Diaz Meyer returned to her hometown Tuesday to share these and other experiences as a photojournalist with the U.S. Marines during the war in Iraq.

Diaz Meyer spoke for about an hour to 200 people at UMD, many of them students. Calling it "an odd game of Russian roulette," she interspersed personal anecdotes with tales of horror.

As an "embedded" journalist, she was the only woman traveling with the Second Tank Battalion of the First Marine Division. When she joined her unit, she said, she couldn't tell a corporal from a captain. In fact, the assigning officer gave her a peculiar glance and told her if she were a Marine, she would be making history, because no woman Marine had ever been as close to the front as she would be.

Diaz Meyer, on the other hand, was looking forward to it, because she knew she would get some great photos.

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She joined her unit in Kuwait just before the war. She said the troops had to wait several weeks, and the officers had problems keeping up morale. As one method of keeping spirits up, the officers decided to hold a talent show. The journalists performed one of the acts, and when she walked on stage, the troops screamed and yelled for 40 seconds. She made the most of it, she said, because she was thinking, "This is as close to (being) Marilyn Monroe as I'm ever going to get."

She curtsied.

Finally, the order came to move out, and she put on her helmet and her flak jacket for the first time. She was assigned to an amphibious assault vehicle and rode for three hours across the desert to a "dispersal area."

There were no bathroom breaks. After the trip, she really needed to go, however, but the landscape was flat, and no bush was in sight.

She asked a master gunnery sergeant when the Jiffy Johns would be arriving. The sergeant replied, "The Jiffy Johns do not follow us to war."

Instead, he ordered a corporal to loan her a poncho, which she put on whenever nature called.

Soon after their unit advanced into Iraq, it was caught in a dust storm. Inside the storm, she said, it was darker than a dark night. Her vehicle ran out of gas, and the troops were out of food and almost out of water. Three Iraqi tanks wandered into their midst, and she thought they were about to attack, but the Marines said the Iraqi tanks were no match for the American vehicles, and not to worry. Sure enough, once the Iraqis realized they were in the midst of the Americans, they turned tail and left.

The dust storm ruined her hair, and so she persuaded some of the Marines to braid her hair for her. It was while they were braiding her hair that Fox TV commentator and former Marine Ollie North walked by, talking on a cell phone. He told the Marines braiding her hair not to quit their day job.

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The worst day for her unit, she said, was April 4, 2003, when four Marines were killed and 17 were wounded. The Iraqis had dug trenches alongside the road, filled them with oil and then ignited the oil. Then they hid behind the black smoke and fired rocket-propelled grenades. Three of the rockets exploded near her, the last of which made her think, "I don't care who gets hurt; just make it stop."

She wrote in her journal that night, "Am I nuts? If this is my last day, is this the life I wanted?"

Throughout her presentation, Diaz Meyer showed photos she had taken during the war. One photo showed a young Marine in repose sniffing a rose. Called "the sentimental soldier," she said he had shot up a mini-bus full of civilians after it ran a traffic checkpoint. When she asked him about that incident, he said, "I couldn't have known. I just couldn't have known. I had to do what I had to do."

Diaz Meyer said, "In the end, we are all victims of the violence."

She took several photos of Iraqis looking for loved ones in a mass grave that had been made in the 1980s. The photos showed the anguish as family members learned for certain that a loved one had perished. One photo showed a man kissing the skull of his brother.

Diaz Meyer thought conditions were worse when she returned to Iraq in November and December than in the immediate aftermath of the war. Conditions close to anarchy existed on her second trip with gangs, thieves and looters everywhere. At a hospital supported by the Red Cross she learned that hundreds of people had looted the hospital of its furnishings and raped the women. She said, "A lot of feeling of violence was in the place."

While she thought it was easy to be depressed, she said that many people also showed "incredible strength and incredible honor."

In the midst of one battle, she said, a Marine was hit in the neck, and his tank mate put his finger over the wound, attempting to stop the bleeding, while continuing to shoot with his other hand.

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On the road between Baghdad and Tikrit, she said, she came across a farm house, outside of which the Iraqis had parked many tanks. As the war progressed, the Iraqis abandoned the vehicles. When the Americans came upon them, they bombed the vehicles. The ordnance inside the tanks blew up and severely damaged the farm house.

The woman who lived in the farm house had no choice about allowing the vehicles on her property but was a victim just the same.

A few days later, a neighbor came over with some piping with the intent of diverting the water in a stream or canal from her place over to his.

She went in her house, got an automatic weapon, came back outside and fired it over the man's head. The man stopped what he was doing but said that he would be coming back to kill her and her family because she had dishonored him as a man. Diaz Meyer's translator said that if the woman had been his wife, he would have killed her for treating a man that way.

Eventually, a reconciliation was reached, and the neighbor came back and apologized to the woman's husband -- not the woman herself.

In December, Diaz Meyer was able to crawl into the hole in which Saddam Hussein was captured. The entrance to the hole was so small, she said, that she had to remove her camera belt to squeeze into it. Inside, she said, it didn't smell like people or animals. It only smelled like dirt, so she didn't think anybody had been living in there. The only items in the hole were a fluorescent light and a vent pipe.

Diaz Meyer was a German major at UMD and then received a master's degree in photojournalism from Western Kentucky. She worked at the StarTribune in Minneapolis before joining the Dallas Morning News in 2000.

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