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Perspective: Anja Niedringhaus felt the need to bear witness

Editor's note: Anja Niedringhaus, 48, an internationally acclaimed German photojournalist, was shot and killed by an Afghan police officer earlier this month while on assignment for the Associated Press. In 2005, she was part of the AP team that won the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of Iraq, and she was awarded the Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women's Media Foundation. One of her bosses said "she truly believed in the need to bear witness." In years of reporting from war zones, the story that most haunted her was one about a Marine who was grievously wounded by a IED in Afghanistan in June 2011. This is what she wrote about it two days before Christmas 2011 — six months after the attack.

Inside the medevac helicopter in Afghanistan, U.S. Marine Cpl. Burness Britt bleeds profusely from his neck. He and two other Marines have just been hit by shrapnel, with Britt's injuries the most serious. The medevac crew chief clutches one of Britt's blood-covered hands as he is given oxygen. I take hold of the other.

With my free hand, I lift my camera and take some pictures. I squeeze Britt's hand and he returns the gesture, gripping my palm tighter and tighter until he slips into unconsciousness. His shirt is ripped, but I notice a piece of wheat stuck to it. I pluck it off and tuck it away in the pocket of my body armor.

In my 20 years as a photographer, covering conflicts from Bosnia to Gaza to Iraq to Afghanistan, injured civilians and soldiers have passed through my life many times. None has left a greater impression on me than Britt.

I knew him only for a few minutes in that helicopter, but I believed we would meet again one day, and I hoped to give him that small, special piece of wheat.

As Britt underwent surgeries and painful rehabilitation, I returned to my job with the Associated Press, yet Britt was never far from my mind. I searched for him on the Internet. I called hospitals. I wondered if he remembered me.

It's been just over six months since that day in the wheat field not far from his small combat outpost "Kajaki Dam," named for a mammoth structure the U.S., British and NATO troops have been trying to protect and repair to help produce electricity.

Afghanistan was Britt's first combat deployment and he was in Sangin, a town in Afghanistan's southwest Helmand province that has seen some of the bloodiest fighting. He knew the mission was dangerous.

He was leading a group of 10 Marines through a wheat field when there was an explosion. He doesn't know how far away, maybe a few yards. He was thrown into the air, and landed with a thump in the field, a searing hot pain raging in his neck. He had been hit by a huge piece of shrapnel from a bomb and a major artery was cut. Britt believes the improvised explosive device was hidden and somebody triggered it from a distance, though he can't say for sure.

"My only thought was my wife," he said recently from his hospital bed in Richmond, Va., where the 22-year-old Marine has been recuperating and rebuilding his life and health.

His speech comes with a great deal of difficulty these days, and sometimes he is hard to understand. During the many surgeries that followed his injury, he had a major stroke and is partially paralyzed on his right side.

His smile, though, is unchanged. The nurses at the Hunter Holmes Medical Center in Richmond, where we met for the first time since the helicopter ride, call him "Sunshine" because their youngest patient is always joking and in a good mood.

It was his courage and smile I remember so vividly. After he was wounded, he smiled briefly when he reached the helicopter, as if to reassure us he would be okay.

It was June 4. I was embedded with the U.S. Army "Dust Off" medevac unit, a group that moves quickly, with little concern for their own safety. When the call came that Britt had been hit, the description of his wounds let everyone know it was serious. Within five minutes, the unit was at his side.

Marines from the 2nd Battalion 12th Marines, 3rd Marine Division rushed out of the nearby bushes carrying Britt. We were quickly airborne.

In the helicopter, the scene was one of quiet courage. No words were spoken, no screams of pain. Blood was everywhere.

Britt was moving his legs, checking to see if they were still there. When he realized they were, he smiled once again. The crew chief, Jennifer Martinez, of Colorado Springs, Colo., held Britt's hand. Another wounded Marine, Lance Cpl. Joshua Barron, looked at his buddy and cried. I had Britt's other hand in mine.

We left Britt at our small outpost called Camp Edi, where medical staff provided the first round of treatment before transferring him to Camp Bastion. From there, he went to the U.S. Military Hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. He was then taken to Bethesda Hospital in Washington and finally to Hunter Holmes McGuire Medical Center in Richmond.

I traveled to Germany, and then to Switzerland where I am based for AP. I kept the piece of wheat with me, carefully stowed away in a small jewelry box.

My search for Britt started almost as soon as I got back to Geneva. I emailed the Marines and the Army, but all they said was that Britt was still in serious condition.

I got in touch with patients at Walter Reed Hospital, where many of the seriously wounded were taken, but they didn't know Britt.

I searched the Internet for his name for weeks. Then one evening, like so many before, I was on the Web and I thought I would play around with the spelling of his name. I immediately discovered I had his first name wrong. That day in the helicopter, I was told his name was Burmess. It was actually Burness.

When I entered the correct name, I found articles about Britt. His local paper in Georgetown, S.C., had done a story on him.

I wrote the newspaper several times but got no reply. Then I called the AP bureau in South Carolina. The news editor there gave me the phone number of Britt's father, Neal.

I thought my perseverance had paid off, but there was another setback — the number was out of order.

I refused to give up. A few weeks later, the news editor found another phone number. This time it rang, but no one picked up. I kept calling, every evening for about a week.

Eventually, I found Britt on Facebook. He accepted my friend request and at last, it looked like I we would finally be able to connect. But when I sent him messages, there was no reply.

I worried that he didn't want to reconnect. Maybe he wanted to forget that day in Helmand and everyone involved.

I soon found out that wasn't the case. His paralysis made it nearly impossible for him to chat over the Internet, but I noticed on his Facebook page that he was at the hospital in Richmond. I tracked down the number with the help of an AP photographer in Richmond and when I called, a nurse answered.

I heard her yell: "Britt, there is a phone call for you from a photographer in Switzerland who was there in Afghanistan when you got picked up."

The next thing I heard was Britt's voice. He sounded relieved that I had found him by phone. The memories of Helmand flooded through my head. I fumbled my words. I wanted to come to Richmond, meet him, interview him, show him the images of that day, give him the wheat sheaf and talk about his recovery. I had so many questions.

He listened and in a gentle, soft voice, he said: "Yes, ma'am, I would like to see you. Come."

When we finally met Dec. 13 at the hospital, I saw him in the distance. He walked with difficulty, trying to control his right arm and leg. He was wearing a plastic helmet to protect his head where part of the skull had been removed. His brain had swollen to nearly twice its size because of his injuries and doctors had to open the skull to relieve the pressure.

His helmet had a camouflage cover on it emblazoned with the 3rd Marine Division emblem on its side.

He saw me and that warm smile crossed his face again. He hugged me. Like that day in the helicopter when I held his hand, it seemed he did not want to let go. He kept repeating: "Oh man, it is so good to see you."

In his room, his dark brown eyes sparkled and he tried to tell jokes. He explained what he had been through since we had last seen each other.

Doctors put him into a coma for a month and when he woke up, he was he was at the hospital in Virginia.

He had just started to regain his speech, working his way back from months of "thumbs up, thumbs down conversation," says his 22-year-old wife, Jessica.

He will undergo more surgeries next year to rebuild his skull.

Sitting on his bed, he looked at me and asked: "Did you bring some pictures with you?" He wanted to see those moments in the helicopter.

He studied each photo. When he looked up, he had tears in his eyes. "Thank you so much," he said.

I pointed to one of the pictures with the piece of wheat. I told him I had brought it with me. He couldn't believe it.

We reminisced about Afghanistan. He talked about his Marine buddies, those he had served with and friends who were seriously injured or killed.

He lifted his left arm to his chest, where he has a Marine Corps tattoo.

"The love for the Marines is deep in my heart, they are my family," he said. "I want to return immediately back to Afghanistan to help them keep fighting."

I left the piece of wheat with Britt. He said it was his new lucky charm.

Postscript: Burness Britt is currently being treated in Atlanta for traumatic brain injury and posttraumatic stress. His father said Britt really liked Niedringhaus. For what it's worth, March had been the first month in more than seven years in which no U.S. troops had died in Afghanistan.

© 2014 Associated Press

Perspective: Anja Niedringhaus felt the need to bear witness 04/11/14 [Last modified: Friday, April 11, 2014 6:00pm]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

    

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