By Michelle Phillips
Somewhere in Baghdad, a U.S. Army sergeant commits suicide in front of his men. A tank hit by a 500-pound bomb flips upside down, becoming a fiery tomb for the soldiers trapped inside. Remains of friends are so mangled and scattered after an attack that the tattoos on their arms are the only means of identification. Another tank burns as other soldiers watch helplessly as their friends die inside.
All this happened to Charlie 1/26 Infantry Regiment, the unit that Army Times reporter Kelly Kennedy was embedded with starting in 2007.
Three years later, Kennedy was at the SPJ convention signing “They Fought for Each Other,” the book she wrote about those 15 months in Iraq.
“The story just begged to be told,” Kennedy said.
Thirty-two soldiers were killed while Kennedy was with them — more casualties than any single U.S. battalion had suffered since Vietnam.
Writing the story was therapeutic both for her and for the men who survived, she said at Tuesday’s seminar “From Bullets to Book.”
“You reach a point in your career where you wish you weren’t there that day,” Kennedy said. “Yet, at the same time, you realize how important it is that you are there.”
Telling the story was a big step for Kennedy and the men in the unit, she said. Some of them would talk for eight hours straight, telling her every detail so she could add it to her book. For them, it felt good to talk about it.
“It’s hard to draw the line between journalist and counselor,” Kennedy said. It was especially important to listen, she said.
Although Kennedy spoke most about the trauma the unit underwent in its time near Baghdad, her book also details the soldiers’ good days — their practical jokes and pranks such as wearing purple wigs while out on patrol.
“These people are family now,” Kennedy said. “It’s been emotionally difficult, but I wouldn’t give it up for anything.”
Kennedy joined the Army to pay for her education at Colorado State University and graduated with a degree in journalism in 1997. She has covered various beats for several different papers and joined the Army Times in 2005.
In 2007, she became the medical reporter for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps Times, and was first embedded with what she called in her book “the hardest-hit unit in Iraq.”
Kennedy said the book-writing process was draining. After reporting all day, she spent her evenings after work for nine months writing the book.
She said writing it required her to dig deeper into the story than reporting did, which was challenging because the experience was so emotional. But she was persistent.
“If you’re not obsessed, it won’t happen,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy is on leave and said she is not sure where she wants to go from here.
“I’ve probably been covering this beat for too long,” she said.
She said she was very grateful for her network of supportive friends and journalists who have helped her cope.
“I’ve been surprised by how big people are,” she said.