He was sent to the desert to report, not fight. But 10 years after coming home, Sam Harper lives with the jarring images of war. He saw and heard too much and sometimes he cant shake the horror of the body parts, the flies, the stench, the sound of popcorn crackling in the nighttime sky or the numbing sight of a shirtless Iraqi man not quite dead rolling around in the middle of the road as Americans rumbled into Baghdad.
But he didnt go to Iraq to write a documentary on the war. Armed with a laptop, a digital camera and a satellite telephone, his assignment for the Ledger-Enquirer was to write the stories of the 4,000 men and women of the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division who were there to do the dirty work of war.
For three eventful months, Harper lived with the Fort Benning troops as an embedded reporter. They played baseball, shared meals, weathered dust storms and when soldiers put on gas masks, he put on his just as he was trained to do. He watched them balance the mundane and the tragic and he also saw death.
Now he sees life.
Harper is 51, a stay-at-home dad living in Birmingham, Ala., with his wife and 21-month-old daughter. He worked at the Ledger-Enquirer only a short time after the war then lived as a hermit in the woods of East Alabama.
For the first time since he came home, he met a former colleague at a quaint neighborhood bookstore in Homewood and had a rambling conversation about the effects of war and the months he spent with troops he respected. He also talked about his front row seat to the making of history in a post-9/11 world.
It was almost the end of one era and the beginning of another, he says. I was writing the first draft of history, which is overwhelming when I think of it. Being able to tell the soldiers stories was an honor, and hopefully it gave us a cause to reflect and realize how important people are and that we ought to consider them when we make a monumental decision like going to war.
Back in 2002
America was going to war and, as always, so was Fort Benning.
As the Army post studied events in the Middle East, so did the Ledger-Enquirer, a newspaper with a history of military coverage. In 2002, Knight-Ridder Newspapers owned the local paper and when the parent company assembled plans for coverage of the inevitable war in Iraq, Executive Editor Mike Burbach pushed for Columbus to be involved.
It was a long tradition of the Ledger-Enquirer to care about military people from our hometown and I wanted to continue that tradition, says Burbach, now the editor of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press.
Sam Harper who often used the byline S. Thorne Harper was the papers military writer and Burbach chose him to go to Iraq. That made sense, for he had been a correspondent for the Ledger-Enquirer in Kosovo earlier that year and had also covered Peace Keeping Forces in Somalia for Thomson News in 1993.
Larger papers in the chain lobbied for their reporters but Burbach prevailed, probably because his paper was the hometown newspaper for Fort Benning.
Preparations were intense. Harper took classes at Fort Benning and in Virginia, offering training in all aspects of hazardous duty. He endured severe physical testing to ensure his body could survive heat and stress.
One thing he never shared with anyone including Burbach was that he was personally and morally opposed to the war.