What Happened That Day on Patrol

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As you can imagine, there wasn't much disagreement among the editors this year about the biggest story of 2003. George Bush's campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein has dominated the headlines; TIME has devoted 19 of this year's covers to the war and its aftermath. We did have a spirited debate about who would best represent the story, and finally decided on the American soldier as Person of the Year. Yes, it was the President's decision to go to war, and it was up to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to devise the strategy. But the burden of executing the decision rested on the shoulders of the men and women who make up the armed forces, both the 1.4 million in uniform and the 1.2 million who serve in the reserves.

By naming the American soldier as Person of the Year, we're using that term in its broadest sense, to stand for all of those in a U.S. uniform who go in harm's way, including the Navy's sailors, the airmen and women of the Air Force, and the Marines. By the way, when I and several other editors met with Rumsfeld at the Pentagon in November to talk about the war, he made the pitch, unsolicited by us, that the Person of the Year should be the American soldier. (Or as he put it, the American volunteer.)

Our reporting, in fact, was already under way. We decided to tell much of our story through a single platoon in Iraq: an artillery survey unit in the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division. Based in Germany, the platoon arrived in Baghdad in late May and soon got nicknamed the Tomb Raiders after being assigned the task of looking for weapons hidden in one of the city's cemeteries. Shortly before Thanksgiving, our team gathered in Baghdad to embed with the Tomb Raiders. Romesh Ratnesar, a writer based in New York City who had already spent three months this year in Iraq, was joined by Michael Weisskopf, a senior correspondent in Washington who had spent four weeks earlier this year reporting out of Baghdad. James Nachtwey, the legendary war photographer, who insisted on staying in the Iraqi capital when the war began last March, joined them two days later.

For three weeks, the team ate, slept and went on patrol with the Tomb Raiders. Jim shot thousands of photographs of the platoon and its headquarters unit, some of which can be seen in the photo essay that begins on page 42. Jim also photographed the cover, which features platoon members Sergeant Marquette Whiteside, Specialist Billie Grimes and Sergeant Ronald Buxton. On the evening of Dec. 10, our team was deep into its reporting when something happened that underscored the violence in Iraq and would change the lives of several people forever.

Someone threw a grenade into the back of a humvee on patrol in Baghdad; Michael instinctively grabbed hold of it to throw it out. Jim, who was sitting next to him, saw it explode as Michael cupped his hand around it. The next image Jim recalled was Michael's right arm, raised up and handless. Jim had been hit by shrapnel in the abdomen, where his armored vest ended, in an arm and finger, and below both knees. Private Orion Jenks, 22, suffered a broken leg, and Private First Class Jim Beverly, 19, lost teeth and lacerated his tongue.

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