War Uncensored -- On the Ground in Iraq and Afghanistan

Photographer Peter van Agtmael's unflinching portraits of Iraq and Afghanistan.

October 3, 2007 — -- I traveled to Iraq for the first time in January 2006. The idea had gnawed at me since 2004, when I realized that the war was going to continue for a very long time. At that point I was just learning photography and lacked the courage and the cash to go to Iraq on my own.

By the end of 2005, I was living in South Africa and working regularly on assignment for Time magazine. I had seen a lot and had learned to trust my instincts. In the end, what I thought I had learned in Africa didn't matter much. A lot of the time the patrols were a roll of the dice, even with the most experienced units.

I spent two and a half months of 2006 embedding with infantry units in Baghdad, Mosul and Rawah, Iraq. On patrol every day, I was able to document a cross section of the war: wary foot patrols, impromptu football games, midnight raids, barbecues, gun battles, video game tournaments, suicide bombings, the wounded and the dead.

I returned home to Washington, D.C., for a break but was restless and unhappy. I felt I had only scratched the surface of the conflict, and nothing at home seemed worthwhile or interesting in comparison.

I headed back to Baghdad in June to rejoin the 10th Mountain Division, which was plodding along much as before. The only change seemed to be on the headquarters' wall, which had become more cluttered with portraits of the fallen.

When the 10th rotated back to the United States at the end of its tour, I stationed myself at the Combat Support Hospital in the Green Zone, the busiest U.S. military hospital in Iraq.

It was here that the scale of the violence taking place in the capital was made abundantly clear. While life on patrol was more boring than terrifying, the hospital was inundated with war's ravages.

The first patient I photographed was a 4-year old girl who had been shot in the chest. One of the last was a U.S. soldier hit by an improvised explosive device, or IED, who was carried in yelling "Daddy, Daddy," then "Put me to sleep." His skin was peeling in clumps from his body. He died shortly afterward.

Disturbed by what I had seen at the hospital, I joined an infantry unit in East Baghdad. While chatting casually in an undermanned Humvee, I realized I was sitting in the seat of a soldier I had photographed just a week before in the hospital who had been shot.

A few weeks later, I was on my way home again to join my parents on a family vacation I'd promised to attend.

I returned to the United States wound tight and though I tried to relax, I could not. A few weeks after I left Iraq a friend of mine, a young medic in the hospital in Baghdad, died of a drug overdose.

A month later, one of the Humvees I'd ridden in was hit by an IED, killing everyone inside. The soldiers were just weeks from returning to the United States. I floated through the following months in a daze.

Reluctant to travel back to Iraq, I instead began photographing soldiers who had returned home from the war and the families of those who never made it back. I visited the mother, wife and son of my dead friend Jimmy.

I documented the slow recovery of Jeff Reffner, a big, gentle Pennsylvanian whom I photographed after he was wounded in Baghdad. I went to small-town funerals, and to Section 60 at Arlington cemetery, where the dead from Iraq and Afghanistan are buried. The young man I saw burn to death is buried there.

Slowly, I began thinking about returning to Iraq. I went to Afghanistan instead. I had seen so little coverage from that war and I hoped I could contribute something. But as I tried to fund my trip, I was met with apathy.

While my agency had helped me to fund my Iraq trips through assignments from American magazines, the only publication that has published the Afghan work is Croatian.

The war in Afghanistan was equally real. On my first mission with the medevac unit we picked up a bloody stretcher carrying a dead American soldier covered by a blanket. His buddy, shot in the chest in the same ambush, faded in and out of consciousness on the frantic flight to the nearest hospital.

Now I'm back in the United States, photographing the recovery of wounded soldiers. They are men of all backgrounds, reflective on the wrenching changes the war has inflicted on their lives, and determined to move on.

Sometimes, late at night after too many beers, stories are told of dead children in shot-up cars and frantic escapes after wrong turns. The hospital rooms are beautifully appointed with donated luxuries, but in the beds are legless amputees that sit in the shadows by themselves late at night chain-smoking cigarettes.

Peter van Agtmael, 26, studied history at Yale University. He is currently working on a long-term project about the toll of America's wars at home and abroad. In 2006, van Agtmael was named one of "25 under-25 Up-and-coming American Photographers" by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. In 2007, he won a World Press Photo Award for his images of night raids in Iraq.

Van Agtmael remains friends with many of the soldiers he photographed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in some cases continues to follow their recovery.

The U.S. Army and all soldiers pictured consented to having these photos taken and made public.

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