BAGHDAD, Dec. 8, 2007 — -- It was a successful mission. Several known militia members had been killed or captured and a small arsenal of weapons were confiscated. A hostage had been freed. The Iraqis had performed well -- entering one of the offices of the Sadr organization with little help from their U.S. allies.
Forty minutes after the firefight, the soldiers entered the safety of their base on the outskirts of Baghdad. That's when they learned they had allegedly killed innocent Iraqis who were praying inside a mosque.
What really happened at the Mustafa Husseiniya that day in March 2006 quickly became irrelevant. Pictures of dead bodies laid out on prayer rugs were flashed on the Internet before the soldiers took off their body armor. The Internet story, posted by the targets of the raid, triggered outrage that, at the time, threatened U.S. efforts to help form a new Iraqi government.
It's just one example of how the "information battlefield" can turn a tactical success into a strategic nightmare.
"They aren't able to meet us tank for tank, so they revert to other things," said Lt. Col. James Hutton, one of the top public affairs officers in Iraq, "and the Internet is the centerpiece."
This story is about one of the warriors on the information battlefield. Her name is Maj. Megan McClung.
The warriors on the information battlefield don't have fearsome titles or intimidating rank. The role of public affairs officer is not often appreciated or understood, even among their trigger-pulling colleagues.
How is this battle going?
"Frankly, when it comes to information ops, they are kicking our ass," one senior officer told ABC News.
He said the U.S. military has two problems in this fight: They have to be right, and they have a cumbersome bureaucratic structure. It can take days before they issue a response. By then the damage has been done.
On a day in December 2006, McClung escorted a fellow Marine, Fox News' Oliver North, to safety, and was returning to base.
There are no front lines in Iraq and death can strike quickly at any time. So it was for McClung. A roadside bomb took her life.
She is the highest ranking woman to die in Iraq. Those who knew her well say she wanted to be here. She wanted to make a difference.
Those who worked with her remember her energy -- energy that could be felt even over the phone.
She would often answer late-night calls from reporters struggling to make sense out of the latest fight in the information battle. If it didn't seem right to her, it made sense to dig deeper. If that meant seeing it for yourself, McClung could get you there.
The toughest of combat soldiers met Friday at Camp Victory to honor McClung. Marines flew in from Anbar Province. They were all there to dedicate a new media center and studio in her name.
The commanding general of multi-national corps, Iraq, Gen. Raymond Odierno, is fond of telling the media that every soldier, marine or sailor has a story -- "a bullet dodged, and attack thwarted or a life saved."
Odierno paid McClung tribute but had to stop mid-sentence to fight off a moment of emotion. He'd never met her, but he knows many like her.
McClung trained soldiers and officers how to talk to reporters and appear on camera. Her message was simple: Be bold, be brief and be gone. Her advice is now a well-known weapon on the information battlefield.
Bold, brief and gone. Maj. Megan McClung was 33.