Not long after I first started at Military Times, I had a conversation with a colleague, Andrew Tilghman, about a particular memory he had of an embedded assignment in Iraq. Covering Army operations in violent Mahmudiyah in 2006, he had several striking conversations with Army Pfc. Steven Green, who offered a simple statement:
“I came over here to kill people.”
Tilghman, not yet employed by Military Times at the time, later wrote about the encounter for the Washington Post. The memory became especially vivid after Green was convicted of raping a 14-year-old Iraqi girl, then killing her and her family.
Four years later, I feel like I’m having a bit of a Green moment. Playing catch-up with the news last night after a vacation, I learned that Michael Enright, a 21-year-old film student, allegedly attacked a New York City taxi cab driver who acknowledged being Muslim last week, creating a growing uproar.
A key detail for me: In the spring, Enright slept two beds away from me for a couple of nights in a tent set aside for media at Camp Leatherneck, the Corps’ major hub of operations in southern Afghanistan.
Enright reportedly embedded in April and May with 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, out of Marine Corps Base Hawaii. No part of Helmand province is truly safe, but 1/3 was based in Nawa, a district of about 89,000 people that is considered perhaps the Marines’ greatest success story in the war this year. They were replaced June 6 in Afghanistan by 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, also out of Hawaii.
Enright’s time in Afghanistan is now under investigation because of his alleged actions last week. Police told the Wall Street Journal and other sources that say he had an empty Scotch bottle and journals he compiled while in Afghanistan at the time of the attack, and repeatedly slashed Ahmed H. Sharif, 43, with a knife on Tuesday night. He allegedly screamed “Assalamu Alaikum,” an Afghan greeting, and “consider this a checkpoint” before attacking, media reports said.
Obviously, I can’t speak to Enright’s recent behavior. What I can say is that after meeting him in Afghanistan, I was struck dumb by the accusations.
Enright introduced himself after we had both spent about a day at Leatherneck waiting for rides to the respective units we were covering. He seemed impressed that Military Times photographer Tom Brown and I were going to Marjah, a former Taliban stronghold that remains the most violent district in Helmand province.
What struck me initially was how cheerful he was, even though he had been holed up in the media tent for a few days waiting for a helicopter ride out to his embedded assignment. He mentioned that he was working on an independent film project, which threw me for a loop, considering his apparent youth and all the inherent risks involved in covering combat.
I assumed that like many other freelance journalists I met downrange, he was taking a risk in hopes that it would launch his career to a new level. I didn’t know at the time that he was there to collect footage for a documentary on one of his high school friends, a 1/3 infantryman.
Three months later, I certainly wonder what he saw downrange, and if this horrifying incident had anything to do with it. I wonder whether he showed any signs of stress between then and now to friends or family, and whether this whole ordeal could have been avoided.
Finally, a small piece of me wonders how I’d have held up afterward if my hairiest war experiences — surviving small-arms ambushes in Marjah and nearby Nad Ali, and witnessing an improvised explosive device attack in Marjah — ended with casualties.
To put it succinctly: What a mess.