BAGHDAD, Iraq – Only augmented with the minimal light of the distant moon and nearby street lamps barely peeking from their sockets, they patrol through the streets underneath the concealment of darkness peering through the sight of their weapon – the glass lens of a camera.
As the Republic of Iraq’s special forces community continues to grow in numbers and capability, the Iraqi special operations forces’ 1st Brigade media department documents every step of the way, metaphorically writing pages in Iraq’s military history books one photo and video at a time.
Since the standing up of this media cell in late 2007, this band of brothers has been heavily trained in both combat camera and public affairs operations. There are 4,000 to 5,000 Soldiers in the brigade, seven of which bring these assets to the table.
One of the department’s primary missions is to reach out to the Iraqi populace through external media outlets and, with their leadership’s support, they have been able to reach out to numerous local stations such as al-Baghdadia, Al Arabiya and al-Hurra.
According to U.S. Air Force Capt. Greg A. Hignite, an officer formerly assigned to Special Operations Task Force – Central, the success of the ISOF media cell is two-fold. “First, it comes from each Soldier’s dedication to the mission,” explained the native of Beech Grove, Ind. “Second, ISOF leadership appreciates what the media cell does and values their input.”
About his hopes for future media relations, the Iraqi officer in charge of the department noted, “I envision us sending our products to all the media in Iraq – television, radio and newspapers – and the goal will be to communicate with the Iraqi people and let them know that the ISOF is here to provide safety and stability to Iraq.”
The media department’s first sergeant agreed. “It’s a job that is serving the Soldiers of my brigade by fighting against the propaganda used on my unit. I can stand in their face and show them the truth because we have the proof of what really happens,” he added.
“The ISOF media cell and command leadership understand the importance of keeping Iraqis informed about what their Special Forces unit is doing to rid the country of extremists,” claimed Hignite, an officer who considers his work with the ISOF media cell the most rewarding part of his tour in Iraq.
In the comfort of his office adorned with automatic weapons, swords affixed to wooden plaques, and various memorabilia given to him by other military officials, the charismatic commanding officer of the brigade, Maj. Gen. Fadhel Barwari, highlighted his Soldiers’ efforts in numerous press conferences.
In addition to reaching out to external outlets, the department is also responsible for providing the brigade with documentation of operations and training events.
“The best part of what the ISOF media cell is doing is capturing history and making sure the public knows all of the great work being done by the ISOF,” said Hignite, a graduate of Syracuse University. “To be honest, if the ISOF media cell doesn’t write a story, take photos or put out a press release it essentially never happened.”
A corporal in the media department explained that one of their jobs is to ensure that evidence is available in the form of documentation if any post-mission issues arise. “There is proof of what happened,” said the 19-year-old. “I am happy to be a part of this history. We are able to show the people of Iraq the truth about what we are doing, what ISOF is doing on a daily basis to make Iraq safer and more stabilized.”
“The media department is able to give an honest depiction of the brigade,” said the first sergeant who grew up in the northern city of Diyala. He asserted that their raw products will assist in the mitigation of the insurgencies’ propaganda efforts to discredit Iraqi special operations.
The first sergeant said he is grateful to take part in erasing any inaccurate image of ISOF and revealing to the public the counter-terrorism force known as the “Golden Brigade” in a more truthful light.
But to do so, the Soldiers of the department deal with the oddest of work hours and, on top of all their standard tactical gear, the weight of additional equipment during their night-time operations.
“It’s hard and, at times, very dangerous,” the first sergeant said about carrying both a weapon and camera during missions. “But to get what you want – to capture that moment in time – you have to take on that extra risk.”
According to a linguist who has worked intimately with the department, each time any of the Soldiers goes out of the wire and are in the face of danger she prays for their safe return – most of whom she considers brothers and sons.
The media department personnel are no strangers to combat and, in fact, most of them have completed the elite commando training course, which is often equated to the esteemed U.S. Army Ranger School.
“They were all fighters first and chose to be a part of the media department,” explained the captain who heads the close-knit group. “First they were fighters and now they are both fighters and combat cameramen since they are going out on most of the missions,” the Nasariyah native added with a hint of pride in all that his men have accomplished.
Each person on the team was hand-chosen by the leadership based on technical ability and the ability to learn. There is a trial process that each candidate goes through, and although it takes a while, the first sergeant noted, it ensures that they choose the best.
“We’re the best,” agreed the corporal in a lighthearted, youthful tone.
“What’s unique in the ISOF media cell is that every Soldier was first a special forces operator,” said Hignite. “This gives each Soldier tremendous credibility when networking within ISOF, escorting reporters on missions or simply providing information to the media.”
The corporal said that the group is truly like a family – one that fights, one that jokes around when they’re not training or on mission, and one that has their teammate’s back when times get tough.
“We are like one heart. We are like brothers,” added the Soldier from Karbala. “We help each other.” In describing the relationship these Soldiers share, the youngest troop in the group recalled many times when a mission came down from higher and they would tell each other ‘you rest and I will go.’
As one of the first truly successful Iraqi media operations cell in Iraq, the linguist said they stand as an ideal model for others to follow.
The first sergeant said that his advice for future media cells across Iraq is “to have perseverance, go through as much training as possible and, on top of everything and something you cannot do overnight, is gain that experience by going out and just doing.”
Although the first sergeant, who is known for being the “backbone of the office,” understands there are still improvements to be made, each group of U.S. forces that has worked with them are floored by what they have accomplished in less than two years.
“I am so impressed by their honest dedication to making Iraq a better place for their families that I couldn’t have been more privileged to work with them,” Hignite added.
When they are not on a mission or preparing for a mission, the department’s camaraderie comes alive in their office with laughter, conversation and a bit of hot chai – at least until the next operational order comes knocking on their door.