DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.
Earlier this month, we spoke with Vietnam veteran Robert Konrardy. It was just a few days before his departure for Baghdad, where Konrardy joined the same platoon of the First Calvary Division he commanded in Vietnam 41 years ago.
In Baghdad, Bob Konrardy was credentialed as a photojournalist, but his mission was personal. In 1965, he was hit by a mortar fire and evacuated from Vietnam. For decades he felt he had abandoned his soldiers in battle, many of whom did not return. So Bob Konrardy wanted to connect with the platoon's new generation of soldiers and document their lives for families back home.
Bob Konrardy returned to his home in Iowa this week, and he joins us to talk about his experience. Welcome home.
Mr. ROBERT KONRARDY (Vietnam War Veteran): Thank you, Debbie.
ELLIOTT: What struck you about the daily routine of these soldiers in Baghdad?
Mr. KONRARDY: Everything that I imagined before I went over was turned upside down. Nothing was like what I thought it was going to be. Their daily routine is going on patrols in Humvees.
In one 24-hour period, they went on three different missions. And I envisioned going over there and meeting them in a platoon area, you know, like a tented area or something, where they would get together and play cards or whatever and spent a lot of time as a group. That was not true at all. They live in like a concrete jungle. There's all these concrete pillars around, protecting them from mortars and RPGs.
ELLIOTT: RPGs are rocket-propelled grenades.
Mr. KONRARDY: Yes. So security, even in Camp Liberty where the First Cav is, is very, very tight. So I get over there and I meet Lieutenant Tom Hicky(ph), and he says, well, you're spending the time with me because you're not going to be spending much time in here anyway. And I said, well, I kind of thought I'd hang around the platoon and not go out on missions and stay at base camp and interview them.
Tom said, you've got to be proactive if you want to get to learn the platoon. He said, you have to go out with us on missions. I said, I can't. I promised my family I wouldn't. He said if you want to get to know the platoon, you have no choice because we're never here.
He said most of the times I've got four to five hours before the next mission. I just laid down - set the alarm, lay down on my bunk with my clothes and boots on, take a quick nap and get back up for the next mission. And that's the way those guys live.
ELLIOTT: So they don't even have time to eat?
Mr. KONRARDY: We missed quite a few meals. That's true. I lost weight. And that's a decision they have to make. Am I going to eat, e-mail home, get cleaned up or take a nap? Because the next mission is four hours from now.
ELLIOTT: I take it you decided to go on missions with them against what you had told your family.
Mr. KONRARDY: I actually embedded with them on every single mission while I was there. So instead of taking notes about where they grew up, how they grew up, what their hobbies are, I actually lived in a combat situation with them. And the first mission was two hours after I got there. We go out on a night patrol, and we're sitting in an intersection while a platoon clears four houses.
Now, these guys have to go into this house at night and the rooms are like your bedrooms at home. They go through the doorway one at a time, and they have no idea what's in that room. There could be - a kid with an RPG in there, someone with an AK-47.
So the anxiety level goes into overdrive. So now you gather inside this one room and it's been cleared. Now you've got to go to the next room. Immediately, your anxiety goes supersonic again. I mean it is terrible; it's nothing like we had in Vietnam.
In Vietnam, I could go for days in the jungle and not see anybody. We'd come across a couple of huts and the Vietnamese civilians would hear us come and leave. In Iraq the minute they leave base camp, we're in harm's way all the time.
ELLIOTT: I want to ask you about one of the photographs that you sent us from your patrols in Iraq.
Mr. KONRARDY: Yes.
ELLIOTT: It's the one where you're in a house search and there is a little girl looking up at the American soldiers and she's pointing down at her little sister who was sleeping on the floor under a pile of blankets.
Mr. KONRARDY: Yeah.
ELLIOTT: Can you tell us what was happening when you took this photograph?
Mr. KONRARDY: That was the first house search I went into. It was just at dawn, and we went in there and we were going to check the father's documentation. So we woke up the father and mother and all the kids. And the mom and the three children sat on the couch. And the father was being questioned, went into the bedroom. Under his mattress, as he's pulling out paperwork and stuff.
And then some soldiers started going, searching the house, because each Iraq family is allowed one weapon and one magazine. If we find more than that, we take that weapon and those magazines back with us to battalion. So the rest of the soldiers are searching everything, you know, around the blankets, around the couch.
And this little girl is pulling at this soldier and pointing down to her sister sleeping, and we didn't realize there was someone there. We thought we'd woken everybody up. And she - she just got to me. She touched my heart. So I went over there and took her hand.
And I talked to Tom - Lieutenant Tom, and told him there's a little girl here. You know, make sure you guys don't step on her. And the little girl squeezed my hand when the soldiers backed off. She squeezed my hand and smiled at me, and I swear to God, I had goose bumps as big as quarters. I mean, I almost cried.
So while the soldiers - armed soldiers and Iraqi soldiers are searching the house and covering her dad with machine guns and AK-47s, she was more concerned about her little sister being hurt than she was terrified of all this trauma going on around her.
ELLIOTT: Do you know why they targeted this house?
Mr. KONRARDY: Because they thought he was an insurgent, and he had to have the paper to prove he was not.
ELLIOTT: Was he an insurgent and were there weapons there that shouldn't have been there?
Mr. KONRARDY: There was not weapons that should not have been there and he only had one magazine, and he did have the proper papers.
ELLIOTT: In some of those photos, where you're taking pictures of the three kids, there are also some photographs...
Mr. KONRARDY: Yes.
ELLIOTT: ...of the father and the mother. It looks like the father is in his underwear. He's got on a...
Mr. KONRARDY: Yes, he is.
ELLIOTT: ...white t-shirt and some boxer shorts. It looks like the mother is in maybe a robe covering up her pajamas or something.
Mr. KONRARDY: Yes. Yes.
ELLIOTT: It was a very personal scene. These people had just been awakened. Did you ever feel that it wasn't appropriate for you to be in these private homes, since you are not an active duty soldier or a journalist who's working for a newspaper?
Mr. KONRARDY: No. The kids love me taking their picture. I mean they would ask me to take their picture. Some of the adults were a little hesitant, but the kids loved having their picture taken. And I had to wear dark blue clothes and I had a Kevlar jacket that was solid color and a helmet that was solid color. I was the only one in those colors among all these camouflage soldiers. So to me I'm a bullseye, and that bothered me.
Lieutenant Tom told me, he says they were not shooting journalists these days so you have nothing to worry about. They want the journalists to cover their stories and take their pictures. So that's kind of the attitude I had. They want me to take their picture and tell their story, along with the soldiers.
ELLIOTT: You know, before you left, we talked about your post-traumatic stress disorder, something that hit you late in life decades after you left Vietnam. How did your post-traumatic stress disorder affect you when you were there in Iraq, in the field?
Mr. KONRARDY: My anxiety level was so high. I was stunned the entire time I was there. I didn't have nightmares because I barely slept. In one 70-hour period I had like five or six hours of sleep. So while I was over there, you don't have time to have PTSD problems, and neither do the guys that are there. And they all said when they go home for their two weeks leave they start having the nightmares, and then the airport scene going back to Iraq for the family is terrible.
ELLIOTT: When we last spoke with you, Mr. Konrardy, you talked about how on your last day in Baghdad you wanted to shake hands with the soldiers and your old platoon, to hug them if they would let you. Were you able to give this goodbye to today's platoon that you've felt like you never got to do back in Vietnam?
Mr. KONRARDY: Yes. Lieutenant Tom got everybody together, and again we had to wake some guys up because they've been on the day mission with me. And once again Tom told them the story of Vietnam and how I was airlifted out of there. And he says, guys, we're here to see him off. We want him to go home and remember us. And we want to help him get over some of his demons.
So each one of the guys shook my hand. A lot of the guys hugged me. I mean it was like I was saying goodbye to my platoon. They gave me closure. They really did. I feel good. I was one of them and they were saying goodbye.
ELLIOTT: Bob Konrardy returned this week from spending time in Baghdad with the same platoon of the First Cavalry Division that he led during the Vietnam War.
Thank you for sharing your experience with us.
Mr. KONRARDY: Thanks, Debbie.