James Lee is a former Marine from California who served two tours of duty in Iraq in 2001 to 2004. He’s been back in Iraq more recently, this time as an embedded photographer. Lee is now a journalism student at San Francisco State University and filed reports from Iraq for the college newspaper, the Golden Gate XPress. But earlier this month, Lee was abruptly de-embedded. On April 2nd, just before General Petraeus was due to brief Congress on progress in Iraq, Lee was ordered to leave Basra. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Just a few days ago, we were in Santa Barbara, celebrating KCSB, the community radio station of the University of California, Santa Barbara. It was there that I met James Lee, a former Marine from California who served two tours of duty in Iraq in 2001 and 2004. In 2004, he was in Fallujah where he got his finger shot off in friendly fire. He has been back in Iraq more recently, this time as an embedded photographer. Lee is now a journalism student at San Francisco State University, filed reports from Iraq for the Golden Gate XPress. But earlier this month, Lee was abruptly de-embedded. On April 2, just before General Petraeus was due to brief Congress on progress in Iraq, Lee was ordered to leave Basra, just a few hours after he had gotten there. I spoke to Lee while on the road in Santa Barbara.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell me your experience.
JAMES LEE: My name is James Lee. I am a photojournalist. I’m also a Marine veteran, served two combat deployments in Iraq. And after my last deployment, I was—in Fallujah back in 2004, I was shot by another Marine unit during a combat operation and ended up being evacuated after being injured during a friendly fire incident. After leaving the Marine Corps, I decided to return to Iraq as a photojournalist.
AMY GOODMAN: And what happened?
JAMES LEE: I was with the military for about five months total. My last assignment was in the city of Basra. I had become aware of a declining security situation in some neighborhoods around Baghdad and in Basra and decided that I wanted to go down and photograph to document the Iraqi army’s ability or inability to conduct independent combat operations in Iraq.
I arrived in Basra after a three-day convoy with Iraqi soldiers from Baghdad down to Basra. I was only in Basra about four hours, when I was notified by the public affairs office assigned to Basra that they didn’t want any Western media in Basra covering the fighting and that an aircraft was been dispatched down to Basra to pick me up to fly me back to Baghdad.
AMY GOODMAN: What was the reason they gave?
JAMES LEE: Originally I was told that an order came directly from the office of General Petraeus, that they didn’t want any Western media covering the events and—
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
JAMES LEE: Because Petraeus was in Washington at the time, and they were concerned about images coming out from Basra that didn’t support their mission at the time.
AMY GOODMAN: Is that what you speculate, or that’s what they said?
JAMES LEE: That’s what I was told by the public affairs officer; that’s what he thought the reason was. I thought that it contradicted some guidelines that General Petraeus had published to his subordinate command directly relating to the media. And I obtained Petraeus’s personal phone number a few weeks earlier from a French reporter who had interviewed him. So I called that number, and he had already left for Washington, but one of his adjutants that answered the phone said that that order didn’t come from Petraeus and that I had every right to remain in Basra.
I notified the unit that I was with about that fact, and they changed their story and said, “Well, you’re now able to stay.” But about two hours later, they reversed their position and said now a new authority was ordering me out of Basra and that it wasn’t Petraeus. I was told that it was a two-star Marine general; they would not identify who he was. And later, once I arrived back in Baghdad after being forced to leave Basra, I was told that the order now came from the Iraqi army themselves. So, they had quite a few reasons why I couldn’t be there doing my job.
AMY GOODMAN: Why didn’t they want you to see what—or what was the reality on the ground?
JAMES LEE: The reality on the ground was, more than a thousand Iraqi soldiers refused to fight the Mahdi Army, whether they were afraid that they didn’t have the ability to do it or they didn’t believe that they should be fighting the Mahdi Army. For whatever reason, many of them put down their weapons and refused to go into Basra and fight the Mahdi Army. And I think those images would have been very powerful, and I think it would have created a lot of doubt on the part of the American public about the Iraqis army’s commitment to coalition missions in Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: What was Fallujah like when you were there as a soldier?
JAMES LEE: Extremely chaotic. We had surrounded the city of Fallujah—
AMY GOODMAN: What month was this in 2004?
JAMES LEE: April.
AMY GOODMAN: The first siege.
JAMES LEE: The first siege. The city had basically been evacuated by most people, but there were still pockets of some civilians who decided to remain behind and safeguard their homes and shops.
AMY GOODMAN: And how long were you there then before you were shot?
JAMES LEE: I was only in Fallujah for about a week when I was shot by another Marine unit that was operating in the same area that I was in.
AMY GOODMAN: And how did they shoot you?
JAMES LEE: They misidentified my position as an enemy position, and I was targeted by my own troops. And I ended up—I was shot through the left hand.
AMY GOODMAN: Where you seriously injured? You lost the top of your finger?
JAMES LEE: I’ve lost some use of two fingers. They reattached the middle finger, and it remained attached for about a year. And then they decided that it would be best to remove it, so they amputated it after about a year.
AMY GOODMAN: What was the difference between being a soldier and an embedded journalist?
JAMES LEE: The ability to ask questions and to interact, I think, on a more intimate level with Iraqi civilians. I mean, I had no interaction, really, with Iraqis while I was wearing a uniform. It wasn’t until I returned as a civilian journalist that I had the chance to sit down and speak with Iraqi interpreters and those Iraqis that did speak English.
AMY GOODMAN: Did your view of Iraq change?
JAMES LEE: Uh—
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking to Iraqis?
JAMES LEE: I think it did. It was my first opportunity, I think, to meet Iraqis. I mean, I’d been to Iraq twice before, once for the invasion and once for the battle of Fallujah during my second deployment, and never had the chance to interact with an Iraqi. And it wasn’t until the end of 2006, when I returned to Iraq, that I had the chance to sit down and speak with Iraqis for the first time.
AMY GOODMAN: And how did the soldiers treat you as a journalist?
JAMES LEE: You know, I had thought returning back to Iraq as a former Marine veteran and now as a civilian photographer, that I’d have greater access. And I realized that once you take the uniform off and you pick up a camera, they no longer view you as a Marine veteran. You’re now a journalist. And I wasn’t always welcome. I had some problems trying to tell the stories that I wanted to tell.
AMY GOODMAN: Like what?
JAMES LEE: One of my embeds when I was in Afghanistan, I was embedded with an Army unit, and I was forced to remain on a forward operating base for ten days and was never allowed to leave the base with a patrol or to go out into the community where the real stories were. So, my only access to any of the locals was an Iraqi army unit that was housed in the same forward operating base.
AMY GOODMAN: An Afghan?
JAMES LEE: In Afghanistan.
AMY GOODMAN: An Afghan army unit?
JAMES LEE: An Afghan army unit. So I had the opportunity to speak with them about their feelings about us being in Afghanistan and about the changes in their country, but if it wasn’t for those soldiers being on the same base, I would have basically been locked out of any access with the Afghanis.
AMY GOODMAN: And why were they trying to stop you from meeting them?
JAMES LEE: I was told that earlier in the year they had had some problems with German reporters, and they weren’t happy with the story that was told, and they were no longer going to support media missions. And they were just going to wait me out.
AMY GOODMAN: What did the Afghan soldiers tell you?
JAMES LEE: That there’s really limited opportunities for them in Afghanistan, and by joining the Afghan military, at least it’s an option for some credibility, some income, some stability. But most of them, I thought, would rather be doing other things with their time. They were really separated from their families and from their communities. And they’re pretty isolated when they’re out serving in these forward operating bases.
AMY GOODMAN: Ultimately in Basra, they got a plane to get you?
JAMES LEE: They did. They originally wanted me out that day when I was first notified, but the weather wouldn’t permit them to land. So I had to remain over for about another ten hours before they were able to get a flight the following morning. During that period of time, I was able to go out and take some photographs and interview some of the Iraqi soldiers that were getting ready to move into Basra.
AMY GOODMAN: A thousand refused to fight?
JAMES LEE: Over—I think it was 1,300 was the last report that I heard.
AMY GOODMAN: That is the embedded reporter James Lee, actually a former Marine, before he was injured in Fallujah in 2004. After he was injured, he went back to Camp Pendleton. Then Hurricane Katrina hit, and he and a fellow Marine wanted to go to Katrina, to New Orleans. They were told they couldn’t go, so they took vacation, and they went down to New Orleans anyway. This is what James Lee described happened when he went to New Orleans.
AMY GOODMAN: You were shipped back to the United States. Can you talk about that time period and what you did?
JAMES LEE: Sure. After being injured, I was pulled out of my role as a rifleman, and I was assigned as an instructor running a facility at Camp Pendleton that taught Marines water survival. During that timeframe, Hurricane Katrina had hit New Orleans, and I contacted my command about letting a group of Marines travel to New Orleans to assist with the rescue operations, and I was told by my command that that’s not possible, that unless we’re requested, we can’t go.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, what did you do?
JAMES LEE: Myself and one other Marine had put in a request for vacation time, and we both took two weeks off, and without our command knowing, we grabbed some equipment and drove all the way to New Orleans to help out.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did they say you couldn’t go?
JAMES LEE: Because the Marines hadn’t been formally tasked to go down there and assist with recovery operations or rescue operations, we weren’t able to go as small unit. The Marine Corps also identified New Orleans as a no-travel zone, which meant no one in the military was allowed to go there for any reason.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what happened when you got there?
JAMES LEE: As myself and the other Marine drove to New Orleans, we contacted FEMA on our cell phone and coordinated getting a duty assignment with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. And once we arrived in downtown New Orleans, we were paired up with other rescuers, and we began to conduct search and rescue operations in the city.
AMY GOODMAN: And how long did you do that for?
JAMES LEE: We were there for about ten days. And I think on day six or seven, an Associated Press photographer happened to take our photographs, and those photographs ran across the nation.
AMY GOODMAN: What do they show you doing?
JAMES LEE: The photograph showed me talking to a displaced resident from the Lower Ninth Ward. He was trying to argue that he wanted to remain in his neighborhood, and I was explaining to him that we were evacuating everybody out of the area. So it was basically us having some dialogue inside of a boat.
AMY GOODMAN: And were you dressed as a Marine?
JAMES LEE: I was not. We attempted to conceal our identities by just wearing green flight suits. And I think the caption identified me and the other Marine as police officers.
AMY GOODMAN: Which you’re not.
JAMES LEE: Which we’re not.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, what happened when those pictures ran?
JAMES LEE: Those pictures ran nationwide. They were in the New York Times, LA Times. And our command ended up seeing the photograph, and they placed a phone call and ordered us to return back to Camp Pendleton.
AMY GOODMAN: How fast?
JAMES LEE: They wanted us there immediately. I think we drove nonstop, and we got back in about two days.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you punished?
JAMES LEE: We weren’t. We were told as long as we didn’t let people know what we were down there doing, that we would be reimbursed for the days that we took off and that there wouldn’t be any punitive action taken against us.
AMY GOODMAN: Why not?
JAMES LEE: I was told that at that point so many people in the United States were questioning why the military wasn’t there that they thought that it would be inappropriate to punish us for what we should have been doing in the first place.
AMY GOODMAN: That is former Marine, James Lee. I met him in Santa Barbara, as we continue to be on the road. James Lee then went on to be an embedded reporter and was pulled out of Basra. He’s at San Francisco State University in California.
* Amy Goodman
* Democracy Now!