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Shots Seen 'Round the World

An ex-Marine, and her photos, look back at Iraq


Published June 21, 2006 at 7:43 p.m.

Vermonter Heidi Schuerger deftly captures Iraq's complexities and contradictions in the immediate aftermath of the American invasion of March 2003, when she was a U.S. Marine gunnery sergeant. A sampling of her images is currently on display at the Ilsley Library in Middlebury, along with original drawings, paintings and tapestries by Iraqi artists.

Schuerger, 44, now a database administrator at Middlebury College, served in Iraq from early April to late August 2003. Although the faces and scenes she recorded then in Nasiriyah, Al Kut and Baghdad convey a mood utterly unlike today's, they suggest the hatred and chaos that would soon explode in those occupied cities and throughout Sunni and Shia territories.

In a slide show Schuerger presented at the Ilsley earlier this month, U.S. soldiers are shown riding at twilight along unsecured roads in canvas-topped, open-sided trucks. Schuerger herself, a 6-footer with gray-streaked hair, poses in the streets of Nasiriyah with smiling Iraqi police officers and cheerful civilians. In the exhibit, a photo of boys walking across the backs of water buffalo wallowing in the Tigris, and another of a girl in a multicolored dress standing jauntily near a herd of camels, depict an everyday normalcy that now seems nostalgic.

The exhibit also presents ample evidence of grassroots anti-Saddam sentiment. In two pencil drawings by Iraqi artist Adnan Jasim, blindfolded prisoners bound together in contorted combinations writhe and scream as their club-brandishing torturers lurk darkly in the background. Another sheet by the same artist shows a male body suspended from ropes, all four limbs splayed upward at bone-breaking angles.

Two deserters from Saddam's army, their ears chopped off as punishment, stare plaintively at Schuerger's camera in one of her slides. She also photographed a mural of a snake being strangled by an arm that's tattooed with an American flag and positioned above a pile of skeletons. "Thanks to USA," a painted inscription reads. Another mural shows Saddam with angel wings and a halo speaking at a lectern in front of rows of skulls and puddles of blood.

Signs of simmering insurgency appear in some of Schuerger's images as well. "No for USA" is imprinted on a mural in which a red-and-white-striped skull is being smashed by a fist emblazoned with Iraq's Saddam-era flag. "Collateral damage" resulting from the U.S. invasion has a human face in a portrait of a boy burnt and scarred by a piece of American ordnance that had exploded when he picked it up.

Less than a month after the U.S. had seemingly conquered Iraq, hit-and-run resistance was mounting, even in places where Americans had been expected to be welcomed as liberators. Schuerger told her Ilsley audience about a street in predominantly Shiite Nasiriyah that U.S. troops had nicknamed "Ambush Alley."

The 41-year-old Marine Corps veteran now views the invasion as "a mistake based on false premises." Even so, she adds, the occupation might have proven less calamitous had the Americans and their allies avoided "some ridiculous mistakes made early on." She cites, for example, the failure to secure Iraq's borders and the loss of U.S. control over Najaf after GIs encircled the city but neglected to prevent anyone from leaving.

What policy should the Bush administration now pursue? "We need to get out of there," Schuerger responds. "We do have a moral and legal obligation to at least return the power and water supply and sanitation to the way they were before the invasion. But we don't have to make Iraq better by our own standards. And we can't fix the security problem unless we leave and subsidize an international organization to restore order."

A native of Westminster West, Vermont, Schuerger enlisted in the Marines in 1988 when she was living in Massachusetts. "I'd thought about going to college, and I also wanted to get some job skills that I knew the military could provide," she explains. Her choice of the Marines was purely happenstance, however. She says she went first to a Navy recruiting station but was repulsed by the clouds of cigarette smoke inside it. An Army recruiter handed Schuerger a CD, told her to watch it, and then walked away. At the Air Force office she visited next, "The guy behind the desk whined a lot," she recalls. Schuerger was finally wooed and won by a Marine recruiter who firmly shook her hand and asked what skills she wanted to acquire.

Language training is what she hoped to receive, but after signing up Schuerger was told that there were already too many women enrolled in those programs. She agreed to the suggestion that she study computer programming instead.

That career direction led her to Middlebury College, which hired her in 2002 while she was still in the Marine Reserves. She says she was pleased to be returning to her native state after working for five years in Washington. "I'm single with no kids, but most of my family is in Vermont, and I wanted to be close to them," says Schuerger, who now lives in Leicester.

She was recalled to active service and sent to Iraq the following year. She returned to the United States, and her job at Middlebury, in October 2003, while remaining in the Reserves. In 2005, Schuerger decided to quit the Corps entirely. It was her 16th year of service -- four short of qualifying for a full military pension. "A number of things" led her to abandon her career with the Marines, she says, declining to elaborate.

Drawing from her own combat-related experiences in Iraq, Schuerger says she can imagine how circumstances could culminate in a massacre such as the one a company of Marines allegedly carried out in Haditha last November. As a team leader, her main consideration in a dangerous situation "would be what was happening to my Marines," she says. Secondarily, she adds, "Friendly Iraqis would be more important to me than potential unfriendlies."

A Marine commander must sometimes decide in less than a second, "Do you ask questions first or do you use whatever is in your power to ensure the safety of your team?" Schuerger continues. "I wouldn't be surprised if what happened in Haditha was that one person started shooting and after that it's, 'Oh, my God, it wasn't what I thought it was.'" While it may be the least experienced soldier who opens fire in such a situation, she says, "The fault ultimately lies with the senior person who's present."

Schuerger doubts that the recent death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaida's top figure in Iraq, will make a big difference in the course of the war. "Organizations like that," she surmises, "probably have lots of other people who can replace a charismatic leader."