I was reminded Sunday of the courage required to bear witness to history.
At dusk on Aug. 14, Associated Press photojournalist Julie Jacobson took a picture of a Marine who was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan. Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard died.
Jacobson described the scene Sunday at a meeting for the AP on Sunday in Kansas City. She spoke plainly and in detail of the Taliban ambush.
The RPG that killed Lance Cpl. Bernard hit 10 yards from Jacobson.
She didn’t see Bernard. The grenade started a grass fire. There was the pop-pop-pop of gunfire from AK-47s and M-16s. She was running.
Then she saw him. “For the second time in my life, I watched a Marine lose his,” she said in a slideshow journal I later watched online.
“I hit the ground and lay as flat as I could and shot what I could.”
Bernard was awake, although his legs were mostly gone. He said he couldn’t breathe. Fellow Marines tended to him, but he would lose consciousness and die before the day was out.
When it was released in September, the photo ignited debate over its appropriateness of showing American casualties.
Monday morning, at the conference of Kansas and Missouri editors, the discussion continued.
Points on both sides seemed valid. Most had been vetted the night I got the call from the Missourian copy desk. (The story and accompanying photo ran inside the A section of the print edition.)
I got a better sense of the weight and context behind the photo from Jacobson’s back story.
At the conference, Jacobson showed video of crossing an open area while receiving gunfire a few days before.
You can’t see her, of course, but you can hear her breathing hard. It might have been from running in 115-degree heat. Or it might have been from knowing that, for a brief moment, she was alone as she became separated from a Marine she was with.
A few minutes after the RPG that killed Bernard, a second grenade hit just 5 yards from Jacobson.
“It was a big boom!” she said in her online journal, “and I just lay my face in the dirt and everything went quiet for about 10 seconds. It was just silence, like I was wearing noise canceling headphones or like world peace had finally descended upon the earth.
“The air was white with sand.”
As I write, thousands more soldiers and Marines are making ready for deployment to Afghanistan. Theirs is the most hazardous of journeys.
But behind them — sometimes just a step or two away — Julie Jacobson and journalists like her are there to witness the events for us.