N.J. native’s blog describes front row seat to Iraq War surge

He ducks in and out of dusty cinderblock houses in Fallujah, following heavily armed Marines as the staccato pop, pop, pop of gunfire erupts nearby. He carries 40 pounds of equipment in temperatures that climb past 120 degrees.

And he sometimes stays up 30 hours at a time, while the Marines work through night to set up precincts as part of the troop-surge strategy aimed at securing the restive country.

A self-portrait by Jim Spiri.

Jim Spiri, a Trenton native, has never served in the military. And at 52, he doesn't have to be in Iraq. But the civilian contractor is there, nonetheless, having left his duties loading and unloading aircraft in Kuwait so he can record history in Iraq.

As an unpaid photographer embedded with U.S. Marines, Spiri is capturing the dangerous work of the troops in digital images and writing every day - with emotion - about the hope and despair he sees. He's also there because he wants to honor the service of U.S. troops.

Spiri has a front-row seat in the U.S. military's Iraq war surge and the freedom to describe it. His unit is part of Operation Alljah, the effort by Marines and the Iraqi Army to return Fallujah in Anbar Province to local law enforcement by creating districts, each with a precinct headquarters.

"I've just returned from a patrol an hour ago," Spiri wrote June 14 from Fallujah. "Going in and out of houses is an experience that is beyond words, going with 15 Marines in full battle gear, hearing shots sometimes in the distance.

" . . . It's hard to describe, but the most important part is I'm here with those doing what no one stateside knows. It is phenomenal."

Spiri, whose home is in Albuquerque, N.M., described Fallujah, "where lots of American blood has been spilled, is a place that looks kind of like Mexico . . . ."

"The daily temperatures here are in the 115-120 degree range, and we do daily patrols . . . into the afternoons. It's unbelievable how much the human body can sweat," he wrote. Spiri's years of working in the region have acclimated him to the heat and left him fit for the daily grind.

"Water is the main thing I carry with me, as do the others. My gear, with body armor and water, is around 40 pounds. The Marines carry about 75 pounds. They, of course, are 25, years younger than me."

Spiri is one of hundreds of civilian workers across the region. He has added incentive though. His son Jimmy is an Army helicopter pilot in Iraq and his wife Candi is a civilian employee in Kuwait. The Spiris lost a Marine son, Jesse, to brain cancer in 2001.

"We - my wife and I - have always considered all the sons and daughters of America currently in harm's way as our own sons and daughters," he wrote Friday. "For two years, in Balad, I was able to assist in the loading and transferring of over 10,000 of America's wounded, where I saw what war can do to our children.

"It was there, in 2004, that I met and loaded many, many wounded Marines who were injured fighting in a place called Fallujah . . . I've also attended hundreds and hundreds of honor guard ceremonies."

In Kuwait, Spiri said he watched "all the KIAs (troops killed in action) arrive before being returned to the USA via Dover (Delaware)."

"We have witnessed many sad moments. It is for that reason, as well as my own healing process, that I chose at this time in my life, to come and embed with the USMC, for historical purposes and be among the men that have to be here, doing their jobs, for all of us," he wrote Friday.

"I have chosen to come and take photos of them, for them, and give them to each Marine, for I know, that one day, all will want to show to their own children, what they did during what we all call 'the Iraq War.' "

This month, Spiri said the neighborhood-by-neighborhood security approach has seen "some success."

"All eyes are on Anbar province these days waiting to see if the new security plan works, and if it will catch hold eventually one day," he wrote June 1. " . . . Now it's been told to me by many here, that even those that are all of a sudden partaking in what is called the 'Anbar Awakening' used to be recently fighting against the 'occupiers,' or Americans."

Marines headed into Fallujah about 10 p.m., June 12 to cover troops who were setting up a precinct.

"After about 40 minutes walking under the star-studded clear night sky of Iraq, we entered a home where the residents were asleep," he wrote June 13. "It's hot around here, even in the nighttime hours, and many residents sleep outside on their roofs as power is quite intermittent, being on a few hours every 24-hour period."

By 11 p.m., the Marines secured the house and were using it to help guard approaches to a new precinct headquarters, which quickly was being set up with sandbags and barriers.

While watches rotated through the night, Spiri said the Marines smoked cigarettes, drank water and slept fitfully.

"I wander from room to room and converse at length with the Marines in the squad," he wrote June 13. "They are all in their 20s and all in their second tour in Iraq. What soon becomes apparent is that no one back home, stateside, will ever have a clue to what is being done over here."

". . . Everyone is here for the duration of their deployment to do whatever is asked of them. While thoughts of life after Iraq are verbalized throughout the night, I realize once again the front lines of the strategy boil down to long, hot nights in cinderblock homes, crowded with residents who await another night to pass."

Along the way, Spiri has made friends with soldiers, such as 25-year-old Sgt. Don Reynolds Jr. of Haverford.

In Spiri's June 6 entry, "Reynolds says with a firmness in his voice, 'Those back home hear of the casualties of this war from all across Iraq. But when something positive, such as what I've experienced in Anbar province, especially Fallujah, happens, it just doesn't make the news.' "

Spiri's life is in the hands of young Marines, including Cpl. William Anderson Jr., 24, of Bucks County.

"I'm there as he charges up the stairs of a local resident, awaiting the unknown and with every step, keeping his wits about him as well as as keen sense of what might be awaiting him at the top," he wrote Friday.

Despite the dangers and discomforts, Spiri says his experience has been rewarding.

Traveling the streets of Fallujah with the Marines "is not a job . . . rather it is an honor to capture on a digital camera what the likes of (World War II reporter) Ernie Pyle or (Civil War photograher) Mathew Brady would have done, no matter what the risk. It was then, and it is now, sheer history before my very eyes."

Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com. To comment, or to ask a question, go to http://go.philly.com/askcolimore.

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Contact Spiri directly at jimspiri@yahoo.com.