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Blogger gains a following with reports on the war in Iraq
WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- He didn't have to go, it wasn't his job and nobody paid him to do it. But Michael Yon says he went to Iraq because he wanted to see for himself what was happening in the war zone.
The 41-year-old former Green Beret and author was embedded as a freelance journalist with troops last year and used an Internet blog to report on car bombs, firefights and fallen soldiers. He also wrote about acts of compassion and heroism, small triumphs in the country's crawl toward democracy and the gritty inner workings of the military.
Yon's dispatches have been extolled by readers as gutsy and honest reporting. His blog has been quoted by major newspapers and TV news networks, and he has drawn comparisons to Ernie Pyle, the renowned World War II correspondent who shared the trenches with fighting soldiers.
Yon followed the 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment through battles against insurgents in Mosul. The unit, which is based at Fort Lewis, Wash., is known as the "Deuce Four."
"Deuce Four is an overwhelmingly aggressive and effective unit, and they believe the best defense is a dead enemy," Yon wrote in one dispatch. "They are constantly thinking up innovative, unique and effective ways to kill or capture the enemy; proactive not reactive."
In May, a poignant photo he shot of a soldier cradling a dying Iraqi girl after an explosion brought more attention to Yon's mission of telling the world about the war.
Yon's blog is unflinchingly pro-military, but he has frequently criticized Army public affairs officers over how news out of Iraq is managed. He hasn't shied away from describing the horrors of war, and he once wrote about an Iraqi taxi driver killed by U.S. troops during a fire fight.
"They know I don't follow the party line," says the soft-spoken Yon, whose broad, solid physique makes him seem taller than 5 feet 6 inches. "Like when our guys get killed, I'll write about it and I'll write about it the way it really happened, which sometimes is pretty graphic."
Lt. Col. Erik Kurilla, a Deuce Four commander wounded in the downtown Mosul battle, says Yon was effective because he stayed with the unit longer than most embedded reporters.
"Mike, by spending five months with us, understood the unit, the idiosyncrasies, the good and the bad, and how we made decisions," Kurilla says. "You don't get that from coming in for 48 or 72 hours."
A native of Winter Haven in central Florida, Yon is a professional adventurer of sorts. His tales range from establishing a vending business in Poland to tracking cannibals in India, all after serving five years in the Army in the 1980s. In 2000, he self-published a memoir called "Danger Close."
Yon went to Iraq a year ago, began blogging a few weeks later and gained a strong Internet following within a few months. In the last four months of 2005, his site logged around 1.5 million hits.
Not being a journalist by trade, Yon says he initially had trouble being an objective observer when the explosions and gunfire started.
"In the beginning I would just help people, and I wouldn't get any photos," he says. "I realized that I could do a lot more with my camera and my pen than I could with my hands, and so I disciplined myself to just stay out of the way and photograph, unless somebody really, really needs me."
He felt that was the case in the downtown Mosul battle. Before picking up the rifle, he shot photos of Kurilla crumpling to the ground as an insurgent's bullets pierced both his legs and an arm.
Kurilla and the rest of the Deuce Four are home now, with dozens of Purple Hearts among them. Yon has been interviewing them for a book about the unit and the battles in Mosul.
He recently bought new body armor and, if all goes as planned, he'll return to Iraq later this year.
"It's a very complicated world and you can't learn about it by sitting back and reading about it," Yon says. "Not the way I wanted to learn about it anyway."