the jaw still speaking

In 2016, I arrived in Iraq looking for something within myself. I initially thought I would report on the Battle for Mosul, but quickly found purpose in a frontline Trauma Stabilization Point, where I met Pete, the leader of the group and man who would eventually become my husband. 

Throughout the year in Mosul, I documented the spaces, places, and occasionally portraits that echoed the internal transformation I was undergoing: from a bright hearted optimist, to a dark eyed and dark hearted woman who had seen a little too much death, to someone and something who managed to find light and love on the other side. 

I originally self-published this book in 2020, with a short run of 100 copies, with the editing and design help of Peter David Gross and Joshua David Watson. It was my catharsis, my way of encapsulating the physical, emotional, and spiritual change through a combination of light-driven images and my personal journals throughout my time in Mosul. 

I feel like the light inside me has gone out. Maybe I’ve suppressed it. It’s made me more callous, more angry, mor e lonely, but I know it’s still there. I know God is there, but… How the fuck do I know what’s even real anymore? I don’t want to believe what I used to believe.

I would never hurt someone intentionally. I literally don’t understand when people scheme to wound each other, or kill each other. I don’t understand what it means to hate someone.

I can deal with a lot of things. The CCP, dying people, sad families, lost limbs. I can deal with that. I can deal with the reality of ISIS and how the world is so evil. But I still can’t imagine hating people.

Well there was my first experience with Iraqi colleagues not listening because I’m a woman.

16 year old boy, small bits of shrapnel across his chest, left side of his face burnt, left hand burnt with shrapnel, and left leg blown apart from above the knee (his knee completely gone) to mid calf. There wasn’t much bleeding because whatever hit him burned the wound as well.

I wanted to check to make sure there wasn’t any active bleeding left in his leg after putting on the tourniquet, try to pack the wound well, wrap it with pressure dressing, then put a splint on the bottom so his leg would stay together in transport. But they just threw as much gauze on his leg as possible, a mountain of gauze as fast as possible, tried to just twist the pressure bandage on until I took and re-rolled it, they took off the splint, and they wouldn’t let me put in an NPA (I eventually did).

Second case: Civilian with sniper wounds to the head. Again it was like a race to throw piles of gauze at me. I wanted to put hemostatic pads directly on the holes and wrap them in a decent way, but no they just like, No no, just gauze, and they wrapped it around his head in a way that wasn’t even stopping the bleeding. No one would give him Tramadol because, Oh he had a head wound, unconscious people can’t feel pain. Not that the Tramadol helped him much in the end, but it was all we had.

So I got pissed and said, Nobody fucking listens and threw the gauze off the table, and one of the guys got pissed and threw something back.

Nazim made some nasty comments later, We accept Pete yelling and not you, because everything he does is right, and you were wrong. 

I am so angry. Yes, I am going to run back to our sleep house when there’s shooting outside at night.

* throat kid

* girl with mother / crying / hug

* all the mothers hitting themselves

* how heavy a dead body really is

* joking with the girls w/ eyelashes, flower petals

* eating dinner, mass casualty, going back to eating

* cold cold cold

* families coming back to find loved ones

* frustration with the referral pathway

* under the blankets, on the roof

* old man with the face, the second night

PETE - You can’t find a new home until you leave your old one.

PETE - The only thing I’m sure of now is packing wounds with trauma gauze and my feelings for you.

Good god, we already said I love you. To hold his hand in public, to lay on his shoulder, to feel like someone really wants me, is so satisfying. To feel needed, physically and emotionally…

A few days ago at the Mosque CCP, 4 kids come rolling in with really bad injuries - probably kicked an IED playing football. Two were alright - bad shrapnel to their lower legs and one to his eyes. I didn’t see the third kid. But the one who was brought to me... I barely knew what to do with him. His body wouldn’t even stay together - one arm and one leg hanging on just by the skin. What’s the point of splinting that? His entire left side had been blown off. There was no skin there at all, big holes in his left side and back. So I just tried to wrap him up and sat there looking at him as he gasped. Pete came and I snapped out of it a little. He slapped on chest seals where there were holes instead of gaping chasms. He said, Well what else can we do, fuck, and I said, Just talk to him I suppose. So I sat there and held his head, kept his airway open, and kept saying in Arabic, You’re safe, it’s alright, everything is going to be ok.

After the ambulance took him, we wiped the blood off the floor, picked up the clothes soaked in red, and tossed them into dirty pails. Same as always.

On the way home, we got stuck at the Pesh checkpoint again. There were two cars ahead of us, and kids from each car were talking to each other, high fiving, shaking each others hands, smiling, laughing.

I lost it.

It’s stupid: seeing dead kids in isolation, ok. But dead kids, followed up quickly by these beautiful laughing kids doing what they should be doing…

I think about life and death a lot. About the notion of it, the purpose of it, whether what we do makes any difference. What would it really hurt if I died? What does a legacy matter? What are we striving for, besides to make our speck of a time on earth more pleasant?

PETE - Alex, You are my friend, my confidant, my lover and my everything. I will never blame you for my failures or fears again. I love you

I was not at ISOF 2 when the boy with multiple frag wounds came in from the street, the casualty of another mortar. I was not there when he was bleeding on the table, as Nick and the others treated him. When they had to stop at the checkpoint. And on that fucking road to Athba, that I have to push everyone to go on, whose pot holes bounce brains out and causes more harm than good. The boy died before reaching the hospital.

Yet, since I was a team leader, they say, This is your fault, that kids’ blood is on your hands. You told us to go to Athba, it’s too far. This is your fault, he died because of you. I know this isn’t really true. But just try telling that to M, who had to open the ambulance to a lake of blood when the kid’s mother was there, and try to find someone or something to blame.

I couldn’t sleep. I had a dream they brought me to the ambulance and wiped that kid’s clothes in his blood, wrapped me in his bloody clothes, and threw me in his grave. The family pushed me down and into the grave with the kid, and buried me alive.

It’s different for all of them. They can go upstairs, smoke shisha, look at naked girl photos and be brother again.

Mosul dragged into the end of July. Every day we’d drive in and out of the Old City, past bloated bodies. Everyone was an enemy, every mother and child someone who could be carrying a bomb (that did happen). I developed a military mindset: viewing everything and everyone through the lens of a threat, and I became bitter. It didn’t bother me at the time, but I became angry at everything. Desensitized. A man came to us cut in half with just a femur sticking out and we joked about him as Captain Hook. A dying (now dead) pirate with a femur for a peg leg. I want to be able to care and love those I’m serving - not see them as the piece of meat they’ll become.

I saw a bearded man walking in the middle of the street in dirty white capris, no shoes, and a muddied orange tank top carry in a girl saying, She’s my sister, she’s my sister. (Later saying she was his daughter.) She had Downs syndrome, was maybe 20 years old, and she came with a flood of refugees around the corner. Among the rest of the refugees wandering the streets, some with infected wounds or new ones, and even more malnourished, this girl had nowhere to lay down (she couldn’t walk, she kept calling for her mother), so we laid her in front, in the rubble, on a thin cotton mattress, her nose watering and her pants wet. Iraqi army intelligence grabbed the man from the street corner and started asking for his ID. They took him across the street and he disappeared. I heard three shots. Later, a soldier said, Come, come see. They had bashed his head in with a cement block. Yet I’m supposed to assume many of them want to kill us.

It’s what they say, not how badly they’re injured. I can hear them calling out for their families, friends, saying they want to live (or just to die). That’s what gives me nightmares.

I’m worried for me.


I’ve been feeling ambivalent about the future. I don’t know what’s next. It’s hard for me to make plans, to know where to push and where to let go. And I haven’t been able to concentrate. It’s like a CD that skips on a scratch. I’ll be looking at people but unable to comprehend what they are saying. The worst days are when I feel that I’m not needed or wanted or valuable, just because things are changing on the team.

The one scene I keep going back to is when the Army intel guys snatched the man in the orange shirt and white pants who brought in the Downs girl - they took him behind the building, shot him, and smashed his head with a cinder block.

I keep seeing his flattened, disfigured face. And the guy next to him with his skull open and empty.

It hurts too much to hurt with others. I can’t tell if this is a real choice: to really feel those things, or just to say, Fuck it, this is the way the world is, people are shitty and bad so we’re going to try and keep people alive but womp womp.

I’m on the plane and I want to scream. There is just so much pain. And oh my God, all the quiet moments that my photos capture are the antithesis of the pain people suffered in Mosul.

I want to vomit, but at the same time take a bat to something - someone - bash them in the face, swing right for their head, left for their ribs, right for their hips, and left to get their knees, maybe smashing their toes for good measure. This someone being anyone who caused so much pain, who caused children’s limbs to hold on by a thread of skin, a man’s brains to spill out onto my hands so I couldn’t shove them back in, a grandfather’s face to be wrenched in half, a baby to become so malnourished I can see the aorta pulsing in its belly. But I know by wanting it, I’m joining the cohort of those who cause violence, the very thing I hate from those I hate.

I don’t feel guilty - I know none of it was our fault and we did the best we could with what we were given. I know that evil exists and injustices can’t be prevented, only made up for. But I do feel sorrow, and fury.. What I don’t understand is why it took till now. Why I don’t feel anger toward the individuals, just toward the situation. I even feel pity for them… Like the likely ISIS man who brought in the Downs girl and an hour later had his head hollowed and face burnt, brains spilling across the gravel.

moments of happiness

*the Washington Post phone assignment


*riding in the back of the gator at the refugee camp

*seeing that Thomas is no longer starving and is happy with his father

*being with Pete warm and happy and calm in bed and on the couch

*seeing my parents playing together in the snow

*realizing that my profession is all too often self-centered and self-gratifying and that I’m fine doing something else should it come down to it

*running and not feeling completely exhausted

*finding a possible long distance coach

*the fact that I’m generally healthy

*the fact I have a home and family that loves me

I simultaneously love and hate Mosul. The city, its people, what it stood and stands for, what remains, what I saw. But what is what I’ve seen compared to what most Iraqis have seen? Why should I complain?

Sometimes I feel like part of me died there. It’s not a terrible thing. Death is part of growth, making way for something new. But I miss the part of me that is full of wonder and love for everyone and everything in front of me, the me who brushes off shit and disappointment.

Then I realize that I’ve never been that person, That this sense of love and wonder has only ever come and gone. But in the times it is here (walking down a sidewalk on a sunny spring day, surrounded by people but feeling alone with my music and thoughts, when I want to spread my arms and take in all the world), I want it to stay. To feel the wonder in the world. I’ve already held those who’ve experienced the worst of it.

But then I think, what right do I have to feel bliss when others are suffering?

In a dream, or a daydream.

I imagine a woman walking up.

I run over to tackle her. I hug her.

I tell her not to do it.

The scene stops, but I wonder whether she presses the detonator.

If she does, and I explode into a bunch of pieces with her.

If I strong-arm her down and some Iraqi blows her head off while I’m laying on her, and I can’t breathe for the pieces.

Or I look her in the eyes and she cries and lays down the detonator and the child in her arms.

Those I will never forget.

* The girl with the head, who I thought would live, uncovered with the blanket

* The priapism, how he’d never be able to be with his wife again

* The man with the head that disintegrated in my hands

* The woman with the chunk out of her back, you wrapped me too tight

* The IED boys, one with shrapnel, one eviscerated, one with half his body blown off; seeing kids playing in a traffic jam

*The journalists who died

*The boy whose death I didn’t see, whose blood I swept out of the ambulance

* The man I talked to all the way, whose head was left to bleed into a garbage can after they couldn’t save him

* The girl with the throat at the retirement home, she will die if you don’t keep your hand there

* The man cut in half that Pete tried so hard to save

* The chemical day, where my best wasn’t enough

* The broken woman, writhing, moaning, her right side in tatters, how I couldn’t put her back together again

* The emaciated men, lined up to be questioned, executed

* The orange tank top man with the Downs girl, executed with a brick

* The man with the jaw still speaking

I want to live so many lifetimes.


the jaw still speaking

Dedicated to my love, Pete. I miss you and will always be your Pirate Queen.

Pete Reed 1989-2023

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