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Shot of a lifetime

By Nick Schinker
Photos courtesy Jeff Bundy and Omaha World-Herald

Bundy

It was just the first full day of a 45-day assignment when Jeff Bundy shot the photograph of a lifetime.

“Ramadi is the most dangerous city in the most dangerous country in the world, and we were embedded in a combat unit,” recalls Bundy, an Omaha World-Herald photographer who was documenting stories about Nebraskans serving in Iraq.

It was Sept. 19, 2005. Photographer Bundy and World-Herald Reporter C. David Kotok were with the 1st Platoon of the Nebraska National Guard’s 167th Cavalry. Their assignment: document the war in Iraq from inside out, utilizing their observances and the words of the Nebraskans serving there.

To cover more territory, Bundy and Kotok split up. Bundy went with a patrol from the “Cav” tasked with providing security for a team of U.S. Marine Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians. They headed to a site where a short time earlier an improvised explosive device (IED) placed roadside by a terrorist had blown up a Bradley fighting vehicle, killing a U.S. soldier.

“We were walking along the road, and we had encountered some gunfire,” Bundy recalls. “Capt. (Jeff) Searcey was leading us as they worked to protect the area for the Marines.”

One of the Marine EOD technicians, Gunnery Sgt. Michael Burghardt, had dropped into the 4-1/2-foot-deep crater left by the bomb to search for other IEDs, commonly placed in roadside attacks. He found a package wrapped in orange plastic and attached to a telephone base station. Terrorists often watched such contraptions from a safe distance. When their targets, U.S. soldiers, were near the station, a phone call could set off the bombs.

Burghardt stuck his knife into the dirt and found a detonating cord leading to two 122-millimeter artillery shells. He patted his head, a signal to fellow soldiers that he had found additional bombs. He reached for his scissors.

“That’s when Capt. Searcey grabbed me by the body armor and pushed me down,” sBundy says. “As he did, the bomb went off.”

Burghardt had successfully cut the detonating cord that led to the two artillery shells but had failed to see a cord leading to a third shell. The explosion blew him from the crater in a cloud of shrapnel, debris, blood and dust—“pink mist,” the Marines call it. He landed face-first on the roadway.

“They rolled him over and started attending his wounds, cutting off his pants to find the shrapnel in his legs,” Bundy says. “I started shooting pictures. It was the most chaotic scene in my life.”

A helicopter landed to medevac the injured Marine back to Camp Ramadi. But Burghardt, his bare legs bruised and bloodied, his face covered in dust and dirt, refused to be placed on a stretcher. He was angry, and he didn’t want the insurgents he was confident were still watching from their hiding place to have the satisfaction of seeing him carried off.

Instead, he stood up, turned toward the hills, boldly raised his left hand and gave the anonymous terrorists the middle finger. Bundy captured it with his camera.

The photograph was published on the front page of the World-Herald—and electronically transmitted around the world by those who saw it and admired its raw imagery. It instantly became the subject of dozens of emails and letters, the majority positive and complimentary, for both Burghardt and Bundy.

“It’s one hell of a picture,” Col. John L. Gronski, commander of U.S. troops in and around Ramadi, said in the Jan. 15 Stars and Stripes. The military newspaper published the photo and an article about Burghardt on its front page.

The photograph is on dozens of websites. It adorns office walls, refrigerators and computer screens throughout the military and beyond. It has become a symbol of American military resolve in the face of Iraqi insurgency.

“It’s the ultimate act of defiance, and I was fortunate to be there at that moment to capture it,” he says.

Fortunate, he calls it. To be taking cover on a dusty road in Iraq as a bomb goes off a few yards away.

“I know it sounds crazy, but I truly was fortunate to have been there. It’s such an opportunity to be able to go and tell the soldiers’ stories like we did. It’s an honor, not one that many of my colleagues get. An honor the newspaper thinks enough of my work to give me the assignment.”

A Fortunate Life

Bundy, 37, has been fortunate many times in his life.

A native of Fremont, his father, Ray, and mother, Kathy, owned the Valley View Country Club. His father was an amateur photographer who in the winter would set up a darkroom in the golf course pro shop. Bundy recalls his father lining up trays of water and chemicals that would magically carry the images from negatives onto glossy prints.

“Even back then, there was just something special about watching the print come to life in the tray,” he says.

His first published photo was a shot taken at the Fremont Bergan-David City Aquinas football game when he was an eighth-grader.

“Dad helped me put together my first road case—which was nothing more than an old suitcase and a bunch of pre-mixed chemicals. My parents drove me to the game in a motor home they had. I shot the football game and then processed the film in the back of the motor home as they drove back to Fremont. I ran up to the door of the Fremont Tribune, gave the sports editor my film and went home.

“I remember waiting up all night for the paper to come Saturday morning.”

The photo was in focus and showed action—good enough to get him more assignments at $10 a picture.

“Then the basketball coach figured out that if he threw me on the team bus for the away games, he’d get a picture in the paper the next day. I’d shoot the first half of the game, process the film in the locker room and the team bus would drive by the Trib on the way home.”

Bundy was a sophomore in high school covering the girls state basketball tournament when he met John Gaps, a photographer from the Associated Press in Omaha. They met again at the boys tournament the following weekend when. Gaps offered to give Bundy assignments for the AP.

Here I was in high school, working as a stringer for the AP,” Bundy says. “It was great. I got to shoot a picture of President Reagan in Omaha getting off the plane with [then-Governor] Kay Orr. The first picture I ever had in USA Today was of Kay Orr.”

Bundy considered attending several colleges to study photography, but Gaps made him a proposition. “John said that if I went to UNO, I could still work for him and probably make enough money to pay for school.”

In 1990, Bundy went to work for the World-Herald, taking the 2:30 p.m.-to-11:30 p.m. shift. He took classes from some of the communications department’s teaching legends, including Warren Francke and Hugh Cowdin, and sometimes his assignments reflected his rigorous schedule.

“I remember I did really badly on an assignment and I went to see Dr. Cowdin. I told him that I was already working in the industry and thought he should cut me some slack. He said, ‘Since you’re already in the industry I expect twice as much from you.’”

That set the tone for Bundy’s studies–and his career. He received his bachelor’s degree from UNO in 1993, the same year he was named Photographer of the Year by the Nebraska News Photographers Association, the first of two such awards.

Two years ago, he married Pam Wiese, a former news anchor with KPTM. No surprise, they met while both were working, covering the 1998 flooding of the Nishnabotna River in Red Oak, Iowa.

Bundy’s covered his share of newsworthy events. The war in Bosnia. The tornadoes in Oklahoma City. He flew on Air Force One as it brought President George W. Bush to Omaha to toss out the first pitch at the College World Series. And he has witnessed the revolution that has taken photography from rolls of film and darkrooms to digital cameras and photos transmitted via his cell phone.

“I’ve had an incredible career,” he says, “so far.”

His next stop could well be a return to Iraq.

He figures he shot more than 5,000 images on his first trip, and the World-Herald published about 100. He crawled alongside overturned tanks and beneath barbed wire to get photos. He was ready at a moment’s notice night or day to join a patrol. He ate good meals and bad ones, depending on the day and the duty. He came to admire and respect the soldiers he met and still exchanges emails with many–including Gunnery Sgt. Burghardt. Especially when he learns in the news of an explosion or death near Camp Ramadi.

And, he says, he wouldn’t hesitate to go back. “Gladly. If the opportunity presents itself.”

Armed only with a 200-millimeter lens and a camera, assigned to travel around the world to a stifling, 130-degree Fahrenheit dust bowl where the next mound that you bring into focus might be hiding a bomb. Few people would consider that an opportunity. Jeff Bundy is one.

Email author Nick Schinker at Nick.Schinker@cox.net

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