WITNESS: Sergeant William Bee, May 18, 2008

Sun Jun 22, 2008 5:00pm EDT

1 of 8. U.S. Marine Sergeant William Bee from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit has a close call after Taliban fighters opened fire near Garmser, Helmand Province in this May 18, 2008 file photo. Reuters photographer Goran Tomasevic recalls a rare sequence of split-second shots he took of Bee in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Bee was not injured in the attack.

Credit: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic/Files

Born in Belgrade in 1969, Goran Tomasevic started working for Reuters as a freelance photographer in 1996 during the anti-Milosevic demonstrations. He was based Baghdad during the Iraq conflict, in Jerusalem during tense times between the Israelis and Palestinians, and is now senior photographer in Egypt. In the following story he recalls a rare sequence of split-second shots he took of a U.S. Marine in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

By Goran Tomasevic

GARMSIR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - If I hadn't already been pointing the camera at the Marine when the bullet hit the wall, there is no way I would have been able to react quickly enough to take those pictures.

Moments earlier I had been lazing around in Afghanistan's blistering desert heat, fending off waves of giant ants, wondering when I might get to test my new 24 mm lens.

Gunshots rang out from beyond the perimeter of the compound the U.S. Marines were guarding in the district of Garmsir, a Taliban stronghold in Helmand province, the biggest opium-producing region on the planet.

I grabbed my boots and cameras and ran to look. The Marines had spotted some Taliban moving around the compound some 200 meters away.

I took a quick look over the wall but couldn't see any Taliban. Then the gunfire began again. The Marines opened up with heavy machine guns. The Taliban answered back with single shots.

Having covered half a dozen wars, I was pretty sure the incoming fire hitting a wall near me was from a Russian-made Dragunov sniper rifle.

I thought I'd better go back and put some trousers on. I also grabbed my flak jacket, helmet and some water. As soon as I got outside the firing erupted again.

Sergeant William Bee was there with his M-16 rifle. I asked him if the Taliban were shooting from the same compound as before.

He said yes and immediately stood up and aimed his rifle over the wall. Suddenly it seemed to explode from an incoming round and Bee was down.

I dropped my cameras and jumped towards him. I felt his head and neck expecting to find blood, but there was none. He was breathing, but unconscious.

The medics arrived, threw a smoke grenade, put him on a stretcher and took him away.

I picked up my cameras and shot a few more pictures, then went back to see how Bee was doing. When I found him, he was grinning from ear to ear. It was his lucky day. He hadn't been hit or seriously hurt.

PREGNANT WIFE

At first, between the adrenalin flow and the speed of events, I didn't even know if I'd shot anything of Bee at the height of the action, but was very excited when I saw the pictures -- a rare sequence of split-second shots tracing the impact of the bullets on the wall to him lying on the ground.

Perhaps it was just luck, of the sort that comes from patiently spending hours, weeks -- and this time more than two months -- eating, sleeping and patrolling side-by-side with U.S. soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan, sharing their lives and hardships.

I've developed a deep respect for these young men and the way they do their job in a very calm professional way, putting up with terrible living conditions and facing danger every day.

After I sent the pictures, they were flashed around the world and featured in many newspapers and television news shows. I didn't name the man in the picture when I sent it, but I was careful to say very clearly that he was fine.

Reporters from across the world were calling my editors and me, asking for the name of the Marine. So I asked Bee if he minded me releasing his name: he said he'd have to call to tell his wife first that he was OK.

But back home in the United States, Sergeant Bee's wife Bobbie, 25, had already seen the pictures online and of course had recognized him immediately.

"I'm over seven months pregnant, so I thought I was going to go into labor," she told one U.S. news portal.

"I wouldn't believe anybody saying he was OK until I actually spoke with him," FOXNews.com quoted her as saying from her parent's home in central Pennsylvania.

Describing her husband as a "poker-face guy" who "lives for the Marine Corps", she did get through to him and he reassured her he was perfectly safe.

She said her husband told her he was changing into fresh clothes when the company came under gunfire.

"He said he turned around and did what he had to do."

(Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Jerry Norton and Sara Ledwith)

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