August 18, 2008 – During the early days of the war in Iraq, 24-year-old Lorenzo Zarate helped detain one of Saddam Hussein’s former security guards and found millions of U.S. dollars in the home of the former dictator’s daughter. But it was a more routine raid that landed the former Army infantryman on the cover of The New York Times.
“There had been a lot of roadside bombs going off around us lately, and an informant told us who the guy was and where he lived,” he said.
(If Zarate’s name looks familiar, it’s because the vet had a chance to meet Kanye West during the MTV News special “Choose or Lose & Kanye West Present: Homecoming.” Watch their surprise meeting here.)
So on the night of December 11, 2003, Zarate and some other members of the Army’s 4th Infantry Division raided an unassuming house in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown.
“We busted down the door, and at first we didn’t find anything,” he said. “But then we got out the metal detectors and started searching the house and the yard. That’s where we found it all. I’d say about 200 pounds of explosives.”
That night, Zarate’s unit seized a huge arsenal of weapons and arrested three men who were believed to be leaders of an insurgent cell, according to The Associated Press. It was his job to guard one of the men while the rest of the unit finished up the search.
“In the back of my mind, I’m thinking, ‘This guy is responsible for killing friends of mine,’ ” he said. “My buddies are not here, and this guy is here. What should I do with that? I was ready to shoot him.”
But he didn’t.
“I had a lot of anger in my heart,” Zarate said. “I could’ve gone to jail [if I shot him], but the way my mind was at that time, I could’ve been likely to shoot him, and that’s what I wanted to do.”
While Zarate was making that split-second life-or-death decision, an AP photographer named Efrem Lukatsky stepped out of the darkness and started taking his own shots.
“He’s lucky,” Zarate said of the insurgent. “Because I thought we were alone, and once I realized we were not alone no more, with all the cameras clicking around me, I knew I couldn’t do it.”
That may seem harsh, but according to Zarate, the constant bloodshed around him and the loss of friends to roadside bombs and attacks turned him into a different person.
“I was a monster,” he said.
The morning after the raid, he became a bit of a celebrity among his unit in Iraq. Word spread that he was the unnamed soldier whose photo ended up on the cover of the Times.
“When I first saw this paper, I didn’t even know it was me,” he said. “One of my friends ran up to me and said, ‘You’re in the paper.’ So I checked it out, and I noticed this scope and these glasses my uncle bought me.”
That’s when he freaked out about his family back home. For months, Zarate had been assuring his family that he was out of harm’s way. He had never told them about the house raids, roadside bombs or firefights. They were obviously worried, but Zarate assured them that just getting this one guy off the streets would make their jobs a lot safer.
Zarate is back home in Austin, Texas, now. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and can’t work until his doctors are sure his treatment is working. Talking about the night that photograph was taken has helped him deal with what he witnessed, he said.
“This is something I’ll be able to show my grandchildren and talk to them about,” he said.
He’ll have plenty of time to prepare for that day — his first child is due at the end of the year. But hopefully he’ll have a chance to talk to his brother about it sooner than that: He ships off to Iraq in September.