Elliott Woods grew up in Gaithersburg, Maryland, the son of a Navy doctor. He attended a prestigious Catholic boys’ school in Bethesda, a Washington, D.C. suburb dotted with exclusive country clubs and peopled by physicians, lawyers, and deal makers. A self-described “rambunctious kid who had some disciplinary problems,” Woods was forced to withdraw from high school during his senior year, and finished his secondary education at a military academy in Pennsylvania, before running into another party-induced dead-end during his first year of college. In his parents’ doghouse, he wound up living in Richmond with his mother, working two jobs, trying to figure out a way to go back to school.
On his way home from a job one day in July 2001, Woods found a Virginia National Guard recruiting flyer on his windshield, which advertised full tuition benefits at any in-state public university and a living assistance stipend in return for one weekend of service per month and two weeks of service in the summer.
“I thought, ‘Well that sounds pretty good,’” he said. “I had already been to military school and I knew I could succeed in that environment, so I signed up right there.”
Like many guardsmen from the pre-9/11 “Be All You Can Be” era, Woods signed up for service without seriously considering the possibility of going to war.
“The National Guard and Reserves hadn’t deployed to a major war in large numbers since the Second World War and it looked like our country was going to continue on the track it had been on for two decades, serving occasionally in minor conflicts like Bosnia and Somalia, but avoiding large scale wars,” he said.
Then came the World Trade Center attacks in September, a brief moment of national security focus on Afghanistan, and, finally, the shift of emphasis towards Iraq. By the winter of 2002, Woods had begun to realize that the Pentagon’s plan for an invasion of Iraq would involve the National Guard, and that he wasn’t getting out.
“That was pretty shocking to me, because I joined, truly, in a different era,” he said.
For an 11-month period in 2004-05, Woods served as an E-4 combat engineer in Charlie Company, 276th Engineer Battalion in northern Iraq, near Mosul.
His Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) made him responsible for route clearance, placing and removing obstacles, and other engineering work, but like many National Guardsmen, Woods ended up doing different jobs more common to infantry and Military Police duties, running convoy missions and providing base security.
As the various rationales for the invasion of Iraq—dismantling Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, avenging the Kurdish genocide, spreading democracy—slowly unraveled, Woods found himself in a small minority of soldiers who were already beginning to question what they were doing there.“It was this huge global event that was on the news every day and we felt important,” Woods said. “We felt we were doing something out of the ordinary and exceptional and that’s a hard feeling to replace back home and certainly not a feeling most of us had felt before.”
“A lot of the guys in my unit joined before September 11 or as a consequence of September 11, so they were there for reasons of service and not for large bonuses or anything like that,” Woods said. “And all of them were from Virginia. They were Southerners and generally pretty conservative and they supported the Bush administration, so I didn’t hear a lot of people questioning things over there except for my own little group of friends and me.”
The area around Mosul, the frontier between Kurdish and Sunni Arab-controlled regions, would become one of the most dangerous in the country by 2007, but Woods’ deployment was relatively free from hazard until a suicide bomber infiltrated base security and blew himself up inside a Mosul chow hall, killing two members of Woods’ unit along with 20 others.
The event affected Woods deeply and left him with a haunting glimpse of what the war in Iraq would become. His unit returned home in 2005, and Woods enrolled at UVA with a very different outlook on life and school.
“It was a totally different experience. I came back and went back to school really as a professional student and I looked at it as a full time job,” he said. “The most difficult part about it was looking around the classroom and seeing versions of my former self who took it all for granted and didn’t seem to have a care in the world other than Greek life and their social calendar.”
Like many returning combat veterans, Woods felt distance from his peers, which he understood, but his blood boiled as he listened to “college Republican types rant and rail about the necessity of the Iraq invasion.”
“I felt like saying back to them, ‘If you think that all of this is so great, then I can put you in touch with a recruiter. Because you’re young, and able-bodied and smart and you should be over there if you think it’s so important,’” Woods said. “When I would say that to people, they would say, ‘That’s not the life I was chosen for’ or something like that, and it would reveal that they didn’t see Iraq as an existential threat and they didn’t see the war as an important thing.”
The seeds of Woods’ reporting career were sown during his deployment. He’d spent three semesters at VCU between basic training and going overseas, and he kept in touch with his professors throughout the course of his tour in Iraq, reading voraciously. At UVA, he earned his way into the distinguished majors program in the English department, completing a thesis on American war literature written by combat veterans like Philip Caputo, Tim O’Brien, William March, and James Jones, authors who were “able to write from the insider perspective of a veteran, and especially a returning veteran.”
Woods’ unit had re-deployed, this time to Baghdad at the height of the 2007 “surge,” and he was itching to find a way to tell their story. A couple of graduate classes in the English department convinced him he wasn’t cut out for a career as an academic. However, during his last semester at UVA, he found his way to the Virginia Quarterly Review, and the magazine launched his journalistic career.
“The editor there, Ted Genoways, suggested I write down some of my experiences from Iraq and publish them in the magazine,” Woods said. “He actually gave me my first nonfiction assignment, which involved visiting with the families of the two young men from my unit who were killed and a couple of the other guys who were wounded, and writing about my own experience in a long form narrative. I never looked back from there.”
In the spring of 2008—just before his graduation and while he was working on his VQR story—he bought “a pretty nice camera and started carrying it around,” shooting whatever subjects he ran across. One of his pictures, of women shopping at Charlottesville’s City Market, received an honorable mention in C-VILLE Weekly’s annual photo contest.
After graduation, Woods moved to Egypt and took Arabic classes, supporting himself as a professional journalist by taking regular freelance work in the arts and culture sections of the English-language Daily News Egypt. He linked up with photographer Asim Rafiqui, who was working on a grant proposal to the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to cover the emerging humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The brief war between Hamas and Israel broke suddenly. With support from the Pulitzer Center and another assignment from VQR, Woods went to Gaza in January 2009 to cover the final stages of the war. He wrote newspaper stories for The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Times, and others, spending the better part of three months recording the experiences of a small group of Palestinian youth connected directly and indirectly to the fighting.
“That’s when I discovered the way that I like to report stories,” Woods said. “Which is to use the lives of individual subjects, to get really up close and personal with a few individuals who populate the stage of this bigger crisis.”
Woods got permission for his first embed assignment with U.S. troops during the spring of 2009 and spent the month of October in Afghanistan, photographing and interviewing Marine and Army personnel in different parts of the country. Since then, Woods has returned to Afghanistan to complete four more embed assignments, including the portrait series on Third Squad, which was published by VQR this summer.
In 2011, Woods took on a nonfiction project for Granta during which he drove over 10,000 miles crisscrossing the country and interviewing regular Americans and fellow veterans about how the country had changed over a decade of war.
A devotee of Studs Terkel’s work interviewing veterans and civilians from the World War II era, Woods explains his mission as “using empathy and compassion alongside investigative journalism to tell really important stories that change our understanding of history and where our country is going in the future.”
He lives in Charlottesville with his dog Artemisia.
Click to the next page for a Q&A with Elliott.