AP Television Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — An Associated Press picture of a soldier in his pink boxers has become an iconic image of the war in Afghanistan, but at the moment it was taken, wardrobe was the last thing on the minds of the fighter and photographer.
"Like them, I was thinking about the situation — where was it safe and where was it safe to work," said David Guttenfelder, photographer for the AP, who was embedded with a U.S. Army unit in the Korengal Valley when a firefight broke out on May 11.
U.S. Army Specialist Zachary Boyd leapt from his sleeping quarters and grabbed his helmet, vest and rifle — but not his pants — and took his station behind sandbags.
Guttenfelder's photo made newspaper front pages the next day, including The New York Times and Boyd's hometown Star-Telegram in Fort Worth, Texas. It elicited an immediate smile, but also symbolized the dedication of those fighting in Afghanistan. It put a human face, or backside, on what can seem an anonymous conflict.
At least initially, the soldiers were worried the photo would make them look bad, Guttenfelder said. But Firebase Restrepo, on a steep mountainside where soldiers are on constant lookout for Taliban fighters, isn't a place for formality: Uniforms have holes in them, and some men wear flea collars because of bugs in their beds, he said.
Boyd called his parents at 12:30 a.m., Fort Worth time, to warn them about the photo. He was legitimately worried about losing his job, said his mother, Sheree Boyd.
Her husband, Tommy, immediately got on the computer to find the photo and roared with laughter, she said. The boxers were emblazoned with "I Love NY."
"We thought it was such a funny picture but so typical of him," Sheree Boyd said of her son, who turned 20 on Sunday. "He's always liked boxers, the wilder the better. But we'd never seen him wear pink before."
The photo drew a wide response on the Internet. A handful of commentators found it an undignified representation of America's fighting forces but most supported Boyd. "I think this is great," a woman named Melissa wrote on a TV station message board. "I wish I had an address for him. I'd send him some that say 'Don't mess with Texas.'"
At the Times Web site earlier this week, a technology officer was surprised to find that one of the top 10 search items was "pink boxers." It was people looking for the photograph.
Boyd doesn't have to worry about his job. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking in New York on Thursday, said he wanted to meet Boyd and shake his hand the next time he's in Afghanistan. He lauded Boyd for having "a special kind of courage."
Guttenfelder said Boyd was one of the bravest soldiers he'd seen in Afghanistan. Guttenfelder also said he was surprised by the amount of attention the photo received.
"It doesn't really belong to me anymore," he said. "You put it out there and it takes on a life of its own."
He believes that most people recognize what he saw in the situation. "When the Taliban starts shooting, whatever you're doing, whatever you're wearing, you run to your station," he said.
Sheree Boyd said she and her husband had heard from many people expressing admiration for their son. She's eating that up, as any mom would, but said she appreciates how the photo reminds Americans that it's the "kid next door" fighting the war.
She said she hopes to see her son back home by the Fourth of July. Would he be wearing pink boxers in any Independence Day parades?
"Don't challenge him," she said, laughing. "He just may do it."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.