Commentary: The life of an embedded reporter

12/05/2011 11:15 AM

12/05/2011 11:24 AM

The nature of war and warriors seldom changes. The ways wars are fought do change. And the way they're covered by the news media has shape-shifted a lot since the Vietnam War.

I've been lucky to have witnessed the generational changes up close and personal -- sometimes too close and too personal.

As a soldier in Vietnam for 13 months, I wrote for an Army magazine, "Hurricane," a glossy monthly that stressed winning hearts and minds more than blood and guts. As a "pool" reporter in the Persian Gulf War, I spent two months trying to work within a system guaranteed by its design to restrict access to troops and the battle space. The result was a U.S. military triumph few got to read about or see.

As a correspondent in Somalia, Bosnia and Albania/Kosovo for monthlong hitches, I relied on myself, fixers, bodyguards, comrades, Russian jeeps, a clunker Mercedes and luck.

But covering the military side of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been done through the "embed" system. It came about after the debacle that was the pool system imposed by the Pentagon in 1990-91 after Iraq invaded Kuwait.

As a reporter in these conflicts (including Nam, when I carried a rifle), by far the best scenario was Vietnam. I was never a civilian correspondent there, but most people know about the freedom civilian reporters enjoyed for a decade reporting that war. They also faced the prospect of death, and 71 died.

Embedded in Iraq

Apart from the free-wheeling "living room war" style of Vietnam, the embed system for war correspondents matches what Churchill said about democracy: the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.

Mostly, it works. Here's how.

Three soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division and I sat in a 25-ton MRAP (mine-resistant armor-protected) vehicle on a dirt road called Route Macy's outside Kirkuk in northern Iraq. It was June 2008.

Our seven-vehicle convoy had found an IED, a homemade bomb, hidden in the middle of the road about 100 meters (328 feet) ahead. After the first small vehicle in the convoy pinged something metallic underground, we all stopped. The first vehicle wasn't heavy enough to detonate the device. A robot was sent up to probe.

It found an object about the size of a fire extinguisher (which it turned out to be) and rolled back to a rig next to ours. Bomb disposal specialists equipped it with C-4 plastic explosive and sent it back to the bomb. It placed a charge.

Once the 'bot came back, we waited. A few seconds later, someone said, "Fire in the hole!" over the internal comms link.

We heard the blast and saw the explosion of dust at the same time the front windshield spider-webbed. The huge MRAP wobbled but the cracked windshield was the only damage.

"Damn!" said the staff sergeant in charge of the vehicle. "Guess we weren't far enough back."

The IED turned out to be a fire extinguisher packed with ammonium nitrate (the same compound that destroyed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City) and nails.

That episode sums up how most of the battles in Iraq and Afghanistan have been covered by the news media -- at least the bang-bang parts. We embed with troops. We patrol with them, eat with them, sleep with them, go on missions with them and hear about their Dear John letters, sexual exploits, dirty jokes, prayers and the first thing they'll do as civilians.

All embedded reporters must sign a multipage agreement with the military that tells us what we can and can't report. Mostly it's common sense -- don't write about future operations -- and doesn't prevent a correspondent from doing his job.

Much of an embed depends on the reporter's personality and character. At first, soldiers and Marines are inclined to look at hacks as "pukes" -- necessary evils. If you wind up sticking the course with them, and they learn you're there just to do your job as they are to do theirs, you can forge a solid working relationship.

If, on the other hand, you're looking for "gotcha" scoops or view your uniformed companions as hired killers or losers who can't make it on the outside, you're not going to get much in the way of newsworthy information.

Much also depends on the public information officer who's your guide with the unit. I was lucky twice -- Maj. (then Capt.) Bruce Drake with 10th Mountain in '08 and the next summer Maj. Scott Nauman with the 1st Infantry Division in Baghdad. They were smart and salty and decided early on it was worth their time and effort to give the McClatchy guy access in return for coverage.

Critics of the embed system say you have to pull your punches as a reporter if your life literally depends on the people you're covering. Two responses: if your stories are accurate, most of the troops will buy in, because they know the truth. Second, you can always write other stories about the unit after you leave it.

With the 10th Mountain, for instance, I wanted to report on what the unit was doing in a war zone to deal with PTSD. Few people in uniform want to talk about that, especially those who may be going through it. And commanders don't want the issue raised because some troops still view it as a stigma.

Yet Bruce Drake got me in to see anybody I wanted, and the story is still the only one I know of that describes how an Army unit engaged in warfare deals with the hidden enemy of combat stress. (It helped that the commanding officer was alert to its effects, because during his second week in Iraq, his personal security detail lost four men to an IED; he and his sergeant major put the men in body bags.)

Contrast that with the Persian Gulf War pool system. I was lucky because at least I got to be out in the desert, not stuck in a hotel in Dhah-ran or Riyadh. In return for access, however, all our dispatches had to be cleared in the field and again back at the Joint Information Bureau in Dhahran. You could not travel on your own, as a unilateral, without getting busted by allied troops and sent to the rear. There were no scoops because everybody got to use all pool reports. Plus you always had to be accompanied by a PIO.

The result was, to use the old Korean expression, like a frog looking out of a well. You saw only a tiny slice of the war. I wound up basically embedded with the 37th Engineer Battalion from Fort Bragg, N.C., because Maj. Randy Riggins, its executive officer, told my PIO he could take me, and me only, into Iraq in his Humvee. (It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and I was Randy and Naomi's best man six years ago.)

Somalia

Somalia was freaky-scary hot. I hired a fixer/translator, car and driver and three AK-47-carrying bodyguards for $100 a day. Even so, my third day in Mogadishu I foolishly went into the city center with only the driver. After sticking rifle barrels in my cheek and ribs, three Somali thugs stole my fanny pack which had my passport, credit cards and photos of my kids. (I had $6,000 in cash in a money belt around my waist, which they missed.) I was lucky -- a week later, at the same place, an Italian journalist was shot and killed for his gold necklace.

I ran into the 10th Mountain outside the capital, and a Marine officer conducted a regular briefing at the U.S. "embassy" (which was attacked by automatic weapons fire one afternoon while we were listening to the good news). But we were on our own to move around, stay safe and get stories.

Bosnia

It was also like that in Bosnia. I found a tremendous translator in Split, Croatia, named Neno, and we rented a Neva jeep and spent the next four weeks driving around Bosnia, except for taking a Red Cross flight into Sarajevo. Every move we made was our own choice.

Three or four times the calls were close enough that I wondered why we were there. Then we'd meet local folks whose stories needed to be told. So we drove on.

In April 1999, we tried to cover the conflict in Kosovo between Kosovars and Serbs -- from Albania. Apart from guys who said they were in the Kosovo Liberation Army, there were only refugees to interview in that fourth-world country. The road from Tirana to Kukes on the border was treacherous (two aid workers plunged to their deaths a couple of hours after our battered Mercedes had passed the same spot), and the refugee tide unending. They became the story.

After I left at the end of the month, two war dogs who've become my close friends, Mike Hedges and Matthew Fisher, did go into Kosovo and filed fine stories.

Last year, the 10th Mountain invited me to embed with them in Kandahar ("a cross between Mark Twain and Ernie Pyle," Maj. Drake gushed to his CO; he got the gray-haired part right). But the Sun-Star needed me in Merced.

But from what Hedges and Fisher told me about their experiences in the Great Game, it was similar to Iraq in two ways: hidden homemade bombs and suicide attacks. No war I ever covered before presented those two random threats. There's simply nothing you can do about them, except use common sense. And call on karma.

The last major difference between covering the war in Iraq and any others I've done is the McClatchy Baghdad bureau. The two tours I spent there saw us with five reporters and four drivers -- all of them risking their lives each day so McClatchy correspondents could file stories to McClatchy audiences. Laith, Sahar, Jenan, Dulaimy and Hussein are as precious to me as the tasbih beads from Karbala that they gave me when I left.

They kept us rotators safe. They fed us. They translated for us. They did stories of their own. When I wasn't embedded, I depended on them for everything. Former Sun-Star reporter Corinne Reilly, who now covers military affairs for The Virginian-Pilot, wrote wonderful non-bang-bang stories (the pitiful state of Iraqi health care, for instance) with the help of our Iraqi correspondents.

I'm still in touch with them, and I'm honored they call me "brother."

Somebody I call "brother" is Joe Galloway, retired McClatchy military correspondent. We also worked together at U.S. News & World Report and first met when he was 19 and a United Press capitol bureau reporter in Topeka and I was a 16-year-old copy boy. Seems fitting to end with his words:

"In combat you may find that those around you may need a helping hand. Do not shy away from an opportunity to act first as a concerned human being and then later as a reporter. Help the wounded, if called to do so. Carry water or ammo or the dead if it seems needed. None of that violates either the Geneva Convention or your objectivity as a journalist."

ABOUT THE WRITER

Mike Tharp is Executive Editor of the Merced Sun-Star. He can be reached at mtharp@mercedsunstar.com

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