Embedded student reporter reflects on war experience

I was standing about three feet away from Spc. Daniel Starkey, his machine gun hanging by a sling over his right shoulder, its barrel forward. Our backs were to our Humvee, and we stood facing a crowd of about two dozen Iraqis. Most were children. About a half-dozen older men stood behind the crowd and watched interestedly.

It was April 10. We were in the middle of Nasiriyah, a city of about one-half million in southern Iraq. Our officers had left us and gone into nearby buildings to buy building supplies. Starkey, a few other soldiers and I had been left in the street to guard the Humvees.

At first the kids wanted food or water. We convinced them, falsely, we didn’t have any. Then they wanted their picture taken, or for us to write our names on scraps of paper. I took a dozen photos. Then they asked us where we were from and what our names were.

After what seemed an eternity, an American Civil Affairs officer came over to us and introduced an Iraqi named Haider Alaasam. He was about 5 feet 5 inches tall, had short black hair, a mustache and tired gray eyes. He spoke to me in English.

Alaasam told me how it was during the fighting. How he had helped bury 27 people in a schoolyard on the other side of the river and how his daughter became sick after she drank water out of the polluted Euphrates River because there was no running water in the city.

Then he talked about how life had been before the war.

“For 30 years we have lived in a bad situation,” he said. “Saddam Hussein killed us. All of us are bodies without spirit.”

He had hope for Iraq now. He wanted a new democratic government, freedom, safety, electricity and water.

This man – his story, his gratitude, his eyes – has stayed with me. I often think our two situations parallel those of our countries. The disparity of wealth and opportunity between his life and mine, between his country and mine, is almost obscene.

As an embedded journalist with U.S. forces during the recent war in Iraq, I had an unusual opportunity to report on the war, the American soldiers who fought it and some of the Iraqis it affected.

Instead of being some nosy reporter intruding into the soldiers’ world, I became part of that world. But I came very close to not being there at all.

I arrived at the Army’s embedding office at the Hilton Resort the next morning.

That night I was issued my nuclear, biological and chemical suit, Atropine injectors and mask, and given a class on how to use them in the Hilton’s tennis court.

The next day the Army sent me to Camp Arifjan. I was officially embedded with the 416th Engineer Command, but the leaders decided to put me with a another unit under its command – one it knew was “going north,” meaning Iraq.

The scariest moment was probably when I entered Iraq. On March 24 our convoy drove through the border town of Safwan. The main street was awash in children and young men, many begged for food, others just stood back, watching.

When I look back, the most meaningful experiences were interactions with people – both Iraqis and soldiers. After some time, I truly bonded with the soldiers.

Even if I wasn’t a friend of the senior officers, I still developed a concern for their well-being and the reputation of the unit.

I didn’t want to report anything that would make the soldiers, or the unit as a whole, look bad. I especially didn’t want to report anything that would get soldiers in trouble or make their lives more difficult.

I had to think about the effect of reporting anything that would make the officers and men look bad. It would probably make my life very difficult. Depending on what I wrote and who it was about, a soldier’s attitude toward me could have run from silent agreement to hostility. They might refuse to be interviewed, not give me information, or not assist me in sending my stories.

Of course, my life was dependent on protection from the soldiers. In combat units, this was more of an issue than in a combat-support unit like mine. I don’t think soldiers would “frag” a reporter or allow them to ride into an ambush for an unflattering story; the soldiers would be putting themselves at risk as well.

No, the more dangerous threat to reporters was to their objectivity; a too-close identification with the soldiers. We were all Americans, after all, in a foreign land and in danger.

It was very difficult not to psychologically surround the wagons and see yourself as an “us” against an enemy.

Of course soldiers were not the only ones who could get into trouble. A journalist could and did. One way to get in trouble was to violate the “Ground Rules.”

As part of the registration process beforehand, journalists had to agree to “Ground Rules” and sign liability waivers. The rules specified what we could and could not report.

The rules also stated that the military was supposed to help journalists send stories back. They were not responsible for sending them but were to be helpful. In my case, the officers let me send most of my stories back using the military e-mail system. I came prepared to send them back using my laptop and a satellite phone (I did send four or five back this way), but that option was slow, unreliable and expensive.

One of the biggest ironies of the whole experience was that once we crossed into Iraq, we were virtually cut off from news of the outside world. We had no television, no radio, and essentially no telephones, Internet or e-mail. After a few days in one location, Internet and phone capability would be established, but it was largely restricted to military use or was so slow it couldn’t be used.

I didn’t see the footage of the Saddam Hussein statue falling in Baghdad until May 4, the day after I returned from Iraq. To this day, I know less about what happened than people who watched the news while sitting on their couch in Wisconsin.