Panel discusses the connection between veterans and war journalists

On Feb. 24, the second Annual College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Classroom to Community Lecture was given in the Smith Memorial Student Union ballroom at Portland State. This year’s lecture was titled “A Language Shared: Journalists, Veterans and PTSD” and featured Jackie Spinner, a former Baghdad Bureau Chief and war reporter for the Washington Post.

At PSU, the veteran community is larger than that of any other Oregon university. This lecture specifically served to connect journalist and veteran experiences at war with coming home and attempting to reintegrate into everyday life.

During her lecture, Spinner clarified that the experiences of war don’t always bring on post-traumatic stress disorder. Statistics were displayed showing that 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans came back with PTSD, meaning that 80 percent of those veterans did not.

“There’s a perception that everybody who has gone to war goes home broken, and certainly people do go to war that come home broken,” Spinner said. “But, the experience of going to war—whether as a journalist or a veteran—is a very powerful experience, and it changes you in good ways and it changes you in bad ways. It changes you, but it doesn’t necessarily break you.”

Spinner, who wrote for the Washington Post for 14 years, spent her final six years there as a war reporter, risking her life every day to get the word of war back to America.

In an interview with the Vanguard, Spinner explained her experiences as a reporter in the midst of the American invasion of Iraq during massive events such as the Battle of Fallujah, where the U.S. attempted to capture the city from Saddam Hussein.

“It was scary; there were many days I thought I was going to die,” Spinner said. “But it was also a very powerful experience because I was writing about life and death and things of great importance.”

Spinner explains that fear is only a sliver of what a journalist experiences while immersed in war.

“One of the things you do as a journalist covering war is that you don’t process it, you can’t afford to. You can’t shut down; you can’t afford to lose it,” Spinner said. “I’ve covered car bombings with 200 people obliterated, and I wore pieces of flesh on my shoes. And that affects different people differently.”

When asked whether or not she would do it all over again, Spinner responded that she wouldn’t change anything.

“I would go back and I would lose everything that I lost as a part of that experience, and I would still have everything I gained from the experience,” she said.

Even though Spinner did not return to the Washington Post after her experience in war, she confesses, “I still do journalism; I can’t not do journalism. It’s in my blood.”

Following Spinner’s speech was a Q&A with five panelist members.

The panel included PSU psychology professor Dr. Leslie Hammer, Purple Heart recipient Sean Davis, Rebekah-mae Bruns, who is a veteran of the Iraq war with 15 years of service, Carolina Gonzalez Prats, who is a researcher of veterans reintegrating from the military back into civilian communities and who served in the military herself and Mike Francis, a journalist from The Oregonian who was embedded with Oregon troops during the war in Iraq.

Coming back to America wasn’t easy for Spinner or any of the panel members who were also involved in trauma journalism. Many of them admit to needing to be around veterans.

“The stuff we shared created the bond that no one else out there understood,” Francis said.

It was also noted during the Q&A that PTSD can sometimes be delayed, which was the experience of Bruns.

“For me when the PTSD hit it was three years after I left, so it was totally unexpected. I was actually successfully transitioned; I had a great job, I was in graduate school and it all came tumbling down six months before [I finished],” Bruns told the audience. “I pulled back, but [my professors] had to reconnect and reach out to me because I was very stubborn about accepting the help.”

Panelists stated that becoming centered in everyday life again was a struggle for both veterans and journalists.

“We lose our sense of purpose—we don’t have that mission anymore, and for me it was the opposite. I started going to school, I started painting again, I wrote my book,” Davis said, “and that’s what centered me again.”

Along with the veteran population at PSU, there are a great number of Iraqi people who had to move to America to protect themselves and their families after taking what seemed like harmless jobs working for the press during the war.

Because the invasion escalated so rapidly, their homelands were no longer safe for them to reside in after the war, and organizations like the Washington Post brought them back to America for their safety.

One Iraqi employee of the Washington Post for six years during the war, Rifaat Alsammaraie, was forced to relocate here in Portland in 2009 after working as a night driver for the press.

Five years later, he is still integrating into his new life and recently opened a food truck on 10th and Washington called Noah’s Ark.

Alsammaraie shares his experience in the war and his life in America after he left Iraq.

“I was offered a job working for the American press, which was [usually] free from accidents, killings and danger, Alsammaraie said. “The people had respect for us because we worked for the media and everyone helped us. We didn’t expect it to become dangerous, but it all started in 2004, a year after the American invasion.”

Spinner said that as a country, we have a responsibility to help and take care of others.

“Whether we wanted the war to happen or not, they’re our responsibility,” Spinner said.“Whether we supported the Iraqi people or not, they’re our responsibility and your generation’s responsibility. All of the students here have a responsibility to take care of these people. That’s why you have to care.”