`Embedded' reporter finds access to troops and danger

War: Army officers and their men watch over a Sun correspondent watching them - and joining in - as they dodge bullets.

April 13, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KUFAH, Iraq - Hugging a pitifully small pile of gravel, bullets whizzing all around, it became obvious that access would not be a problem.

An Iraqi sniper was firing a semiautomatic rifle from a building near the southern city of Najaf. Dozens of U.S. soldiers were shooting back with machine guns and rifle-launched grenades. I lay somewhere in between, having followed Capt. Eric Schuler as he bounded closer and closer to the spot in the sand where a second group of his soldiers was pinned down by the sniper fire.

This is what it was like to be an "embedded" reporter with the Army's 101st Airborne Division.

Before the war, skeptics doubted the Pentagon would keep promises to give the news media free rein among the troops. But the military kept its word.

For six weeks I have been traveling with the 3rd Battalion of the 327th Infantry Regiment, a 700-man unit specializing in helicopter air assault. All told, about 500 reporters have been placed with units in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. The embedding experiment has put reporters the closest they've been to a large battle since the Vietnam War. The Pentagon hoped it would translate into uplifting pieces about dedicated soldiers. News outlets saw a chance to go beyond the dry, canned briefings that dominated the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

I cannot speak for the rest, but my trip into war has been professionally satisfying. I talk to whom I want and write what I want with no censorship apart from simple Pentagon ground rules spelling out what cannot be reported: exact locations, future operations or details on casualties until next of kin are notified.

One reporter in one place does not tell the story of the whole war. All that embedded reporters can do is offer an inside, microscopic view of part of half of the conflict.

One minute I may sit in on a classified briefing, the next I may head out on a patrol with the front-line infantry companies. Sometimes, as in the sniper incident, the fighting gets close.

I have written about soldiers worrying about combat and soldiers enduring unspeakable boredom. I have written about the battalion's unopposed attack on an airfield and the adrenaline-pumping firefight with the sniper.

There have been memorable moments, especially seeing a massive Saddam Hussein statue in Najaf toppled by U.S. explosives. There have been scary moments, including a pre-dawn Iraqi missile strike that raised concerns of a chemical attack and sent everyone scrambling into mask, boots and gloves.

By and large I have been welcomed, even embraced, by the troops. A strain of suspicion toward the media runs through the military, stemming largely from coverage of the Vietnam War. But many of today's soldiers weren't born until a decade after that war ended and don't carry the baggage.

Some of them have never heard of Baltimore, but they know someone is telling their story and that's what matters. They have written home urging wives and parents to read the stories online, not only to see where they are but to learn that they are alive and well.

I have had to remind myself that while I am with the troops, I am not one of them. Little things keep some distance. I don't wear fatigues (except for the Army-issue chemical suits we wore into Iraq) and my body armor is umpire blue, not camouflage green. I try to use "you," not "we," when talking about the Army.

Gaining trust

Inevitably, though, people bond when they are together day and night for weeks. Out of that comes trust, and out of trust comes a willingness by soldiers to open up and reveal fears of combat or a distaste for Iraq or whatever is on their minds. All of that helps me to capture the reality of soldiers at war.

We met on March 1 at Fort Campbell, Ky. On that day of goodbye hugs and kisses, much of the battalion flew to Kuwait City on a Northwest Airlines Boeing 747, beginning a deployment that could keep soldiers away from home for six months or more. Back then I was just The Reporter because hardly anyone knew my name. A few suspicious looks were shot my way, but what struck me most was how many curious soldiers walked up to say hello.

Almost everyone asked the same two questions: Did you volunteer for this assignment? (Yes.) Are you getting paid extra? (No.)

That I chose to be here gave me credibility. These people all decided to join the Army for one reason or another, but that doesn't mean they are happy to be here. Living as they live gives me a clearer sense of what they put up with, and reminds them I am not just visiting and then returning to some comfortable life far away.

The military jargon is contagious. I now unconsciously say I am going to "rack out" before going to sleep. I use "GAC" - for ground assault convoy - as both verb and noun, as if I've said it all my life. I know too well the differences between the TOC (rear tactical operations center) and TAC (forward tactical operations center).

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