Reporters Coming Home

Apr 21, 2003  •  Post A Comment

For TV journalists who spent weeks embedded on the front lines of the first real-time televised war, coming home means trading one emotional roller coaster for another.
The Pentagon’s unprecedented program of assigning journalists to specific units paid off big time for the military, the news media and the public, which got to see its military men and women on the front lines.
“It’s important to know what you ask of these guys,” said Leroy Sievers, the Nightline executive producer who had spent nearly five weeks in Iraq with anchor Ted Koppel and a crew embedded with the 3rd Infantry.
Embedding should be here to stay and the journalists would do it again.
“I give it an `A,”’ said NBC News correspondent Chip Reid, whose first experience with reluctance on the part a unit commander arose when he asked to talk to the youngest soldiers after their ordeal involving two girls who were had been used as human shields. “He went away and thought about it and came back, saying, `I’m going to get out of your way.’ “
The Pentagon distributed questionnaires last week that sought reviews of and suggestions for improving the program.
CNN correspondent Walter Rodgers believes it would be safer and more informative for journalists to have their own radios with which they could hear communications between commanders and troops during any kind of action. “It was all line-of-sight with very little direct communications.”
“It will be interesting when the dust settles to see what the long-term effects are,” said Torie Clarke, the Pentagon spokeswoman who was the architect of the embedding program, which she believes took the agenda-setting function for war coverage away from Iraq and other critics of U.S. policy and let the United States strut its stuff on a worldwide stage. “It was a good thing to do.”
Embedding was more grueling and grungy than they could have imagined and was even harder on their families and friends. And it was hell on their equipment.
Everyone agreed there were whiners and complainers in the ranks of embedded journalists. Some of the uncomfortable participants checked out of the program early, but no one will name names.
“Most people I saw, men and women, sucked it up pretty well,” said CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann, whose wife, Linda Stouffer, caught one of his scarier reports during her shift as a CNN Headline News anchor. Mike Cerre, a free-lancer who became a mainstay of ABC News’ war coverage, was experienced enough to prepare for a hygiene routine built around a Tupperware bowl and a sponge. He came home with some funny video of unnamed journalists who showed up with wheeled bags, Starbucks coffee canisters and “personal comfort items attached to their vests”-and there was even a photo agency fashion plate dressed in black from head to toe,
“We wore our chemical suits the first two or three weeks. Not only did they protect you but they kept the odors in,” Mr. Sievers said. He said little digital video cameras worked well, but he would recommend that ABC News “go more toward the military equipment if we could” the next time the network equips crews for duty in such punishing terrain.
What the sand didn’t jam was likely to be broken by bouncing around in assault vehicles. Mr. Cerre’s list of destroyed items includes three pairs of glasses, a wristwatch, pens, four cameras and a power converter.
Because “the network wasn’t prepared to resupply,” it became so difficult to feed that he sometimes dispatched tapes via helicopter.
Getting Out Is Hard to Do
Unembedding is more complicated than they could have predicted.
It means leaving behind soldiers they had come to know well as they sat in on briefings, shared the experience of being under fire, reported on casualties, facilitated calls home and shared Final 4 scores and summaries of how the war was playing back home.
Re-entering a more familiar world is disorienting and fraught with another set of conflicting emotions. They can have a drink, a real meal and a cigar, turn on a light at night or take a marathon shower. They also can, finally, fully grieve the loss of the military men they knew and their fellow journalists.
Mr. Cerre attended a first sergeant’s funeral the night after he arrived home in San Francisco. He was asked to stay around afterward to talk with the spouses of troops still in Iraq. He knew he would have to speak carefully, just as he knew the upcoming special he will do for ABC’s prime-time lineup should be shown to the affected families first because, “We don’t want them to be surprised or shocked. All our guys totally agreed.”
“My heart is full for all the things we saw,” said CBS News correspondent Byron Pitts, whose wife Lyne is an executive producer for CBS News and had to leave the control room the day Baghdad fell and her husband and his cameraman Mark Laganga came under unexpected and ferocious fire. The embedding experience is “not without price. I think we are all getting our arms around what the price was,” he said.
Mr. Pitts had said a prayer with NBC News correspondent David Bloom, who died in Iraq after suffering a pulmonary embolism, before they left Kuwait City for their respective embeds. Mr. Strassmann knew Mr. Bloom from their days reporting in Florida. CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod invited Mr. Bloom to bunk in a CBS hotel room on their last night in Kuwait, but joked that he wouldn’t have been so hospitable had he known that Mr. Bloom had concocted a rolling microwave-satellite uplink that blew away everyone else visually.
“Brother, I’ve got a surprise for you,” Mr. Bloom teased Mr. Pitts. “I’m going to kick your ass.”
Mr. Reid flew into New York, where he was met by his girlfriend. Then he went shopping for a suit to wear to the funeral Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for his friend and co-worker David Bloom.
Three days before he died, Mr. Bloom had communicated to his brother Jim that the strain of the duty and the stress of separation from loved ones was “more than anyone has bargained for” and that he told his crew they were “free to go.” The crew stayed. David Bloom told his brother that he would do it all again “without question.”
“It was exhilarating and it was humbling. Exhilarating because being under fire is always exhilarating. Humbling because I am alive,” Mr. Rodgers said.
Mr. Rodgers has hiked the Appalachian Trail, Scotland and Norway and Sweden twice and said, “The best preparation for this kind of assignment is to have been a backpacker. I didn’t take anything I didn’t use. I took virtually nothing that couldn’t be thrown away.”
A short stay in Kuwait City before heading to his cabin in New York’s Berkshires gave him a chance to shower twice, swim twice and be alone. “It was the first time in five weeks I had been alone. I wanted some classical music. I wanted some roses,” he said.
Mr. Sievers said Mr. Koppel’s crew emerged as “huge fans of the MREs,” but he had desperately missed having greens to eat while he was in the desert. When he reached the hotel in Kuwait City at 4 a.m he ordered a huge salad from room service.
It was harder getting used to a city with lights ablaze even at that wee hour of the night.
“We were out long enough that you get accustomed to a new way of life,” said the Nightline executive producer, who spoke for many when he said that of all the conflicts he has covered “this was by far the hardest.”
Mr. Strassmann, who said that what he wanted in Kuwait was “a wire brush and a delousing agent,” was pleased to be home in Atlanta before the birth of his and his wife’s second child.
Mr. Axelrod took a “90-minute” shower in Kuwait and realized as he put head to pillow for the first time in 34 days that “I still smell.” He celebrated being back in New York by downing a cheeseburger, hugging his kids and kissing his pregnant wife.
Mr. Pitts had his first taste of home before he left Baghdad: a cigar and a swig of Jack Daniel’s from a supply obtained by a “creative colleague” on the print side.
Like the other embedded journalists, he will lon
g remember the troops with whom he spent so much time, especially the 20-year-old Marine who knelt over him during a firefight and said, “Don’t worry, Mr. Pitts, you won’t have to die here and you won’t die alone.”
Doug Halonen contributed to this report