I recently came across a photo from Iraq. There I am in a chemical weapons suit, flak jacket and helmet. In the background, flames billow from a sabotaged oil plant. Next to me, a Marine young enough to be my son looks calm and determined on his very first day of war.
It was only a year ago, but it feels like another lifetime.
I cover Congress now. I wear a coat and tie. I go home every night and sleep in a bed. It's safe and secure. And sometimes — it's a bit too predictable.
In fact, I'm afraid that whatever I cover as a reporter in the future will never match the adrenaline-induced, heart-in-my-throat sense of anticipation that I felt while embedded with the U.S. Marines on their march from Kuwait to Baghdad. And I suspect it will be very rare that I feel so close to the center of a story of this magnitude.
It's hard for me to believe now that I was really there — that I went through almost daily ambushes. It's hard to believe that a soft, white-collar guy like me dug a ditch every night to sleep in for protection from possible attack. It's hard to believe that for more than a month I didn't shower and ate nothing but vacuum-packed Meals-Ready-to-Eat. And it's hard to believe that, as someone with no military background, I was virtually "adopted" by the Marines and lived like one of them.
It's one year later, and looking through a stack of photos and some scribbles in a journal I kept brings back lots of memories, both good and bad. I hope they can shed a little light on the role of the embed in covering the war in Iraq.
At the start of the ground war
As we sped through a gap in the giant sand berm that separates Kuwait from Iraq, the screaming engines of dozens of Assault Amphibious Vehicles (AAVs) filled the night air with a gruesome sound — and must have filled anyone ahead of us with utter dread. These were the first minutes of the ground war, and my unit was at or near the front, a fact that they repeated with pride. ("Tip of the spear, man!")
When I had imagined this moment in advance, I expected I'd be scared senseless. But to my surprise, what I felt at that moment was less fear than exhilaration, not unlike the adrenaline rush that I (vaguely) recall from long-ago days playing competitive sports.
I suspect my coolness had something to do with the fact that the Marines who surrounded me, about 14 of them, crammed into the AAV like sardines, seemed so focused, so utterly confident. After all, this was the moment they had trained for — and that many of them had spent their young lives dreaming about.
Shortly after crossing the border, the night sky ahead of us suddenly exploded in flashes of light. The steel "lid" on our AAV was open, so I stood up, holding on for dear life, to watch the show. It was American and British artillery, I was told, clearing the way for us, the ground forces.
In the distance, I'd guess 15 or 20 miles across a flat, dark expanse of desert, we could see enormous flames shooting into the sky from sabotaged oil refineries. Ahead, a Marine tank, no more than a few hundred yards away, suddenly blasted a few shells from its cannon at a target I couldn't see.
A short time later, a Marine shouted that there were enemy troops approaching from the right. An officer grabbed his night-vision binoculars — and announced that they were camel herders, not enemy troops. They had come within seconds of being blown away.
I dialed the NBC control room in New York on my hand-held satellite phone (an amazing device, without which our coverage would have been all but impossible.) They were desperate for information from the front, and I was on the air within seconds.
I described the surreal scene at length. Before I hung up, I heard the anchor say: "As we just heard, the war has begun." Those words jarred me. It brought home the fact that the home front was utterly dependent on me to tell them what was happening in my corner of the war.
There was no journalistic "pack" to back me up — I was the only reporter for miles. I can't remember a time in my career when I felt such a heavy weight of responsibility to get the facts, get them right and get them fast.
The ‘fog of war’
One of my most vivid memories of the war sounds like a recurring nightmare, but it was real.
I'm running, or at least trying to run, through ankle-deep mud. I'm ducking, bent over at the waist, frantically searching for someplace to hide. It's almost pitch black — the only light is tracer fire, from Marines shooting (wildly, it seems to me) into the night. The barrage is earsplitting, and it seems to be coming from every direction.
After a few minutes, as the gunfire subsides, the Marines hear a young girl crying in the distance. At daylight, no enemy troops are found; only the bodies of two young Iraqi girls.
No one will ever know exactly what happened that night.
The Marines concluded that the girls had been used as human shields by Iraqi fighters, who were ambushing our camp.
My producer, John Zito, found five of the Marines who had been involved in the shooting. All of them were between 19 and 23 and were understandably distraught.
They blamed the Iraqis, not themselves, and that seemed fair to me, given the "fog of war" circumstances. There was no way they could have known the girls were out there.
But their confidence that they had only been doing their duty didn't make the horror of that night go away.
As one Marine, about 20 years old, told me: "Even though I know it wasn't my fault, I'm going to hear those girls screaming for the rest of my life."
The battle to be objective
That incident presented one of my biggest journalistic challenges of the war.
Critics of the embed concept had questioned whether embedded reporters could be objective. After all, the argument went, we depended on the Marines for access and for our own safety. Not to mention the fact that reporters became friends with and in many cases (definitely in my case),admired the troops they were covering.
The commanding officer of my battalion gave us virtually unlimited access, even on sensitive stories. He said his orders were to let us report on "the good, the bad and the ugly." And that's what we did.
But the difficulty was with some of the younger Marines who, initially at least, didn't grasp the role of a reporter. In my current beat in Washington, when I report on a member of Congress who has screwed up, it's easy. Members of Congress understand my role. But a young Marine is more likely to take it personally.
For example, there was no doubt in my mind that the story of the two girls' deaths was newsworthy. Civilian casualties are a tragic but important part of war.
But after I reported it a couple of Marines asked me why I had put it on the air. They said it would make the Marines look bad. They were surprised, they said, because they thought I was their "friend." They even asked me whose side I was on.
I was taken aback and don't remember exactly how I responded. But in retrospect, I hope I told them that just as they have duties as Marines, I have duties as a reporter — including the duty to report the story as fully and accurately as I can, even if it means putting people I like and respect in a bad light. I hope I told them that friendship has nothing to do with it, and it wasn't my job to take sides. News can be a cold business, especially when the news is bad.
Truth be told, telling the bad news wasn't easy. Especially when I was reporting it as a group of young Marines stood nearby listening to every word. But I tried like hell just to tell it like it was, and I think I succeeded — and I believe that by the time I left even the skeptical ones understood and accepted my role.
A chaotic moment, access denied
There was only one time when my crew and I were flatly denied access to a story. But the scene was so chaotic and so dangerous, we didn't even have time to object.
We had just arrived in Baghdad and were traveling in a small convoy of three or four Humvees. We pulled up to a Marine checkpoint at the same time as an Iraqi man on foot who, with no warning, blew himself up.
Four Marines were badly wounded in the suicide bombing, and the commanding officer of our convoy, clearly enraged, started screaming orders — primarily telling his convoy to get moving. When my cameraman reached for his camera the officer screamed "put that f---ing camera down!"
Other than that chaotic moment, I can't think of a time when we were flatly denied access. We were sometimes even given military plans in advance — to help us plan our coverage. It didn't take long for the Marines to learn that they could trust us and for us to learn that we could rely on them.
Last fall I went to Camp Pendleton for my battalion's homecoming (Third Battalion, Fifth Marines). My cameraman, Joe Klimovitz, went, too. We were treated like royalty. I can't tell you how many mothers, fathers, wives, sons and daughters thanked us profusely for helping them to keep track of their Marines during those difficult early days of the war.
They gave me a large scrapbook filled with dozens of beautifully written thank-you notes, which is now one of my earthly treasures.
Their response stunned me. But I think it's one more reason that the "embed" will be a key part of all future war coverage. Not only because the American people deserve to know what's happening with their fighting men and women — but because their families will demand it.