A Field Guide to Embedded Journalism

Photo by Alyssa Schukar of The Omaha World-Herald taken in Afghanistan on April 7, 2011, after she and my friend Joe Morton, a writer, were in a firefight with a National Guard squadron with which they were embedded. To understand the scale, consider that's an armored vehicle and a National Guardsmen in silhouette to the vehicle's right.

SILVER SPRING, Md. — After showing me video he shot from the war zone and telling me the stories of life as an embed, friend Joe Morton — the Joseph Morton, Washington correspondent for The Omaha World-Herald — came upon this photo taken by his colleague, Alyssa Schukar.

“This is my favorite,” he pointed.

The photo, shown big enough to fill a laptop screen, is striking. There is a solitary figure in the distance next to an immense and armored vehicle, and yet both are dwarfed by the landscape around it. The mountains rise up in three levels like rolling waves, one almost more impossibly tall then the next, and they overwhelm the image. Joe explained to me that that’s why he likes it. The picture shows the impenetrable terrain the military is dealing with in Afghanistan — even as it serves as a metaphor for the war effort itself. The enormity of the challenge is difficult to comprehend let alone tame. There is also the possibility that this picture means a lot to Joe because of when it was taken and what it represents: survival.

I had the chance today to catch up with Joe, a dear friend from college, at the start of a whirlwind trip to Washington, D.C. Today started with the final morning of Winter Warm-up. Then it was off to the airport to catch a flight to D.C. where on Tuesday I’ll join the Cardinals on their visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and follow them to the White House for the customary reception champions get with the president. A seat, I’m told, is waiting for me in the East Room. From the White House, I have approximately four hours to race to BWI, write a story, and catch the last flight to St. Louis out of the Beltway so I can make the family vacation to Curacao.

On my mark. Get set. Here we go.

Joe, my first J-school friend at Mizzou (we met during Summer Welcome, attended a Maneater meeting together before classes started), has lent his Washington expertise to coordinate my arrival and swift getaway. I’m flying out of BWI at his recommendation. I am outfitted with train schedules because of him. And I had a ride from the airport tonight because of him. This gave us a few hours to catch up, and — because it’s Martin Luther King Day — visit the MLK memorial for the first time for each of us. (A picture from the memorial.) As we meandered from there, through the FDR memorial and on to the Jefferson Memorial, Joe debriefed me on college friends, on his latest stories (the Keystone XL pipeline), and on his eight weeks in Afghanistan as an embedded journalist.

We throw this word around a lot now in journalism: embed.

Writers are “embedded” with different political campaigns. Reporters advertised themselves as “embedded” with Occupy Wall Street. Heck, I’ve had “embedded” assignments before. When I rode in the World Series championship parade on David Freese’s float, it was referred to at one point by a colleague as “being embedded.” Tomorrow, at Walter Reed, I’ve been told I’ll be “embedded” with one of the groups players that is touring the facility and meeting with patients. The use of the word should not imply that any of us know the meaning of the word.

Joe does.

As part of a project for The Omaha World-Herald — described here in the paper’s At War, At Home blog intro and the gripping entries that followed, including the top one by Schukar that includes more pictures — Joe went to Afghanistan to embed with a National Guard squadron from Nebraska and Iowa. Like so many of our friends, I checked Facebook and Omaha.com constantly to make sure of his well being. I couldn’t tell him enough upon his return how proud I was to call him a classmate and friend. Over dinner, he told me about the intricacies of traveling to Afghanistan. Over a few pints, we talked about how he outlined the stories he’d attempt to do, and how many stories he had to juggle and report at one time. I was fascinated by the, ahem, inside-baseball details of coverage in a war zone. What did he wear? What kind of insurance did he have to have? How did he get from place to place? Did he keep a diary? How many reporter notebooks did he pack for the trip? The answer: eight. Or, “not enough,” Joe said. And so on … Was he in a firefight?

On April 7, 2011, the squadron Joe was with neared the village Pacha Khak when an IED took out the front of the lead vehicle. The National Guardsmen entered the village to find the insurgents and possibly trail the enemy that triggered the improvised explosive device (i.e., a mine) that took out the vehicle. Shots rang out from a nearby ravine. Joe hit the ground, and he described to me in detail about the wounds he sustained from the sticker bush jamming into his knee. Bullets above him, and a weed had his attention. He smiled as he talked about it. He then told me about what was happening in the ravine nearby, a story he captured in an article that ran in the paper less than 36 hours later:

BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — The bad guys had escaped once again.

At least, that’s the way it looked Thursday afternoon to the Iowa Guardsmen scouring a series of ravines for more than an hour without finding two suspected insurgents they had seen earlier toting AK-47s.

Then, suddenly, Spc. Mark Otte of Atlantic, Iowa, saw them, about 40 feet below him on the floor of a ravine.

Otte stared into one man’s face and pointed his gun at him, waiting to see whether he would surrender.

Instead, the man opened fire with his assault rifle, forcing Otte back from the edge of the ravine.

About the same time, other soldiers from Bravo Troop who were searching the ravine floor came upon the men.

The man shooting at Otte quickly redirected his fire at the soldiers in the ravine. Staff Sgt. Michael Davis of Altoona, Iowa, was the closest — less than 10 feet away.

Davis stumbled backwards from the oncoming bullets and got tangled with Spc. Jeremy Henrich of Hinton, Iowa. They fell over, returning fire as they went down. They rolled over and kept firing.

Henrich positioned his rifle on top of Davis’ helmet to make sure he didn’t accidentally shoot his buddy in the tight space.

The firefight ended with the swift and permanent assist from two helicopters — video of which Joe showed me after we had DVR’d our way through tonight’s Mizzou game. The photo above comes from after the firefight as the convoy resumes. Reading the newspaper story online that came from what Joe just told me, I’m struck by two things. One, the description of the close-quarters conditions that the servicemen confronted that day: “the gunfire was thick, the ravine narrow,” Joe wrote. Two, that despite all the dust and bullets and weapons cache that the only participants injured were the two enemy fighters. Both were killed in the helicopter strikes. So much of what Joe told me about his eight weeks in Afghanistan will help me at Walter Reed, and hopefully make my questions less naive, more respectfully. Above all else, let me be respectful.

“We’re lucky to be alive,” one of the servicemen told Joe.

(Add: That same phrase I heard from half of the “wounded warriors” I spoke to at Walter Reed.)

When I hear a quote like that, I know how to use it. When an embedded journalist like Joe hears a quote like that, he knows what it means.

It’s like the photo above.

From the comfort of our laptops or our couches, we all can see the imposing nature of the terrain. We can only guess what it means.

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