No, I was not attacked in Iraq

 Note:  the above images are mostly outtakes from my time embedded with troops from the 737th Transportation Company from January-March 2004.  All images © Yakima Herald-Republic.

CORRECTION:  I mentioned “bulletproof” vests in my article.  The troops at the time had fragmentary resistant vests, later upgraded to the type of vest I wore–a ballistic vest with ceramic plates in the front and back.    Also, a soldier with the 737th pointed out that he had never heard a mortar ‘whistle’.  While the sound is clear in my memory, I’d have to describe it more accurately as a loud hissing noise, increasing in intensity to a roar.  In any case, terrifying. 

Like many of my journalist friends I’ve followed with fascination the controversy over NBC anchor Brian Williams’ misrepresentation of his role during an incident in Iraq in 2003.  As someone who spent 16 years as a photojournalist and photo editor, I’m particularly sensitive to the topic. Just a few months after Williams’ incident, I was also an embedded journalist, living with and reporting on troops in Kuwait and Iraq.

Everyone remembers incidents differently over time.  Ask a cop whether eyewitness accounts are reliable.   Williams’ account isn’t the first time that someone with an incidental role in a major event ends up over time recasting themselves closer and closer to the action.   But I’m hard-pressed to remember a time when a professional journalist of such stature—someone paid to bear witness and to tell truth—has so been accused.
It’s not just his dramatic retelling that happened in the years since the episode. For me, it’s interesting that in the report Williams aired immediately after the incident, he reported that the chopper ahead of his had taken fire and was forced to land.  It implied that he witnessed the scene as part of the convoy rather than on a ‘following’ chopper arriving later at the scene.      I suspect that Williams’ error has less to do with some moral failing and a lot to do with the nature of TV news.     The emphasis is for TV journalists to be in the picture, part of the scene, and encourages them to imply an immediacy that may be misleading.    It’s a desire to be part of the story, and is in contrast to the type of journalism practiced by print and photo-journalists whose emphasis is should be on the subject and never on themselves (with some exceptions, I’m sure).
I witnessed both approaches during the time I spent embedded with troops of the 737th Transportation Company back in 2004.   I was one of two journalists from Eastern Washington state given the opportunity to document the lives of some 160 Army Reservists whose unit had been last called to active duty during the Vietnam War.      The goal was to tell the story not of the war, but  of the men and women from my community who put their lives on hold for a year (or more) to go to war far from home.   My sacred mission was to keep the focus on them and not on me.   Looking back, it was easier for me as a newspaper journalist to do that—to stay behind the scenes, watching, reporting, photographing.    For a TV journalist it’s not so simple.   Embedded with me was Patrick Preston, a reporter from KXLY-TV in Spokane, Washington.    Both of us were doing double-duty:  I was photographing and writing stories and he was filing reports on air and handling his video camera and gear.   After looking at his bags of gear, I realized that I had the better end of the bargain.  Even with my RBGAN satellite data phone, my voice satellite phone, two cameras, lenses, laptop and backup drives,  I was 10 times more mobile than Patrick (see his picture, above).    I also could ‘embed’ easier, hanging out the soldiers, photographing them as they went about their business.  Patrick had to do a lot of stand-up interviews, usually at 5 am each morning in time for the Spokane broadcast.  He also had to be in front of the camera, essentially narrating and shaping each broadcast while I had the luxury of letting my photos tell the story with a little help from a caption or two.
This gave me a distinct advantage, and allowed me to grow closer to the troops.  For Patrick, his broadcast time restraints and his heavy gear all made it tougher for him to just be one of the guys.  During a convoy escort mission into Iraq, Patrick and I were given space in separate Humvees.  The reason was simple:  a journalist doesn’t have a weapon, and so you spread them out so that you’re only missing one rifle in each gun truck, rather than two.     The First Sergeant told us in no uncertain terms to stay awake.  His theory was, if a hostile is looking for a weak spot in a line of trucks, they’ll go with the one that has one less rifle–especially if they see a civilian not paying attention.   Because Patrick had to do daily early-morning stand-up reports, he tended to pass out after hours in the Humvee.   Eventually, the First Sergeant got so frustrated that he came to my Humvee, pulled out a solider and traded spots with him.  He was worried that Patrick’s Humvee would be hit, and he didn’t want to tempt fate.
Through it all, I think Patrick did a great job with very little resources or sleep.   I had the easier time.   But having gone through that experience, I can understand some of the context around Brian Williams’ faulty memory.  To me, it’s really not about a faulty memory.  It’s about an emphasis in TV news about being on screen instead of behind it;  about being part of the story instead of simply reporting it.
Patrick and I spent about five weeks with the 737th, living with them at Ft. Lewis, Washington and deploying with them overseas to Kuwait.  We actually feared that we wouldn’t make it to Iraq at all, given the fact that the mission changed, and changed again after our arrival.    The last week of my embed—the very end of February, 2004—we were given the mission to escort a convoy into Iraq.   We were nervous, excited, but happy to be given a chance to show the folks back home what the Iraq experience might be like for their loved ones.
We spent five days in Iraq.   During that time, we ate a lot of dust, saw a lot of destruction and saw the troops perform admirably.   We were subject to two incidents: one in which unknown persons hurled a large rock from an overpass in Baghdad, hitting the windshield of a Humvee (not mine, nor his), and another in which two mortars were lobbed indiscriminately from beyond the perimeter and landed among our lines of trucks at the motor pool at operating base Speicher, near Tikrit, Iraq.    In that incident, we were relaxing and awaiting departure when we heard the whistle of incoming mortars.  We were unprepared.   Many soldiers were missing their Kevlar helmets and others (probably me among them) had taken off our uncomfortable bulletproof vests.   There were casualties with minor injuries, as the rockets landed a hundred yards away between lines of fuel tankers.  It could have been much, much worse.
We were lucky, and neither I nor Patrick ever ‘conflated’ our role in either incident to one of prominence.   After all, it was about the troops and not about us.   Whatever happens to Brian Williams, I hope the incident isn’t cast as a simple failing of an egotistical TV personality.  It should be a reminder for all journalists, TV or otherwise, of something my ASU journalism professor Bruce Itule always told us:  “It ain’t about you.”
–30–
  • Well said Brian.

    Thank you for your service, to the service.

    BZ

  • Melissa (Baughman) Lantz

    Thank you so much! My dad always had good things to say about you, the time he got to spend with you!

    • Hi Melissa,
      I remember your father fondly–quiet but friendly and always willing to help a citizen journalist. A class act for sure. I’m sure he’s very missed…and I’m lucky to have known him for an admittedly brief period of time. Thank you for your comments.

  • Bulldogop1

    Brian, I thank you so very much for the work you did with us while you were there. You did as you say, you kept your reporting real and about the troops. Nothing made up or exaggerated. I appreciated your company while there and you were, weather you knew it or not, an outlet for many of the soldiers to talk to about home and an ability to recant about our home life that was so far away. You listened to what we had to say and when told to pay attention to something you did just that. Thank you again for keeping it real. ” Drive it like you stole it!”.
    M. Schoolcraft. Ret. 737th tc.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Staff Sergeant. Thanks to you and your guys for watching over me while I did my work–especially while in Iraq. I’m quite sure it wasn’t easy to have journalists around, but you all handled the task with aplomb. Love that “drive it” quote, by the way. Cheers.

  • James Kielhorn

    Thank you for telling our story durring our deployment.
    SGT James Kielhorn
    737Th Transportation Co.

    • Thanks, Sgt. Kielhorn. I consider it a privilege to have done so.