Live from Iraq


By Stewart Nusbaumer

Surviving in Mosul Stuggling to survive after a horrific explosion.

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Embed in Trouble
What is a journalist to do with attacked by a U.S. Army biggie? Go to the bigger?

Four Days in Dulab
In a small, dangerous town in the most violent province in Iraq.


 

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  Articles & Essays: Embed Journalist in Trouble

 
 
What is a journalist to do when attacked by a U.S. Army biggie? Go to the bigger?
By Stewart Nusbaumer

Mosul, Iraq -- When the highest enlisted man in the battalion rushes into your room and screams, "Who are you?" When he proceeds to verbally harass you, "I don't like your tone." When he continues to verbally harass you, "I don't like your body language!" When he begins to threaten you, "I can have you thrown off this base!" What should a journalist do?

I had been an embedded journalist for five days with a battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division at Forward Operating Base Marez in northern Iraq. By then, I had several pleasant, informative discussions with the battalion commander, and twice I had gone out on patrol with the troops. There were absolutely no problems, not for me, not for them. No problems until sitting on my bed at 6:30 p.m., rewriting a draft article when the battalion sergeant major pounded on my door, stormed into the room and flew into his rage.

Flabbergasted, at first I said little. Then I started firing back: "I don't like your tone either!" "I don't like your body language either!" "I'm not in your Army, do you understand that?" That stumped him for a few seconds. "You want to throw me off base, go ahead!" He ignored my challenge. Not until I stopped responding, allowing him the final word -- like some 10-year-old boy on the schoolyard -- did he finally leave my room.

CPIC -- the Combined Press Information Center -- in Baghdad does an excellent job of informing journalists how to apply for embedding, how they will be dispatched to their assigned military units in the field, what they can and cannot do (the "Ground Rules"), but not what to do when things go wrong. When that happens, you're on your own. Or, so I thought.

The next day I made an appointment with the battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel. Using simple and unemotional words, I described the sergeant major outburst and informed him that I was merely sitting on the bed in my assigned quarters. To my great surprise, the commander's response was "get over it." Adding, "You were in the Marine Corp." He cut me off with, "Anything else?" Leaving his office, I attempted one more time. "So, sir, will you deal with this problem?" His response, "Get over it."

What I wanted from the colonel was for him to talk to his sergeant major, that's all.

I didn't want a personal apology or an official reprimand. I simply wanted his commanding officer to explain to him that his behavior was unacceptable. Remind him that although a journalist was with the battalion, he was not in the battalion. Instead, the battalion commander blew me off, which I found unacceptable.

Being my first embed, I was confused, unsure how to proceed. I did know that my prior service in the Marine Corps was irrelevant. And I knew troubling questions were stopping me from that "get over it." If the sergeant major mistreated me, a journalist, was he also mistreating his troops, and maybe much worse? If another journalist visits the battalion, will he or she also be abused and threatened? Why didn't the commanding officer understand the embedding system requires the military and the media to treat each other professionally? Most important, when a man engages in bizarre and aggressive behavior and is walking around with a weapon, shouldn't he be checked out -- fast? Sure my ego was bruised, but I had much greater concerns than my bruised ego.

For a reality check, I emailed James W. Crawley, Military Reporters and Editors president. He confirmed, after consulting several veteran Army Times reporters, that the sergeant major's behavior was neither normal nor acceptable. No one had heard of such verbal abuse thrown at an embedded journalist. So it was clear, I had to do something. But what?

I sent an e-mail to the brigade public affairs officer, a major, explaining the sergeant major's unacceptable behavior and the colonel's indifference. But I expected little from him. Actually, I expected nothing. The military is a conservative institution that strongly dislikes "making waves," and I was about to make some serious waves. Underestimating the major was my first mistake.

Remembering that I had the email address of Col. Steven Boylan, Gen. David Petraeus' public affairs officer, I emailed the colonel. That was my second mistake.

The military tends to go overboard when the waves come from high places, and you can't get much higher than an assistant of Gen. Petraeus.

After the brigade PAO received my first email, he contacted the battalion commander, who then emailed me: "Sorry, I don't understand what the problem is," he wrote. "Can we talk?" I returned to his office and this time the colonel quickly understood my problem and agreed to talk to his sergeant major. Why his change? Did he foresee trouble for himself, for his military career? I don't know. I do know that at our second meeting the unit commander was fully awake, his eyes fully open, his mind fully engaged -- unlike at our meeting the day before. "I had been up for three days" he said, "but I had a good night sleep last night."

Lesson One for embedded journalists: In combat zones, sleep deprivation is common. This is because schedules are seldom fixed, sleep patterns are never routine. The enemy can exploit predictability. When talking to a lieutenant colonel or a private, remember that three-quarters of their brain cells might be napping. If their response is surprising, consider giving them a second visit or email before you move on to a higher authority.

With the battalion commander promising to talk with his sergeant major, this was the end of my problem, right? Well, not exactly. There was that email to Gen. Petraeus' public affair officer, Col. Boylan.

Boylan responded quickly and politely, promising to look into my complaint, and informing me if I was dissatisfied with the brigade PAO, I should contact the division PAO. I was unaware there were division public affairs officers. In emailing me, however, he emailed others and soon my computer repeatedly announced "You have mail," as an onslaught of emails rushed into my mail box. Colonels and majors were angry that a soldier had abused a journalist, outraged that one soldier had managed to smear the reputation of the entire 1st Cavalry Division. They wanted positive reportage, not an angry journalist. Other officers were confused how this could have happened, still others were confused what really happened. My problem, then, shot from not being addressed to being "over addressed" -- but after the problem had already been solved!

Lesson Two: The military's traditional chain of command is the journalists "chain of complaint." We should take our problems first to the brigade PAO, then the division PAO, then the Multi-National Corps PAO, then the Multi-National Forces Iraq PAO, which includes the Combined Press Information Center and embed office. Only after we have reached the end of the public affairs chain, and remain steadfast that a legitimate problem has not been satisfactory addressed, should we go to the generals at the top.

What I did was race from the lowest to the highest, from the brigade level to the commanding general level, triggering an implosion of the complaint system, wasting people's time and energy, causing confusion and misunderstanding. If I had given the brigade PAO sufficient time, say 24 hours, then the problem would have been resolved and I would not have contact the four-star general's PAO. Yet, I would still have retained the option to ratchet up the pressure by moving up the "chain of complaint."

Lesson Three: Give the chain of command at each level adequate time, a day or two, maybe three, depending upon the circumstances, to rectify your complaint before moving up the ladder. Don't move to the next level until you are sure a level is not resolving the problem.

The overall lesson that I learned was if journalists do not use the military's "chain of complaint," they have only two options left, and neither is good. One is to simply walk away from wrong, which all of us should find unacceptable. The other is to go outside the chain and -- in my case anyway -- trigger an avalanche of attention, much more than called for, much more than I wanted to deal with. So, remain firm, and work within the "chain of complaint" allowing each level of command appropriate time to resolve your problem.

In saying all this, I do not minimize the wrong of the sergeant major's unprovoked tirade and the battalion commander's indifference to the situation. But we need to remember that a battlefield is not a country club, tensions and pressures are high, dying is reality, horror may be around the next corner and sleep is often spotty. As embedded journalists, we know war is not a cakewalk. We know that many people make mistakes in pressurized environments. Yet, as embedded journalists, we must demand appropriate behavior from military personnel. When that line is crossed, we must take our complaints, if necessary, all the may to the top -- but only after we start at the bottom.

What I did not learn was what triggered the sergeant major's unusual behavior. Was it anti-media prejudice gone amok? After four decades of contact with the U.S. military, it seems to me that senior non-commissioned officers possess the strongest bias against the press. Officers often have a more formal education and, frequently, a greater understanding of the complexities of society and are better able to separate the messenger from the message. Young enlisted personnel engage in heavy anti-media rhetoric but are generally more flexible, especially after they learn journalists aren't there to write bad about them. Senior NCOs are seldom open to change, rigid in their intense dislike of the "liberal media."

Or did something more personal fire the sergeant major's nasty tirade? Three weeks before I arrived at the FOB, an IED explosion killed one of the sergeant major's friends. Two others lost limbs. Did his grieving trigger the emotional eruption? Did too much pain activate his diatribe? A senior NCO, even the highest enlisted soldier in the battalion, can be suffering from post-traumatic stress. Maybe this sparked his outburst, but I don't really know. The battalion commander agreed to talk with the sergeant major, which may help him deal with his problem.

This brings up a final lesson that I learned.

When an embedded journalist does what is right for himself and for his profession, he may also be doing what is best for a sergeant major and for the U.S. military. Serious trouble can hide behind the thick wall of military authority, festering into something very nasty and even dangerous.

Exposing wrong is a basic tenant of journalism. Exposure is the first step toward resolution and the resolution of wrongs makes for a better society. Embedded journalists need to expose military wrongs, and the military will become stronger. But pursue wrong correctly, from the bottom to the top.

Stewart Nusbaumer, who served in the Marine Corps, is a freelance writer and is currently embedding with various Army and Marine units in Iraq. You can email Stewart at SNusbaumer@gmail.com.

Note from MRE: The battalion and brigade were not named nor the battalion commander and the sergeant major. Col. Boylan was named because his position as Gen. Petraeus' spokesman is well known. The comments of the writer are his own.

This article originally appeared on Military Reporters & Editors website (www.militaryreporters.org).

 

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