The Message

Blood and Sand

The Rocky Mountain News's Charlie Brennan has always considered himself to be lucky. So when one military spokesman predicted that a journalist would die covering the war in Iraq, he tried to keep this prophecy in perspective despite the knowledge that, as an embedded reporter with the U.S. Army's V Corps, he might soon be staring down eternity.

"There were about 500 of us over there," says Brennan, 47. "I thought, if something horrible happened to even two of us, there would still be 498 of us unscathed. And I just felt convinced that my luck would hold."

A greater number of journalists than anticipated were infinitely less fortunate. Thus far, the media community has been shaken by at least ten fatalities linked to combat, not counting the passing of prominent NBC correspondent David Bloom, who succumbed after suffering a pulmonary embolism. If approximately 1,000 journalists (500-plus embeds supplemented by several hundred freelancers and roaming reporters) were or are in Iraq, around 1 percent of them have died since shooting started, as compared to about .00006 percent of American and British soldiers (fewer than 200 deaths out of roughly 300,000 coalition troops).

Charlie Brennan, back at the Rocky, still has 
dreams about his Iraq stint.
Mark Manger
Charlie Brennan, back at the Rocky, still has dreams about his Iraq stint.

For his part, Brennan left the war zone without significant physical injury -- which is not to imply that he was entirely unmarked. His series of dispatches from battle sites and the like were outstanding, largely because of how vividly and honestly he captured scenes and characters that remain seared into his memory. Over a week after his arrival in the States, during his first full day back on the Rocky's clock, he said, "I'm dreaming about it every night. They're not even nightmares, just war-related dreams. I'm hoping that stops really soon, because it makes me feel like I'm still there."

That he's not was a matter of choice. On March 26, three weeks or so after he left Denver bound for the Persian Gulf region, Brennan told News managing editor Deb Goeken that it was time for him to come home. His reasons were extremely personal: He'd promised his loved ones that he wouldn't put himself at what he describes as "an unnecessary level of risk," and he believed that if he remained in Iraq, he'd be breaking that pledge.

"In The Blair Witch Project, the famous monologue at the end, one of the women holds a flashlight under her chin, her lips quivering, and cries, 'I was so naive!'" Brennan says. "Well, it was naive of me to think an embedded journalist would be able to control the level of risk to which he or she would be exposed."

Several other reporters reached the same conclusion. Some journalists are giving up their embedded status to roam more freely around the country -- but a March 31 article in the trade journal Editor & Publisher stated that at least ten others left the region entirely, with that many more reluctantly sticking around after learning that the Pentagon isn't letting news organizations assign fresh personnel to fill vacated slots. Among those who split for good was Jerry Zremski of the Buffalo News, who was Brennan's tentmate for much of his time in Iraq. In an e-mail published on www.USAToday.com and quoted by E&P, Zremski wrote, "I feel like a hostage. I was told I would be going to Iraq for two days, but a general's change in plans changed this to at least a five-day adventure -- and far more danger than I'd expected."

Given that his experiences were similar, Brennan was profoundly grateful when Goeken didn't reject his request to ship out. "She was very professional in how she handled it," he allows. "I know, and she has confirmed this since I've been back, that she would have loved it if I had stayed another week, or two weeks, or even beyond. She didn't lie about that. But she and [News editor/ president/publisher] John Temple told me before I left, 'Don't put a story ahead of your own safety.' I figured that if what I said to my family and what they said to me meant anything, it was the right decision to make."

For Brennan, the odds that he would head overseas initially seemed slim. On January 29, he was at home with his wife, Erin, who teaches learning-disabled elementary-school children in Boulder, when he received a call from the News asking "if I would be interested in embedding with the troops at Fort Carson for a month or two. But it was presented to me as very much a hypothetical, in that there was another reporter ahead of me. I was approached about being a backup. And I said, 'Sure. Of course.'"

On the surface, his willingness to leap into the fray would seem to contradict his private philosophy. He refers to himself as a pacifist -- a worldview that was severely tested in Iraq but remained intact. One day, Iraqis were running up to the side of a road where Brennan and several soldiers were driving in a Humvee. Because none of the Americans knew for certain whether the locals' intentions were peaceful, one G.I. tried to give Brennan a 9-millimeter handgun for self-protection -- but the reporter wouldn't take it. Brennan says the soldier asked, "Are you telling me if we're lying here wounded and bad guys are coming over the berm, you wouldn't pull the trigger?" Brennan's reply: "I guess that is what I'm telling you. I'd probably be waving my white flag."

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