The Message

Blood and Sand

Even so, Brennan is proud of his ability to remain objective. He's probably best known for his reporting about the JonBenét Ramsey murder investigation, even leaving the News for a stretch to assist author Lawrence Schiller with the popular book Perfect Murder, Perfect Town. "I certainly had my own opinions about who was guilty and who was not," he says, "but I think I kept my opinions out of print." He was confident he could do the same in Iraq.

When Erin found out about the prospect of Brennan's desert trek, she was taken aback. Having been married to him for just a year and a half, "she wasn't that accustomed to the idea that journalists sometimes end up in circumstances that are more challenging and hair-raising than ones in other lines of work," he says. "She told me, 'Gee, I don't know if that's a decision you get to make all by yourself.'" Still, he remembers the conversation that followed as being fairly brief. He explained why he saw the invitation as an intriguing one, noting that "unlike some other conflicts America's been involved in during the last few decades, I felt this might be a turning point in global history. Those are big words to put together, but I think it may well prove to be true -- and since any good reporter wants to be involved in the biggest story out there, I couldn't imagine a better opportunity."

Although Brennan admits Erin wasn't entirely persuaded by this line of reasoning, she gave her tentative okay knowing that he probably wouldn't be going to Iraq anyway. Then, a couple of weeks later, the situation changed. Events in the Gulf were moving rapidly, and Ann Imse, a Rocky reporter earmarked for embedding duty, had her hands full completing "Russia's Rocky Flats: Radioactive Hell," a sprawling report about residents of a Russian town near a weapons factory that she researched with the assistance of a grant from the World Affairs Journalism program. "It's my understanding that there was a deadline because of the fellowship, and her stuff had to run by the end of February," Brennan says. "We quickly realized she would not be in the position to write and prepare to leave at the same time. That's how I was bumped to the front of the line."

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.

According to Brennan, Erin reacted to this development with "shock," and his nineteen-year-old daughter, Casey, who lives in Connecticut, was upset as well. "I lost my father to cancer when I was 21, and Casey said, 'I can see it now. You lost your dad when you were 21, and I'm going to lose mine at about the same age.' She saw the karmic wheel turning and thought that fate would make the events play out the same way for her. So my wife and daughter, the two women closest to me along with my mother, were the two people least happy with this decision."

To set Casey's mind at ease, Brennan wrote her a "seven- or eight-page letter" detailing why he wanted to take this particular trip. In the end, she and Erin gave Brennan their support, and he vowed that he would do everything in his power to return in one piece.

This declaration played into Brennan's pick of a troop assignment. Rocky scribe M.E. Sprengelmeyer and photographer Todd Heisler were already embedded with separate units (for reasons unknown, the Pentagon isn't pairing reporters and photogs from the same publication), leaving Brennan and camera-wielder Ahmad Terry to pick between the V Corps and the Army's Fourth Infantry Division -- the two top alternatives presented to the News by the government. At the time, the Fourth was scheduled to set up camp in Turkey, where it was expected to be among the first groups to engage in skirmishes. "It sounded like it might be a real rock-'em-sock-'em exposure to combat," Brennan says. "Now, Ahmad is a single guy with no kids, and he was totally up for that -- and I was totally up for letting him have it." Imagine Terry's surprise when America's negotiations with Turkey collapsed, temporarily stranding the Fourth in Colorado. The photographer didn't get to Kuwait -- Iraq's neighboring country, and a major U.S. ally -- until over a week after the clash was under way.

Not so Brennan. On March 4, he left Colorado, arriving in Kuwait City the next day. He settled in at the Hilton Hotel press center, and on March 8, what he guesses was "a baker's dozen" of journalists slated to embed with V Corps were loaded onto a bus and transported to Camp Virginia, a ninety-minute drive away. Once there, the press reps were sent to various sections of the corps, with Brennan winding up in "rear command, a unit primarily concerned with logistical and supply issues," he says. He was pleased with this designation, because the unit was under the command of Major General Walter Wojdakowski, a native of Gunnison, Colorado, whose presence offered him an easy local hook. "Rear command" had a nice ring, too. "That phrase really brightened the outlook of some people," he says. "Before this, I didn't know anything about the military, so to me and my family, that didn't sound like the front lines. Suddenly, everybody who cared about Charlie was feeling a lot better -- mistakenly, it turns out."

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