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).
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."
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."
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."
For the next two weeks, Brennan spent the majority of his time at Camp Virginia, where troops killed time before the real killing began. Writing about a waiting game isn't easy, but Brennan did better than most, capturing a spicy bull session between several soldiers and profiling Wojdakowski and Lieutenant Colonel Michele Putko, a 41-year-old mother of six who served as the de facto mayor of Camp Virginia. He was also subjected to a scud-missile alert that was all the more unnerving because warning sirens failed to sound due to a malfunction. Word of a possible raid was delivered by shouting soldiers.
Brennan skipped over the siren snafu in his News account of the episode, but not because his keepers instructed him to hush things up. While critics of embedding argue that the procedure puts reporters at the mercy of the military, making them little more than civilian propagandists, Brennan says he had few restrictions placed upon him. For example, he asked on two occasions if writing about potentially ticklish topics would be problematic, and in each case, he was allowed to do so. However, he concedes that he occasionally engaged in some minor self-censorship -- like omitting the siren item -- so as not to freak out his family. He took the same tack during the handful of phone conversations he had with Erin. "We'd talk about the big snowstorm or the Oscars, and she'd fill me in on the world I was missing rather than me telling everything about where I was. I was trying to put on a sunny face, because if they'd known the full story, it would have been a lot harder on them."
Things only got tougher when Brennan traveled with the soldiers into Iraq on March 22. That first day, the Humvee in which he was traveling came upon a Bradley Fighting Vehicle that had just been struck by a rocket-propelled grenade. Two soldiers inside were hurt (an elbow splattered, a foot blown out of its boot), and as the V Corps soldiers cared for them, Brennan provided a pack of Marlboros that he'd brought as an icebreaker. He's an ex-smoker, and despite the temptation, he didn't light one up himself.
The next day, near an abandoned pumping station, Brennan and his Humvee comrades found a white Toyota pickup containing some shoulder-launchable missiles and a man lacking much of his head. Afterward, the soldiers drove around the area looking for stray enemy, but came up empty. Then, an hour later, "they said they wanted to go back and check out the guy again," Brennan recounts. "They weren't operating under an order, and one of them said, 'If anyone asks, we'll say we're trying to find the general,' so they had a cover story. It seemed to me they were doing it almost in the spirit of looking for a thrill when there wasn't any reason to expose themselves to more danger. And I had to go with them, because it was either that or start walking, and that wasn't the kind of place to go on an unaccompanied walk." Brennan wrote dramatically about the discovery of the Iraqi cadaver, but in deference to Erin and Casey, he left out any mention of the second inspection of the body, which went without further incident.
The odyssey that followed was longer and more surreal than Brennan expected. The rear command's original mission to Iraq -- ostensibly to check out Camp Adder, a newly constructed logistical staging area, and just-captured Tallil air base -- was supposed to take two days. Once this was accomplished, though, Brigadier General Charles Fletcher, the man in charge, "wanted to keep going," Brennan says. "He was monitoring how the supply chain was working, and to do that, he felt he needed to go as far north as he could to make sure the fuel and so forth were getting where they needed to go."
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Hence, V Corps's destination became Objective Rams, a new command post near Janaf, about a hundred miles southwest of Baghdad. There the Americans were pummeled by a sandstorm Brennan says was positively biblical. The weather system was still raging when he made his call to Goeken and asked to leave, but under these conditions, his departure could hardly be immediate. He finally made it back to Kuwait on March 29, a day after one last bit of black comedy. Around 2 a.m., V Corps types were told to hit the road immediately because of the threat of attack -- but when Brennan and his Humvee mates tried to do so, they couldn't find Buffalo News reporter Zremski. A terrifying half-hour delay later, the missing journalist finally popped up. He'd been hiding under a truck during the entire search.
Today, Brennan can laugh about Zremski's disappearing act, just as his wife and daughter can relax knowing that he's far from any Iraqi pockets of resistance. He's gotten a good response on the job as well: "Everyone has been really supportive and welcoming. No one's said anything like, 'Back so soon?'"
Nonetheless, the scenes of a liberated Baghdad and celebrating Iraqis that regularly appear on assorted TV channels can't help but stir emotions in him that he's still processing.
"It's really one of the more conflicted feelings I've had in my career," he says. "I would have liked to have seen this event through to its conclusion, but I made a decision to put my family and their welfare first. And I'm at peace with that."