Christenson of ‘Express-News’ Leaving for 5th Embed in Iraq

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By: Joe Strupp

Sig Christenson of the San Antonio Express-News, a co-founder of Military Reporters and Editors and a critic of how the Iraq war has been handled, plans to leave for his fifth embedding tour on Tuesday.

Almost four years to the day that he first went to Iraq to be embedded with the U.S. Army’s Third Infantry Division on March 4, 2003, Christenson and Express-News photographer Nicole Fruge will fly to Kuwait, with plans to embed within less than a week.

Christenson, who turned 50 on Saturday, said he does not know with which unit the journalists will embed first. But plans call for him to write about tours with several units for the Express-News and other newspapers owned by Hearst. He will also write dispatches, as he has for previous embedding assignments, for his Express-News blog at www.mysanantonio.com.

“We will be looking at the attitude troops have about surge, the war and their role in it,” Christenson said by phone Monday from Houston, where he is finishing a story. “It is a fascinating time to go there because we have a new strategy.”

In a 2005 E&P story, Christenson said he had been affected emotionally by seeing devastation and tragedy in Iraq. Asked about post-traumatic stress at the time, he said, “I think I’ve had a good deal of it.” In the same interview, he stated, “I was some kind of a basket case the last time, and way more nervous. You go through a series of events where your life is in jeopardy and with each one, you get more scared.”

Married with no children, Christenson has become one of the industry’s chief spokesman about military coverage, as well as treatment of the press by the Department of Defense. A co-founder of MRE, which launched in 2002, he has served as the group’s president and has been an outspoken critic of the way the war has been handled.

“My criticism is the implementation of our occupation plans,” Christenson said. “I wonder what kind of cohesive plan and policy we had from the very beginning. It has just been done so badly.” But he said he goes into this trip with an open mind, hoping to find good news if it is there. “We might find that the sense is better,” he said. “But also that some people are worn out. We will take the temperature of things.”

After his first embedding in 2003, which lasted seven weeks, Christenson returned again in November 2003, staying until January 2004. He went back again in July 2004 for six weeks, and most recently in August 2006 for four weeks. After returning from the last trip, he told E&P the conditions there were among the worst he had seen in his embedding assignments.

But Christenson says he does not let his personal feelings affect his work, noting that he only says what he knows to be true from reporting. “What am I supposed to do? Say the war is going well?” he asks. “The truth is what counts and there is no denying my own experience. The administration is on record saying we have made mistakes in Iraq. Stating the truth doesn’t make me biased.” But he stresses that he does not want the military to fail. “No one wants this to work more than me,” he declares.

Another truth, however, is the effect his past embed assignments have had on Christenson. Today, Christenson admitted that he may see more emotional reactions to the coverage, but says it is part of the job to return. “If you are going to cover military as a beat, you should be willing to spend that time in the field,” he said. “I’m nervous about what I am doing. I come back and I am bothered by some of the things I see. But this is my job.”

He also pointed out that he is not alone among the journalists who keep returning to duty there. “People should be thankful that so many people are willing to go back again and again,” he said.

Christenson recalls, during his last stint in Iraq, watching several soldiers get limbs amputated, noting one soldier who had his femur sawed off. “It took him two minutes and 20 seconds to cut it off,” Christenson remembers. “The doctor said it took so long because it was young, strong bone.”

He said he had dinner with several friends on Saturday night, followed by a birthday party for his 50th on Sunday. At both, he described the mood as at least mixed. “It stresses everybody that I know. Everybody was very subdued,” he recalled. “People looking at you like you are a dead man walking.”

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