By: Rafe Bartholomew
Chantal Escoto, like other embedded reporters in Gulf War II, is living the life of a soldier. She sleeps two or three hours at a time in the back of a Humvee or on the ground in a tent, she eats cold military MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), and her next shower could be days away. Unlike reporters who are covering the war for nationally known papers whose work will be seen by hundreds of thousands of readers, Escoto, a reporter for The Leaf-Chronicle in Clarksville, Tenn., is braving the war for a readership of a little more than 20,000.
Reporters such as Escoto are outnumbered by their big-name colleagues in Iraq, but embeds from smaller papers have delivered up-close looks at the lives of soldiers to the people who need them most — their families. Clarksville borders Fort Campbell, home of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, which is in Iraq. Escoto’s mission, said Leaf-Chronicle Executive Editor Richard V. Stevens, is to provide families with glimpses of the daily lives of some of the almost 20,000 troops in the 101st.
The Leaf-Chronicle is typical of smaller papers with embedded reporters covering the war. “We didn’t send him there to do a comprehensive ‘How the war’s working’ piece,” said Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer Executive Editor Mike Burbach, whose reporter Sam Harper is embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division. “We’re looking for the view from the Humvee.”
Columbus, home to the 3rd Infantry’s Fort Benning — and the 45,824-daily-circulation Ledger-Enquirer — is one of three midsize Georgia dailies that have reporters embedded in Iraq. The editors and embedded journalists for the Savannah (Ga.) Morning News — the reporter/ photographer team of Noelle Phillips and John Carrington — have done “what we can do to make the local connection with a war halfway across the world,” said Managing Editor Dan Suwyn. Savannah is next to Fort Stewart, an Army base with more 3rd Infantry soldiers.
The Ledger-Enquirer and Leaf-Chronicle have printed personal messages from the troops to their families and friends back home. A “Hi Honey” feature ran twice on the Ledger-Enquirer‘s front page. A similar department in The Leaf-Chronicle, called “From the Troops,” has become one of the paper’s most popular features, said Stevens.
This may seem fairly easygoing, but Diane Lacey Allen, covering the war for The Ledger in Lakeland, Fla., found the experience harder than she expected, said Managing Editor Lenore Devore. “Her America Online screen name is ‘DisasterDi,'” said Devore. “It surprised me to hear her admit she’s scared.”
Still, the Morning News‘ Suwyn said his reporter/photographer team felt safer embedded than retreating to Kuwait with a small military escort. “It’s probably more dangerous to go back down the supply line than to stay where they are,” he said.
Editors at The Augusta Chronicle asked embedded reporter Johnny Edwards not to accompany Marine reserves on potentially dangerous convoy missions. “We want him to write about the local soldiers, not be a wartime correspondent,” said Executive Editor Dennis Sodomka. (Another embed, Chris Barron of The Sun in Bremerton, Wash., gave up his slot on an aircraft carrier last week and went home after the emphasis of coverage shifted to the ground war.)
Many of these embeds have more impressive resumes of military coverage than most of their big-daily colleagues. Escoto covered the 101st Airborne Division on peacekeeping missions in Kosovo in 2000 and the Afghanistan war in 2001. Before becoming a reporter, she was a soldier herself, said Stevens, adding, “She understands the military and the lifestyle. She’s certainly not a babe in the woods.”
Previous experience with the military helps these reporters gain the trust of troops. Harper of the Ledger-Enquirer “established himself as a credible guy who’s interested and wants to get it right,” said Burbach. Often, the reporters are familiar faces, and soldiers want to talk to them.
Augusta’s Edwards, who had no previous experience in the field, arrived in Kuwait without a satellite phone and had to buy one there. “He’s had a lot of frustration, but he’s doing what he has to do,” said Sodomka. “He doesn’t want to come back.”
And, in this way, Edwards is like most other embedded reporters. Despite danger, fatigue, and sand in their laptops, they want to stay in Iraq and continue covering the war. “I haven’t heard a single note from him that sounded like regret,” said Burbach of Harper. “I never expected him to dip in for the weekend and come back.”