Going Back to Embed, for a Fifth Time

By: Joe Strupp

After four previous embedding assignments in Iraq, you’d think Sig Christenson of the San Antonio (Texas) Express-News, a co-founder of Military Reporters and Editors (MRE) and an open critic of how the Iraq war has been handled, had seen more than enough.

Not quite. On March 6, he headed back there again for about two months, along with photographer Nicole Fruge (another former embed). Less than a week later, he was hunkered down at Camp Anaconda near Balad with the Texas Army National Guard’s 36th Combat Aviation Brigade.

“The soldiers I talk with have good morale,” Christenson wrote in an e-mail to E&P soon after arriving. “They believe in their mission, as they did when we sat on the south side of the berm in Kuwait on the night of March 19, 2003. But they are also surprised that we are still in Iraq in such large numbers and that the war is something of a standstill. Most believe we will be here in large numbers four years from now. And no one believes that President Bush will order a withdrawal of troops.”

Christenson, who turned 50 on March 3, flew to the region almost four years to the day that he first went to Iraq to be embedded with the U.S. Army’s Third Infantry Division. He is writing about tours with several units for the Express-News and other Hearst newspapers. He is also penning dispatches, as he has for previous embedding assignments, on a blog hosted at www.mysanantonio.com.

“It’s tough being this far from home. The hurt can run so deep,” he revealed in his first blog entry. “Those last dreams of home, loved ones, favorite pets and the sweetness of safety fade as reality sets in. … There’s a war on, and if you are one of 2,500 soldiers from 46 states with the Texas National Guard’s 36th Combat Aviation Brigade, it’s another ‘Groundhog Day’.”

Married with no children, Christenson has become one of the industry’s chief spokesmen about military coverage, as well as treatment of the press by the Pentagon. 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 says. “I wonder what kind of cohesive plan and policy we had from the very beginning. It has just been done so badly.” But he says he went into this trip with an open mind, hoping to find good news if it is there. In the end, “We might find that the sense is better, but also that some people are worn out. We will take the temperature of things.”

After his first embedding, which lasted seven weeks during the invasion in 2003, Christenson returned again in November 2003 and remained there through January 2004. He went back in July 2004 for six weeks, and again most recently in August 2006 for four weeks. After returning from that last trip, he said the conditions in Iraq were among the worst he had seen in his previous 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.”

Another truth, however, is the effect his past embed assignments have had on Christenson. In a 2005 E&P story, he said he had been affected emotionally by the devastation and tragedy he witnessed in Iraq. Asked about post-traumatic stress, he admits, “I think I’ve had a good deal of it. I was some kind of a basket case the last time, and way more nervous. “

Just before leaving for Iraq this year, Christenson had dinner with several friends, followed by a birthday party. At both gatherings, he says, the mood was mixed: “It stresses everybody that I know. Everybody was very subdued. People looking at you like you’re a dead man walking.”

Now in Iraq, he admits that he may see more emotional reactions to the coverage, but says it is part of his job to return. “I jumped several times today after controlled detonations,” he wrote in an e-mail from the war zone. “I think I am used to some things, like flying, and am especially calm in the presence of veteran troops. Our soldiers are very good, and insurgents have never wanted to mix it up with them for long.

“The one place the insurgency has a clear advantage is the use of roadside bombs that are often difficult to anticipate,” he adds. “I think if it had not been for the development of the improvised explosive device (IED), this war would have been over already.”

Christenson recalls watching, on his last stint in Iraq, several soldiers get limbs amputated, noting one soldier who had his femur sawed off. “The doctor said it took so long,” the reporter notes, “because it was young, strong bone.”

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