By: Graham Webster
For eight weeks at the outset of the Iraq war in 2003, Katherine M. Skiba was the only female civilian traveling with a brigade of 2,300 soldiers in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division. As an embedded reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, she served as a Sister in the Band of Brothers, as the title of her new book puts it, and was met with skepticism.
“On one hand, probably people looked at me first and thought, ‘Oh, can she hack it?'” Skiba says today. “I think that would be a natural thought.” She admits she was not in tip-top shape before the war. Even media “boot camp” ? which should be in quotes, she says, because it wasn’t nearly as tough as what soldiers endure ? didn’t get her completely ready. “I lost 26 pounds during the war,” she says. “Not that I was counting.”
Whatever people thought when she arrived, Skiba earned some credibility after she weathered an Iraqi missile attack early in the war. After a soldier yelled, “Gas, gas, gas!” Skiba spent 56 minutes breathing through a gas mask, most of the time with her back braced against the wall of a trench, before the “all clear” sounded. By the next afternoon, the unit had gone through 11 more missile alerts.
That’s when Skiba heard that five of the other seven embeds, all men, were heading home. Then, she says, “my acceptance shot sky-high.”
The book, published in March by the University of Kansas Press, recounts Skiba’s experiences from “boot camp” through her jarring return home to D.C., where she is a reporter for the Journal Sentinel. She writes of juggling reporting, photography, and phoned-in reports for her paper’s affiliated radio and TV stations. “We called ourselves one-man-bands,” she says of the print reporters.
She also recalls the weird habits she’d picked up at war. Swearing and smoking, she was better suited for an army camp than being at home with her husband. Even during six days on the Carolina shore to decompress, her husband, Tom Vanden Brook, felt she was still obsessing about the war, Skiba says.
Skiba writes with a heavy conscience of her decision to embed and leave behind Vanden Brook, a night rewrite man at USA Today. She realized only after returning that the couple never sat down to discuss whether she’d go. “It seemed like a foregone conclusion, given the cyclone he had wed,” she writes in the tome. Today she faces survivor’s guilt over the deaths of other embeds and soldiers from her adopted army division.
But she found humor as well, such as her surprise when she discovered, after sharing a women-only tent at “boot camp,” that tents in the field and all other amenities were co-ed. Near the battlefield, tents were also command posts, and men and women commanding Black Hawk helicopter units would meet until the wee hours, making distinctions of home and office ? or men’s and women’s quarters ? impossible.
“Once you got the hang of it, it wasn’t so bad,” she says, adding that if she needed to quickly change clothes, a woman soldier might hold up a makeshift curtain.
Being embedded with an airborne division, she had almost no access to Iraqis. But Skiba argues that she had plenty of freedom, beyond feeling it was too dangerous to head out alone. “I did not have a public affairs officer with me. My stories were not censored,” she says. When a lieutenant colonel named Anthony Sabb wanted to temporarily seize her notes from an off-the-record planning meeting, she claims, an appeal to the major in charge of public relations settled the conflict.
Skiba says the embeds were told they’d have as much access as possible to meetings and operations, and sometimes that access was curtailed. “What was advertised was not delivered,” she says. “And I guess it was even a little bit more frustrating when you see folks embedded with certain generals who had access to everything.”
Even with some limitations, she was happy with her level of access and found stories focusing on her unit, a strategy that gave her and other embeds a wide audience among military families ? many of whom e-mailed their appreciation for her coverage of their loved ones.
Back home, writing the book was a challenge of its own. Skiba says she gained a new appreciation for copy editors as she ditched the Journal Sentinel stylebook for The Chicago Manual of Style and taught herself to write longer paragraphs. Meanwhile, she kept writing to Robert Ruiz, a flight surgeon she befriended while embedded.
Perhaps the single loudest objection to her embedding had come from her father, who fought in World War II under Gen. George Patton. After experiencing a war, she says, “I could appreciate that it’s a natural parental instinct to want to keep your children out of harm’s way.”