Small-Town Embed: An Erie Tale in Baghdad

By: Barbara Bedway

Readers of the Erie (Pa.) Times-News were probably surprised last fall to see on the front page of their hometown paper a Baghdad dateline, with a byline by Scott Waldman, more familiar to readers as the education reporter. What had begun as a conversation between Waldman and an editor, Doug Oathout, about the deployment of the 329th Medical Company — a U.S. Army Reserve unit with about half of its 70 soldiers from the Erie area — ended several months later with Waldman on a plane to Iraq.

“I’ve wanted to go to Iraq ever since I was in journalism grad school at Syracuse in 2003,” reveals Waldman, 31, recalling that he eagerly took notes when Newark Star-Ledger reporter Wayne Wooley spoke to students there about covering the Iraq invasion. Oathout was receptive to the idea, but advised him to first talk to his wife, do some research on costs and supplies, and then, if he were still willing, they’d pitch the story.

The pitch, Oathout recalls, “was a difficult idea for our front office — the whole idea of, ‘Do we want to send someone into a very dangerous place?’ Finally, our publisher, Jim Dible, said, ‘We have so many [military] people going at once, it’s the right thing to do.'” The total bill was only about $3,000, since the military picks up so much of the embed cost.

While Oathout worked on the necessary clearances from the military and the insurance issues (in Pennsylvania, worker’s compensation would cover the reporter if he were injured), Waldman garnered supplies: a Level 4 Kevlar helmet and bulletproof vest from the local SWAT team; a rented satellite phone; and a laptop plus various digital recording equipment supplied by the paper. Some particularly salient advice came from Photo Editor Rich Forsgren, who advised that when taking pictures it was “better to beg for forgiveness later than ask for permission before.”

Waldman would confront that in the field while reporting a story about mechanics who repair damaged trucks and Humvees using parts salvaged from half-destroyed vehicles kept at a site called “the graveyard.” The vehicles often still contain blood and human matter, which is why one mechanic declined to retrieve parts from the site. “He just couldn’t do it anymore, he’d seen so many graphic scenes,” says Waldman, who took photos of one destroyed Humvee’s interior but was denied permission to publish them. “I wish I’d known earlier how to communicate effectively with the military,” he admits, “because their answer to everything you ask is ‘no’ initially. By the end of my trip, I learned to do first and ask later.”

Besides writing two stories and a blog entry most days, he often recorded audio and video. Though he and his editors had sketched out some story ideas ahead of time, they quickly learned the value of the Plan B approach ? especially when it came to how soldiers felt about the November elections and Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation the next day as Pentagon chief, an anticipated front-page story. “It was amazing how little interest there was in politics,” notes Waldman. “They were all kind of cynical about it.”

The paper had to go with a backup story, Oathout recalls, adding: “If I have any advice for smaller papers considering this, it’s to go in with a plan, but be really flexible.” Even communicating with your reporter can be unpredictable, as Oathout found on a day when Waldman did not phone in at any of their preset check-in times, calling that “an agonizing day for me.”

Waldman considered his blog “table scraps” that didn’t fit into his articles, but his vivid entries there convey the eerie sense of “feeling like an astronaut set adrift” in Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001 by the lack of news coming in from the outside world, as well as the absence of explanation for the booms and rising smoke nearby. Nowadays, there are few other embeds to provide camaraderie.

He wrote of landing at one base dubbed “Mortaritaville” to the sound of a half-dozen mortar rounds that barely registered with soldiers on a base so mammoth the “chow hall was about the size of the Best Buy on Peach Street.” He described an insurgent badly wounded when the bomb he was connecting to a cell phone detonated ? when his wife called. And he observed Marines at a combat hospital watching over an injured insurgent who had been caught with IED materials and “may have killed their comrades. … It was going to be a long night.”

One particularly affecting article concerned “fallen angel duty,” when the medical team is called to transport bodies from the morgue to a helicopter for the trip home.

Readers responded with numerous phone calls and e-mails to the paper and to Waldman. When a young woman from a rural town appeared on the front page of the Sunday paper, “the whole west county sold out of the paper, which hadn’t happened in a long time,” notes Oathout. The paper also partnered with a local TV station that interviewed Waldman and used his photos on their broadcasts.

Of course, the drawbacks of embedding remain no matter what a paper’s size: “You have to live, eat, and sleep next to people you’re writing about, and you keep that in mind while you’re writing,” Waldman admits. But its cost-effectiveness and the safety factor make embedding the only realistic way for smaller newspapers to report in Iraq. And as the conflict wears on, connecting the war to everyday lives only increases in importance.

“Many units from small towns simply disappear after they are deployed, with the majority of the local residents having no idea where they are, what they are doing, or what their daily lives are like,” notes Eric Mayes, who reported for the The Daily Item in Sunbury, Pa., as an embed with units from the National Guard’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team. He told E&P in an e-mail that “readers see only the hoopla at both ends of deployment, the departure and the return, but miss the most important aspect: the time their family members, friends, and neighbors spend in Iraq.”

He added that “often the soldiers don’t tell the whole story to the people at home. One guy told his wife he had a desk job. The reality was that he was a driver in a very dangerous job in the Sunni Triangle. When he found I was going to publish the facts, he had to confess to his wife. She later thanked me, saying she wanted to know the truth of his situation and though she was worried, knowing the truth helped.”

Another reporter from a smaller paper, Fred Dodd of the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune, a former Marine photojournalist, spent Christmas on his third embed in Iraq.

Back in Erie, the Times-News made sure counseling was available to Waldman when he return-ed, and he is now back to reporting on education, albeit with hopes of more foreign reporting in the future. He and his wife, Frances O’Connor, are expecting their first child in July. “My wife and I had a conversation just today about me returning to Iraq or somewhere else to report on human conflict,” Waldman offers. “She understands the pull of journalism for me, and she is tough enough to put herself in the vulnerable position of the person left behind. I just hope I’m strong enough to make the right decision the next time an opportunity comes along.”

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