Student Embeds in Iraq: From J-school to Jihad

By: Samuel Chamberlain While most college students spent the summer searching for jobs and internships or traveling around the country, three journalism students from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks (UAF) decided to go abroad ? embedding with U.S. troops in Iraq.

The students ? 26-year-old Tom Hewitt, 25-year-old Jennifer Canfield, and 28-year-old Jessica Hoffman ? arrived in the Middle East on Aug. 1 to begin a month-long embed with the 1st Stryker Brigade in Iraq's Diyala Province, northeast of Baghdad. "More than anything else, I wanted to participate in the program because I felt that the war had become a sort of political litmus test for nearly everybody covering it for a major news service," Hewitt told E&P from Iraq. "Even though I'd read a great deal about the war, I felt that the vast majority of the coverage I'd received was filtered through someone's political opinion, and I really wanted to get a chance to see what the situation on the ground over here was like ? and to let people at home know."

The brigade is based at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, just outside Fairbanks ? and UAF Journalism students had previously embedded with Stryker soldiers in training for deployment but did not follow them to the war zone. UAF President Mark Hamilton, who spent 31 years in the military before entering academic life in 1998, decided to extend the embed program one step further this year.

"Their stomachs will pitter-patter a bit. It's not a bad thing for a journalist to feel," Hamilton told the Anchorage Daily News before the students left. The program went forward with a $35,000 budget despite the reservations of university lawyers, who required the students to sign liability waivers acknowledging the risk of kidnap, torture and beheading. Reporters Without Borders provided life, long-term disability, medical and job retraining coverage for roughly $4,500.

"There is a long tradition of young reporters making their reputations covering wars, one of journalism's highest callings," said Brian O'Donoghue, a UAF journalism professor who accompanied the students on their embed. "I believe we can help prepare them for that." O'Donoghue knows a bit about Middle Eastern conflict. In 1979, he spent four months as a photo stringer for United Press International in Cairo. Now at age 53, O'Donoghue, who teaches a course on military reporting at UAF, would return to another global hot spot after eight years as a professor and 15 years before that as a reporter and editorial writer for various Alaska newspapers.

After arriving in Iraq, he wrote in an e-mail to E&P: "The country is bewitching, yet shattered by war. The signs of the conflict and, to a lesser extent, rebuilding efforts, are everywhere. The Iraqis we do meet are generally very friendly."

"The people are very kind and giving, and very rooted in family and tradition," Hewitt added. "It's a tragedy that collectively, they have great difficulty putting aside tribal and sectarian differences for their collective good, because this could be a rich and beautiful country if its people would work with each other."

The students were selected from a group of 12 applicants. Hewitt, Canfield and Hoffman were picked after O'Donoghue weighed "the skill set each student brought to the project," and after the embeds received the blessings of their families. It was a diverse group, consisting of a newspaper journalist (Hewitt), a radio reporter (Canfield), and a videographer (Hoffman), and in keeping with the new-media ethos, the group documented its experiences not only in print, but on its "Short Timers" blog, Facebook and Twitter.

The fears of the risk managers proved largely unfounded. On Aug. 2, an IED exploded ahead of a convoy the group was traveling in en route to Baghdad. "I wouldn't call it a close call. It was more of a wake-up call," said O'Donoghue. Later in the month, rockets were launched at the group's Diyala headquarters, Forward Operating Base Warhorse, but they "didn't even reach the wall ? it's the kind of thing they get here every other week or so," Hewitt noted. "While it would be fun on one level to have crazy stories about how we cheated death, I'd be just as happy coming home in one piece. Truth be told, near-death experiences would be out of keeping with the reality of the situation here right now. ... The last time a soldier died here at FOB Warhorse was back in May."

For Hewitt, one of the highlights of the trip was interviewing two Iraqi detainees who had been released by American soldiers. He wrote, "I had the opportunity to go along on a detainee release, and when the transfer of the detainees was complete and they had been questioned by Iraqi authorities, they were allowed to leave. Two were still waiting on their guarantor to arrive, and while they were waiting, we asked if we might speak to them, and they said that would be fine.

"It was a little surreal speaking to someone who ? if the coalition forces who detained him were to be believed ? might have wanted to kill me, at least in an abstract sense. That said, if either of them wanted to kill me, they did a good job concealing their desires ? they were both polite and spoke quietly, with a trace of smugness that probably came with their happiness at being released."

According to Hewitt, allowing detainees to be interviewed is consistent with how American troops have approached the journalists' mission. "There are definitely things that sometimes get in the way ? rules about not taking pictures of any antennas on base, or needing to keep interpreters' faces out of shots, etc.," she said. "These aren't significant impediments, though ? there are stories all over around here. It's a war."

So would Hewitt ever consider returning to Iraq? "I would absolutely do this again, in a heartbeat," he said. "Just give me time to wash my clothes and take a shower and I'll be ready to go again."


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