To Russia With Love

By: Joe Strupp When McClatchy's Tom Lasseter, who had been honored for his reporting in Iraq, spent most of December 2006 in Lebanon covering the Shiite-Sunni street violence there, one of his top competitors was Megan Stack of the Los Angeles Times. She had been in Beirut weeks longer, knew the area better, had drawn wide praise for her coverage of last summer's Hezbollah/Israeli war ? and happened to be staying in the next room at the Intercontinental Hotel. "She did terrific work in Lebanon all last year," Lasseter recalls. "So there was no way I could match that in one month. Her reporting was further along."

Stack also happens to be Lasseter's girlfriend.

That made for some interesting run-ins as the duo, friends for nearly three years at the time and a couple for just less than a year, juggled nightly dinners with rival newsgathering during the day. "It was kind of fun," Stack, 31, recalls. "It was nice he was right next door because when you are not together and you get done with work, you get lonesome."

Lasseter, also 31, agrees, but notes they took separate rooms at the Beirut hotel: "You don't want to be working in the same room, making work calls next to each other."

During that month in Lebanon, the couple mixed romantic moments over hot chocolate at the Paul Cafe with covering street battles just outside their hotel. "I would try to get a glimpse of Tom while the military was shooting and lobbing bottles and rocks," says Stack. "I would worry about myself, and worry about where he is."

Such is life in the world of foreign news coverage and combat reporting, which can do as much to bring two people together as they can to tear them apart. For Stack and Lasseter, who hooked up romantically in February 2006, their courtship has had to survive more than the usual stress. As veteran overseas reporters who have covered some of the most dangerous beats during the past few years, they spent months apart with just a text-messaging link, watched the breakup of a marriage (hers) and an engagement (his), and found ways to steal moments together when they are in the same place, often between deadline demands ? and explosions.

Happy times have been shared, too, such as when each won an Overseas Press Club award ? one year apart ? for best foreign reporting.

Think When Harry Met Sally meets Platoon, and you'll have their lives for the past three-and-a-half years. Stack and Lasseter seem to be surviving modern romance and the life-and-death perils of wartime reporting. "They have been great together, wonderful to watch," says Nancy Youssef, a former McClatchy Baghdad bureau chief who worked with Lasseter there from 2003 to 2005. "It was never too cutesy, it was nice and natural."

In the latest chapter, however, the couple appear to be putting some order into a relationship that has found them more apart than together. In early June, the reporters assumed new jobs in their news outlets' Moscow bureaus, giving them their first shared residence and first permanent assignments in the same city. "We wanted to get out somewhere where bombs are not falling," Lasseter quips by phone in late May as he packed up belongings from a storage shed for the overseas transfer.

But will a romance that survived thousands of miles of distance, war-torn neighborhoods from Fallujah to Beirut, and even the curiousity of other reporters, continue in the Kremlin? This may not be John Reed and Louise Bryant in Reds, but if they're lucky it will have a happier ending.

When Tom met Megan

Each recalls the first meeting clearly: in February 2004 at a shuttle bus stop in Baghdad, awaiting a ride to the airport for a flight to Amman, Jordan. Lasseter, then a Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader reporter on temporary Iraq duty, was finishing a three-month stint there and heading back to his home town of Atlanta for time off. Stack, a Times reporter since 2001, was based in Cairo but had hopscotched the Middle East for several years. This trip would take her to Jerusalem after a Baghdad assignment.

Stack noticed he was carrying a copy of Dante's Inferno and she recalls, "This struck me as strange, but piqued my interest." Also of note was the Shiner Bock Brewery logo worn by Lasseter's travel partner, a Fort Worth photographer. As a former Texas-based scribe, Stack knew the local brew. They started to chat. Lasseter recognized that he had seen her before during a raid on a Fallujah jail ? perhaps foreshadowing their future of shared harrowing events.

"She was pretty, she seemed very smart," he says. "I don't socialize a whole lot so I didn't say much, we just started chatting. She was just another reporter. You meet people at airports just waiting." But Lasseter had a girlfriend back in Lexington, a lawyer he had dated for three years; Stack was engaged to a journalist from her home state of Connecticut. "I wasn't even thinking of [Tom] romantically," Stack says now. "When you travel a lot, if you meet another American reporter, it is a social connection."

They ended up on the same plane to Amman and decided to dine together that night on Thai food. The next day, Stack headed for Jerusalem, Lasseter to Atlanta. "We didn't keep up with each other at all after that," he says.

During the next few months, as each roamed the Middle East for news, Stack says they "kept bumping into each other in Iraq or Amman, and always fell into long interesting conversations." Lasseter welcomed the chance to chat with another Middle East reporter about things other than war. "I talked about my mom's tomato garden, going to Braves [baseball] games; she talked about missing home in Connecticut," he says. "I asked what the Nile was like, the pyramids. If she had kept veering back to Iraq, I don't know how long it would have gone on."

One key connection came in the summer of 2004, when both were assigned to Baghdad. He came to the Knight Ridder bureau at the Al Hamra Hotel, while she occupied a Los Angeles Times house not far away. He recalls first seeing her at the hotel pool when he went looking for his regular chess partner one night. Stack says "the heat was unreal" that summer, and the hotel's air conditioning seldom worked. This made for some sleepless nights, which often found the two talking on the phone in the wee hours.

She also recalls that summer as "a pivotal time in Iraq. The security situation was falling apart quickly." Stack remembers filing one story about an especially "bloody scene" and then being unable to sleep because of it. "He was someone to talk to about it," she says. "I knew that he had seen much more violence than I had, and he was a good listener."

The growing war tension sent both reporters across Iraq to hot spots during those months: Lasseter to Najaf and Sadr City, Stack to Karbala and Nasiriyah. Text messages and occasional phone calls kept them in touch, but most nights they were back in their respective Baghdad digs, except when Lasseter was on one of more than a dozen embeds he worked during his time in Iraq. One respite came during a quiet afternoon in Baghdad, which Stack calls their "first platonic date. ... We had lunch at a Kurdish restaurant, bought cigars at the tobacco shop, and had lemonade." They walked around town, visiting 13th-century buildings along the Tigris River and a bustling outdoor market. "It was the last really good day I spent in Baghdad," Stack says. "After that, everything in Iraq fell apart."

Neither correspondent will offer an opinion of the U.S. policy in Iraq or the decision to go to war, but both openly describe the violence as worsening over time. "It is far, far tougher to be there now," Lasseter says. "In 2003, I could drive around the country, anywhere. Now there are parts of Baghdad you can't go to."

Southern boy, Yankee girl

Although they met in the Middle East, their backgrounds are about as American as it gets, with Lasseter a son of the south and Stack hailing from the Northeast.

Born in Biloxi, Miss., Lasseter grew up in Atlanta, the eldest of two children. His mother, a nurse, and father, a cabinet maker, are divorced and still live in the south. He graduated from the University of Georgia in 1999, and last fall took Stack to the school's homecoming football game.

Lasseter dove right into newspapering with his first job at the Herald-Leader in 1999. His first Iraq tour was in March 2003 as an embed with the 101st Airborne, one of some 50 Knight Ridder reporters who reported on the invasion. "I had wanted to cover Afghanistan in early 2002 when they were sending people there," he recalls, "and they said they were only sending people with previous combat experience."

Partially assuaged with a short Pentagon assignment in 2002, Lasseter pushed again when the Iraq preparations began in 2003, knowing Knight Ridder was staffing its Iraq team with reporters from within the chain. After a couple of tours in Iraq that spring and summer, covering action in Baghdad, Fallujah, and Ramadi, he returned to Lexington. But in December 2003, Iraq called again, and Lasseter went back. A few months later, The Miami Herald, still a Knight Ridder paper, hired Lasseter with plans to move him to Florida ? but instead sent him back to Iraq in April 2004. By October of that year, he was permanently assigned to the Knight Ridder Baghdad bureau, where he stayed until last summer.

For Stack, the daughter of a weekly newspaper editor and a Hartford (Conn.) Courant copy editor, newspapering came early. Stack says she learned a lot from her mother, Kathleen, who runs the Glastonbury (Conn.) Citizen in her hometown: "She would have people calling up at dinnertime asking her not to run their DUIs. She knew how to set a high bar for ethical behavior."

A 1998 graduate of George Washington University, Stack's first newsroom was the El Paso (Texas) Times for a year. She then served in several AP bureaus including Dallas and Houston. The Los Angeles Times noticed her work and hired her as Houston bureau chief, but gave her the first taste of overseas duty during the Afghanistan war. After a brief stint in Houston in 2002, she was sent to Jerusalem twice, reporting there when the Iraq invasion took place. Soon after, she was sent to work from Cairo, covering many Iraq events from there until several months ago.

War, what is it good for?

In the fall of 2004, both Tom's and Megan's personal lives took dramatic turns ? with other people. She got married in Connecticut, while he was engaged by the end of the year to his Kentucky girlfriend. Lasseter covered the staggering violence in Fallujah that November. "I don't think I even knew he was there," Stack recalls. "I did see a series he wrote that I thought was good and e-mailed him to tell him."

Months later, the pair crossed paths again in Amman, as he was traveling from Iraq to Mexico for a respite and she was returning to Cairo. "I had not really kept up, maybe a few e-mails, and dropped by her hotel and we went for this long walk," says Lasseter about the spring 2005 meeting. "I wanted to go for a walk because you couldn't really do that in Baghdad anymore." When Lasseter visited Cairo that summer, Stack says they had "a raucous night on the town" and a boat ride along the Nile that ended in a "seedy casino."

As 2005 came to an end, each received various Middle East assignments. "Both of our relationships were falling apart," Stack says. Lasseter says of his engagement, "We had grown apart, I was never in the states." By January 2006, Stack was divorcing and Lasseter's engagement had ended.

Then two things happened to pave the way for their ultimate get-together. The L.A. Times moved its Baghdad bureau from a private house to the Al Hamra Hotel, and Stack was sent there again in February 2006 as the insurgency exploded. With the Times bureau just one floor above Knight Ridder's, they were closer than ever ? in more ways than one. "Tom and I were climbing up and down at all hours of the day and night," Stack remembers about their encounters. "Hanging out in the spare moments between reporting trips and writing."

While the intense news demands made for many overtime hours, the pair found ways to steal moments together. "He made the move on me," Stack says. "I wasn't really surprised." When Lasseter told his Baghdad colleagues that February that his engagement had broken up a month earlier and they offered condolences, Nancy Youssef recalls him saying, "Don't worry, my girlfriend is coming here next week."

Free time here and there was spent playing cards, listening to music, and smoking sheeshas (water pipes), according to Stack. Lasseter says the few true "dates" they shared were a bit surreal, recalling the neighboring Sumerland Hotel where the couple walked hand-in-hand past blast barriers and guards with AK-47s to romantic dinners for two.

"There is a lot of coupling among journalists, but not all of them make it," says Borzou Daragahi, a well-respected Times reporter who worked in the Baghdad bureau from 2005 to 2007. "The stress of the war is a good test of a relationship." Now based in Iran, Daragahi recalls Lasseter and Stack avoiding the "back- biting and gossip" that can permeate an overseas location with so many reporters: "That didn't seem to affect them. I think they wanted to give themselves the space to let their relationship take root."

Lasseter admits some hesitancy on both sides after ending serious relationships, but says of the new development, "In this dark, tumultuous time in my life, it was a godsend." Lasseter also had to deal with Knight Ridder's planned sale, which had been announced months earlier. "I was really worried that the folks who would buy us would shut down the D.C. operation."

Love during wartime

Big news struck their lives in late February 2006 when a Shiite shrine in Samarra was bombed, one of the most serious events in Iraq's civil war. The attack launched the couple into a three-day whirlwind of separate coverage.

Stack, who heard about the early- morning event from Daragahi, immediately went to inform Lasseter. A curfew was imposed on Baghdad ? and Stack and Lasseter balanced reporting with checks on one another. "It was very busy, but we would check in on each other, give a hug," she remembers. During that month, Stack turned 30, but dangers and work demands made any birthday celebration impossible. She recalls Lasseter taking a moment to play the Beatles song "Birthday" on an iPod speaker for her, then going back to work.

On another night, after a long, stressful day of violence and grim reporting, Stack says Lasseter broke the tension by teaching her how to use a baseball scorecard. "In retrospect, it was very strange because it had nothing to do with what was going on," she remembers. "But at the time, it was nice just to focus on something else, and something that reminded both of us of a calmer place."

Spring 2006 found the couple visiting the U.S. together for the first time, with stops in Georgia and Connecticut before Lasseter returned to Baghdad and Stack to Cairo.

After the U.S. swing, Lasseter found himself on several embeds. He says he would not tell Stack about any close calls or fears until later. "Tom would call in before he went out on any embeds," recalls Louise Roug, a veteran Los Angeles Times correspondent who spent more than two years in the Baghdad bureau. "She would worry, especially if she didn't hear from him. But she understood it was his job."

Stack says she got in the habit of always saving Lasseter's last e-mail or text message when he is someplace dangerous, at least until she sees him again: "That way, if something happens, I will have it."

The dangers increased in July 2006 when Stack was dispatched to Lebanon to cover the Hezbollah/Israeli war. "We were covering war at the same time in different places," Lasseter says. "For the first time, I had to worry about someone else ? after putting my family in that same position."

Stack recalls when the pair parted at the Cairo airport, him returning to Iraq for an embed, her flying off to Lebanon. "I had a bad feeling that something was going to happen," she says. "We were both tired and just sort of floated off to our separate gates."

Text messages became their lifeline during the separation, as cell phones and regular e-mail were difficult to utilize in battle zones. "A cell phone call became almost intimate," he remembers, but fails to recall any specific conversations. "She was in southern Lebanon where the worst fighting was, and I had to deal with being an embed, hoping we don't both get blown up."

Stack says it was one of several times when Lasseter would get very protective, whether in Baghdad or, more often, when she was near combat far away. "He would say, 'If you get to a point you can't work anymore, you have to get out of there,'" she recalls.

In Baghdad, his concern would spark face-to-face arguments. "Every time I went out [on a story] he would harangue me, 'Where did you go? Why are you going?' Worse than any security person. And then I would do it to him ... only less. We really had to grapple with that, a constant fear that something was going to happen to the other one."

Roug, now based in Lebanon full time, says she could tell that all of this added to the couple's strain, but never broke their bond: "Baghdad was a difficult place to have a relationship. When you [deal with] embeds, you have to shut down emotionally."

After the Israeli/Hezbollah fighting subsided in July 2006, the pair met in Paris. But post-combat fatigue set in, limiting the relaxation. "I felt almost shell-shocked, I would jump when I heard noise," she recalls. Lasseter remembers a walk they took across the Seine, which sparked an argument: "She wanted to watch the sunset and I didn't. I just stormed off. I wish I had watched the sunset, I will never get that back."

To Russia with love

Lasseter left Baghdad for good by August 2006, embarking on a lengthy break and pursuing plans to open a McClatchy bureau in India. As Lasseter scouted locations in late 2006 there, he and Stack decided enough was enough on the long-distance relationship, and pushed to be in the same city. "Our lives had been hotel rooms and cabs for three years," he adds, noting that the duo had been apart for his last two birthdays, as well as last Thanksgiving. Stack agrees, declaring "it had gotten old, very trying to maintain a long-distance relationship."

But Times editors threw a wrench into their plans, blocking Stack from India. The pair refused to give up, brainstorming places they would both want to work, and that might be approved by both news outlets. "Moscow is a place we had talked about," Stack says. "We both liked it and I had always had an interest in Russia." That interest dates back to Stack's childhood, when her parents hosted several Ukrainian foreign exchange students and her brother and sister spent time studying Russian.

By early 2007, McClatchy and the Times had agreed and the pair began planning to relocate, with some apprehension about sharing similar beats ? and likely similar homes ? while maintaining a healthy rivalry. "That is an issue for them to resolve," says McClatchy Washington Bureau Chief John Walcott. "They are not 'sometime competitors' ? they are competitors." Still, Walcott agreed to let Lasseter relocate with knowledge that his significant other would be there. "This is not the first time this sort of thing has happened in a foreign capital," Walcott notes.

When describing Lasseter, he adds, "I don't think there has been a better correspondent. Period. Tom needs and wants a little bit of a break from combat."

Stack points out that each of their beats will be slightly different, with Lasseter also reporting on Afghanistan and Pakistan and her role more focused on Soviet life. "We both will just have to be understanding that it will come up," she says of likely rival assignments. "We will deal with it."

Lasseter agrees, but adds bluntly, "I hope I beat her every time."

Arriving in Moscow in late May, the pair spent their first week in the same apartment, with Stack planning to take over the Times' Moscow apartment after bureau chief David Holley's departure in the coming weeks. Lasseter was jumping around the region on an undisclosed assignment.

"I feel like he still hasn't gotten here, in a way," Stack said on June 11, noting that they only spent five days together before Lasseter departed for a three-week trip. "I know a few people but not that many, and I am still learning Russian."

She spends about five hours a day in an individual language class at Moscow State University, with another three hours of homework each night. But before Lasseter left town, the couple made the most of it, finding quiet time for walks and even a picnic, along with the typical new-home shopping for household items. "We had to get curtains, plants, drinking glasses," Stack recalls about a trip to ? yes ? IKEA. "The usual things."

Meanwhile, back home, a piece by Stack published by her paper on June 6 was gaining wide attention. She reflected that of all "the strange, scary, and joyful experiences of the past years, my time covering Saudi Arabia remains among the most jarring." There she struggled unhappily "between a lifetime of being taught to respect foreign cultures and the realization that this culture judged me a lesser being." It made her ponder parallels with South Africa during apartheid. She even "kept a resentful mental tally of the Western men, especially fellow reporters, who seemed to condone, even relish, the relegation of women in the Arab world."

As for the future, neither one is talking marriage ? at least not publicly ? but both feel confident about their joint career/ personal decision. Says Lasseter: "There is no way in the world we would be doing this lightly." Stack agrees, saying, "It doesn't have a heaviness of a relationship. I think we will be together for a while. I feel like we have already been through a lot. Now we are getting sort of a payoff. We have never had an ordinary time of it."


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