- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 17, 2007

Bonds and embeds

One of the most frequent questions I hear from foreign journalists visiting the United States on State Department and other programs concerns the practice of “embedding” reporters with military units.

My routine response is nuanced: We accept embeds in places like Iraq and Afghanistan because it allows us to get a set of eyes and ears into places that would otherwise not be accessible.

In Iraq, particularly, it has simply become too dangerous to let a reporter move around the streets without the kind of security provided by a team of heavily armed soldiers. A good reporter will use that access not only to talk to the soldiers, but also to Iraqi soldiers, police and civilians who come into contact with the unit.

But, I stress, we try to remain vigilant to the fact that embedded reporters are likely to bond with the soldiers who are keeping them alive, making it that much harder to maintain their professional detachment and objectivity.

We try when possible to balance that by having other, non-embedded reporters covering the same events. And we count on our editors to watch closely for any loss of objectivity and to make appropriate adjustments.

The reporters are also aware of the delicate balancing act they face. They strive to explain the challenges faced by American troops and to present the soldiers as real, flesh-and-blood human beings, while refusing to gloss over any errors, poor judgments or abuses committed by those same soldiers.

Sometimes, however, it becomes very hard for them to separate their personal feelings from their professional duties.

Our reporter Sharon Behn experienced one such moment last week when she learned of the death of a soldier whom she had grown to know and like during an Iraq embed this spring.

Remembering Brian

Staff Sgt. Brian Long was one of several dozen soldiers, all members of the 2-3/3-2 Stryker Brigade, with whom Mrs. Behn was embedded for about five weeks during March and April.

During that time she ate, slept and moved with the unit as it moved into some of Baghdad’s toughest neighborhoods, including trying to win over parts of the Sadr City slum as part of the U.S. military’s “surge” strategy.

The following is an e-mail letter that Mrs. Behn sent last week to Staff Sgt. Long’s commander, Col. Barry Huggins:

“Col. Huggins, I just heard today with great sadness of the death on Saturday of Staff Sgt. Brian Long. I feel deeply for his wife, Brenda, and his three daughters.

“As a journalist of 24 years I try to maintain a certain professional distance with all those whom I interview. Staff Sgt. Long was one of the few who managed to break through that.

“We first met in the back of a Stryker [armored vehicle] when he told me his theory of what was wrong with the media — but he said it without rancor or judgment. I teased him about preferring to watch Anna Nicole Smith over the news or History channel; we both laughed and we got along fine after that.

“He was a great interview, honest and upfront, and I quoted him in several of my articles. But SSG Long and I also talked a lot off the record.

“He told me about his wife and his children, about growing up, about hunting and fishing, about high school and his decision to join the Army. I shared thoughts about my family and work-related travels.

“We both laughed and enjoyed a temporary escape from the war that he — like all your men — fought so stalwartly in the streets every day.

“Those moments were some of the best of my time with the Strykers, and while I mourn the death of Staff Sgt. Long, I am truly grateful that I was given the chance to meet, get to know and enjoy the company of Brian. I look forward to meeting him again on the other side.

Sincerely,

Sharon Behn

{bullet} David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.