Embedded: Journalists See 'Big Changes' in Iraq
Images from Iraq flashed across a huge screen, starting at a vast palace of Sadaam Hussein and ending with an Iraqi painter on a ladder.
The painter was just finishing a billboard picture. It showed manacled hands reaching as if to clasp in friendship above broken links of the chain that once bound them.
On stage below, a reporter and a photojournalist from The Fay-etteville Observer told of a country moving from danger to hope.
The 22nd year of the Ruth Pauley Lecture Series at Sandhills Community College launched Thursday night with a third visit from war reporters. Staff Writer Laura Arenschield and Assistant Photo Editor Marcus Castro spent a month together last year as "embeds" -- writers and photographers who live and travel with troops. This was part of the Sam Ragan Memorial Lecture.
In welcoming remarks, Buddy Spong paid tribute to Ragan, former editor and publisher of The Pilot, as a man instrumental in supporting the Ruth Pauley series from its start.
"We have one every year that is dedicated to the memory of Sam Ragan," Spong said.
David Woronoff, publisher of The Pilot, served as moderator. He told how Ragan had prevailed on his vast network of friends for free lectures in the early days of the series. After Ragan, the paper's publishers contributed money to endow an annual lecture that could continue The Pilot's involvement in supporting the series.
"For a paper like The Fayetteville Observer to espouse a philosophy that 'where our troops go, we go' takes a certain amount of commitment that I think is rare in today's media world," he said. "They go to the expense of sending two of their staff halfway around the world -- lose them for a month and not get any copy out of them -- for them to cover what happens in Iraq as a local story for The Fayetteville Observer."
He introduced the two speakers. Arenschield had just become engaged before leaving for Iraq, marrying her husband last October only after spending a month in the war zone embedded with a military police unit from Fort Bragg. Castro served with the 82nd Airborne Division for nine years and is now a 23-year Observer veteran who has been embedded four times.
The two alternated comments as pictures showed their travels in Iraq last year with Fort Bragg soldiers training Iraqi police to take over law enforcement in their own country.
"We tried to file stories almost daily using the Internet," Castro said. "These are just a selection of photos I captured over there, starting with Camp Victory."
One of the photos showed Saddam Hussein's Al Faw palace, now Army headquarters. It showed marble floors and crystal chandeliers, a spectacular spiral staircase disappearing into the heights of its grand setting as Arenschield described its golden banisters.
"The general that runs Fort Bragg on a day-to-day basis now runs Iraq," she said. "This is a very important building. They raise a lot of flags to the top of the building and salute the flag every time."
Those flags, sometimes 80 a day, go to troop supporters back home.
"You see them in schools and churches," she said. "Everybody that supports the troops in Iraq could get a flag."
Pictures followed days in the hot sands of the distant deserts south of Baghdad. One shows soldiers talking with a man who is having a dispute with his neighbor. Another photo shows a fully armed soldier taking a five-hour walk in 100-degree heat visiting several villages.
"This area was called the 'Triangle of Death' -- but we didn't mention that in letters back home," she said. "The photo on the wall behind the soldier is Muqtada al-Sadr. Soldiers from our military police company based at Fort Bragg were working with Iraqi police training them to do what police do here. Under Saddam, the police were his henchmen, more thugs than legitimate police."
Females Taking Lead
Castro's picture showed an Iraqi policeman wearing a bulletproof vest.
"Any time we did stop, as in this market, even though we were walking through, they were security-minded," he said. "Here is a female MP. A lot of people think females don't have a combat role, but in this assignment they were instrumental in a new program called the Daughters of Iraq."
Another image showed soldiers and Iraqi civilians around a tablecloth set with glasses of tea.
"Homeowners would bring out chai," he said. "Even on 100-degree days, we would sit down to drink extremely hot tea, then move out."
The soldier shown pouring the tea now runs the program, Arenschield said.
"He was awesome," she said. "He would tell his troops, 'Hey, guys, look at all the improvements. If you do your job carefully, we won't have to come back to Iraq. Our job will be done.'"
Castro stressed how you do see female soldiers taking the lead, sometimes to the amazement of male Iraqi policemen going through the training.
"They would invite (Iraqi) police to do PT (physical training) just like at Bragg," Arenschield said. "This sergeant was out there at 6 a.m. and told them to run laps around the compound."
The men scoffed and took off, expecting the woman to be left far behind. That was not what happened.
"By the end, all these Iraqi guys were flagging, and she was out in front," she said. "They (female U.S. soldiers) were really out to prove they could do as much or more."
A photo of palm trees faded to a shot of a woman soldier in full gear.
"She is carrying a grenade launcher, about 75 pounds of gear," Castro said. "Here our trainers are showing Iraqi police how to search a suspect properly."
Men lie spread-eagled on ground as others search them.
"Here, you are innocent until proven guilty," Arenschield said as the picture showed a family grieving after the arrest of a father. "In Iraq, you are guilty until proven innocent. You can spend a year in jail before any trial. Families have to bring food."
The U.S. hires Iraqi women to do searches where females are searched. The program, called Daughters of Iraq, parallels the earlier Sons of Iraq police recruitment program. Iraqi women are eager to apply.
"These four women from Fort Bragg, none over 24 years old, started this program," Arenschield said. "They created it, made little armbands, put the word out on the street. It was entirely the effort of these four women from Fort Bragg."
Women entering the U.S. compound formerly had to be searched by female soldiers before being allowed in. Now Iraqi women learn the same search techniques, are taught first aid, other things.
'Saw Big Changes'
A highlight of their trip was seeing soldiers visiting local schools and handing out school supplies, pencils and paper.
"Kids wanted to touch them, get high fives," Castro said. "They were instant rock stars. They brought the entire school outside for a huge school photo. Here I am, wearing bulletproof vest and water bottle. I should have had the helmet on, too, probably."
This is the future of journalism, Arenschield said.
"It is backpack journalism, a reporter carrying a digital camera," she said. "What you don't know is my back pocket was full of chocolate."
When the photo of the mural with the hands and broken chains was shown, Woronoff asked its meaning.
"The image of Iraq on that mural is on their flag," Arenschield said. "It means to break the chains that held us so long."
Covering the war gave her a better sense of what the soldiers are doing over there, she said.
"Never felt in any danger, never felt we were under attack, she said. "I cover military for The Fayetteville Observer. This gave me a sense of what it is like to be away from home so long."
Some soldiers were told their tour would last 12 months. Others, 15. The disparity did not sit particularly well. This was Castro's fourth trip to a war zone.
"Last time, there was a lot of danger," he said. "Soldiers were on high alert. On this trip, they were telling soldiers that if we get it right this time you won't have to come back. Shops were opening up. People were coming back. I saw a big change in the two years."
The audience had many questions. Both said their reports were uncensored, that they felt free to report whatever they observed.
"I never felt I had to depict people in any certain light," Castro said, agreeing. "We were never censored."
Opinions on the war among the military are as mixed as those at home.
"Quite a few were opposed to the war," Arenschield said. "I talked to one soldier who thinks 9/11 was a hoax."
Opinion among Iraqis is also mixed, they said.
"Honest to God, I think they are split," Arenschield said. "One woman was thrilled they had gotten rid of Sadr's militia. Another man said that ever since the Americans came his house was more likely to be bombed. Some want us there, some want us to leave, some don't care -- the 'beaten dog' syndrome, one soldier called it."
The children were the most hopeful sight for Arenschield.
"I loved going to the schools," she said. "It was my favorite thing. Kids had no fear at all. I saw a lot of hope. One of the soldiers said when you win the children you prove there is a better way of life for them. Awesome and uplifting."
Contact John Chappell at 783-5841 or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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