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|| News Item: Posted 2008-05-28

Journalist's Journey To Iraq
Crab, Ice Cream and the Occasional Roadside Bomb

By Robert Scheer, Indianapolis Star Visuals Dept.

Photo by

Robert Scheer working on the Mac, at the media center, in Baghdad.
I went to Iraq for six weeks. In mid-March, Indianapolis Star colleague Will Higgins and I were embedded with National Guard soldiers from Indiana. Sounds pretty cool huh? Much of it was. The food was tasty --- lobster or king crab once a week --- and as much Baskin Robbins as you can jam down your pie hole.

In general, a lot of the images we're used to seeing from the Middle East involve crying Muslim women and stressed-out soldiers pinned down behind concrete walls. I didn't see any of that.

The Indiana brigade, some 3,400, is mainly tasked with convoy security. Simply put, truckloads of cucumbers, lumber, light bulbs, whatever keeps military bases running, gets an escort, in the form of heavily armored Army vehicles with machine guns or grenade launchers. It's tough, tense work; the hours are long, and often dangerous, getting hit by the occasional roadside bombs.

Because our Hoosier soldiers were just getting into Iraq, they didn't start running missions until late in our stay, so we did lots of stories about chow hall food, and how they cope with tedium on the base. But we did get to capture the first impressions of the troops when they arrived -- how they were fired up for their missions to start, how they were staving off homesickness.

The reporter and I found out early on that many soldiers are paranoid about security, and more than a few are distrustful of media members. We didn't take it personally, it's just the way it is, because the rationale is that paranoia saves lives.

On occasion, we'd watch television in common areas on the bases. They show the regular shows you'd see here, stateside, but every commercial is some sort of military house ad or infomercial.

One notable commercial features a guy in a blue poncho crouched in a field taking pictures, presumably of a woman driving a car, stateside. She phones the cops, and within moments, officers arrive to investigate. Lesson: a civilian with a camera should not be trusted. But, on the bases I was on, Q-West mainly, once folks got to recognize me, most were friendly. A memo that contained the blessing of the base commanders was invaluable, and confirms that you have the right to do things like eat and use the stores and gymnasiums.

One thing that became an issue, strangely, was that I have dark skin, the reporter I was with does not. Basically, I was asked for a memo at least once a day. The reporter was never asked for a memo. Several times, I tried handing him my camera gear before arriving at checkpoints, which didn't make any difference. At one point, I asked an officer I was friendly with about this and he said, simply put, I look more like a terrorist than our reporter did.

In covering our guys in Iraq, we heard and saw a lot of things that they didn't want us to publish -- such as how fast they drive, where the commander generally is on a convoy. The key thing is to know what photo or story might jeopardize a life, and which won't. If you embed, you'll receive countless pieces of paper containing security concerns. They're important, be sure to digest them.

Photo by Robert Scheer / Indianapolis Star

Photo by Robert Scheer / Indianapolis Star

Spc. Billy Owens, Alpha 2-150, takes a break a few hours before heading out on a convoy security mission leaving from Q-West, in Northern Iraq.
Early on, we sent some info out that we shouldn't have. The folks at Q-West weren't too pleased with us. At some point during the process of being scolded over and over for about two days, by everyone from Privates to Lt. Colonels, we were led into a dark room with gaudy oversized furniture and told in no uncertain terms that every story and every image we sent had to be scrutinized by the resident intel officer, at the other end of the base. This meant a two-mile walk every time we wanted to send to our editors. Back home, our editors were ready to start calling up various generals to read the riot act, but in Iraq, it was either "live with it, or go home."

It turned out to be not so much of a big deal. We got a nice daily walk, and the captain who was ordered to look over our content was friendly enough, didn't do any censoring of content or ideas, and just looked for any sensitive operational details that might have slipped into our work.

On to the tech side, sending data consumed lots of time. Bottom line, if you can afford it, bring a satellite device like an RBGAN.

I took along a five-year-old RBGAN satphone, which I fussed with for six weeks, but never got to work. Tech support in four countries got involved, but it was a no-go. As you might know, the satellites orbit over that part of the world, so you can't test the satphone from the U.S. Other journalists I've talked with love their units, so if I ever go again, I'll be sure to get a more current device.

My mainstay was an arrangement of mostly Third Country Nationals (U.S. military-speak for non-Americans) who ran Internet cafes and generally charged $2 per hour. About 75% of the time, these lines were up and running and I used Fetch to drop images straight into our ftp server. Even jpeged down to less than 1 meg, the photos took several minutes each to transfer. The best speed I got through my laptop was about 128k. Video wasn't happening --- I couldn't get it back easily --- so I concentrated on stills.

On our main base, Q-West, wireless cards were available for $75 per month, but they turned out to be a sham.

At one point, a guy in a grubby shack on base in Q-West conned me out of $75 for a password to access his wireless network. It worked for a couple of days, kind of, then somebody stole the router.

Photo by Robert Scheer / Indianapolis Star

Photo by Robert Scheer / Indianapolis Star

Some of Robert Scheer's photo gear, the day before departing for Iraq. His total load was about 120 lbs.
Here's the tech gear I took:
Apple laptop in a Lucite box --- a low budget version of the JackBox that our building services folks at The Star made for me. It was wonderful, and gave me a lot of peace of mind, especially when my photo backpack (a Lowe Stealth) took hits getting in and out of vehicles.

Two Canon digital cameras. Both, the Mark II, and the IIN version held up beautifully.

The lenses I brought and used constantly were the 16-35mm, 70-200mm (both 2.8). These lenses I used once or twice: 14mm, 1.4X converter. I had a 28 1.8, 50 Macro and 2X converter, but never used them. I took a Canon flash, but the soldiers get jumpy about sudden bright flashes, so I used it sparingly.

I also brought Sony V1U and A1U HD video cameras, which I used pretty equally. Both have their strong and weak points. At one point, my A1U (with screw on wide angle lens) took a header onto some asphalt. Even with a crack in the body of the camera, it worked fine. I packed a small graphite tripod, which was cumbersome to use, but got enough use to justify it's worth.

I met a lot of great soldiers over there, some of who I look forward to having a beverage with after they get back home in December. Even in an atmosphere that was at times tedious, it was great fun chatting with folks, hearing stories, and realizing that back in Indiana, everyone had friends and families who love them. With the National Guard soldiers, there was a wide range of backgrounds. Some were software designers, some were lawyers, some worked as fry cooks. But, at our core, we knew that as our access to the local Iraqi population was very limited -- we were telling only a small piece of the story over there.

After we sent stories and images back, like most papers now, our website contains an online response area so folks can chime in about our content. We did get a lot of "if you see my cousin Billy, say hello," comments, which were tough to fulfill, but we kept our eyes open. Other times, if we'd done a story about roadside bombs, we'd get lambasted by readers for not "keeping it positive."

Soldiering is tough business, with tremendous sacrifice involved, and after being over there, it's easy to see why their loved ones are so loyal to their mission. Sadly, one member of the 76th has died, I'm hoping to see all of the remaining members at their coming home ceremony.

If you have any questions, or want to know more about specific gear, please feel free to shoot me an email.

(Robert Scheer is on staff at the Indianapolis Star. You can view his work on his member page: and at the newspaper's website:

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