A Reporter’s Tale: To Iraq and back

Despite layoff, reporter follows Idaho military twins’ story to Iraq and back

By James Hagengruber

Along with photographer Brian Plonka, I began writing about the lives of twins Matthew and Robert Shipp in March of 2006. The Shipps, of Hauser Lake, Idaho, were seniors in high school and desperately wanted to join the U.S. Marines. They wanted to fight for their country. Brian and I desperately wanted to find a way to tackle the story of our generation: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

By following the stories of two local young men, we hoped to explore some of the bigger questions of how America was dealing with the conflicts. Brian and I were there when the twins graduated from high school. We stood in the shadows late at night in San Diego when the boys stepped off the bus to start boot camp. Weeks later, I conducted one of the toughest interviews in my decade-long reporting career when I attempted to talk to the twins in the middle of a boot camp training exercise — I was allowed three minutes and one of the twins had laryngitis. We were there for both twins’ weddings, including being the only non-relatives to attend when Robert Shipp was hastily married at the Hitchin’ Post in Coeur d’Alene shortly before his deployment. The morning Matthew Shipp left for Iraq, Brian and I stood beside his crying bride.

In October, four days before Robert Shipp was scheduled to deploy overseas, I lost my job. I was among about a dozen journalists at The Spokesman -Review who were cut (at least as many more subsequently took a buyout offer). Because the newsroom is unionized, the layoffs were based on seniority. My four years with the newspaper weren’t senior enough.

Being laid off sucks, especially in these times. But two days after packing my notebooks and desk photographs into a cardboard box, I boarded a flight to San Diego to be there when Robert Shipp sailed off toward the Persian Gulf with a contingent of infantry Marines. I was disheartened and without a paycheck, but I couldn’t possibly give up on this twoyear- long story just before its climax. On the final morning of our visit to San Diego, Brian and I stood on the sea cliffs with Robert’s family and bride as his ship sailed into the Pacific gray. I think we all were crying — a 19-year-old was heading to war and two journalists were stuck in the mud of a dying industry. After the emotions calmed, Brian looked at me and said: “We’re going.”

And to Iraq we went. Without the layoff, I doubt such a trip ever would have happened. Although Spokesman-Review Editor Steve Smith gave us an incredible amount of support during the first six installments of the series, he told us a trip to the war itself would not be possible on the newsroom’s ever-shrinking budget. Using figures gathered early in the conflict, Smith told us insurance and expenses for a trip to Iraq would likely top $50,000 per journalist.

Without a job, I had an abundance of time to check these figures for myself. I was thrilled to discover that going to Iraq wasn’t nearly as expensive as I had expected. Thanks to declining rates of violence and increases in the abilities of actuaries to compute the risks, the life insurance premiums for journalists in Iraq have plunged — I paid about $1,500 for a month’s coverage worth $200,000.

Although The Spokesman-Review eventually agreed to help fund a portion of our trip, our journey to the Middle East was also helped by a newspaper in Germany. In 2002, I received the Arthur F. Burns Fellowship, which allowed me to spend two months reporting from The Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper in Munich. Last summer, a journalist from The SZ worked for The Spokesman-Review as a Burns fellow. The connection opened up a new publishing opportunity — Germans were curious about the American volunteers for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but German journalists have had trouble gaining access to the troops and their families.

Armed with letters of credential from newspapers in Spokane and Munich, I began the long process of securing an embed slot with the twins’ infantry units. A double root canal causes less of a headache than the paperwork needed to embed (yes, even the blank pages of the news media ground rules agreement, DoD Directive 5122.5, must be initialed and sent back to the press office in Baghdad). I had to supply a detailed explanation of the project and my past reporting. I had to promise to have “no disabilities that prohibit you from running,” and I had to swear off alcohol and pornography for the duration of my time in Iraq. I also had to supply my own helmet, body armor and life insurance. After several weeks of wait, the military agreed to my request.

That’s the short version of the curious chain of events that eventually resulted in Brian and me being plopped down in a remote combat outpost in western Iraq in March. We were there as independent freelancers and our gear showed it. Unlike journalists from large media organizations, Brian and I were traveling on our own dime. I simply couldn’t afford the body armor we were advised to wear (the good stuff would have sucked away a month of my unemployment checks). I did have some serious second thoughts about my decision to follow this story to war, especially while trying to fix the broken buttons of my borrowed, Vietnam-era flak jacket during a foot patrol in a dangerous village.

Brian and I made two trips to the Middle East this winter and spring. We spent about a month total in Iraq and Kuwait, as well as aboard an amphibious assault ship in the Persian Gulf. The Spokesman-Review published our stories on the twins and we were also able to bag a feature on the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, who is from Spokane. I also worked as a freelancer for The Christian Science Monitor and The Sueddeutsche Zeitung. After my time in the Middle East, I traveled to Munich as a guest of the newspaper to provide a public lecture and reading on the twins project. Through all these efforts — and with the gracious assistance of the Idaho Press Club – I’ve come close to breaking even. But, as every journalist knows, it’s not about the money.

Each night in Iraq I heard gunfire. Sometimes, I peered out from behind a wall of sandbags and watched red tracers arc like neon bees through the desert sky. On the night of the war’s fifth anniversary, I heard a huge explosion – – a young Iraqi man had just blown his hands off trying to hide a grenade in the street of the village that’s regularly patrolled by Matthew Shipp (and, during our week at the outpost, Brian and me). Later that night I accompanied the Marines to the blast scene in a dark, narrow alley. Weeks of anxiety and fear caught up with me that night. My knees shook, my gut trembled and my lungs ached from chain smoking. I was only there for a relative blip of time — I can’t imagine the toll this takes on troops, as well as Iraqis, who endure these emotions for months and years on end.

I stopped smoking after Iraq. And I no longer have trouble falling asleep at night. But I can’t say I’ve shed my anxiety. That’s not from the war, though. That’s just a fact of life these days for a laid-off newspaperman.

Read James Hagengruber’s blog at http:// jameshagengruber.blogspot.com or contact him at www.hagengruberj@hotmail.com Hagengruber is the winner of this year’s Don Watkins Mid-Career Scholarship, which he used for expenses associated with his freelance reporting project.

The deadline to apply for next year’s $500 mid-career scholarship is Feb. 15, 2009; see the Press Club’s Web site for info, at www.idahopressclub.org.