‘Women and War Part II’: Keeping safe

I am aware, as I sit here poolside at the Crowne Plaza Resort, of the irony of all this. Four women, each on one of many U.S. returns (the final one, for some) from reporting as “embeds” with military units all over the world – and here they were, talking to us. Here they were, in a comfortable resort conference room in the quiet North Carolina mountains, as intermittent applause and muffled speech emerged from the state Civil Air Patrol gathering in the ballroom down the hall, addressing me.

It must have felt so, well, foreign.

In the second part of a two-part conversation on women and war, veteran war correspondent Andrea Stone moderated panel that included CBS radio’s Cami McCormick, McClatchy’s Nancy Youssef, former Marine and executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network Anu Bhagwati, and contributions from freelancer Kimberley Johnson.

The topic was safety – how to prepare for and how to face that moment when, reporting in a war zone, all hell breaks loose. For Youssef, she said it’s like another part of her brain turns on.

“In a war zone I can see everything,” she said, pointing about the room to illustrate. “Like, who’s that guy out on the field, and where’s that motorcycle going,” and so on.

McCormick said sometimes what happens after a stint on the frontlines is the hardest part. After six weeks reporting on Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, McCormick was sent to idyllic San Diego on her next assignment. She said it just didn’t feel right, and she wanted to go back.

“I assume this is what the troops face as well,” McCormick said, adding that when several troops were allowed to go home at Christmas one year, she did a story on their difficulty facing mundane frustrations like Wal-Mart traffic when their first instinct was still to keep an eye out for roadside bombs.

I wondered what must this right now – us, here, JAWS – be like for McCormick and Youssef, sharing these thoughts with a roomful of women they’ve never met in a comfortable hotel in the quiet North Carolina mountains? It can’t feel normal.

Stone opened the floor up for questions then, and the panel talked equipment. News organizations don’t often provide flack vests, helmets, protective eyewear and gloves, but they aren’t always the best-fitting or most convenient to wear.
Bhagwati noted that military personnel have some of the same issues.

“Uniforms don’t fit women very well and even have caused injuries,” she said, adding that Marines get the worst boots and both men and women have developed ankle, knee and hip issues as a result.

Johnson said as a freelancer she had to procure her own vest, which she purchased on eBay from a seller in Israel. In a photo that was taken of her on the ground, she laughed, “it looked like a bikini top next to what a Marine would wear.”

Both Youssef and McCormick said there’s something addictive about the war zones that keeps drawing them back, but it’s important to know where your lines are in dangerous situations.

McCormick said a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer friend of hers once told her, “You should never get so close to a story that you can’t see it” – advice she’s taken to heart after getting herself in some chaotic crowd situations, at Yassir Arafat’s funeral and elsewhere.

Youssef, who was embedded with the rebels in Libya most recently, agreed. But, she added, “Sometimes you need to feel that fear … at some point you’ll need to experience it, so go experience it.

“Personally,” she said, “I won’t understand the story unless I’ve experienced it with the people I’m reporting about.”

— Erica E. Phillips