We were an odd trio, sitting in a hipster lounge in Dupont Circle, last November, smoking flavored tobacco, sharing war stories, oblivious to the people around us.
Joao Silva, a photographer, was still getting treatment in Washington, D.C., after stepping on a land mine in October 2010 in Afghanistan while on assignment for the New York Times. He lost both his legs. A year later, Joao was in shorts, even though it had been snowing earlier in the day, and the disco lights kept catching the metal of his prosthetic legs in a dancing twinkle that matched our mood.
Bill Putnam, a multimedia journalist and former U.S. soldier, was on his way back to Afghanistan. Putnam has gone to war now as a soldier and civilian seven times since 1996. Once again, he was putting everything else aside to cover war.
“I literally don’t know anything else but this life,” Putnam said in a recent email from Afghanistan. “I don’t feel fulfilled back home.”
Bill, Joao and I are part of a photography exhibit called Conflict Zone, a collection of images and video from the frontlines of Iraq and Afghanistan. Joao inspired the exhibit when he was injured, and we later dedicated it to our friend and colleague, Chris Hondros, a photographer who was killed in Libya a year ago.
The show represents a language combat journalists and veterans speak, even if we have had different roles and missions on the battlefield. It’s a handshake that in one grip says more than we could ever share with our families and friends who weren’t there and who have a hard time understanding how we could miss that life.
Bill and Joao were plotting that night to get Joao back to Afghanistan while Bill was there. I didn’t want to be left out.
I was back to normal after I’d survived the “war after the war” myself and tried to outdrink Hunter S. Thompson when I got home at the end of 2005.
The story was still calling to me. People often assume it’s the adrenaline rush that we miss when we come home. It’s not. I miss the story, the sense that if I don’t tell it, who will? These are stories of people who go to war and stories of people to whom war comes. Stories of the joys and losses that coexist in war.
I had already embedded in Iraq a half-dozen times in 2011 and spent Christmas and New Year’s with the troops, voluntarily. Who does that? Who chooses Camp Adder in Southern Iraq at the holidays over a beach vacation or going home to see their family? I didn’t understand it either, but I was confident of this: Bill and Joao would get it. It’s certainly something that many veterans can relate to as well.
The decade of wars and conflict, including the still blooming Arab Spring, has battered, mentally and physically, the journalists who have covered them. In 2011, 46 journalists were killed, according to the Committee to Project Journalists. Five of those were killed in Iraq and Libya, and 15 were killed in pro-reform protests while covering the Arab Spring. Of the 14 journalists killed this year, half died in Syria, the group reported.
The number harder to calculate is the number of journalists who have been mentally scarred. There’s a loaded acronym for the psychological damage, PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. If you’ve seen the kind of human suffering that comes from war, seen the barely recognizable body parts, heard the sobs and don’t come home a little messed up, wouldn’t that make you a machine? Isn’t being a little screwed up by that normal? It’s hard to imagine that anyone, journalist or soldier, comes home intact.
Symptoms of PTSD include nightmares, feeling numb, being jumpy or startled, becoming irritable or angry easily and having problems sleeping, according to the National Center for PTSD, an arm of the U.S. Veterans Administration. I’ve had them all. The symptoms can disrupt life. They also may come and go over the years.
“I was never diagnosed with PTSD,” said Susannah Nesmith, who covered the war in Colombia for two years for the Associated Press and later reported from Iraq for the Miami Herald. “I don’t think I ever had it. ... I did come back from some deployments slightly shattered. But I think that’s just normal. You can’t become accustomed to people pointing guns at you or the sight of dead children and not be changed by that.”
Though PTSD, first defined by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980, is often formally diagnosed, many journalists informally diagnose themselves.
But that doesn’t mean we want to talk about it. I recently received an email from Barbara Barnett, associate dean of undergraduate studies and associate professor at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas. She had heard me speak about my war reporting experience in 2006 or 2007 at a conference of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. She wanted to know if I’d be on a panel about PTSD for another conference this fall in Washington. My initial reaction when I got the email was, ‘Oh no! ASNE! That was my crazy period. How embarrassing!”
Barnett wrote back that I seemed “incredibly sane at ASNE. I don't remember seeing any crazy signs or symptoms, so you held it together very well.” I was relieved.
Jackie Spinner, Iraq, January 2011 (Photo courtesy Jackie Spinner)
Some journalists are careful because they don’t want the focus on themselves or on their role in the battlefield, which is an entirely voluntary one. We embed for varying periods of times, a few days to a few weeks, sometimes a few months, depending on the story. Though some journalists have stayed in the conflict zone for years, doing multiple “tours," they have the option to leave, to come and go on their own terms. The biggest challenge for some is that after a while they don’t know another way to live.
Dan Lamothe, senior writer for the Marine Corps Times, who first embedded in 2010 in Helmand province in Afghanistan and is now there again, said he doesn’t believe he ever had PTSD.
But, based on conversations with other journalists, Lamothe said, “it's common for war correspondents to minimize their own experiences.” And journalists are there for briefer periods of time than the soldiers and do not carry weapons. “Out of respect for the sacrifices made by service members, it's common for us to downplay what we've seen and what the ... effects are.”
Bill Putnam put it more bluntly. “The day I flew to my first Kosovo deployment, I called my ex, the love of my life. And she said something that only loves like that can say. It was clear and concise and so fucking brutally honest. ‘You chose to lead that life; deal with it.’ And, ever since then, those words said as a way to hurt me have been my bedrock. I deal with things seen in my coming and coming back because I chose it.”
Perhaps another part of the problem with diagnosing PTSD among journalists is that the “post” part of the disorder implies that the trauma is over. In fact, many journalists, like Lara Jakes, Baghdad bureau chief for the AP, are still in the midst of it.
“We still have bombings and deadly shootings almost every day, and you never really get used to them,” she wrote from Baghdad, where she has been for three years. “My immediate reaction is always to jump up and start working, because I have to -- this is what I do. ... I have been told that my sense of shock is now conditioned to manifest into a huge adrenaline rush. And so I am habitually on edge and jump at slamming gates, firecrackers, gunfire, squealing tires and black clouds of smoke.”
Jakes’ husband, Army Lt. Col. Mike Jason, is currently in Afghanistan, commanding more than 900 troops. He was formally diagnosed with PTSD in 2006. Jason said he talks frequently with his soldiers about PTSD. He sees little difference between the clinical impact of war on troops or civilian journalists like his wife.
“I think its a combination of those sheer moments of terror, added to witnessing traumatic and horrible images, added to long stretches of stress and harsh environmental conditions,” Jason wrote from Afghanistan. “It is psychological, emotional, and absolutely, physical.”
Back in Baghdad, Jakes said when she returns she will definitely seek counseling.
“I think it would be crazy to try to go back to life as normal when my world is forever changed,” she said. “I have seen some things that have upset me deeply.”
I think we, as journalists, and soldiers like Putnam and Jason, try to make sense of where we’ve been, what we’ve seen and how it’s changed us. In December 2010, while on a Fulbright Scholarship in Oman, I prepared to head back into Iraq on yet another embed. I have been doing them on and off as a freelance journalist since leaving the Washington Post in 2009.
In 2010, I was headed to Iskandariyah, where I had last been six years earlier. I remembered a lot of that embed at FOB Kalsu in 2004, mostly because I could go back and see myself in a PBS Frontline documentary filmed while I was there. I felt old when I watched that version of myself. I still do, when I show the video now to my journalism students at Columbia College Chicago.
Mostly, I couldn’t believe that I was still going to Iraq six years later, then seven. “Be careful dear, one day I am going to kill you for risking your life like this,” Abu Saif, a former Post translator, told me when he heard the news.
But I realized that I had to go to Iskandariyah. It was called The Triangle of Death the first time I went in 2004. But not in 2010. It was a new shape -- not entirely safe, not entirely dangerous either. I was not the same person I was in 2004 either. Me and Iskandariyah. From shit hole to redemption, I thought.
That period, between trips to Iskandariyah, had serious, but fortunately not lasting, consequences. In retrospect, I am even able to look on it as a gift. I call it my lifetime of Iraq perspective. With the distance I've come to see that it's important for people to talk about PTSD, especially journalists.
Some of my most healing moments have been in the quiet conversations with other journalists, with soldiers and Marines. And why now that I'm healthy and not in the sustained conflict, I realize it's important to talk about it.
Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, said it’s hard to know just what the lasting effect will be on the journalists who have covered conflict, who are still covering conflict.
“The length of these wars, the repeat deployments, the chronic violence, has been really destructive and has scarred a lot of folks,” Shapiro told me. “We’re nowhere near approaching or understanding the full scope of that, the full meaning of this for journalists. It has been an exhausting decade.”