Excerpted with permission from Embedded: The Media At War In Iraq, by Bill Katovsky and Timothy Carlson. The Lyons Press, 2003.
I have a visa for working as a correspondent for my newspaper. I certainly feel like a foreigner in this country. I think New York is different because New York is a place where everybody can be a New Yorker, since the first moment they get here, but in general, in the country, I feel like a foreigner. I’ve been based in New York for four years. Julio [Parrado, a Spanish journalist,] was one of the first people I met in New York. We became very good friends. We also went to the Quantico media boot camp together. We traveled together to Kuwait. We were there for a week before we embedded. We were very close. Since we were embedded with different units — I was with the First Marine Division, Headquarters Battalion, First Regimental Combat Team, and he was with the Third Infantry Division — we spoke only a few times. After they took our satphones out, I couldn’t talk to him anymore.
On the day he was killed, several people told me about it. His death was confirmed by the television. It was around 7:00 P.M. I spent the night crying until I fell asleep. I was inside an armored vehicle and we were going into Baghdad that night. It was very scary. People were very nervous. They were expecting the worst on the entry to Baghdad, so not many other people were paying attention to me. For women, this was a tough place anyway. A navy medic traveling with us was very supportive, but the rest of the people were into other things.
Read the military’s official guidelines for embedding journalists with troops. (PDF file, Adobe Acrobat Reader Required)
In the morning, we went into Baghdad. We set up the camp again and I wrote my story — or polemic — about my last experience with Julio and the few weeks we had spent together. Julio was in very bad condition; he didn’t have a contract with his paper, El Mundo, and he had been working for them for six years. He was worried that he would get fired if he didn’t cover the war, and so he asked me something personal. He asked me to say, in case he died, that he didn’t want the paper’s editor to go to the funeral. Then also that same day, my other colleague, Jose Couso, from Telecinco — that’s the same Basque-region television station I work for — was killed at the Palestine Hotel. I didn’t have time to deal with all this. We were just getting into Baghdad the next day, it was crazy. There was shooting all over; it was coming from the buildings. I was going around all day trying to get my story and to find a secure place. So, you hold the pain for later.
Everybody thought I could be next. I discovered that my friends, my relatives, my boyfriend were calling me, telling me to get out of there. He’s a cameraman based in Miami, but he lives with me in New York most of the time. He was working at that time for NBC in Kuwait. He was panicked. Personally, I was always more worried about losing a leg or something like that than being killed.
I didn’t see a lot of fighting. I wasn’t really in the front. Normally, the fighting I saw was because they attacked the unit, but I didn’t see the Marines advancing, opening fire. Most of the time, there was an infantry unit ahead of us, shooting artillery and advancing, and we moved behind them. There were times, however, when incoming artillery would wake us up in the middle of the night and we jumped into a trench. We were scared, certainly.
When you’re moving, you have to sleep in the truck. If the truck stops long enough, you take your sleeping bag outside and you sleep on the ground. When you’re on the ground, then it’s okay. You get used to that. It actually feels pretty good, though it’s very tough because you’re not in a hotel.
You are also scared when the convoy is moving. They drive at night and then part of the convoy gets lost because it’s very difficult to see. The night vision goggles don’t always work great. So anytime that you knew your vehicle was in the back of the convoy, you got scared and you spent a few hours lying down on the bottom of the seven-ton truck — filled with sandbags to protect you from mines — to avoid the snipers.
I was embedded for a month. In the beginning, I had a laptop that I connected to my fax phone. Later, I used satphones from the military, but it was very hard to dictate anything on those phones because they don’t have a wire to connect to your computer. Then, because I couldn’t use my phone anymore, I left my computer behind. I now had to write on paper. My notebook was the only thing that I had to dictate for the phone. At the end, I ran out of pages in my notebook and I had to search for another one. I was quite concerned when I was running out of paper.
Read another essay from “Embedded” by NYT’s reporter John F. Burns at the Editor & Publisher website.
Spain had the largest antiwar sentiment of any country in Europe — ninety-one percent of the population was against this war — and so it did affect my coverage. You’ve got to be careful what you say or write. You can’t be too much on the side of the Marines, because [readers] will question your objectivity as a journalist and because people are very sensitive to it. They were very antiwar and very anti-American. On the other side, you cannot tell the Marines what you feel about the war because then they start calling you a “liberal” journalist and they would blacklist you. You had to keep your thoughts to yourself.
For their book Embedded: The Media At War In Iraq (Lyons Press, 2003), Bill Katovsky and Timothy Carlson interviewed over sixty journalists who covered the war, including embeds and independent reporters from many countries. The book won the 2004 Goldsmith Prize, awarded by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. This feature is an excerpt from an interview with Mercedes Gallego, a correspondent for the Spanish newspaper El Correo and Spain’s Telecinco TV station.