I remember sitting in one of Walt Lemke’s journalism classes at the University of Arkansas soon after World War II had ended and hearing him talk about history’s first female war correspondent. So when I started this column, I looked her up in an article written by Nancy Caldwell Sorel, who said the correspondent was Anna Benjamin, a 23-year-old writer and photographer who covered the Spanish-American War in 1898 for the Leslie Illustrated Newspaper.
She persuaded the captain of a coal barge to take her from Florida to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba where the fighting was going on. It didn’t last long there, so she took off for the Philippines where the war continued because Spain owned the islands and the Filipinos and Americans were trying to take them over. She had no trouble from the troops but got some from the leader of the troops, Gen. Arthur MacArthur (Douglas’ dad), and was treated badly by male correspondents. Also, she was nearly killed when a train she was riding was blown up. America won the war, and on a steamship, riverboats and the trans-Siberian Railroad, she finally made it back to America to publish her pictures and stories.
Well, I think I’ve found another Anna Benjamin. Her name is Amy Schlesing, a placid, 33-year old reporter who has worked five years for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Her hometown is Springfield, Mo., and she was graduated from the University of Arkansas with a major in journalism. Last month she came back from Iraq where she spent a year writing stories about the war for the newspaper. I met her at the Society of Professional Journalism’s annual awards luncheon last week where she made a speech and received a plaque for “excellence in journalism” reporting from Iraq.
Many newspapers, magazines, radio and TV networks have sent female reporters to cover the Iraq war, but so far Amy and one other woman have been the only females who have been embedded with the troops, traveling and living in trailers wherever the military units went. Amy’s units were made up of National Guard and Army Reserve troops, most of them from Arkansas.
More than once, Amy’s editor called her and said she should come back and he would send another reporter to replace her. But she said no, she wanted to stay.
Embedment in action puts journalists right in the middle of the fighting rather than staying in a Baghdad hotel and going to daily press conferences where public information officers tell reporters what the Pentagon told them to say. She was asked if she was ever really scared to be close to battle. “Yes,” she said quite simply. “At least three times I thought I was going to die. When the fighting comes, I just act like a turtle and wait for it to pass.”
Embedded reporters can’t really report the whole war because they usually know only what their units are doing, but they had no censors, which meant they could report what they had seen or what the fighting soldiers told them.
With her laptop, Amy wrote her stories (150 of them), sent them up to a satellite and in minutes they were in the Democrat-Gazette building unread and untouched by anyone. There were only two rules she had to follow: Do not write the names of soldiers who were killed before their families had been informed, and do not write about the units’ plans for future operations.
Sometimes soldiers make mistakes, and Amy has put some of them in her stories. “You have to report honestly and accurately and tell what happened,” she explained. Once a bunch of the soldiers in the unit got very drunk, and Amy wrote about it. Also, some of her stories told about soldiers using rank for sexual favors. “Not everyone likes to read about their mistakes, but they will have some respect for you if you do it accurately,” she said, “and that’s what reporters have to do.”
She had one lieutenant colonel tell her that “having an embedded reporter at some times was a living hell because we couldn’t hide anything from you and it made us on edge.” However, he wound up saying, “But it was the right thing to do, and I’m glad we did it.”
Amy says that being an embedded reporter is being a link with the homes of these soldiers. “I’ve been overcome since I’ve been home at the number of moms and dads, husbands and wives who have come to me and thanked me for these stories.”
While in training before leaving the U.S. and most of the time in Iraq she lived with the troops, sometimes using the same facilities and even sleeping in the same place. Amy is quite attractive, so I asked her if she had been approached by young soldiers far from home asking for something other than news? No, she said; the units’ first sergeants and lieutenants let the troops know that there was to be none of that. When facilities were few, they would post keep-out signs when it was her time to use the bathroom and shower.
She plans to write a book about her experiences. I asked her if she would ever go back to cover a war if her editors asked her to. “Yes,” she said, “in a heartbeat.”