The recent war in Iraq may have been the most intensely covered conflict in modern history. What made the news coverage unique was the presence of more than 500 journalists who were attached to, or "embedded" with, coalition military units. While the program was far from perfect, it has drawn praise from both news organizations and military officials. On the opening night of the war with Iraq, Katherine Skiba of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper found herself in a foxhole in Kuwait as U.S. and Iraqi missiles whizzed nearby.
"To me, it was the most challenging, frightening and exciting story of my life and war is the biggest story that happens in the whole planet," she said. "You lived, you worked amongst soldiers and you felt their pain, frankly, which is different. Iraq was my 13th country and I had done some military stories, but I never really walked the walked [went with them into combat."
Reporter Matthew Cox of the Army Times newspaper is no stranger to war. He is a former paratrooper who has covered the conflicts in Afghanistan and Kosovo. But as an embedded reporter attached to the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division, he had unparalleled access to troops and their commanders.
"It was the reporting chance of a lifetime," he said. "You got amazing access to information, of planning, of classified information."
The embedded reporters lived with the troops. They ate the same food, endured the sandstorms and tried as best they could to deal with the stress of war.
VOA-TV's Deborah Block spent weeks with a Marine artillery unit in Iraq.
"Just taking care of myself was difficult. Keeping clean. Figuring out how you live day by day. I also think the stress of war was very difficult. There were times I was very scared," she said.
Many of the embedded journalists say the access and insights they gained being assigned to military units made the hardships easier to take.
"So because I was living like they were, they were carrying a gun, I was carrying a notebook, it was very easy for me to understand how they were living and what they were going through because I was going through it too," explained Ms. Block.
Many of the journalists did wrestle with the issue of whether they could remain objective in their reporting on soldiers who were protecting them from enemy fire.
Matthew Cox of the Army Times recalled his coverage of a combat incident involving U.S. and Iraqi forces in the city of Karbala.
"There was an instance in a battle where there was a young machinegunner who had to shoot two young boys because one of them went after a rocket-propelled grenade launcher several hundred meters away," he remembered. "I interviewed that soldier. I didn't witness it, but I interviewed him later. He was very open about it. Did I treat him fairly? I hope I did."
Those who took part in the embedding program say the experience has enriched them both journalistically and personally.
VOA's Deborah Block says she also has a new appreciation for what soldiers go through in combat.
"I take away a certain amount of humbleness, realizing how difficult it is for soldiers, Marines, to be in war. How much I respect and admire them for doing this. I realize it is a job and they understand what they are getting into. But understanding it and getting it are two different things," she said.
The same for Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Katherine Skiba. "I saw enough danger for my taste and really got to meet some wonderful people and leave with a much greater admiration for people who have flak jackets on and have their blood type written in magic marker [on their chest]," she said. "We sometimes think journalists have a dangerous job, but we don't go around with A Positive [blood type] written across our heart."
That journalistic access also brought greater risk, even after the fighting stopped. Boston Globe reporter Elizabeth Neuffer was recently killed in a car accident in Iraq. She was the 14th journalist to die in Iraq since the war began on March 20.