The perks and perils of writing about war
The soldiers were fraught with anticipation. Earlier, word had spread throughout the U.S. base that the Afghans were close, gaining ground by the hour on U.S. troops.
Then, around 2 a.m., the insurgents attacked. The battle was over within minutes and resulted in some 200 U.S. casualties.
“It was a really crazy experience,” recalls Sarah Rafique, a journalist who embedded with the Fort Hood Military troops in a U.S./Afghan role-play scenario at Fort Polk, Louisiana. “I ended up getting hit and dying.”
Around three in the morning, she shed her military gear—which had registered her body as “hit”—and took up pen and notepad to conduct post-attack interviews.
Among the interviewees was the brigade’s commander. “You could tell that it was more than role-playing to him,” says Sarah, who embedded with about 3,200 soldiers for the last five days of their thirty-day training. “There was a sense that this could happen in real life.”
While many journalists shrug away from the potential dangers of war correspondence, Sarah, twenty-five, admits that the thrill of uncertainty is exactly what draws her to it. She draws inspiration from her heroes in foreign correspondence, journalists Richard Engel and Anderson Cooper.
“Every place you embed with is going to be different,” explains Sarah, who was offered the embedded journalist assignment through Killeen Daily Herald, the newspaper for which she’s written full time since May 2012. “The role-playing situations give you opportunities to deal with situations that you’re not necessarily expecting.”
In the U.S./Afghan scenario, for example, “we had to go in a helicopter everywhere because ground transportation was not as safe,” she says. “It was so frustrating when there was a story at another location, and there wasn’t a helicopter that could take me there.”
While embedded, Sarah shuffled from barracks to barracks with different units, interviewing soldiers and noting what might occur during an actual war. The experience gave her a greater appreciation for what soldiers endure daily.
“I was there for only five days, but the soldiers typically deploy for nine- to twelve-month periods,” she says, thinking back to the rows of tiny cots crowded into one room so that enlisted and embedded alike had little privacy. To complicate matters, cell phones and civilian Internet were prohibited, only portable toilets were available, and there was no running water.
“They’re the same type of things that you’re going to experience overseas,” she explains.
Despite the stresses, the experience broadened Sarah’s perspective on journalism and showed her on a smaller scale what life can be like for professional, full-time war correspondents. “It made me realize that being a foreign correspondent really was what I wanted to do,” she says.
Sarah graduated from Baylor University with a degree in journalism and a minor in Middle East studies. This Georgetown native’s dream of becoming a foreign correspondent has strengthened during her time at the Killeen Daily Herald—first as a copyeditor and then as a staff journalist.
Sarah currently covers the education beat but says she appreciates the opportunities she’s had to report on military happenings, “one of the perks of having Killeen so close to Fort Hood. I’ve gone to training exercises, homecomings, deployments. . . .”
As a civilian with no military background, Sarah had much to learn about military life. Fortunately, she’s a quick learner. During her sixth months at the Killeen Daily Herald, she received the distinction of honorable mention with the Texas Associated Press—a well-regarded recognition in the Texas journalism profession. Keep an eye out for Sarah’s byline because, like the rising star she is, she’s continuing her upward trajectory.