War journalist comes to Ozarks campus

Release Date: 2/8/2006

Little Rock newspaper reporter spent a year in Iraq

CLARKSVILLE, ARKANSAS (February 8, 2006) – A reporter who spent a year in Iraq embedded with the military recounted her coverage of the war and spoke on the future of journalism to Ozarks communications students and guests from the campus and community.

Amy Schlesing, a reporter with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette who spent a year in Iraq with the 39th Infantry Brigade of the Arkansas National Guard, spoke to Larry Isch’s News Reporting class.

Students listened with rapt attention as Schlesing recalled some of her more harrowing experiences while embedded with the 39th Infantry Brigade of the Arkansas National Guard.

“I was blown up four times,” said Schlesing. “Fortunately, most roadside bombs are really ineffective.” She took the audience through an incident where she and a group of soldiers came under fire after a bomb exploded near a dump truck, when she realized she had learned “bizarre things” such as sounds made by different kinds of weapons and how to scribble down descriptions of battles while under fire.

A veteran crime and rural issues reporter with the Democrat-Gazette who also covered the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Schlesing was the only female among the brigade’s 4,200 soldiers, which earned her the nickname “An Amy of one.”

She became friends with many of the soldiers, including one who nearly died after the Humvee in which he was riding rolled into a drainage ditch, and with whom Schlesing had an emotional visit in a combat hospital, where medical personnel were working frantically to pump mud from his lungs and restore his breathing. “I was there to say goodbye,” said Schlesing. “That’s what being an embed (reporter) is all about.”

The soldier, who had given her her first safety lecture after she arrived at Fort Polk, Louisiana to begin preparing for Iraq, later recovered.

Schlesing urged students interested in journalism never to become part of the stories they report, and be on the lookout for any biases that might creep into their reporting.

She said she tried to avoid gaining too much sympathy for the soldiers, and wrote stories that included investigations of soldiers for possible sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, and wrongful killings of Iraqis.

Maintaining such distance proved difficult, especially in the heat of battle.

“If you get in the middle of a (gunfire) exchange, the bad guys don’t stop shooting,” said Schlesing, adding that, “You can die, but it still doesn’t make you the story.”

Schlesing began writing a blog, or regular online diary, from Iraq. She said her blog received numerous comments, including from soldiers’ families, in response to her observations about everything from eating and sleeping conditions to the frequent smell of raw sewage in the Baghdad air.

She is now writing a book about her experiences in Iraq.

Audience members peppered Schlesing with questions, asking her about everything from the challenges of covering a war thousands of miles from the newsroom to soldiers’ take on the reasons for war.

“Soldiers don’t really care about policy,” said Schlesing, recalling what one soldier said to her while she was in Iraq.

“He told me ‘I just want to know if we’ll ever leave.’”