War Reporting For Bloody Dummies

by Chris Chafin

Recently I saw the journalist Clare Morgana Gillis, and asked her about her war reporting. “If you want to know a bunch of stuff about my background and whatever you can Google it,” she said. She is tall and intimidating, was wearing wraparound sunglasses at the time, and seemed to be doing her best to look everywhere but at me. As it happened, I had some clue about her background; a few people had pointed her out to me, saying, quietly, that she had undergone something unusual.

Just a couple years ago, Gillis made her first trips to combat zones. Already in her mid-30s, she held a doctorate in early medieval history, but had never worked as a professional journalist. Her parents would later tell USA Today that she “wanted to try journalism in a spot where history was being made.” She made her way to Libya.

One day, she was out with a group of reporters when her position was overrun by forces loyal to Gadhafi. Photojournalist Anton Hammerl was shot dead. She was taken custody in a bizarre 44-day affair that found her jailed, smuggled smokes, taken to a luxury hotel by one of Gadhafi’s sons, and eventually freed.

“The long and short of it is that I was captured in Libya two and a half years ago,” she said. “I think that’s how I got to know Sebastian, because Tim died at the same time.”

We were in the small backyard of the Bronx Documentary Center, near a smear of fake blood. She’d just completed a day of training from Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues, a free combat medicine training course for journalists who cover conflict. It was founded by Sebastian Junger in 2012, and it also involved the “Tim” that Gillis referred to: Tim Hetherington.

Around the time she was being held captive, Hetherington was also covering the civil war in Libya. He was a combat veteran, with almost a decade of experience covering conflicts, many of them in Africa. He had recently been nominated for an Oscar for co-directing the Afghan war documentary Restrepo. He was then beginning to plan a life that didn’t include flying off to the world’s most dangerous places. He seemed, to his friends, like a man interested in some version of settling down.

But while in Libya, he was with a group of journalists in Misrata when a mortar round exploded near a building where he’d briefly taken shelter. He was hit with a piece of shrapnel in his upper thigh. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, but never made it, and died of blood loss on the road in the bed of a truck.

Junger was the co-director of Restrepo, and also a combat journalist. He has been working since his friend’s death to bring something positive out of the experience. RISC began a year after Hetherington’s death, and is both a tribute and an attempt to avoid what the medical trainers who run the program refer to by the somewhat counterintuitive name of “preventable death.” Any individual person’s death may be basically preventable, after all, but not death itself.

Young reporters often work in combat zones as freelancers without material support (or even health insurance). “Life and death is often determined in the first 10 minutes,” Junger told The Huffington Post when the program launched. “It comes down to people knowing how to do a tourniquet.”

The students at this session, 24 freelance reporters with combat experience, crowded into a relatively small room to sit on folding chairs and talk about injury and disease. The sessions last for a week, culminating in an elaborate rescue scenario and a showcase of student work. Many students I talked to were more nervous about the second of those things than the first.

The training was lead by instructors from Wilderness Medical Associates, an organization that usually focuses on backwoods survival training for hikers and climbers planning to travel to remote environments. On the day I visited, Dr. David Johnson, an emergency physician and founder of WMA sat casually on a table in the front of the room, leading a sort of Socratic medical school-esque discussion on diarrhea. He had a way of using the words “exciting” or “interesting” to mean”incredibly scary” and “severely life-threatening.”

For instance. “When is diarrhea really exciting?” he asked the room, to general silence. Someone ventured that it would be exciting if it were accompanied by vomiting.”And why would the vomiting be interesting?” Johnson asked. No one was sure. “Because you can’t drink to stay hydrated,” he said. Still, he dismissed this line of thought as relatively uninteresting, meaning not immediately deadly. Basically, he told the class, you want to look out for fever, belly pain, and blood in the stool. Later, he’d move on to diagnosing a pelvic fracture: “Push on it. You’ll feel it move, and the person will scream.”

The matter-of-factness of the training is one of its major assets, according to Gillis. “I think it’s really useful for young freelancers just to know, like, these are the possible injuries that could happen to you in the field,” she said. “Think about it. It’s good not to be confused about what you’re going to see. I think a lot of people get into this because they want to see, because they want to know what it is. And, you know, some people get there and they think, ‘Oh shit. This is really not for me.’ It’s good if you have some idea what it might be like before you end up in a really bad position.”

Louis Abelman has been in conflict zones many times as part of his work as a media developer for citizen-reporting website Small World News. At 33, he is beginning to recognize that he needs to take his personal safety more seriously.

“I never planned to be a front-line person,” he told me during a short break in the training, “but I’ve realized that now if you go into a country that’s in this kind of situation, the front line is completely ambiguous, or it can move very quickly, and overwhelm any idea you have of precautions.” He went on, unprompted, to discuss the death in Syria of Times reporter Anthony Shadid from an asthma attack, and Hetherington’s death from hemorrhaging. Were these things often on his mind?

“Not really,” he said. “I personally feel like I’ve never been in a situation that’s unsafe.” A moment later, he talked about how sorry he would feel for his parents if they had to navigate a complicated warzone bureaucracy to have his remains repatriated were he to be killed in combat. A moment after that, he said that “most people are too security-minded.” And then a moment after that, he echoed Gillis, saying that the program’s great value is in making a reporter” be a little more realistic about what can happen,” out in the field. I asked him to sum up his attitude towards danger in his work, which he does in one word: “rational.”

Holding seemingly contradictory ideas in close proximity seems to be important for combat reporters. You acknowledge that you put yourself in dangerous situations, but believe you have the ability to figure out which are dangerous in a general sense and which are dangerous in a more immediate sense. You recognize that things are out of your control, that conflicts shift in ways that are unpredictable for reasons that are opaque to you, and yet trust yourself to stay safe. These are close cousins to the decisions we make every day, to smoke, to drink too much, to bring drugs on an airplane. “I know this could go badly,” we think, “but I know what I’m doing.” In combat situations, consequences can be more immediate.

In September of 2010, Carmen Gentile (pronounced “gen-teel,” like manners, not”gen-tile” like non-Jews) was reporting from Afghanistan for USA Today and CBS when he was shot in the face with a rocket. He was in the company of US troops, making small talk with a group of Afghan children, when, as he recounts in a portion of his e-book Kissed By The Taliban, he heard a “loud whoosh.”

“I turn from my interview. This is what I see:

A man shouldering a rocket launcher about fifty yards away.

A puff of smoke.

And the conical green tip of the rocket, screaming right at me.”

The rocket didn’t explode. Instead of dying, Gentile had his face caved in by what he describes as “the equivalent of a steel girder at 200 miles per hour.” After months of rehabilitative surgeries, today he barely has a scar, as you can see in this totally bizarre Yahoo! Daily Shot interview, which includes lines like “Bagram” — the Army base in Afghanistan — “would be a great place to get your boobs done.” That interview is just one of many places where he refers to the book’s subject as “the lighter side of getting shot in the face.”

He repeated the line to me recently when we spoke over the phone. I asked him about how he thinks about safety. “There are two kinds of risks, I like to say: calculated risks and stupid risks,” he said.”Going into a war zone is straddling those two. That’s why you have to have a level head about where you operate in those places. I always try to exercise the most amount of caution that I can.”

But, I asked, the stories I’ve heard recently, his own included, mostly seemed to be people acting reasonably responsibly: traveling in groups, or with military escorts, away from the front line. How could anyone know what was safe?

“Everything can change in a heartbeat,” and shift from safe to incredibly dangerous, he said. “Thinking about it going in, it can be all be very panic-inducing. Especially after I was hurt, and then went back in 8 months later. It’s all relative: it’s relative to the situation, it’s relative to the locale, and once you’re in it, you’re operating on a different level of values in regard to what’s safe and what’s not and what level of risk you’re willing to take. It’s a balancing act.”

Carmen Gentile was one of the first pupils of RISC, attending the first training in April of 2012. He is also the only person known to have used what he learned there in a real-life crisis situation. He helped an elderly neighbor in Pittsburgh who had fallen and hit his head.

RISC doesn’t claim to be giving its students tools to keep safe. Rather, its main focus is on “avoiding the four preventable deaths on the battlefield,” according to Sawyer Alberi: tension pneumothorax (pressure changes in the body mainly due to explosions), hypothermia, suffocation due to a blocked airway, and hemorrhaging. “Blood is precious,” she said,”and if we keep it inside ourselves, all of our systems work a lot better.”

Alberi is a ten-year veteran of WMA, a Sergeant First Class in the Vermont National Guard, and served as a combat medic with the 86th Infantry in Afghanistan. She designed the training regimen that RISC uses. Throughout our interview, she lumped me in with the RISC trainees, an honor I don’t quite know that I’ve earned by interviewing bands for The Village Voice.

“You guys are silly people,” she said. “I mean, I have an army behind me. You guys put yourselves at risk — crazy risk — all the time. And you do such a great service.”

Alberi took the heedless risk-taking and relatively unfocused mission statement (at least by military standards) of most journalists and tried to develop a curriculum that caters to it. Much of the course is taken up with discussions like the one I walked in on about diarrhea. There’s also discussion of tropical diseases, and learning the basics of first aid. During my time there, an impromptu discussion developed about which fabrics were best to wear in conflict zones (natural fibers, everyone agreed, as synthetics can melt to the body in fires, something several students had seen first hand). Students are also encouraged to ask questions. I heard one person ask about seeing a hole blown in someone’s skull, but otherwise be surprisingly unharmed. “Should I have cleaned off his brain?” he wondered.

For the mock emergency situations, the students don coveralls, a mix of military camouflage and mechanics’ castoffs, and went to the Documentary Center’s backyard. There, Alberi rubbed a pair of mannequins with two kinds of hair gel and something bright red in a water bottle. The result was extremely convincing fake blood. The students divided into two teams and were unleashed.

Each team desperately tried to tie tourniquets on its mannequin’s every limb, apply a chest seal over a yawning trunk wound, and insert an impossibly long and sharp needle into its lung through a rack of pork ribs which Alberi dropped on top of the mannequin’s chest to simulate threading the needle between actual (human) ribs.

“COME ON!” Alberi yelled, hovering above one group. “GO GO GO, enemy inbound, get him outta here!” The students looked at each other blankly for a split second before bursting into action, dragging the victim by its legs into a corner a few feet away. In the process, the body’s left arm fell off, eliciting a few nervous laughs and half-hearted attempts to push it back on.

Alberi had told me early that the biggest challenge in working with freelance journalists is that they’re not accustomed to working together. “You’re very individual,” she said, “so it’s like herding cats sometimes.” Watching the students in the simulation, you could see this individualism melting away. Each person did a specific job — tourniquet on left leg, needle in a lung — and would then briefly sit back on his heels, task complete. But the situation kept going. And only then they’d ask how they could help their teammates.

The next day, I was told, they’d do it all again, but with smoke and the sounds of a recorded gun battle.

In his recent documentary on his friend, Which Way To The Front Line? The Life and Times of Tim Hetherington, and in numerous interviews and speaking engagements he’s given since, Sebastian Junger doesn’t make it a secret that he thinks the kind of training offered by RISC could have saved Hetherington’s life.

Reminders of Hetherington are everywhere at the training. Many of the attendees were his friends, or they had friends in common. Everyone certainly knew his story. His framed photo was placed on a windowsill above the coffee and snacks, alongside a photo of photographer Chris Hondros, who was killed in the same attack. Even the choice of venue is a tribute to Hetherington. Michael Kamber, one of the founders of the Bronx Documentary Center, originally conceived of the idea for a place for a place for filmmakers and community members to collaborate on storytelling with Hetherington. They scouted its current location, on 149th Street in the South Bronx, together.

71 journalists were killed in 2012, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a 51% increase over the previous year. 28 have been killed so far in 2013. “Everyone here knows someone who’s been kidnapped or something,” said Amanda Mustard, a 22-year-old photojournalist who’s been covering the protests and battles in Egypt for two years. “This is just something you can do. Something good that’s come from a bad situation.”

Chris Chafin writes for a few places about things you can listen to, play or consume. Here’s his Twitter, which isn’t super compelling.