"I decided to give you that interview," said the tall man with a brown moustache. He was known simply as John, a Green Beret who seemed to come straight out of central casting: Clad in Levis and T-shirt, he packed a pistol in a back holster and a dagger in his right boot. I had tried to interview him for a profile on the American soldier in Iraq, Time magazine's selection for its 2003 "Person of the Year." I traveled to Baghdad in November to embed with a platoon of the First Armored Division. John was loosely attached to the unit, and had dodged my requests for a meeting. My pursuit ended the hard way on Dec. 10.
At 9 p.m., while riding in the open-air cargo section of a Humvee with four soldiers and a photographer, I picked up a live grenade. As I tried to eject it, the weapon exploded, blowing off my right hand and sending me to the brigade hospital, where John was hovering over my gurney.
Only, he was asking the questions. "What direction did the grenade come from? Did you see anyone throw it? Was there small-arms fire?"
For 20 days I had patrolled Baghdad with U.S. soldiers. Once I grabbed the grenade, I crossed the line from observer to participant. Now I was being asked to supply battlefield intelligence, a dubious milestone for a reporter engaged in what is called embedding. The Bush administration had invented the concept — a policy that paid off in almost universally favorable press coverage. No complaints came from reporters who always want unfettered access to whomever they are covering.
It took a life-threatening injury and months of recovery to realize embedding is journalistic folly. A reporter's job is to present the facts. That's hard to do from a body bag or gurney.
It became very difficult to objectively assess the role of U.S. soldiers who were housing, feeding, befriending and protecting me. After three weeks in a platoon, I came dangerously close to adopting the mindset and mission of a soldier. Their danger became my danger, their desensitizing forms of recreation — war movies and heavy metal music — became mine. Part of my job as a reporter is to get the "other side." How could I get the Iraqi perspective from the bench of a U. S. Army Humvee?
My injury gave me other insights. I became the first reporter ever wounded in combat to be treated at the premier Walter Reed Army Medical Center. There, I was just another grunt on the amputee's Ward 57. From my hospital bed in Amputee Alley, I had a unique window into the character of American soldiers, young men cut down at the peak of their physical power and performance.
That's where I met Pete Damon, a National Guard sergeant from a working class town in Brockton, Mass. His hands were sliced off in a freak maintenance accident. There was Sgt. 1st Class Luis Rodriquez, a Puerto Rican medic and platoon leader, who lost his right leg and the only job he ever wanted when a roadside bomb blew up his Humvee in Mosul. Neither of these men bemoaned their stolen youth.
They believed in the nobility of sacrifice. Their battle after the war — a fight to function and face the world with broken bodies — became my battle during 18 months of recovery at Walter Reed. The way they picked up their lives inspired my recovery and redefined heroism for me.
I had moved into the army as an independent observer — a journalist — and left it a member of a platoon of wounded warriors. I'm not sure what the answer is, but I left with a realization that embedding creates a close-up too personal for real reporting.