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Essay

Creaking Toward Iraq

How Far Is the Journey From Young to Old? A Reporter Finds Answers In the Company of Marines.

August 10, 2003|Tony Perry | Tony Perry is The Times' San Diego bureau chief. He last wrote for the magazine about psychotherapist A.W. Richard Sipe.

I went to Iraq to report on the U.S. Marines because the American press has always followed American troops into war. If the press doesn't send reporters along when our nation's sons and daughters are sent into harm's way, then just what is our reason for being in business?

I went to Iraq because I felt that Sept. 11 was a full mobilization call for Americans of all skills. Mine is hooking nouns and verbs. I went to New York two days after the terrorist attack and then with the Marines into Afghanistan. Those were Acts 1 and 2. Iraq was Act 3.

I became an "embedded" reporter with the 1st Marine Division because it was a privilege and a gold mine of a journalistic opportunity. If my sons--ages 12 and 16--were Marines or soldiers or airmen or sailors, I would want reporters to report the good and the bad, the wisdom and the folly, the successes and the failures of their mission. I went to Iraq for all the parents with sons and daughters in 1MarDiv.

I think America works best when the press--with all its fallibility and imperfection--is fully engaged in the action of public events.

These are the reasons I give when I'm asked why I volunteered to go to Iraq. The reasons are true ones and I've given them substantial thought. But there is also a private reason, which is equally true.

I went because I am 56 and did not want to concede to myself or others that--after 32 years as a journalist--I was too old to tackle an assignment at the center of what promised to be the world's biggest news story for months.

The news business favors the young. They're more energetic, less jaded, more eager to please their bosses. Also, they can be paid less, a not inconsiderable factor in these tight-budget days.

Reach a certain age, particularly if you are "still" a reporter and not an editor, and some younger reporters start to treat you as a fossil. Two years ago I had one of those experiences that leaves you staring at the mirror and wondering where the years have gone. I was assigned to work for several days alongside a young colleague whom I had known only by telephone. "You're much older than I thought," said the colleague with no trace of guile or effort to wound. I made a lame joke about having purchased a young voice to fool people on the telephone. I also made a secret vow to arrive earlier, stay later and work harder than this colleague. Much older, indeed!

Later I relayed the exchange to my wife as I complained about younger reporters and their lack of regard for their more seasoned colleagues. She understood but was decidedly unsympathetic. She noted that she and I were similarly dismissive of older staff members when we were reporters at a suburban newspaper in the late 1970s.

As part of the run-up to the war with Iraq, the Department of Defense put on boot camps at Quantico, Va., and Ft. Benning, Ga., where reporters spent a week learning the ways of the military. Editors suggested I attend. I demurred.

I figured I knew a bit about military culture from covering the Navy and Marine Corps in San Diego and from accompanying the Marines into Afghanistan. I also figured the military would engage in some subtle but unnecessary hazing.

But I kept to myself the main reason for avoiding the camps: I was worried that a sprained ankle or shin splint or other injury might keep me from being assigned to cover the war. News coverage of the camps confirmed my concern. Reporters seemed to delight in zeroing in on older participants. One story had a tone of incredulity that reporters as old as 53 were in attendance. Imagine, 53 years old and not dead yet! I remember seeing a picture of a reporter 15 years my junior sprawled out beneath a tree after a strenuous hike with a full pack. I felt I had dodged a bullet.

As hundreds of journalists flocked to Kuwait for embedding, only a handful were my age or older. Once I joined with the headquarters battalion of the 1st Marine Division, based in Camp Pendleton, I discovered that I was four years older than the commanding general.

"Good morning, general," I said one sunny Iraqi morning.

"Good morning, young man," he replied.

Young man. I liked that. I guess that part of being a general is knowing how to motivate.

In truth, age was an inescapable issue every day of my six weeks with the Marines, but not in the way I had expected. The physical demands were far less than I anticipated. The Army officers in charge of the embedding process had vastly overestimated its difficulty.

My knees ached on occasion from constantly jumping into and out of Humvees and 7-ton trucks; my lower back expressed displeasure at sleeping on the ground. But it was nothing that some rest couldn't ease. Also, I discovered that adrenaline is a wonderful thing. It can mask pain and exhaustion until the body is more prepared to take the hit. In my case, I was fine until I returned home in late April, and then I slept for a week.

The age issue had to do with the difference between my perception of the world and that of the young Marines.

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