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College Journalist Seeking Purpose Heads Off to War

With thesis staring him in the face, Cal State Fullerton student changes course 'to be where the action is.'

March 09, 2003|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

Kevlar vest, used: $130. Monthly satellite phone rental: $185. Anthrax vaccination: $570. Airfare to Kuwait: $1,300.

The chance for a college newspaper reporter to be "embedded" with an Army unit and cover a potential war in Iraq: priceless.

Last fall, Ronald Paul Larson was covering features, lectures and sports for Cal State Fullerton's Daily Titan.

This week, Larson, 39, a graduate student in history, plans to fly to Kuwait and join soldiers in an engineering group -- the only college journalist credentialed by the Pentagon as a war correspondent in the Middle East.

"Sometimes, I think I've gotten in over my head," Larson said. "I just hope that what I send back is decent. Guess we'll find out."

It's an improbable story that began over the Christmas holiday. Larson was faced with writing his thesis to enter a profession -- teaching history -- that he no longer was interested in.

So he turned his attention to a new potential career: foreign correspondent.

"The ivory tower just has no interest for me. I have no interest in debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin," said Larson, of La Habra. "I want to be where the action is."

If this sounds impetuous, it fits Larson's resume.

At 17, the Wisconsin native joined the Army and was stationed in Germany for two years.

"It would take a couple of years of psychoanalysis to figure that out," he said of why he enlisted.

"I had a lot of fantasies about the military," he said. "I wanted to be in a war movie. Of course, it's not that way once you're in."

Next up was acting school. "I wanted to be the gentile Dustin Hoffman," Larson said. "Later, I realized that I wanted to be a famous actor, not just an actor."

At 21, Larson decided he wanted to "search for the meaning of life." He took a page from W. Somerset Maugham's novel "The Razor's Edge" -- observe war and then travel to India to seek enlightenment.

Larson said he went to Pakistan, and spent a month in Afghanistan shooting photos of moujahedeen soldiers fighting the Soviet army. Then it was off to India. He got sidetracked looking for a girl he met in his travels, so he never made it to the ashram.

"I figured, I'll get enlightened later," he said.

Larson returned to school and studied film and history. He landed a job producing a six-part series on the Revolutionary War for the Learning Channel and later researched and wrote educational CDs.

His foray into journalism last semester with the Daily Titan was his first.

"He likes history and the stories he wrote were very in-depth," said Daily Titan Editor in Chief Kimberly Pierceall. "He always tried to get every ounce of detail into a story."

When he applied for a press credential, neither Larson nor Pierceall thought the Pentagon would grant it.

Today, there's a waiting list for members of the media to join U.S. troops. When Larson's application hit Army Maj. Tim Blair's desk at the Defense Department, there wasn't.

"I had an opportunity to put him in there, so I did," Blair said, adding that the Titan being a college paper played no role in Larson's chances. "It was his timing."

Larson said he will focus on writing features about the soldiers he meets, especially the younger ones whose stories will resonate with the paper's college audience. His stories will be distributed by a news service that serves more than 660 college newspapers.

The Titan can't pay him and Larson will cover his expenses, although a gold fish bowl was set up in the newsroom for colleagues wanting to make a donation.

After three days, it contained $7.

"I'm doing this as an experiment," Larson said. "My whole life is one big experience. I love travel, but what I'm really looking for is something that gives my life meaning and purpose.

"Whether I find that in Kuwait, I don't know."

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