He talked about it as if it were the chance of a lifetime. He also said, "It's just work." Either way, Jay Price's experiences as a war correspondent on two tours of duty in Iraq for The News & Observer are stories in themselves.
The articles Price sent back covered both breaking news and daily features. He says he experienced both the value of embedded journalism and the benefits of talking to the wider community. Through these experiences, Price says he observed progress in the country. But the news was often bad. He wrote stories about bombs and death. Some of those stories were eulogies of N.C.-based soldiers, others recounted battles and those who did not walk away from them. He shared this reality with readers, but he did not share his personal fears. This complicated reality made Price's experiences in two trips to Iraq more complex than any of his front-page stories.
N&O photographer Chuck Liddy accompanied Price on both trips. The first time, the pair spent about seven weeks in February and March embedded with the 82nd Airborne Division. The two returned in early September for about three weeks to cover the American occupation.
The trips were difficult for Price, though he's an avid traveler. He has visited more than 35 countries, many on his own. He's gone on a gorilla trek in Uganda and a trip to unexcavated ruins in the jungle of Chiapas. Price, 42, is a Raleigh native and has been a reporter for The N&O for more than six years, working before that for The Cary News. His background gave him the confidence that he could handle the logistics of the trip. But, even the most experienced traveler cannot be ready for war.
On his September trip to Iraq, Price focused on covering the U.S. occupation. He worked independently out of a small base about six miles from Fallujah, a hot spot for opposition attacks in the so-called Sunni Triangle. With an official end to war already declared, Price was given the opportunity to leave the base parameters and speak to the Iraqi people.
He talked to Iraqi citizens about their views of the U.S. occupation. "The answer," Price said, "was good in some places and bad in others...That's the real tale of occupation."
Price attended neighborhood meetings in Central Baghdad with the accompaniment of civil-affairs officers. Under the centralized government of Saddam Hussein, power was not allotted to local authorities. The meetings, though the first time many had a chance to address local issues, reminded him of a typical town council meeting in the U.S. Despite the newness, Price said, "Apparently, local government is the same whether it is a novelty... or not."
Price also noted that schools are being rebuilt in Fallujah, which many consider to be one of the most dangerous parts of Iraq. "They are making progress," he said. "It's not just hokum."
Similarly, Price said he watched as soldiers talked to merchants in a polluted market in Baghdad about ways to clean up the area. "But how many times can you write that?" he said. "It's kind of the nature of news."
The majority of his writing was about "the doom and gloom" of war. "We get bad news almost every day," he said. "You can't just ignore people dying."
He said many of the deaths were the result of poorly armed Humvees. Price was one of the first to write about the shortage of armor-protected Humvees, and the late response of officials to order more. He described soldiers' attempts to "add heft to Humvees" by fortifying them with sandbags and plywood boxes filled with sand. Without such revisions, Price said, the Humvee is a "lightweight death trap."
"Part of the screw up in the planning for post war," Price said, "is they didn't realize there'd be so much violence... It took them 'til August to realize they'd screwed up."
Another story he wrote was about the racial slur U.S. soldiers were using to refer to Iraqis: "hajiis," ordinarily a term of respect.
"Some talk about 'killing some hajjis' or 'mowing down some hajjis,'" Price wrote. "One soldier in Iraq inked 'Hodgie Killer' onto his footlocker."
He also revealed that soldiers from the 82nd Airborne were actually protecting members of Mujahedin-E Khalg, an Iranian paramilitary group that's considered to be a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.
It was different the first time around, when Price was embedded with the 82nd Airborne Division on the military base known as the All-American City. There, Price experienced the pros and cons of embedded journalism.
Critics argue that embedded journalists cannot maintain an objective viewpoint because they rely on soldiers for personal safety and often form intimate relationships with their subjects on the base. They also can only see what their military keepers allow them to see.
But Price saw being an embedded journalist as a way to find stories that couldn't be obtained otherwise. He said the access helped him to write the stories that "humanize the war."
Price acknowledges the critics' concerns, but puts his faith in the judgment of readers. "To suggest we've completely duped them because we live with the troops" underestimates the readers, Price said. He insists that embedded journalism has a role, even if it "should be a narrow slice of the story."
With the access granted, Price was able to cover the daily lives of the 4,000 camouflage-clad men and women who surrounded him and the 11 other reporters stationed there.
"I was going to write whatever I damn-well pleased," Price said. "We weren't under many restrictions"
With the exception of current and future missions, classified locations and intelligence information, Price said he was not bound by either the military or The N&O to write in a certain tone or cover a particular story. Instead, he said, "It was my job to write what I saw."
However, being embedded with the troops did limit his vision.
"I could only see a very narrow slice of the world, essentially where soldiers are and what they are doing," Price said. "I had no idea what was going on in Paris with the peace marches, or what was going on in Washington, or Chapel Hill... All I could see was what was right in front of me."
So he wrote about soldiers' training and daily life. That included stories about exercises on processing prisoners and the phenomenon of soldiers getting baptized. One of Liddy's photos showed a Christian baptism with a mosque in the background.
Price says he stood back and told the stories he saw. However, no degree of professional distance could protect him from the dangers that accompany war. Before returning to Iraq for his second trip, Price looked at the safety statistics. He convinced his family and his editors that he had little chance of being killed or seriously injured in Iraq. But Price said he "had not accounted for the fact that most of the deaths and injuries were right around where we were." In fact, Price said that the base he lived on near Fallujah was shot at almost every day, once missing by only 100 yards.
With a 5-year-old daughter and a committed partner at home, this reality was especially frightening.
"I wasn't really afraid," Price said, "but, I did think an awful lot about my family, what was going through their heads."
For that reason, Price said he will not return to Iraq until it is safer.
"I don't think it's fair to constantly go out and roll the dice."
To read Jay Price's stories from Iraq and see Chuck Liddy's pictures go to www.newsobserver.com/iraq/.