by Jeremy Griffith
For journalists and bloggers, access to government data and records can be a minefield filled with pitfalls. FOIA requests, documents, public meetings, interviews with politicians all have their challenges. How far would you go to get access to your government? Would you travel 5,000 miles to a combat zone and embed yourself in a military unit for a week? One local reporter did just that.
Kelli Lageson is the special projects editor at the Albert Lea Tribune and has been working for the newspaper for over two years. When two local National Guard units were mobilized to Fort McCoy prior to their deployment to Kuwait, Lageson was invited to cover a training event at the Wisconsin base. She happily accepted. During her visit with the units at Fort McCoy, it was discussed and Kelly agreed that she would look into embedding in the unit as a reporter and blogger once the unit arrived in Kuwait. She asked her bosses at Boone Newspapers, and the newspaper executives agreed to send her.
Lageson began working with the McCoy Public Affairs office and with two senior officers of the Minnesota Army National Guard, Major Paul Rickert and Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Olson. To her surprise it was relatively easy to fill out the paperwork necessary to become a credentialed reporter embed.
“They told me it was a possibility and I didn’t really think it would be something I would be able to do,” Lageson said.
Three months into the unit’s tour of duty in Kuwait, Lageson arrived by commercial flight in Kuwait City. The scariest moment for her was waiting for the two soldiers to pick her up at the airport and take her to Camp Buehring, the remote desert Army outpost just 10 miles south of the Iraqi border.
“I didn’t even have a phone number or a phone to call the soldiers who were picking me up,” said Lageson. “I’m such a planner that I it was rather nerve-wracking for me. I just had to accept the fact that there was no plan and that I had to be O.K. with whatever happened.”
The trip overseas and her journey through the desert were not without their pitfalls. She waited with expectation as the soldiers came to pick her up in a civilian car. Lageson, who says she liked to control and plan things out ahead of time, was worried that her escort, whom she had no control or contact, would arrive on time to pick her up. They did pick her up and they headed out to the desert as they promised.
Once they got to the base, however, the civilian security personnel did not allow her on base, skeptical of her memorandum and passport identifying her as a civilian journalist. After four hours of waiting by the main gain, however, a high ranking officer vouched for her and the journalist was allowed onto the base.
“One of the really high-ups had to come out and vouch for me and say, ‘yes, she was a real journalist and she had a right to be here,” Lageson explained.
Lageson reports that the overall experience with the unit was good. She was given an office to work out of, a reliable Internet connection, lodging and food. Her escort guided her around post and arranged for the interviews with soldiers that she asked for. While in Kuwait, Lageson gained access to soldiers from the unit and wrote 28 pieces with photos and video, she said. The soldiers, tentative about speaking with a reporter, warmed up to her eventually, she said.
Another item that surprised the reporter, was the amount of services provided to the soldiers, including a gym, recreational facilities, coffee shops, dining facilities, etc.
“I don’t know what I expected,” Lageson said. “It just wasn’t that.”
Lageson never left the base, it was too dangerous to go out with the units traveling north into Iraq. But she talked to a lot of soldiers and interviewed them about their daily lives. She says overall the trip was positive and the soldiers she met had a positive attitude about their mission, she said.
“The overal theme I guess I was trying to convey was that they were ok, at least on this deployment, that they were lucky to be on this deployment,” she said. “Maybe that’s a bad assumption but it was the overall impression that I had.”
The response from readers of both the Albert Lea Tribune and Austin Daily Herald were positive too, Lageson said.
“Everyone wants to know, ‘how is my son doing over there?’ I got to show them a little bit of what life is like in Kuwait,” Lageson said.
The military provided housing, food and an escort for the journalist while she was embeded. She spent a week with Company D, 2nd Battalion 135th Infantry and a sister transportation company out of Austin. For her efforts in telling the stories of soldiers deployed to Kuwait, the soldiers awarded her a trefoil pin, an honor recognizing a soldier for doing a good job.
Historical note from the author. The First Minnesota Volunteers were noteworthy in the Civil War after being ordered to fill a breach in the Gettysburg lines. For five minutes they fought off an Alabama unit, outnumbered five to one. Of 262members of the unit that reported that day, only 47 survived. Since that fateful day, the trefoil, the unit’s distinctive patch, has been an honorary noting bravery in a soldier or a civilian attached to the unit. See a history of the First Minnesota Volunteers here.
Video, photos and print reports of Kelli’s adventure to Kuwait is available on the Albert Lea Tribune and Austin Daily Herald websites under the blog Kelli in Kuwait.
See Kelli talk about her adventure in the video above.