U. of Alaska Journalism Students to Embed With Combat Team in Iraq

July 27, 2009

The journalism department at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks will soon have more reporters in Iraq than many major American newspapers.

Three undergraduate students and a professor leave this week for Diyala Province in Iraq, where they will spend nearly a month embedded with U.S. troops. They plan to eat, sleep, and travel alongside members of an Alaska-based Army Stryker Brigade Combat Team, while filing daily articles for news organizations and for their student newspaper, The Sun Star.

"I'm most interested in being able to see firsthand what the situation is like—getting an unfiltered look at what's going on," said Tom Hewitt, who is 26 and a rising senior at the university. "Hopefully I'll be able to bring that home for other people, too."

In recent years, the university's journalism department has embedded students with the 25th Infantry Division's 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, known as the Arctic Wolves, during Alaska-based training exercises, said Brian Patrick O'Donoghue, chairman of the university's journalism department and the professor who is leading the trip. Last spring the university's president, Mark R. Hamilton, a 31-year Army veteran who retired in 1998 as a major general, approached several student journalists about sending students on a real-life mission to Iraq.

The students went to Mr. O'Donoghue with the idea. "I didn't imagine it would ever happen," he said. But after discussing it with Army officers, who he said were receptive and helpful, Mr. O'Donoghue brought the president a proposal to send himself and three students to the war-ravaged country, at a cost of $35,000.

The president allocated the funds and gave Mr. O'Donoghue the go-ahead.

"If this had initiated within the department, it's likely we would have hit a lot more barriers than having it initiated by the president of the university," Mr. O'Donoghue said. "Right from the beginning, everybody was in a problem-solving mode for this."

Already, he has spent more than half the money on equipment, the flight, and a $5,000 insurance policy that covers him and the three students. The Army is providing all four of them with free body armor, a savings of about $10,000.

The students—Mr. Hewitt, along with Jessica Hoffman and Jennifer Canfield—were chosen by journalism-department professors from among 12 applicants. Mr. O'Donoghue said he spoke to the parents of each of five finalists, and that while most considered it a coming-of-age opportunity for their children, one family was terrified.

Once in Iraq, the students will write daily news articles, along with first-person accounts that they will post to Facebook and to a blog they created.

"It's a war zone—it's going to be dangerous," said Ms. Canfield, who is 25. "But I made a commitment to myself that I'd go out and get some kind of foreign-reporting gig, and this kind of came up, and I couldn't say no."

Each of the students had to sign a liability form that outlines the potential risk of death, kidnapping, and injury. Mr. O'Donoghue said university lawyers insisted that the students read news stories about journalists killed in Iraq, including an article about Daniel Pearl, The Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and beheaded in Pakistan by members of Al Qaeda.

"The trip will be very carefully managed," Mr. O'Donoghue said. "I really thought long and carefully about this."

Mainly, he added, the journalists hope to provide insight into the everyday lives of American soldiers as they withdraw from a country that has been occupied by U.S. troops since 2003.

"The thing I'm most worried about," said Mr. Hewitt, "is being able to find good stories once we're over there."