One of Us

A soldier chooses journalism, but his old boss won’t let go
July 16, 2009

On what I thought was my last day in the Army in May 2007, my battalion commander gave me some parting words of discouragement. “I just want you to understand that you’re leaving the most respected profession in America for one of the least,” he said. It was his final attempt to dissuade me from pursuing a career in journalism.

“Roger, sir,” I whispered.

The Army was in the midst of a crisis, and he was angry. Junior officers were bailing at an accelerating rate. Some were disenchanted with the deteriorating situation in Iraq; others were attracted by high-paying civilian jobs. For weeks my commander had been urging me to stay. But my mind was made up.

He shook his head and tightly crossed his arms. “If you ever happen to write about the military, just remember where you came from,” he said. “Don’t dishonor us.” And with that, I was dismissed.

It was one of the most difficult moments of my career. I was twenty-seven and had spent my entire adult life in uniform. The thought of abandoning my unit in a time of war made me feel cowardly. But having already served two grueling tours in Iraq, I convinced myself that I’d done enough.

That evening, I boarded a plane to New York. I was headed to Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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People often ask me why a former Army officer wanted to be a journalist. No answer ever seems adequate. “I’ve just always loved writing,” I’ll say. Or, “The whole ‘war thing’ wasn’t working out.” The truth is more complicated. I was drawn to journalism for many of the same reasons I joined the Army. The way I see it, journalism, like the military, isn’t just a profession; it’s a lifestyle and an invaluable American institution from which we derive our most cherished freedoms. Journalists, like soldiers, live by a code: honesty, accuracy, and self-discipline are the touchstones of any serious reporter.

More important, I thought that journalism would give me something to believe in again. By the time I left the Army, I was mentally and emotionally broken. Disgusted with the Iraq war, I’d lost faith in the wisdom of many of my leaders and in the moral supremacy of the United States. I longed for an end to the war, more dignified treatment of returning vets, and greater civic engagement from my fellow citizens. Journalism seemed better situated than most institutions to help bring about that change. I wanted to be a part of it.

Yet my conversion from soldier to reporter was one of unremitting conflict. I’d hoped my experience would be an asset in tackling the grave issues facing the nation, but I’ve struggled to balance military principles—loyalty, respect, conformity—with the inherent skepticism and recalcitrance that are a reporter’s trademark.

Moreover, my lingering loyalty to the Army, coupled with the subtle air of suspicion I at times encountered from fellow journalists, made it particularly difficult to define my proper relationship to the two professions. I came to believe that the core values of journalism and the military are mutually exclusive, and that to be successful at one meant renouncing the ideals of the other.

It has taken several years and a recent upheaval in my life to make me realize I was wrong.

I didn’t always want to be a journalist. In fact, by the time I’d begun my final year at West Point in 2001, I was determined to serve a twenty-year career in the Army. That fall, however, the events in New York City, just fifty miles down the Hudson River, changed the course of my life.

In the weeks following the 9/11 attacks, reporters and news crews besieged the academy. Up to that point, my appreciation of the media was unsophisticated at best. As a cadet, I regularly read The New York Times, which was delivered to my barracks doorstep every morning courtesy of Uncle Sam. But West Point’s isolation and puritanical take on officer development tend, ironically, to shelter its graduates from the society they take an oath to defend.

Over the next five years, I developed a more nuanced understanding of the press, one that was heavily influenced by the media’s growing antagonism toward the military. The run-up to the Iraq invasion is today widely criticized as a dark period in American journalism, when the press failed to aggressively challenge the Bush administration’s pretext for war.

By early 2004, though, the administration’s—and by extension the military’s—honeymoon with the press was ending. Soon after completing my first tour in Iraq, headlines were dominated by detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib, the bloody urban combat in Fallujah, and deadly IEDs. Weapons of mass destruction were nowhere to be found. The increasingly negative press coverage fomented resentment in the ranks. Soldiers were urged to avoid reporters. Journalists griped about access.

I was torn. I was proud of what my soldiers and I had accomplished in Iraq. I had witnessed the exuberant hopefulness among Iraqis who thanked us and saw a bright future ahead. But as the violence metastasized, the e-mails I received about yet another West Point classmate killed or blinded or paralyzed became more frequent. As the government seemed increasingly unable to halt the deteriorating situation and my faith in our cause eroded, I became sympathetic to the media’s effort to hold someone accountable.

By 2006, I was serving my second tour of duty, this time in Ramadi, the most violent city in Iraq at one of the darkest periods of the war. Throughout 2005, as my awareness of journalism’s role as a watchdog was maturing, the rising danger and security costs for journalists in Iraq forced more and more news outlets to shutter their bureaus. Reporting grew perilously thin. Worse, the American public had lost its appetite for the bad news out of Iraq.

Journalists were a rare sight in Ramadi in those days. We assumed they were holed up in hotels in the Green Zone. Serving as my battalion’s adjutant that summer, I handled the final affairs of our soldiers who were killed or wounded by the boiling insurgency. Every day I reduced broken bodies and shattered dreams to lines on spreadsheets and taped-up boxes awaiting shipment to next of kin. I was indignant and angry. I felt we’d been abandoned by America.

Still, I admired the few reporters who took extraordinary risks to venture out our way. I made an effort to meet them—I wanted to know what drove these men and women. They inspired me. I decided that the next time I came to Iraq, it would be as a reporter. Less than a year later, I was in New York.

Columbia was a fresh start. no uniforms, no one to salute. At first, I relished being among students from different walks of life: lawyers and businesspeople, teachers and activists, creative people with strong convictions and a range of views on every issue. Few of them, however, had any experience with the military. Most, it seemed, had never met a veteran.

Some of their notions about military culture and the conduct of the war typified the simplistic views prevalent in the mainstream media. For example, there was a perception that military service was merely a last resort for poor kids or immigrants; all veterans, some people assumed, suffered some degree of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It signaled to me that the cultural rift between the institution I had left and the one I was joining was more hardwired than I had realized, and I increasingly found myself defending the military against stereotypes.

As the semester progressed, I felt a creeping sense of isolation. I had my own criticisms about the failed strategy that plunged Iraq into chaos, but I was resentful of the hostility from prominent panelists and lecturers at the school that year. One evening, an award-winning photographer presented work he’d done in Iraq to my war correspondence class. During his talk, he ridiculed the hapless officers and scheming NCOs he’d dealt with on his various embeds, caricaturing them with tired labels and silly voices. He even delivered a mocking impersonation of one dim-witted private assigned to protect him.

These were extreme views, yet as some of my classmates laughed that evening, images of the soldiers my unit had lost swirled in my head. Brave men who had died serving a cause they believed in didn’t deserve such desecration, I thought. I sought advice from a professor about how to manage the raw emotions these interactions provoked. Her response, as she later wrote in my performance evaluation, was hardly encouraging: “I would advise that Matt refrain from working in Iraq until he feels comfortable maintaining an emotional distance from his old life, so as not to impair his journalistic judgment.”

Had I made a big mistake? Could anyone ever trust me to be completely neutral where the military was concerned? Could I trust myself?

After graduation in May 2008, I needed to decompress. I interned in Paris and copyedited in Russia. In both places, talk of America’s endless wars was mostly absent. The months-long interlude gave me time to develop my craft uninfluenced by politics back home. I got used to the rhythm of a newsroom, the pressure of a deadline. I’d been out of the Army for a year and a half, and I felt more and more detached from my old life. My earlier goal of covering the military seemed less likely. I rarely mentioned my military service to strangers.

In December, I returned to the United States to take my first reporting job at The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey. I was surprised when, after only a few weeks on the job, my editor offered me the chance to cover the military. The offer signaled to me for the first time that maybe I was through the worst of it. Perhaps I had rounded the corner from an earlier time when my reporting might still have been biased. I took the position without reservation.

My tenure was, unfortunately, short-lived. One evening in mid-February, a day after reporting a story about a star Marine recruiter in New Jersey, I was walking back to my apartment in Manhattan when I got a worried voicemail from my mother. I called her back immediately.

“I’m sorry,” she kept repeating. “I’m just so sorry.” My first thought was that someone had died.

Earlier that day, she’d received a letter from the Army ordering me back for a third combat tour. Just like that. The chance I would be reactivated during my three-year obligation in the reserves was so remote that I had honestly believed it would never happen. Yet it did, and there was nothing I could do about it.

I’d be going back to war again, this time to Afghanistan.

As I write, my deployment is days away. The last few weeks shuttling between training bases in South Carolina, Missouri, and Mississippi have given me time to contemplate my transformation from soldier to reporter and back again.

What I’ve discovered is something people like my battalion commander back in 2007 would do well to understand: in America, journalism and the military are more akin than members of either profession appreciate. Whether they wield rifles or pads and pens, soldiers and journalists join their professions because they are committed to fighting for an ideal larger than themselves, be it freedom or truth or justice.

I’ve come to see this new assignment as the best chance I may ever have to help close the gap between the two cultures. I believed once that my experience as a soldier would enhance my contribution to journalism. I’d like to think that it has. All I can hope now is that the reverse will also be true. 

Matt Mabe is an Army captain currently serving in eastern Afghanistan. He is scheduled to return home in May 2010.