A cadet stood up, introduced himself and asked Ron Martz a question: “Why do you do it?”
Martz, one of the most accomplished military correspondents and well-known embedded reporters working today, answered honestly.
“It has to do with ego,” he said. “I think I can do it better than anybody at my paper.”
It would be hard to argue with Martz, the military affairs correspondent for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who has worked as an embedded war reporter during many conflicts, including the Persian Gulf War, Bosnia and most recently, Operation Iraqi Freedom.
On Thursday, he spoke to about 150 ROTC students and faculty about the interaction between the military and the media during wartime and how that relationship has evolved over time; he also addressed some common misconceptions the military may have about the media.
After a brief lesson on the history of embedded reporters – they date all the way back to the Crimean War in the 1850s – Martz spent most of his time detailing his experience with Charlie Company, the first American element to enter Baghdad.
Martz was crammed into an armored personnel carrier behind dozens of tanks as Charlie Company made its “Thunder Run,” a two-and-a-half-hour long push into downtown Baghdad.
“We had no intelligence as to what the Iraqis had,” he said. “It was just a lot of smoke, dust and fire. When we stepped out, it was stepping out onto Mars. Bullets and (rocket-propelled grenades) were everywhere.”
When he showed a 10-minute video of rare footage, many of the cadets watched the video in amazement and laughed when Martz described the sub-par equipment and tactics of the Iraqi army.
One story in particular amused many. While Charlie Company made its way to Baghdad, Martz said a convoy of Iraqis manning pick-up trucks, with machine guns attached to the roofs, attacked the American tanks.
“It was no contest,” he said.
Near the end of his lecture, Martz addressed the supposed objectivity journalists should possess, saying objectivity “doesn’t exist; language means something different to everybody.”
“You can’t be totally neutral when you’re an embedded reporter,” he said.
Martz said this might be a result of the bond created between soldiers and reporters.
As an example, he told the cadets about how Charlie Company left two cots empty after he and a photographer left to return stateside. He called it a “nice tribute.”
“You don’t form more of a bond than with those you’re in combat with,” Martz said.
He had an abundance of war stories but discussed some unexpected byproducts of working as an embedded reporter, mainly how he became a link for families with deployed loved ones.
When Martz returned, he met a wife of a soldier from Charlie Company. She started to cry, and when she hugged him, she said, “You touched him,” referring to her husband.
“That had an impact on me,” Martz said.
Even though he was a reporter, Martz, who at 56 was the oldest man around, said he became someone the soldiers could rant and vent to. And if he didn’t have his notebook out, the soldiers knew it was off the record.
“Soldiers gripe,” Martz said. “And I let them gripe to me.”
Many in the military believe the media slants its coverage to portray only the negative, bloody aspects of the war while ignoring the progress.
Martz didn’t disagree, but he added that embedded reporters are vital nonetheless.
“I know there’s some disconnect on whether the media is portraying a true view of what’s going on,” he said. “No, we’re probably not … But having embedded reporters better serves the media, the public and the military. The news has to get to the people.”
Junior Michael Gabryszewski, an Air Force Cadet 3d Class and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, said Martz offers a fair assessment of the war.
“It’s refreshing to know that someone is telling the truth,” he said.