Weekly editor embeds with Guard unit in Iraq

Feb 1, 2012

By Stanley Schwartz
PINE CITY, MN—Covering their communities is what local papers do best. But what happens when a significant group of citizens are sent overseas to face possible danger, and those left behind long to know more about their loved ones?
Pine City Pioneer Editor Mike Gainor decided to find out after he learned he could embed with the local National Guard unit currently stationed in Iraq. Sure the war is over and President Obama has ordered U.S. troops home, but that is a time-consuming process.
The Pine City-based unit (34th Infantry Division, First Brigade Combat Team, First Squadron, 94th Cavalry) is escorting convoys out of Iraq as part of “Operation New Dawn,” Gainor reported in his blog.
“It was an opportunity that came along; a fluke, actually,” Gainor said. “We received a story from the U.S. Air Force, which was working with our local National Guard unit.” When he called about the story to ask about running it in the Pioneer, Gainor said he was asked if wanted to be embedded with the unit in Iraq. “They said, ‘We can make that happen.’”
Gainor said he thought it was quite an opportunity, one that he did not want to pass up, so he went to Wade Weber, chief executive officer of Kanabec Publications, to ask about making the trip.
Weber said he looked at the price tag for the flight to Kuwait. But then saw the enthusiasm in Gainor’s eyes and realized the opportunity the embed offer presented. The $1,700 flight was a small price to pay considering the benefit and good will that would be generated from the stories Gainor would be able to write about the home-town troops serving so far from home.
Once he received company approval, Gainor said he then had to persuade his wife to let him go.
“She was supportive,” he said. And he was grateful that Weber had the confidence in him to take the chance. It’s not everyday that a small weekly paper has the ability to cover this type of story.
Gainor received a list of things he would need while on the ground in Iraq. He said he was fitted for body armor and a helmet. He also had to take a first aid class to learn how to apply a tourniquet and apply pressure to wounds.
“I was never in the military,” he said. “This was an eye-opening experience.”
U.S. Air Force Maj. Paul Rickert facilitated the trip for Gainor.
“He was amazingly helpful in making this whole thing happen,” Gainor noted.
He learned that it was winter in Iraq and he would need long underwear and a heavy coat.
“When you think of Iraq you think of the desert,” he said. At night the temperatures can drop into the 30’s. “There were a few nights when I was glad to have (the cold-weather gear).”
Once on the ground in Iraq, Gainor said he had to move fast. The convoy he needed to take was leaving the next morning and he had to file his first story quickly.
“The paper was expecting stories right away,” he said. The weekly Pioneer was about to go to press, and Gainor was not even sure about Internet access. He quickly interviewed the convoy’s truck commander and jammed out a story. Then he was on his way through the heart of Iraq. Gainor would have a week before he needed to send his next story.
Even though there was a process to go through in order to interview the men and women of the Guard unit, Gainor said he was never denied access to them. And after a few days the process became much less formal.
The troops could talk about their overall mission, but left specifics out of the conversation, Gainor said. When he went to take photos or shoot video, he was told ahead of time if there was any sensitive military equipment he should not photograph.
Interviews tended to run in three general directions, he said. The men and women would talk about their experiences during their deployment, or their overall experience in Iraq or going home; renewing their lives once they returned.
Gainor was in Iraq for 18 days during the Christmas holidays.
“I wanted to know what life for them was like at that time of year,” he said. “It’s when a lot of them really were feeling the sacrifices they had to make (serving in the military). I wanted to write about that as well.”
He was there during their last mission as a convoy escort. Many of the troops had been there since early last year; some were on their third or fourth deployment.
“It had been a long war for some of them,” Gainor said. The unit will be there another six months. Currently, they are training to be a rapid response force.
Gainor continued to write stories and a blog as well as shoot photos and video during his stay with the Guard unit. All that information was posted on the newspaper’s website. Traffic to the site jumped during that time, though Gainor did not have hard numbers on how big an increase the site received.
It was an amazing experience, Gainor noted. “Writing stories from the floor of a tent is quite a bit different than writing a story about a town council meeting.”
When his 18 days were up, Gainor said it was a bittersweet experience. He longed to return to Pine City and his family, but felt guilty about leaving those local men and women behind.
As for his personal safety once in country, Gainor said that although he felt safe, there were times when he was a bit nervous.
A traffic accident stalled the convoy on a bridge once, he said, and he noted how nervous the soldiers were. There was also the time when a convoy traveling behind them on the same route hit an IED at a place where they had passed a half hour before.
“That’s as close as I wanted to get (to the action),” he said.
Response from the stories, photos and videos, he noted, were overwhelmingly positive.
“There is strong support for our troops in this area,” he said. “One woman, whose husband is with the unit, sent me an e-mail, saying that my stories helped her better understand what her husband was going through over there.”
Gainor said he stays in touch with some of the soldiers through Facebook and looks forward to the day when he can write about their return to Pine City.
© stan@nna.org