Former journalists, faculty reflect on time as war correspondents

Story and photo by Lexi Marshall / Staff Writer 

Former embed journalists reflected on their time as war correspondents in Iraq and Afghanistan on Thursday in the John Bragg Media and Entertainment Building in an event hosted by the Society of Professional Journalists.

MTSU professor Leon Alligood and photographer John Partipilo joined students in the classroom with journalist Chantal Escoto skyping into the meeting from Florida.

The trio spoke to students about their time in three separate deployments to the Middle East embedded with soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Tennessee.

Each of them had traveled with the embeds twice, with Alligood and Escoto going with the first embed team in January 2002 following the attacks on 9/11. With that deployment, they stayed for three weeks.

Alligood described his single excursion away from the army’s base to the city of Kandahar, Afghanistan. He said he had been told that the Taliban was expelled from that city, but upon sitting down to eat his lunch, fighting broke out in a hospital across the street where the Taliban had taken hostages. United States troops stormed the hospital. Alligood said that as others were running away from the artillery fire, he and his colleague, Eric Parsons from The Tennessean, ran toward it, “probably looking like fools,” but they got a story.

Escoto said she spent some of her time abroad meeting with the families of the locals who had been hurt or killed. One of the moments that she said had an impact on her was when she met a 15-year-old boy, the same age as her son at the time, who had lost both legs and one arm to land mines in the area. She said that overall her time in Afghanistan had been “a humbling experience.”

Partipilo’s first embed experience with the 101st was in 2003 in the invasion of Iraq. He and Escoto recalled a particularly upsetting event that occurred before the 101st had even crossed the border from Kuwait. Partipilo described the chaos and sadness that ensued when a U.S. soldier threw grenades into his own officers’ tents.

“It was a different war than I thought it was going to be,” Partipilo said.

Escoto and Partipilo stayed embedded with that division from February until late April.

Partipilo and Alligood returned to Iraq in 2004 to do a homecoming story on the soldiers of the 101st, not knowing at the time that the division would be sent on several more deployments to Iraq. On the way to meet up with their division, they flew from Baghdad to Mosul. During this flight, their pilots from the West Virginia National Guard narrowly avoided rocket fire from the ground.

Despite dangerous and upsetting experiences, all three journalists said they would return to Iraq or Afghanistan but not without reservations.

Escoto said, “I would probably take a step back.”

All acknowledged the serious risk involved with the work they had done.They also spoke about difficulties associated with returning to civilian life.

“After you see so much suffering… you’re off tempo,” Escoto said.

Partipilo added, “I’ve never seen death like this… It does affect you.”

The experiences shared by the speakers have kept them close even 15 years after the beginning of the war in Afghanistan.

“When you’re in combat with somebody, you have this bond,” Partipilo said.

Reflecting on his time with the 101st, Alligood said, “It made me a better reporter. It made me a better American.”

Follow Lexi Marshall on Twitter at @ThatPunkLexi. 

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