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Walt Rodgers: Humbled by war reporting

CNN's Walter Rodgers
CNN's Walter Rodgers

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• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide

(CNN) -- The war in Iraq played out vividly on television, like no U.S. conflict had since Vietnam, and CNN correspondent Walter Rodgers was in the thick of it.

Embedded with the Army's 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry, Rodgers spent most of the war at "the tip of the spear" -- the cutting lead of the coalition's charge toward Baghdad.

Now back in the United States, Rodgers talked to anchor Arthel Neville about the emotions he felt after the heat of battle had cooled.

RODGERS: There was a humanizing experience in the war coverage, which was almost ethereal. There was one point where we had been under fire for about two days, and we were sitting in the desert in our Humvee; and all four doors were open to let air circulate through. And it was filled with flies.

All of a sudden this tiny bird, either a chiffchaff or an Arctic warbler, migrating through, flies in, lands on us as if it's an ethereal spirit from another world. Then it flies around, and it picks off flies from one of us. And it flies to the next, and it does this for 20 minutes, just landing on us, using us as a perch, flying all through the inside of the Humvee vehicle, picking flies off us.

And all of a sudden through the blood and the gore and the bang-bang, there was this lovely lithe spirit from another world, a very small warbler, migrating north into what would be Russia, and it just touched us. My satellite engineer, Jeff Barwise, said to me in an e-mail recently, "Walt, you know, of all the things I remember, that little bird was the highlight of the trip."

It was a very humanizing experience.

NEVILLE: Because it was almost as if saying, after all, we're all people. It's all about lives. It's all about humanity.

RODGERS: Exactly -- that life is important, and it was a humanizing experience. And I thought it was lovely that Jeff e-mailed me and said that.

Afterward, when you get out, there's a sudden letdown after the exhilaration of bang-bang combat for two weeks. Then suddenly you're flooded, just flooded with this emotional wave; and you're just profoundly humble and grateful to be alive. And I still am. Life becomes much more precious.

NEVILLE: When you're in the heat of the moment, you're doing your job. You're a professional, so you sort of remove yourself from the situation.

RODGERS: That's right.

NEVILLE: And then it hits you.

RODGERS: Exactly. You're always detached.

NEVILLE: But help me understand, Walt, when that moment happens, where are you? Are you at home? You're sitting down reading a book? You're having tea? What happens when you realize, "Whoa, what I just went through..." again?

Rodgers, reporting in Iraq
Rodgers, reporting in Iraq

RODGERS: You sort of put your fingers to your lips and humbly say "I'm grateful to be alive." And it isn't just me. The other embeds -- Martin Savidge, Alessio Vinci, Art Harris, each of us with whom I spoke, all of the CNN embeds, albeit with other units -- had that same feeling, that you just are humble, that you were spared, because it was very, very dangerous, and the embedding process is dangerous.

I heard yesterday a figure of one in 70 correspondents or journalists who went to that war died -- one in 70. And it's going to get worse if the embedding process continues, and that's as it should be. We should be embedded. I totally believe in the commitment to the public's right to know.

NEVILLE: I was just going to ask you that. Do you think that that's a good idea?

RODGERS: Absolutely, absolutely. I got an e-mail from someone a few seconds ago, and they reminded me that when Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada in the Caribbean to drive out the communists or whomever he was driving out at the time, the Reagan administration didn't let reporters on the island until three days after the invasion.

The Bush administration, to their credit, was much, much better about this. They said to reporters, "You want to see what it's about, you whine a lot, you can go." Bam.

NEVILLE: Let's talk about the idea of keeping everyone honest ... because you're right there. You're getting the information firsthand, so therefore you're not relying on the State Department to say, "Well, this is what happened today."

RODGERS: That's right. I think that's terribly important. The greatest innovation in this embedding process was twofold: One, the access we had, which it was without precedent. I had more access covering the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry than any White House reporter has covering the White House, any Congressional reporter has covering Capitol Hill or a reporter covering the state legislature. I had fantastic access.

The other thing is just the standard reportorial relationship that you build with your sources and the people you cover, and that's trust. The trust was so important here because it isn't so much that "I'm going to embarrass senator so-and-so with what I write." The trust was important here it was because "If I do this wrong and I betray your trust, colonel, I get you killed. I get me killed."

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