Reporting War

You’re on the plane heading toward safety, feeling immensely relieved to be physically whole and dreaming about that first embrace with loved ones.

Surprisingly, this could be your most vulnerable time. One military chaplain described the vulnerability as “existential void,” a sudden feeling of aimlessness and loss.

You have changed. But life back home probably has not. Feelings that may surprise and overwhelm you include:

Disappointment with attachments that seem cold compared with the terrible intimacy of watching people, even strangers, bleed and die.

Frustration with friends who seem more interested in trivial cultural events than in global matters of war and peace.

Discomfort with material abundance that stands in stark contrast to the desperate need in other parts of the world.

Alienation from a family that had to make do without you. Your spouse may not need your day-to-day help. Sex may be difficult for a while. Children will have changed and grown into different people with different expectations of adults.

After three tours in Iraq for the North County Times, Darrin Mortenson says he felt like a “professional outsider” at home in California. He longed for the sense of purpose he felt covering a war, and only when he began preparing for his next deployment did he feel life coming together in a solid, coherent sense of purpose.

Gradually, Mortenson learned the healing value of talking through the aftermath with editors and with other journalists who had survived dangerous assignments.

One common aftereffect the correspondents shared is a profound sense of professional letdown.

“There may never be another story in your life that grabs you as intensively as this one will,” says Dana Hull who covered the Iraq war for the San Jose Mercury News. “What are you going to do after that for an encore? Be prepared to be disappointed with the stories that come afterward.”

Many correspondents recommend stopping for a day or two on the way home, giving yourself time to reflect on what you’ve been through and to decompress. But a solo stopover isn’t for everyone. Some feel a need to plunge right away in familiar, structured activity. Some who are overloaded with stress may need to be around others.

This is a time to monitor yourself for risk factors:

  • Feeling that you are out of control
  • Feeling your life is threatened
  • Blaming others
  • Shame over your behavior
  • Problems coping with day-to-day life
  • Excess use of alcohol or drugs

Above all, this is a time to tap that support network once again. Make time to talk to loved ones who know how to listen, the pros who have gone before you and mental health experts who can help you sort things out.

Robert Nickelsberg, a contract photographer for Time Magazine, spent 20 years covering conflict around the world. It wasn’t until he came home and talked with colleagues, he says, that he had the perspective to sort out what he had been through.

“While you may look to be as independent as possible, it still is necessary to be attached to a larger group,” Nickelsberg says.

Photographers, in particular, have been emotionally confined by their “silent way” of explaining violence.

“It’s important for us as photographers to verbalize things a little bit more than just turning in the film and walking away from it,” Nickelsberg says.

But many reporters also struggle when they try to “walk away” emotionally.

The key for every correspondent is to respect the serious emotional challenge that comes with a dangerous assignment and to meet the challenge by taking personal responsibility for your own mental health. By making a priority of good choices, you will increase your probability of staying safe and delivering superior coverage.