War correspondent's family: a dispatch from the home front

MY husband is on the front lines in Iraq. Not as a soldier, but as a reporter.

When I told my friends about his latest assignment, each had the same reaction, "Did you tell him no? If he was my husband, I wouldn't let him go."

My friends believe that because he's not a Marine or reservist, he should have chosen the relative safety of the Boston Herald newsroom over the potential minefield of embedding with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division.

They remind me, as if I'd somehow forgotten, that he has left behind our three young children for weeks, perhaps months. Maybe, they whisper, forever. He'll be risking his life, they say, for a story.

A story. Is it worth it?

I understand the implication behind the questions, that my husband is more concerned with the trajectory of his career than the welfare of his family. I understand the pity they feel for me because of the burden suddenly heaped on my shoulders to be a somewhat single mother to three children - 9, 7, and 5. I understand because I've sometimes wrestled with the same thoughts.

During the past seven weeks, there have been moments I've found myself lying awake in the bleak hours before dawn, in a bed we used to share, trying to reconcile myself to the belief that his professional goals as a journalist are compatible with our goals for our family. In those dark moments, only the glow of the computer screen alerting me to an e-mail from him chased away the shadows of doubt.

My friends seem skeptical when I explain that my husband sought my blessing before accepting this assignment. Perhaps in a society of overachievers, they don't understand that we agreed he would go, not because of the potential for professional advancement, but for reasons far more idealistic.

My husband is accompanying troops on the front lines, so that we on the home front can vicariously share in the fight with our soldiers. He's there to relay the story of the infantrymen who first battled boredom in the Kuwaiti desert before rolling on to Baghdad. He will use his pen to empower the weak, very often, mute Iraqis who may reclaim their collective voice in a reporter's story. But, before he had the chance to do any of that, my husband was first provided with protective body armor and antidote for various nerve agents.

As difficult as this uncertain time apart has been for us, the toll it's taken on my children has been immeasurable.

My 5-year-old daughter devised a schedule to determine which of the children would keep me company in my empty bed at night. Whether it was her turn or not, I can usually wake to find her huddled against me. My 7-year-old son has many questions about the range of Iraqi missiles. Though I've never allowed my children to watch the evening news, National Public Radio has been my constant companion, and his ears prick up at any mention of the war, and he queries me about "Osama Hussein." Most troubling of all, my 9-year-old daughter has said nothing. She has asked no questions, shed no tears, and she merely glances at the photo of her father prominently displayed on the page next to his articles each morning. And all three are probably the only kids at their schools who can find Iraq on a map.

For the first time in their young lives, I've found myself lying to them on a regular basis. Daddy is playing GI Joes with the soldiers in the Kuwaiti desert; he's very safe because Saddam Hussein doesn't have any weapons that can reach him there. And, most egregious of all, as their dad rolls through the Iraqi desert, I continue to tell them that he won't accompany the Army into Iraq. It's a guilt I can accept.

Now that war has interrupted the flow of our e-mail, my only contact with my husband is via his articles in the Boston Herald and www.poynter.org, a website he's contributing to during his stay. In an odd way, those articles written for thousands provide a more intimate connection to my husband than the e-mails he wrote to me. I think it's because, from a distance, it's somehow easier for him to reveal himself to strangers than to the woman who aches for him.

In the end, when friends ask, "Is it worth it?" I can answer yes. He, like the daring soldiers with whom he now shares tight quarters in a tank heading north through Iraq, is doing our country a noble service. He is presenting us with the truth.

Each time we Americans turn on our radios, click on our televisions, flip open our newspapers, we overlook the risks reporters take to bring us the news. We forget that a camera and tape recorder do not defend against bullets and land mines. Perhaps it never occurred to us, as we watched the footage of New Yorkers fleeing the collapsing towers, that someone stayed behind to film it.

There are plenty of stark reminders of those risks. Four journalists were killed in the Gulf War in 1991. And this weekend, Australian cameraman Paul Moran was killed in northern Iraq - he leaves behind a wife and infant daughter. And, as of this writing, three British television journalists were also missing in action in Iraq.

Their sacrifices are mere sidebars to the main news stories of the day. There will be no military support services for their families, no presentation of national flags at Mr. Moran's funeral.

It has often been said that journalists write the first drafts of history. My husband is there to chronicle the actions of our leaders, our soldiers, our opponents at their greatest extremes. He is capturing with words the intensity of their lives on the battlefield and, probably, some of their deaths. He knows our soldiers have families and friends who love them, who are proud of them, who may mourn for them as they take on the responsibility of their generation. And he feels a certain responsibility as well.

In one of our last correspondences, I told him about my friends' comments. He responded with his usual eloquence, "I'm not here to fight the war, just to report on the fighting and, in doing so, try to honor the commitment of those who have to do it."

So when my friends ask, I tell them it wasn't a matter of letting him go or making him stay.

Like any good soldier, my husband had to answer his call to duty.

P. Amy MacKinnon, a former congressional aide, is working on her first book. Her husband, Jules Crittenden, has been a Boston Herald reporter for 10 years.

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