The news of James Foley’s beheading in Syria hit me hard. So too did yesterday's plea by Shirley Sotloff for the militant jihadist group Islamic State to release her son. As a mother of a journalist who covers wars, my heart aches not only for Jim, and other captive journalists, but for their families.
In January of 2004, I got an e-mail from my son, Tom, in Baghdad. A 21-year-old junior in college, he'd decided to spend the winter break of his study abroad in Cairo as a freelance journalist in Iraq. As a new freelancer who had chosen to jump right into conflict reporting, he, like a number of others at the time, had gone into the country with no institutional commitments. Nobody to report to. Nobody to ask anything. Nobody to miss him. And no one to look for him if he went missing.
“I’m OK,” he’d write. “More later.” Each message was an umbilical cord of life, a bread crumb of hope.
And then, the messages stopped. This was my "initiation by fire" into the realm of loving a conflict journalist.
I spent my nights, hovering on the edge of sleep, with the volume on my computer turned up full so that I could run to my desk if I heard the “ping” of a new message arriving. I racked my brain for who I could call. Who could I ask? Who might know something? I reviewed his most recent communications over and over, trying to figure out, well, anything – from half a world away.
Three days later, I finally heard from Tom. He had been held by gun-wielding authorities and then released. In those days before Skype and cheap international calls, I wouldn’t hear the details of the incredible story until he returned to the United States months later.
Now my son has been a freelance war correspondent for the better part of a decade, living and traveling on the other side of the planet. For most of that time, he's worked for outlets that stayed in close touch, including on contract with The Christian Science Monitor. While I’ve watched him grow as a professional, growth as the mother of someone who has chosen this line of work has come much more slowly. Sometimes I feel as isolated in my home as my son must feel working alone in a war zone.
Today, it’s much easier to communicate with him than when he first started working overseas, but even when we’re able to talk there are many days I’ve tried not to be too obvious at work as I stare at my computer screen, watching horrific videos taken at the scene of a bomb blast in a location where my son is reporting. I’ve watched in slow motion as people were blown apart – while I looked for clues. The lower half of a body lies in the gutter. Are those the L.L. Bean cargo pants that I gave him last Christmas? The horror that washes over me in these moments is palpably real – and impossible to explain or share.
Soon after Tom finished college, he went back to Iraq and embedded with US forces in 2006. Since he was traveling with a unit, I felt confident stretching the "24-Hour Rule" out to 72 hours between e-mails. But when I didn’t hear from him for more than a week, I began to worry. There was no phone number where I could call him. I could only wait. After more than 10 days went by, I couldn’t take it, and contacted the military and an editor at a paper in Kuwait my son had been writing for, asking if they’d heard from him. They assured me that they’d pass word to him. A couple of days later my son messaged me, letting me know that the unit he was with had unexpectedly moved into an area without Internet.
He also asked me to, please, use greater discretion contacting the military and his employers.
I imagine that my experience is familiar to anyone with loved ones in the military, except that there’s no support network for journalists’ families. I’ve never met someone else related to a war reporter. When I can’t reach my son or I’m worried for his safety, there’s no one to call whose son or husband or brother is about to go into the same situation. I have been challenged many times to stretch and grow as a person as I’ve followed the extraordinary events in my son’s work as a conflict journalist.
And today, as James Foley’s parents cope with the unspeakably tragic loss of their son, I feel compelled to extend the love and support of community. I didn’t know Jim. But, as the mother of a fellow correspondent, I recognize that Jim risked his life, and gave his life to bring the rest of us true stories about real people in often unimaginable circumstances. Perhaps applying ourselves to really understanding the people and conflicts in these stories is the greatest way to give value and recognition to what Jim Foley was all about.