Former embedded reporter finds peace after decade of coping with war

He was sent to the desert to report, not fight. But 10 years after coming home, Sam Harper lives with the jarring images of war. He saw and heard too much and sometimes he can’t shake the horror of the body parts, the flies, the stench, the sound of popcorn crackling in the nighttime sky or the numbing sight of a shirtless Iraqi man — not quite dead — rolling around in the middle of the road as Americans rumbled into Baghdad.

But he didn’t go to Iraq to write a documentary on the war. Armed with a laptop, a digital camera and a satellite telephone, his assignment for the Ledger-Enquirer was to write the stories of the 4,000 men and women of the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division who were there to do the dirty work of war.

For three eventful months, Harper lived with the Fort Benning troops as an embedded reporter. They played baseball, shared meals, weathered dust storms and when soldiers put on gas masks, he put on his just as he was trained to do. He watched them balance the mundane and the tragic — and he also saw death.

Now he sees life.

Harper is 51, a stay-at-home dad living in Birmingham, Ala., with his wife and 21-month-old daughter. He worked at the Ledger-Enquirer only a short time after the war then lived as a hermit in the woods of East Alabama.

For the first time since he came home, he met a former colleague at a quaint neighborhood bookstore in Homewood and had a rambling conversation about the effects of war and the months he spent with troops he respected. He also talked about his front row seat to the making of history in a post-9/11 world.

“It was almost the end of one era and the beginning of another,” he says. “I was writing the first draft of history, which is overwhelming when I think of it. Being able to tell the soldier’s stories was an honor, and hopefully it gave us a cause to reflect and realize how important people are and that we ought to consider them when we make a monumental decision like going to war.”

Back in 2002

America was going to war and, as always, so was Fort Benning.

As the Army post studied events in the Middle East, so did the Ledger-Enquirer, a newspaper with a history of military coverage. In 2002, Knight-Ridder Newspapers owned the local paper and when the parent company assembled plans for coverage of the inevitable war in Iraq, Executive Editor Mike Burbach pushed for Columbus to be involved.

“It was a long tradition of the Ledger-Enquirer to care about military people from our hometown and I wanted to continue that tradition,” says Burbach, now the editor of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press.

Sam Harper — who often used the byline S. Thorne Harper — was the paper’s military writer and Burbach chose him to go to Iraq. That made sense, for he had been a correspondent for the Ledger-Enquirer in Kosovo earlier that year and had also covered Peace Keeping Forces in Somalia for Thomson News in 1993.

Larger papers in the chain lobbied for their reporters but Burbach prevailed, probably because his paper was the hometown newspaper for Fort Benning.

Preparations were intense. Harper took classes at Fort Benning and in Virginia, offering training in all aspects of hazardous duty. He endured severe physical testing to ensure his body could survive heat and stress.

One thing he never shared with anyone — including Burbach — was that he was personally and morally opposed to the war.

“I’ve never told any other journalist this, but I thought a preemptive war was a bad idea. When Mike said my job was to cover the soldiers, my conscience was clear. You could read the New York Times and get the big picture. We had a chance to talk to the people who were making history and the opportunity to write about how they lived, how they survived and how they dealt with killing.”

Burbach thought that was appropriate for a local reporter covering local units.

“He didn’t go over there to be a Pentagon reporter or a State of the War reporter,” the former Columbus editor says. “That served the local purpose and it made his work stand out.”

Off to war

Landing in Kuwait City in 2003, Sam Harper was on the edge of war.

Rhonda Waller, the editor’s assistant, made arrangements for ground transportation and even her bubbling sense of humor wouldn’t have made him laugh when he got off the plane.

“A guy picked me up at the airport and I hoped it was the one Rhonda had hired,” he says. It was, so even around the world Waller’s skills as an Air Force sergeant came through.

The Crowne Royal Plaza hotel was a 5-star operation that except for metal detectors on the doors could have been anywhere in the world. But in his room was a copy of the Koran instead of a Gideon Bible and an arrow on the door that pointed to Mecca.

He left the hotel looking for Band-Aids to cover a vaccination sore, and on the streets he felt alone. Training in “Situational Awareness” added to his paranoia, so did constant reminders that he resembled Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and killed by terrorists the year before.

“I went back to my room and watched “The Simpsons on TV — in Arabic,” he laughs.

He grew increasingly restless before the call finally came. He was going to Iraq.

After several restless days, he loaded on to a tourist bus that carried the newsmen as far as it could, then they boarded military vehicles that took them to the staging area.

As a welcoming gesture, there was a dust storm on his first night in Iraq. “We left our small tents and walked shoulder to shoulder with a soldier at the head of the line. He took us to a larger tent where soldiers with scarves on their faces were playing cards like nothing was going on,” he says.

When he tried to use his laptop, it was kaput. “I didn’t even get out of the box and I was out of business. Thank God for Sgt. Stovall. He was a tech guy and he said I just had some dust in there. I wonder what ever happened to him?”

His next stop was Karbala, a holy city in the Shiite religion, where an alarm sounded and everyone jumped into chemical gear.

“That was my first taste that this was real,” he says.

Baghdad was a blend of ancient history and modern warfare. On April 6, his second day in the city, Harper met Col. Dan Allyn at the Petroleum Institute for an impromptu briefing.

They were in a war zone but the atmosphere was relaxed. Allyn was enjoying his coffee and Harper was enjoying the conversation.Then came the ambush.

Tracers fired over their heads. RPG fire. Machine-gun fire.

Harper ducked under a Humvee.

“I was on the ground and I looked up. There was Col. Allyn standing up, sipping his coffee, looking at the gunfire and assessing the situation,” says Harper, still marveling at that scene.

Harper and Burbach tried to talk daily. The editor turned their conversation into an account of what soldiers were doing that day.Bagdad was soon secure and Harper had to watch a well-oiled machine get rusty.

“I knew we were lost,” he says today. “Soldiers were sitting around doing nothing. It was obvious to me there was no plan. There was no culture, no teachers, no army, no utility workers. Nobody was running anything. But it wasn’t my job to write about such things.”

He lived with soldiers at a former community college for nearly two months and though suspicious of him, Harper says they were good to him. They were impressed when he asked to ride with them on a roundup of locals suspected of drive-by shootings.

That’s when he broke a cardinal rule.

“They told us, look, cell phones are everywhere. If you’re photographed with a weapon, you can’t claim you’re a journalist if you’re captured. Some guys were fooling around with portable bazookas so I went out in the field and fired one. What the hell? I felt safe,” he laughs.

Going home

Harper was a detached observer, a reporter, but after surviving a war with those men and women, he felt closeness. When issues with his Visa forced him to leave Iraq before the 3rd Brigade, he felt guilty and sad.

And to make matters worse, his luggage was lost.

When you’ve written about life and death, it is hard to overnight be writing about small-town America and that was the way it was for Harper back in Columbus.

The Ledger-Enquirer offered therapy to help him decompress and unload the chilling memories. Harper did that but soon declared himself well and cancelled the sessions.

It was the wrong decision, he now knows.

“That amount of fear manifests and sticks with you unless you release it. I didn’t kill anyone but I still suffered. I only hope the military has learned more about what they called ‘Checking the Box.’ I laid off therapy for a while, but I went back to it and I now know that recovery is an ongoing process.”

Leaving the newspaper, he wandered to California where he hoped old friends and the beaches of his youth would be healing. Finding nothing there, he moved to an old farm in Waverly, Ala. He didn’t own a car. He used a rotary phone and did odd jobs to eat.

“I wanted to be away from people, and I convinced myself that was the way I was supposed to live,” he says.

He was a hermit but that began to change on the day a woman in Waverly asked him to help her sister, whose car was stranded on U.S. 280 near Jackson Gap.

“Truth is, I was grumpy and didn’t want to go but I did.” He’s glad he did, for the woman he helped, Katherine, is now his wife and they have a beautiful daughter named Josephine.

“They’re my focus,” he says.

Burbach hasn’t seen Harper in more than nine years. But he remembers what he did in Iraq.

“I was proud of him from the beginning,” says Burbach, who left Columbus in 2004. “He stuck with it for the long haul. Whether we accomplished what we set out to do will be for others to judge. You always wish you could have done more but Sam certainly did what he was supposed to do.”Sam Harper has written only a few published short stories since that time. Over the past 10 years, he has been asked to talk about the war but he never wanted to be the story.

These things don’t diminish how he feels about what he wrote so long ago.

“It was my best work. Something there was pure and natural and easy-like. I was just an instrument in the hands of something bigger than myself. Because it was the soldiers telling the stories — not me.”