URBANA - At the outset of the Iraqi war, Laurie Goering's assignment as a "unilateral" journalist was to report from behind the lines, at a reasonably safe distance from the line of fire.
"Behind the lines quickly became a fuzzy issue," said the Chicago Tribune correspondent and former Urbana woman in a visit to the University of Illinois on Monday.
Roaming southern Iraq in a four-wheel-drive vehicle with fuel tanks strapped to all sides, Goering found herself nervously dodging rocket-propelled grenades, sleeping in and next to her car, going five or six days without showering and looking forward to feasts of Iraqi Cheez Whiz between filing reports on the lives and thoughts of Iraqi people that became a staple of the Tribune over the last three months.
She and her fiance, Simon Robinson, a foreign correspondent for Time magazine and an embedded reporter with the Marines during the war, spoke at a gathering of mainly faculty at the Agricultural Engineering Sciences Building on Monday.
Goering, 39, is a graduate of St. Joseph-Ogden High School and in 1985 earned a journalism degree from the UI, where her father Carroll is an ag engineering professor.
Robinson said that while he was an embedded reporter, he didn't feel restricted in his reporting and in fact reported on one incident when it appeared Marines were overzealous in pursuit of Iraqis after being fired on. The only real restrictions were on reporting future plans, the kind of story Geraldo Rivera got "disembedded" for, Robinson said.
Otherwise, the Marines were accommodating. Robinson said he slept in their tents; ate the same MREs (meals ready to eat); wore the same uniforms, charcoal-lined chemical suits and gas masks; exercised with them; and became friendly with them. If there were problems with that approach, it was in not being able to get a sense of what was going on beyond his immediate position.
It was the first time since the Vietnam War that the military has let reporters get so close to the action. If that were the only source of information, it would have been distorted. But in this conflict, there were reporters in Baghdad, embedded reporters and unilateral reporters unallied with military units.
"The best coverage of the war came from organizations that had all three bases covered," Robinson said.
Robinson was with the Marine unit that assisted in toppling the giant statue of Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad on April 9, perhaps the epochal moment of the war's end.
"It was a funny sort of day," Robinson said. "It started out with the unit being ordered to take this little part of Baghdad. We got there and there was no resistance. There were people bringing cookies to the Marines."
They got orders to push on into central Baghdad, where Iraqis were already removing a large picture of Saddam from the hotel in the square. The hotel manager came out to welcome the Marines. Iraqis began trying to pull down the statue with ropes. Marines then lent a chain and a vehicle to the effort.
And Robinson ended up narrating the fall of the statue for some 90 minutes on CNN.
While there were plenty of intense moments, Robinson and Goering said the modest resistance from the Iraqi military was unexpected.
Robinson said the information campaign for months leading up to the war, coupled with the ferocity and awe-inspiring nature of the U.S. military machine, kept resistance to a minimum.
"They didn't turn out to fight. I think many of them just stayed home," he said.
Goering said the people's response to the U.S. military was equally surprising.
"I wasn't sure whether the Iraqis wanted to be liberated or not," Goering said. "But I was surprised at their response, how much they hated him and wanted out from under his rule. At the same time, they weren't happy about the destruction and disruption to their lives. They wanted it to happen and be over with. Twelve hours later and they wanted the Americans out right away."
Goering has been a correspondent for the Tribune in South America, Mexico and Cuba since 1994. She and Robinson will next be stationed in South Africa, the posting Goering said has been her goal since she began her international reporting career.
You can reach Phil Bloomer at (217) 351-5371 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.