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Champaign native Mike Fumento, a veteran journalist and book author, didn’t expect it to be easy to cover the war in Iraq. But he never counted on it costing him both his money and almost his life.
"It’s been a long, tough summer," said Fumento, a graduate of both Champaign Centennial High School and the University of Illinois College of Law.
Nonetheless, after having survived emergency surgery at a Baghdad hospital, he’s feeling better "every day" and looking forward to returning to Iraq.
"I just got my last stitches out" Wednesday, said Fumento, who’s 45 and lives with his wife in Arlington, Va.
Fumento, a health and science writer who works as a fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., has always considered himself an investigative reporter willing to "dig out things other reporters cannot or will not report." He developed that reputation with his first book, "The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS," which was published in the early 1990s and argued that assertions that AIDS would sweep the heterosexual population in the United States were grossly exaggerated. He decided to try to do the same thing on Iraq.
"I am doing what I sought to do, which is to tell my readers things about the war that they can’t get somewhere else," he said, describing his reasons for becoming an embedded reporter with a U.S. Marine division in Iraq.
But Fumento’s status is unique. Although he writes a weekly column syndicated by Scripps Howard, he’s employed by the Hudson Institute, a think tank, not a news media outlet.
So Fumento found his initial efforts to travel to Iraq blocked because he couldn’t find a news organization that would pay his expenses. He said after he "finally got it into my head" that he would have to pay his own expenses, it took six months of working with the bureaucracy at the Pentagon to finalize the details. Fumento said it cost him more than $5,000 to get to Iraq and that expenses included not only his air fare but body armor, fatigues and a helmet.
"They (the Marines) provide food, a place to sleep and that’s about it," he said.
Fumento said he flew to London, then Kuwait City and on to Baghdad on May 15, landing in the "green zone," a secured area where he obtained his media credentials and spent the night sleeping in a tent outside one of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein’s lavish presidential palaces. Fumento said he ate one of his meals inside the palace and was impressed by the decor.
"It’s the only place I’ve ever seen with gold-plated toilet handles," he said.
Fumento eventually was assigned to the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, which is located in a "red (danger) zone" at Camp Fallujah in the Anbar Province bordering Syria. He went on daily assignments with the Marine Units and found it difficult to cope with the blistering heat (temperatures were as high as 120 degrees) while wearing full military gear.
Fumento said Iraqis he saw seemed glad to have a U.S. military presence, basing his opinion on the behavior of the children who "were just delighted to see the Marines."
But Fumento also said the Marines he was with encountered and captured hostiles who had crossed the Syrian border to try to plant bombs to kill Americans. He said they also regularly defused bomb that had been planted and was particularly complimentary of the professionalism of the Marines assigned to the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit. He has posted numerous pictures of Marines at work on his web site at fumento.com.
Fumento said the quality of reporting on the war is poor because there are relatively few American reporters embedded with military units in Iraq. He attributed the problem both to reporters’ laziness and fear of the dangerous and difficult conditions.
"They want to stay where it’s safe and comfy. They have no more idea what’s going on than people sitting in Champaign," he said.
But Fumento acknowledged that reporters are prize targets for terrorists in Iraq and said he’s heard there are $25,000 rewards for killing American reporters.
"You kill a Marine, it’s page four. You kill an American reporter, it’s international news," he said.
Fumento said the military resistance in Iraq is varied and challenged the media’s description of opponents as "insurgents." He noted that some military opposition comes from members of Saddam’s Baathist Party who want back the power and perks they enjoyed under the old regime. Other opposition comes from al-Qaida terrorists who want Iraq under the influence of Osama bin Laden, common criminals who cross the Syrian border to plant bombs for financial reward and from Iranians trying to turn Iraq into a country that will do their bidding. With no unified goal, he said, they are even now at odds with each other.
Fumento said he believes good things are happening in Iraq but that it will be a long process before the U.S. can reduce its role there.
"It’s a slow process, and Americans can’t stand that," he said. "What is going to happen is what is happening. We are slowly training Iraqis to fight for themselves. They will slowly take over this war. At some point next year, we will turn it over to them. But it’s not going to be on New York time, it’s going to be on Iraqi time. ... It’s ours to lose. If impatience grows too high, we’ll pull out and go home and terrible things will happen."
Fumento said he had been in Iraq for two weeks when he fell victim to what he calls a "hostile environment," not "hostile fire."
He said he suffers from diverticulitis, a condition that requires considerable rest and lots of water to hold in check. But he said it was so hot in Iraq he found it impossible to stay hydrated and that he was working long hours with the Marines. Fumento said he went to the medical tent for assistance after receiving stabbing pains in his side and quickly found himself "cut open like a fish and having my intestines cut out."
Ultimately, he underwent a colostomy and was flown to a hospital in Germany. From there, he made his way back to the U.S., where he has continued his recovery.
For now, he’s planning a vacation next week in Italy. But Fumento, a former Army paratrooper, said he hopes to be back in Iraq soon and is not concerned about the danger.
"I believe if you’re going to cover the war, go to the war," he said.