When she first strode into the Canadian media tent at Kandahar Air Field, Michelle Lang had one warning for the small group of reporters inside: "I've never been here before and I'm going to ask you a lot of dumb questions," she said. "I apologize in advance."
Among the journalists stationed at Kandahar Air Field, the arrival of a new reporter is always greeted with some trepidation. While stationed at the base, they spend 24 hours a day in one another's company. They sleep side by side, eat at the same dreary cafeteria and breathe the same mildew-tinged air inside the work tent.
The close quarters inside forge both deep friendships and bitter feuds. A jerk or a braggart can easily spoil life for everyone, but Ms. Lang's humble entrance, put everyone at ease.
Ms. Lang's first days on the job in Kandahar overlapped with my last. I was finishing up my first-ever overseas stint just as she was embarking on hers. Both easy-going British Columbians, we bonded immediately. She was from Vancouver and had worked her way up in the journalism world the old-fashioned way, putting in long hours for low pay at community papers such the Prince George Free Press before landing at the Regina Leader-Post and, most recently, the Calgary Herald, where she won a National Newspaper Award this year for her dogged health-care reporting.
She was supposed to go to Afghanistan a year previous, but her tour kept getting pushed back until it was finally scheduled for Christmastime. The timing was tough. In the fall, she became engaged to her boyfriend, Michael Louie. They had already booked the Calgary Winter Club for their wedding, set for July 3, and were excitedly having the big or small wedding debate. During several late-night chats, she talked about him giddily, but admitted that both Michael and her family were nervous about her travelling to a war zone. Michelle too was anxious about the trip, but tried her best to reassure her loved ones that between her training and her wits, she would be fine.
Far from reckless, she asked dozens of questions about safety, both from fellow reporters and soldiers. They told her that the only sure way of keeping safe was to stay firmly ensconced "inside the wire" - behind the blast-walls of Kandahar Air Field, home to over 25,000 NATO troops and a small phalanx of media relations personnel. She was way too good a reporter for that.
"I not here to rewrite what the public affairs people tell me," she said. "It seems like the real stories are out in the field."
The real stories - the ones that might objectively inform Canadians what they are spending so many lives and so many dollars on are "outside the wire." Within hours of her arrival on the base, she was making requests to embed with front-line troops. Her journalistic instincts wouldn't have it any other way.
The day before her first trip outside the wire, she surveyed the safety gear her company had supplied. First she tried on the flack jacket of her predecessor, a portly reporter named Matthew Fisher. It draped off her long, slender body. A few reporters took pictures because it looked so ridiculous. She then found a smaller vest and spent upwards of 10 minutes making sure all the straps were perfectly adjusted. She did the same with her helmet. That night, she got me to teach her the tricks of using a BGAN, a small satellite unit that can be used to file stories from the remotest locales. It was obvious she wanted to leave as little as possible to chance.
Outside the wire, you can minimize risk, but never eliminate it. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 19 reporters have been killed in Afghanistan since 1992. Most recently, Norwegian journalist Carsten Thomassen died during a suicide bombing in a Kabul hotel in 2008. Also in 2008, Afghan reporter Abdul Samad Rohani, who did work for the BBC, was found shot to death in Lashkar Gah. In September, Afghan journalist Sultan Mohammed Munadi and a New York Times colleague were kidnapped and Mr. Munadi was shot during a British rescue mission. CBC television reporter Mellissa Fung was kidnapped last year in Kabul while working on a story about refugees. She was released after being held for a month. Last August, Associated Press photographer, Emilio Morenatti, and A.P. Television News videographer, Andi Jatmiko, who were embedded with the United States military, were travelling north of Spinbaldak when their vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb. Both were injured along with two U.S. soldiers. Also that month, an IED hit an U.S. military vehicle in Logar Province killing one U.S. solider and injuring CBS Radio news correspondent Cami McCormick.
In March, 2002 Kathleen Kenna, a veteran Toronto Star reporter was seriously injured in Afghanistan, when the car she was driving in was ambushed by gunmen. She was travelling with her husband and Star photographer Bernard Weil on the main road from Kabul to Gardez when the car was attacked by two people after an explosion rocked the car on Kathleen Kenna's side and severely wounded her leg.
Before Michelle left the base for the first time, she appeared nervous. Canadian Press's big-hearted reporter Colin Perkel, myself and a few others hugged her and told her she'd do fine.
She knew I'd be gone back to Canada by the time she returned. "Maybe we'll see you out west some time," she said. "It was nice meeting you."
Patrick White recently returned from several weeks reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan
Calgary Herald reporter Michelle Lang was killed in a blast Wednesday that also claimed the lives of four soldiers. Lang, who was on her first assignment as a war correspondent for the paper, became the first Canadian journalist to die while on the job in Afghanistan
The Globe's Graeme Smith reflects on the risks of reporting from a war zone