Where Would You Rather Be?

The never-ending, New Years Eve-spoiling Fiscal Cliff drama still unfolding on Capitol Hill has reminded me why I so disliked my years covering Congress as a reporter for USA TODAY. As many of my friends and former colleagues learned last night, much of their job is standing around. And standing around. And, oh yeah, standing around while our elected representatives dither over what they would — or would not — do about something they should have done long before. In other words, a lot of late nights.

Take this photo that ran in The New York Times back in 2005. It shows Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist briefing the media during the debate on Judge John Roberts’ nomination for chief justice of the Supreme Court. That’s me on the right diligently taking notes. That was a rather calm presser and, unlike those covering the current controversy, I didn’t have to cancel my New Years Eve plans.

Capitol Hill 2005

Now take a look at these photos of me hard at work almost four years ago to the day:

abu ghraib interview

abu ghraib street interview

These were taken outside the prison in Abu Ghraib in Iraq a couple days after New Years 2009. I was there for this story about the transfer of detainees to the government of Iraq.

Yes, I did have to wear heavy body armor to interview a local council member and storekeepers in the market. And I did have to travel in an armored MRAP to get to my appointments. But compared to covering the political battle right now on Capitol Hill, I’ll take a war zone in the Middle East any day.

Another Secretary Rice?

If Republicans get their way, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice won’t be promoted to secretary of State in President Obama’s second term after Hillary Clinton retires. While the brouhaha over Benghazi doesn’t appear to have damaged her, new details about Rice’s relationship with certain African governments when she was an official the Clinton State Department may yet doom her nomination.

The current situation recalls an earlier controversy over another African-American woman named Rice who was slated to become America’s top diplomat after holding a similarly high-level job in the administration. I’m talking, of course, about Condoleezza Rice, President George W. Bush’s choice to be secretary of State in his second term.

Democrats opposed elevating the White House national security adviser, citing her role in the invasion of Iraq on the faulty grounds that Saddam Hussein had weapons on mass destruction. The Senate went on to confirm Rice 85-13, with the most negative votes cast against a secretary of State nominee since 1825.

All that was behind Rice as she embarked on her first official trip as secretary of State in February 2005. I was on Rice’s plane, covering the historic trip for USA TODAY. It was a whirlwind trip as we raced to 10 European and Middle Eastern capitals in six days: London, Berlin, Warsaw, Ankara, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Rome, Paris, Brussels and Luxembourg. I filed this report on her reception.

Surely the most memorable moment of the trip — other than a case of food poisoning that laid me low from Germany through Poland and into Turkey — was our stop in Rome. Although I had already been to the Eternal City as a tourist, it was nice to revisit the Pantheon for a private tour with the world’s most powerful diplomat (that’s me on the right listening intently to the docent):

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Afterward, the entire traveling press corps went to a nearby restaurant for a private, off-the-record dinner. Since Rice had already given the reporters on her inaugural trip signed world atlases, the journalists returned the favor by giving the rabid Cleveland Browns fan an autographed football. You can see where I signed just between her fingers:

Rice’s honeymoon wouldn’t last long. By the time I accompanied her overseas on a high-stakes mission in the summer of 2006 as yet another crisis in Lebanon raged, the mood had darkened considerably.

Covering Women in the Military

In 2010, the Navy opened submarines to women. As I wrote for AOL News:

For someone who never served in the military, I’ve walked a lot of miles of Pentagon corridors and eaten in more DFACs than is good for anybody. During more than two decades as a correspondent for USA TODAY, including a long stint at the Pentagon, and now reporting and writing for AOL News, I have chronicled the ups and downs of women warriors.

Whether sharing a tent with female helicopter pilots during the Kosovo War or interviewing a female MP “attached” to a combat unit in Iraq, I was privileged to be able to document the advances made by women in the military.

Fort Stuart, Ga., 1997

Like the photo? That’s me in the my early Pentagon reporting days — before I realized public affairs officers weren’t supposed to provide reporters with a personalized BDU (battle dress uniform). This was taken at Fort Stuart, Ga., where I went to profile the new generation of female commanders, incuding a female colonel who tucked a pistol under her pillow while sleeping in a tent out in the field.

Read the story about my 20 years covering the evolution of a more (but not perfectly) equal armed forces. The headline said it all: For Women in Military, a Long Slog Toward Acceptance.

Women Warriors and PTSD 2008

The Iraq War was starting to wind down when I traveled to California to meet the first all-Iraq-war-veteran class at the Women’s Trauma Recovery Program at the VA’s residential treatment center in Menlo Park. I found another troubled legacy of war: women warriors not only suffering from battlefield stress but also haunted by another demon: military sexual trauma. It was one of the most memorable, and troubling, cover stories I ever wrote for USA TODAY. You can read it here.

I also went on CNN’s This Week at War to talk to host Tom Foreman about the mental toll on women troops and how the Pentagon was struggling to adapt. You can read what I had to say toward the end of the segment here.