Tragedy Inspires Training Program for Journalists

Twenty-four freelance journalists from places including Cairo, Chicago and Brooklyn convened in the Bronx April 19 for the debut class of Reporters Instructor in Saving Colleagues, a non-profit founded by Sebastian Junger after the death of his friend and colleague Tim Hetherington.

Photos of Hetherington and Chris Hondros sat between four glowing candles and a vase of flowers in the gallery of the Bronx Documentary Center, where the three-day course took place. The two acclaimed war photojournalists died one year earlier, April 20, 2011, after they were hit during a mortar and grenade attack in Misrata, Libya. Hondros was mortally wounded. Shrapnel cut Hetherington’s femoral artery, a serious injury but one where fast action could have kept him alive until he reached a doctor. Hetherington, however, bled out and died in the back of a pickup truck on the way to a hospital.

Junger opened the session by saying he had just turned 50 and had reported on wars for almost 20 years but “since Tim Hetherington died, I’ve stopped.” Hetherington was “the first person I was really close to who was killed,” he said. Their history includes a year-long Vanity Fair assignment on tour with a platoon in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan that resulted in their 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepo.

Junger said Hetherington’s death was a “wake-up call” and “made me think of other ways I could contribute to journalism.”

He described how a medic at Hetherington’s funeral told him his friend could have lived. “All that had to be done was to slow down the bleeding,” he said. RISC grew from that conversation. Junger secured funding to hold three sessions this year to train freelance journalists, the group on the frontline of war reporting, to treat battlefield injuries so that “someone else in the future will be savable.”

Finding a venue for the first class was not a problem. Michael Kamber, a close friend of Hetherington, was at the funeral with Junger. Kamber is a photojournalist who after years of covering wars for The New York Times bought an abandoned historic building in the South Bronx and created the Bronx Documentary Center. The center’s first exhibition last October came from the last rolls of film Hetherington shot.

The training included but went far beyond first aid. The focus was to assess and manage emergencies and to safeguard what’s most important – getting oxygen to cells through breathing, heartbeats and blood and then, getting the victim to medical care. Each participant received a combat medical kit that they are expected to carry into war zones. Using medical dummies, fake blood, each other’s bodies and resources in that medical kit, the journalists addressed the leading causes of preventable battlefield deaths: hemorrhages, blocked airways and collapsed lungs. It was a course in reality, not ideals. Some people can’t be saved; focus on those who can. Your first obligation is to yourself, your partners, the public and then, to the patient. Battlefield conditions were simulated on the final day.

Wilderness Medical Associates International
, a group specializing in remote medicine with the motto “Face any challenge, anywhere,” spent months developing a curriculum tailored for war zones.

RISC received funding to provide participants free training and accommodations from news agencies. The group’s website acknowledges ABC, CNN, National Geographic, Vanity Fair, Getty Images, Condé Nast, CPJ and the Chris Hondros Fund.

RISC plans a fall training session in London and a winter one in Beirut. The 24 original slots filled quickly with a long waiting list. Participants must have experience in war zones to be eligible.

Junger and Hetherington shared in the 2007 OPC David Kaplan Award for an ABC News-Nightline report from the Korengal Valley. They discussed Restrepo and books each recently had published during an OPC book night in November 2010. Hetherington died eight days before he was to serve as co-presenter at last year’s OPC Awards ceremony and receive a citation for his own photography under fire in Afghanistan.