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Extra, Extra!

A special commencement edition of Outlook celebrating the class of 2003 and this year's outstanding faculty and staff will hit the streets on June 13. Included will be a message from President Robert Glidden, the year's top stories and profiles of several notable students. Commencement ceremonies will be June 7 (Osteopathic Medicine), June 13 (graduate) and June 14 (undergraduate).


June 9, 2003
Covering the news has many ups, downs for Savidge
By Joan Slattery Wall

CNN correspondent Martin Savidge has covered the world. Now, he's coming back to his alma mater, Ohio University, to speak at this year's undergraduate commencement ceremonies. "It's a big honor for me," Savidge says. "It's also kind of a kick. When I graduated, I never envisioned the day I would be called back to deliver a commencement speech." The following story is a detailed chronology of Savidge's recent 80-day assignment to Afghanistan. Savidge also discusses his career and personal life.

Like many journalists covering America's war on terror, Martin Savidge, BSJ '81, became increasingly frustrated that while military missions were occurring almost daily in Afghanistan, very little information was being provided to the media and, therefore, to the American people.

"We had been camping out, literally, at the Kandahar airport, living on the base for about six weeks. You could see military coming and going, and it was frustrating that this sort of activity was going on and we couldn't go on it. We really were very much in the dark. The only insight we had was in the next day's briefing (when) they might tell us how many people were detained. And a lot of times information was coming directly from the Pentagon."

Savidge says he got frustrated with the public affairs officers, explaining to them that the journalists looked foolish by being so close to the action yet not having any information to share. Some journalists weren't even living at the base; they had a house in town, with cooks, a staff and showers. He, on the other hand, was living in a tent at the airport.

"A few of us stuck it out on base. We felt at least if we did that we'd gain more insight and access."

After six weeks, a public affairs officer told the media he had a good story for them. They got their gear and were led to the mailroom, which was loaded with Girl Scout cookies that had been donated to the troops.

"I have nothing against Girl Scouts. My daughter is a Girl Scout. But that was enough to make my cookie snap. We had reported all this 'rah rah' news without any reciprocating access."

About the same time, ABC announced it had made a deal with the U.S. Defense Department to do a reality-based program on troops in Afghanistan.

"That's when I really got angry. Here they made a deal with the Pentagon to have their people swinging out to front lines when I'd been living in tent and gotten nowhere."

He accepted an offer to appear on CNN's "American Morning with Paula Zahn" to share his views on news coverage in Afghanistan.

"I think she asked one question and for about 2 1/2 minutes I did a verbal download about access, about how angry I was, about how important I thought this news was. This war is much more personal than any others that have been fought in recent times because of how many people died on Sept. 11. All we asked as a nation was, 'Are the bad guys being sought? Is justice being done? Is money being spent wisely?'"

About five days after the on-air tirade, another public affairs officer approached Savidge.

"His words were, 'Let's go look at the mountains,' which I knew was not a sightseeing trip. We went outside and pretended to look at the mountains. Without looking at me he said, 'There's a mission coming up.'"

The officer told Savidge only a few media would be selected for the mission, but he had to be willing to go on a moment's notice and not tell anyone, not even CNN, that he was going. The mission could be three days, seven days, or a little longer, the officer said, asking Savidge if he could abide by those rules.

In the end, Savidge spent nearly two weeks with the soldiers, first in training and then in actual combat situations.

"I really thought it was just going to be simple mission, a one-day hit: go into the suspected area, quickly search and leave. But at that point I was just willing to see anything."

He later found out that his cameraman, Scott McWhinnie, got the same offer, as did four other members of the media who were living on the field.

They weren't told when the mission would be or its destination. The only tip was to pack as much cold-weather gear as possible.

Saying Goodbye

The night before the mission, he talked to his wife by phone. He knew if he told her where he was going, he would risk losing the opportunity.

"We usually talk once or twice a day. I was trying to be as natural as I could on my end, yet I knew in my heart it was anything but a normal phone call. The moment we didn't talk for 24 hours I knew she would begin to get very worried."

The next day, the soldiers and media representatives were picked up by a C-17 for a 1 1/2-hour flight to Bagram, the airbase outside of Kabul.

"On the ground there it was dark, and I remember the greeting from aircrews shouting at us, 'Don't step off the runway,' because it was heavily mined." They carefully disembarked, dumped their things in a tent and reported to a briefing in a main command tent outside an old Russian hangar.

"When we walked inside we could see spread out at our feet a massive map, made out of clay and three-dimensional, of the lower Shah-e-Kot valley. By the markings on it and the number of officers in the room, we knew this was no simple operation. In fact, the very first words we heard were, 'Welcome. You are going to be part what is likely to be biggest operation in Afghanistan so far.' So we knew this was not just a mission - this was the mission. We were allowed access to everything."

As part of the mission, called Operation Anaconda, journalists would be "imbedded media," meaning they would be assigned to specific military units. Savidge and McWhinnie were assigned to Charlie Company of the 10th Mountain Division out of Fort Drum, N.Y.

"So you train with them, you live with them, you eat with them, you sleep with them. They get to know you and you get to know them. Initially I don't think they were keen on having us. It was an uneasy marriage in the beginning. We quickly got over that as we spent more and more time with them and they understood what we were about and how we worked."

One area of concern was where Savidge and McWhinnie would be within the formation of the soldiers.

"They didn't want us in front of them because if fighting erupted we would be shot by our own men. We needed to be in middle of the V formation."

That meant practicing to be in the right place at the right time, especially since they'd be in the pitch dark and running quickly to and from a helicopter.

"One day was spent on nothing but a rehearsal of getting on, getting off, over and over." There were 45 people assigned to each helicopter. "You literally needed a shoehorn to pack us on."

He carried 100 pounds gear, including a limited amount of spare clothing along with food and water for about three days. Temperatures would be around 80 degrees during the day, falling to freezing at night.

"I got stuck with carrying the camera batteries. They were 15 pounds each, and I had, I believe, four of them. Of course, the cameraman had the camera. We had rehearsed getting to the helicopter, walking about a mile and a half three times. Each time we'd stagger back to our tent and say, 'We've got to get rid of some of this stuff.' We lightened to the bare essentials."

Conversations with the soldiers brought up two difficult issues. First, they wanted the journalists to carry body bags.

"That came about not so much because we were going to be killed but because we had sleeping bags but didn't have proper covers to sleep out in snow." The body bags were meant to provide extra warmth. "Just the idea of sleeping inside one of those was so repulsive that we couldn't bring ourselves to do it. We left them behind."

The other issue involved weapons.

"They wanted us to be armed, for a couple of reasons. One because they said it was going to be extremely dangerous. Two, they said, 'The two of you are joining this platoon and two soldiers will not be going.' It was simple substitution. The troops would be down two guns. Everything is taken into account."

Savidge was vehemently opposed to carrying an M-16 rifle. The next idea was to give him an M-9, a Beretta 9-mm handgun.

"I said, 'No, I just can't see it. If it really comes down to Marty armed with a pistol saving the day, things are pretty grim.' We made a final concession we would at least learn how to properly load, fire and use the weapon should it come down to that. If we get into the most dire of circumstances, we'll decide whether to become combatants."

Continued: D-Day for Operation Anaconda
(Ohio Today, Fall 2002)

Joan Slattery Wall is assistant editor of Ohio Today. This story originally appeared in Ohio Today Online


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