CNN producer tells journalism students of his war experience coming under attack in Iraq and Afghanistan
By James Towney and Brandie Monreal
CNN producer Tomas Etzler and his cameraman were embedded with U.S. soldiers in Fallujah, Iraq in 2004 when they were attacked by Taliban fighters. They took cover in a schoolhouse as bullets and bombs pounded the building.
It was 8 o’clock at night when Etzler went out to the school courtyard to contact CNN’s Atlanta Headquarters, as he did every two hours. As he dialed the number, all of a sudden, a mortar exploded only a few feet away. Etzler was flung to the ground. The Marines who were near him were screaming.
“I never ever heard anything like that before or after, it was just an incredible boom,” he said. “Blood was coming from my head and my side. I was shocked. I was lying on my stomach and couldn’t hear anything. It was just buzzing.”
Etzler was hit by shrapnel on his head and lower back just below the rim of his flak jacket. Two marines were killed and nine others were seriously wounded.
Etzler was leaning on a waist-high concrete wall, which saved his legs from being blown off. The two Marines were not as lucky. With medics unable to reach them and without emergency equipment, Etzler said the marines probably bled to death. His satellite phone blocked more shrapnel that could have caused more serious injury.
“I still have that phone,” he said. “The phone stopped that shrapnel or there would’ve been more in my face or in my head.”
During the two-hour firefight that followed, soldiers threw grenades out of the school windows.
“From my military training I knew that they only did this when the enemy was close,” he said. “I considered grabbing a gun and joining the fight because at this point it was all about survival. I was truly scared. I didn’t know if I would make it out alive.”
Etzler lifted his camera to document the situation, but it was quickly covered in the blood running from his head. The camera no longer worked.
The fighting calmed down at about 10:30 p.m. Finally, reinforcements were able to reach his location and took the wounded to a field hospital.
“It was the most freighting two hours of my life,” he said.
Etzler told the story of the battle for Fallujah to the War Reporting class at Humboldt State University on Wednesday.
Days later when Etzler’s wounds were patched up, he asked his bosses at CNN if he could return to Fallujah to finish filming. They said no and sent him home to heal and rest.
“I just wanted to go back in,” Etzler said. “I knew that what I wrote would be in the history books.”
A Journalism Career that Starts in Colorado
Etzler’s journalism career began in April 1999 while he was in graduate school at the University of Colorado. CNN hired him as a driver to help in the network’s coverage of the Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, where two gunmen killed 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves. Etzler was responsible for driving CNN correspondents to and from the Denver airport, and was assigned to buy food, run errands and other tasks.
“I was just a driver but I knew that was a step in the door,” he said. “The whole time I was there, CNN really made me feel like I was part of the team.”
Mission in Afghanistan
Months later, Etzler was pitching story ideas to CNN’s bureau chief, who suggested that he produce it because CNN was short on journalists at the time. Impressed by Etzler’s work, CNN sent Etzler to Afghanistan in March 2002 for 16 weeks.
“That was my first deployment,” he said. “I told CNN I would stay as long as they needed me there.”
His time in Afghanistan was instrumental in progressing the way journalists cover war. Etzler convinced one of the U.S. commanders in Kabul to allow him and his crew to go on a mission to track down Al Qaeda.
“After two months of me pushing, we finally broke them,” Etzler said. “I will never forget it. The commander woke me up at five in the morning and said he was planning a massive operation and wanted CNN to be there. At the time, it was the biggest military air assault since the 1991 Gulf War, and we were there.”
Etzler boarded a Chinook helicopter with CNN’s military correspondent Martin Savage and a cameraman.
“We just followed the soldiers and got on the helicopter and flew to the valley,” he said. “But the landing zone was under heavy fire so we had to return to base. Then there was another push and we got on another helicopter but it was chaos with the dust blowing up and we got on the wrong one. We lost our public affairs officer and it was scary.”
Etzler said they were dropped off with soldiers in a remote location.
“The helicopter didn’t land, it just leaned to one side and hovered and the soldiers jumped out, so we jumped out too,” he said.” And the platoon officer sees us and says, ‘who are you,’ and I said CNN, and he said, ‘I hate journalists.'”
The next thing Etzler knew, they were marching through the mountains at high altitude in sub-freezing temperatures.
“We walked for 24 hours at 12-thousand feet with our heavy camera and several batteries,” he said. “Our platoon discovered some shacks where they believed Al Qaeda was hiding, and we got into some fire fights.”
Then a grenade hit the location where his crew put their belongings.
“Our stuff was destroyed by mortar grenade,” he said. “So then they didn’t have sleeping bags, and it was freezing at night, so they had to sleep between the soldiers to get some warmth and this went on for eight days.”
Etzler and his crew never complained, and the military was apparently pleased how things went.
“I was told later by a general in the pentagon, that our mission with the military in early march 2002 served as a model for embeds that became so common later in Iraq,” Etzler said.
Since then, Etzler has covered news in Iraq, China and terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels and Berlin. He has a sincere passion for the profession.
“What makes a journalist a journalist, is curiosity, wanting to see new things and tell the stories that are not being told,” he said. “You are part of history, and you have an important job. It is not my job to give my opinion, my job is to tell the story.”
Tomas Etzler is now a freelance journalist working from his birthplace of Prague, Czech Republic.