Emma Cowing: When the journalist becomes the story

ON 6 JULY, 2008, for four minutes my heart stopped. In those few moments, I was briefly the first British journalist to die in the war in Afghanistan.

• Emma at Camp Bastion before leaving for FOB (forward operating base). Picture: TSPL

I had already been declared a fatality by soldiers on the ground after collapsing with acute heatstroke in the frontline town of Musa Qala while on foot patrol with British soldiers and US Marines in temperatures of 54C.

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Communications across Operation Herrick had been shut down so my family could be informed. Lying on a stretcher on a Chinook helicopter in a coma, with my body temperature at 43C and all my major organs failing, my chances of survival were slim. That I did survive, and that I am alive today, is not only a miracle, but a testament to the true professionalism and dedication of the British soldiers who brought me back to life in the world's most inhospitable warzone.

Rupert Hamer, the Sunday Mirror's defence correspondent, was not so lucky. On Sunday, he and photographer Phil Coburn were travelling in a vehicle with US Marines north-west of Nawa in Helmand province when it was hit by a roadside bomb. Hamer died at the scene. Coburn has had a leg amputated below the knee and remains in a serious but stable condition. A US Marine was also killed and five more suffered serious injuries.

That Hamer has assumed the title that so nearly befell me is a tragedy. I did not know him personally, but I understand he was one of the best – skilled and dedicated to what he did. Both he and Coburn were seasoned professionals, veterans of both of the dusty wars our armed forces have fought in the past decade.

No good journalist wants to become "the story". It is the journalist's job, particularly in a warzone, to stay behind the scenes; to be the invisible tool that tells the public the real story of what is happening in a war that has claimed the lives of 246 British soldiers in the past eight years.

But every time a journalist is injured, kidnapped or killed in a warzone, their fate becomes the story. Questions are asked about why they are there, about the risks at which they are putting the soldiers they accompany – about whether they should even be there at all. It is a question I am still asked regularly, and one I think about every day.

The rescue process that anyone in Helmand goes through, be they soldier or journalist, is remarkable. In the hours that followed my collapse, my heart, brain, liver and lungs all shut down. My liver developed ischemic hepatitis. My heart failed twice while on the Chinook, both times I was resuscitated by soldiers clad in helmets and body armour. Before that, I had been kept alive by a small medical team in Musa Qala who, working in basic, dusty conditions, saved lives every day. After being flown by MERT (Medical Emergency Rescue Team) out of Musa Qala, a Taleban-infested frontline town where helicopters rarely landed at that time, I was admitted to the intensive care unit of Camp Bastion hospital in northern Helmand.

There I was put into an induced coma and kept on a ventilator, unable to breathe on my own. Coming round 18 hours later, bruised and swollen, wires and tubes sticking out of me at every angle and breathing through a tube, I was numb, unable to take in what had happened to me.

Every journalist, on being asked by their media outlet to go to a warzone, must make a pact with themselves. That they will do their very best; that they will not get in the way of the soldiers they are accompanying; that they will tell the stories they find there with honesty and integrity; that they will not take unnecessary risks, but that they will accept that risks must be taken in order to get the good stories.

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In order to tell the people back home truthfully about what life on the frontline is like for our troops, you must – if only for a week or two – live that life yourself.

Britain has always had a strong tradition of good war reporting. From the days of the Crimean War, when journalists reported on the poor conditions soldiers were expected to fight in, to the days of the First World War, where some reporters spent months holed up in the trenches with the troops, journalists have always been a necessary element on the battlefield. Their families are long-suffering and understanding – they know that the risks are a part of the job.

What Hamer's family will be going through right now I cannot imagine.

Some argue that journalists should not be allowed on to the frontline – that they put soldiers at risk and that they get in the way of military personnel attempting to do their job. Others will counter that, without those journalists there, the truth of what really happens on the frontline would never be read or seen or discussed outside of a small section of the military.

I live with the guilt of my collapse every day. I do not know why my otherwise strong and healthy body gave out on me, but I know that it gave me as true an insight as I will ever have into the devastating impact of the climate in Afghanistan on our troops (many of whom have suffered the rarely reported effects of heatstroke themselves).

I have written about it, spoken about it and looked deeply into the psychological impact of being injured in a warzone. I have interviewed veterans, spent time with charities, such as Combat Stress and Gardening Leave, who treat veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, and written about their work. I left Afghanistan 18 months ago, but I am still reporting its impact on those who have fought, and continue to fight there. Under the circumstances, I feel it's the least I can do.

Phil Coburn was due to be flown home yesterday. He will have been brought back to the UK through an extraordinary system known as aeromed, which I went through myself. Six army medics, specialists in their field, were flown out to Helmand to collect me. Still covered in wires, drips and tubes, I was strapped on to a small stretcher and loaded on to an RAF Hercules for the short trip to Kandahar airfield. I lay at the feet of a row of bemused soldiers, next to huge sacks of mail. A nurse held my hand.

At Kandahar, I was loaded on to an RAF TriStar bound for RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. On the plane, a small mobile intensive care unit was set up for me. I was strapped into a stretcher and a small privacy screen was set up where I could be treated.

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Even through the haze of my pain and confusion, I was aware that this was something remarkable – a medical care system that beat the hell out of the NHS for efficiency, accuracy and top-level care.

There are moments of kindness from those strange few days that still touch me deeply today: the grizzled paratrooper whom I'd met in Camp Bastion ten days before who turned up in the intensive care unit of the base field hospital to sit and hold my hand; the nurse on the TriStar who would lift my head so I could take tiny sips of Ribena; the soldier at Birmingham's Selly Oak Hospital who, upon seeing my lost and worried parents wandering the corridors and hearing their Scottish accents, took them straight to my bedside. The army looks after its own, but it also takes time to look after those who travel with them. In every literal sense, they have your back. You repay them by telling the world their stories.

I will always bear the scars of what happened to me in Afghanistan. There are the nightmares, the occasional flashback, and the knee injury which my doctor keeps nagging at me to get physiotherapy for.

But these are minor scratches. Just over 18 months on, what has left the deepest mark on me is the profound respect I have for the British military, for our soldiers and for those journalists who, like Hamer and Coburn, accompany them into battle.

Hamer's death is a tragedy, but this incident should not stop men and women like him from doing their jobs. If anything, it makes their role in this complex and difficult war even more vital.


• 10 January, 2010: Sunday Mirror defence correspondent Rupert Hamer killed and photographer Phil Coburn seriously injured by roadside bomb north of Nawa, Helmand.

• 30 December, 2009: Michelle Lang, Calgary Herald reporter, killed by a roadside bomb in Kandahar.

• 10 December, 2009: Guardian foreign correspondent Ghaith Abdul-Ahad and two Afghan journalists are kidnapped near the Pakistan border. They are released unharmed six days later.

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• 5 September, 2009: British-born New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell and Afghan interpreter and journalist Sultan Munadi are kidnapped near Kunduz. Four days later British special forces mount a rescue: Farrell is retrieved, but Munadi, a British soldier and two Afghan civilians are killed in the operation.

• 28 August, 2009: American CBS radio news correspondent Cami McCormick is seriously injured in a roadside bombing in Logar province.

• 12 August, 2009: Spanish photographer Emilio Morenatti and Indonesian Andi Jatmiko, a TV news videographer, both working for Associated Press news agency, are injured in a roadside bombing.