Stories From the Shadows: Alumna Continues Her Career as War Correspondent
From the devastated shores of Banda Aceh, Indonesia, in the aftermath of the 2004 South Asian Tsunami, to the desolate deserts of Iraq and the cave-riddled mountains of Afghanistan, this UW Department of Communication alumna (1992) has braved heat, isolation, and yes, bullets, in search of a good story.
Quade is a freelance war reporter in the tradition of Joe Galloway and Ernie Pyle, operating for months at a time, solo, to gather, edit and produce footage from some of the planet’s most dangerous places.
The winner of a 2012 “Edward R. Murrow Award” for the “Horse Soldiers of 9/11,” her short documentary went on to premier in May at the G.I. Film Festival in Washington, D.C. Narrated by Gary Sinise, it profiles the entry of the first U.S. special operations forces to see combat in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, and the creation of a monument in New York in their, and other service members’, honor.
Since we last caught up with her, Quade has hardly slowed down, continuing to dive deep into long-term reporting trips to the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Along with her documentary, she recently produced a special report for The New York Times’ “At War” Web site. The result of five years of persistent reporting, it tells the story of a dramatic helicopter crash in southern Afghanistan that she witnessed first-hand.
Alex Quade covering Green Berets.
That same tale was told more crudely during the 2010 Wikileaks data dump, but Quade, who had been working at the story at the time, tells it with far more nuance, human empathy and understanding.
“I want the audience …to be riveted, to keep their attention in this short-attention-span … [and] twitter world that journalism has become,” she said. “I believe in still putting together the puzzle pieces and trying to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense. … I believe that is still our role as reporters, and even more important in this era of infotainment.”
To that end, she has spent countless hours listening and studying her subjects —the shadowy American special-operations forces that are deployed in more than 100 countries around the world — and then long months living in close proximity to these same U.S. Special Forces (Green Berets), Navy Seals and Air Force Pararescue jumpers and combat-air controllers. She goes out on their missions, “downrange,” but in some cases has followed them home to see them cope with the emotional and physical impacts of modern-day war.
reporting at night
Quade is fully aware of just how much of a risk she runs by doing what she does: more than 40 reporters have died this year alone covering combat or in other hostile situations in places such as Somalia and Syria. She said that if captured, she would be a “‘big catch’ for insurgents and extremists … who’d assume I’m a combatant, or worse, a spy, just because I’m alone out there covering the Special Operators’ actions.”
But it’s worth it.
“If we, as reporters don’t keep fighting to cover these important stories, despite the cost, then that type of reportage may disappear, and those troops …will have even less of a voice,” she said.
Alex interviewing Green Beret.There’s a strong case to be made for professional journalism: the steady eye of an experienced reporter can provide the crucial context for these voices.
“I prefer having a seasoned war reporter, a veteran who can make sense of war and insurgencies and explain what is going on, as opposed to seeing YouTube… videos and Tweet[s], which you cannot verify for accuracy, nor know if you are seeing propaganda, nor really know exactly what you are seeing.”
Facing the reality of stretched budgets, and with the “economy working against newsrooms,” it’s important for reporters to be “tough and resourceful,” and to not relent from their watchdog role in society.
“What we do is still relevant, it’s just trying to find a home for getting these stories out,” she said.
That’s one of the reasons she’s drawn to the challenge of covering the special-operations community, where making the hard-to-access accessible and the hard-to-understand understandable is a consummate professional challenge, for her.
Getting these modest men and women to talk can be a challenge unto itself, she said.
“These folks, they don’t want to talk, they don’t want to tell their stories. They figure if they’re not on camera, it means that they will live to see another day,” and most are really reluctant, too, to seek any kind of glory or attention.
She tells that them that while “they can be quiet professionals … they don’t need to be silent professionals.”
Climbing Mount Rainier
To earn their trust, and get into their world well enough to comprehend it in ways that go beyond parachute journalism, she’s done things like climb Mount Rainier with a former, wounded Navy Seal named Ryan Job, blinded by a sniper in Iraq. Job, from Issaquah, was blind, but made it up the mountain with help from his friends and fellow special operations soldiers, including Green Berets based out of Fort Lewis.
Job has since passed away, but Quade remains inspired by his example: “I go over, under, around, [and] through every obstacle to get the job done. Never quit. [And] continue the mission.”
That mission is doing good journalism in the toughest environments.
“Who gets to do what we do? We get to witness history, we get to spend time with amazing individuals in difficult locations and difficult places … going through difficult things and try to make sense of it all… the chance to be a fly on the wall, it’s great stuff.
“They do their job, I do mine… and I just try to stay out of their way, and try not to get killed as I try to document their stories… so that their hard work and actions in unknown or forgotten places, are not forgotten by history, and that their families, children [and the] American [public] knows about the quiet service and sacrifice going on, on their behalf.”