RISC Preps War Correspondents for Physical Dangers of Their Profession

Instructor Sawyer Alberi (wearing cap), at a Dec. 2017 RISC training session in Medellín, Columbia. | Photo by Federico Rios

BY JUDY L. RICHHEIMER | Journalism is under siege. Earning one’s living as a reporter is more difficult than ever — and for those fortunate to still be employed, the product of their labor may be dismissed as “fake news.” But for correspondents covering armed conflict, economic insecurity and attacks on credibility pale beside the goal of simply staying alive.

Sebastian Junger is determined to reduce the profession’s mortality rate. The journalist who authored “The Perfect Storm” and co-directed the documentary “Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS” is also responsible for the 2012 creation of Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (Junger feels that its acronym, RISC, conveys “excitement”). Its mission: to teach freelance war correspondents the rudiments of first responder medicine. He remains RISC’s unpaid director and works with one other staff person. Mail comes to The Half King, the popular W. 23rd St. bar/restaurant he co-founded, where the work of photojournalists is often featured in talks and exhibits. “We could run RISC out of a hot dog stand if we had to,” Junger said.

RISC was created in response to a doubly heartbreaking event. In 2011, while covering the civil war in Libya, Junger’s close friend and colleague, photographer Tim Hetherington, was killed by a shrapnel wound. Later Junger learned Hetherington’s wound “was not necessarily mortal. He bled out. People around him didn’t know what to do. Had I been there, I wouldn’t have known what to do.”

Junger limits RISC to freelance war correspondents, recognizing that they face challenges so numerous and interlocking the result can be… well, a perfect storm.

On the one hand, war reporting can serve as “a professional shortcut,” eliminating a trek up the “very slow ladder at a local paper.” But many combat zones are not occupied by American troops, who provide reporters with some degree of protection. “If you are assigned to a platoon with the US military there’s always a medic or a corpsman there. If you’re on your own in someone else’s civil war, there are no Marine corpsmen there to help if you get shot.”

While salaried war reporters are given medical and survival training (their employers’ insurance requires it), freelancers who “typically don’t have a lot of cash” could not afford comparable instruction. So, without RISC, which pays hotel as well as training costs, freelancers would go to remote and violent areas without skills to protect themselves and their colleagues.

Sebastian Junger (right) and Tim Hetherington, whose death in the field prompted Junger to found RISC. | ©Tim Hetherington via sebastianjunger.com

Applicants for the training are chosen with an eye toward diversity, the goal being an even mix of writers and photographers, and men and women (although trainees have been approximately 65 percent male and 35 percent female). Students often come to the training with distinguished careers (some having won Pulitzers) or, like one early participant, Erin Banco, author of the well-received “Pipe Dreams: The Plundering of Iraq’s Wealth,” go on to publish important work in their field.

RISC’s training emphasizes medical survival skills that are, according to Junger, “very, very basic: clear the air passageway, stop the bleeding, stabilize the person, move them, get them out… our mandate is to save lives on the battlefield.” To some extent the curriculum is a work in progress: “We chucked the drowning and the bee stings.” But learning to deal with kidnapping, a growing threat to foreign correspondents, may get added to the course.

The curriculum was developed in conjunction with the Maine-based Wilderness Medical Associates (WMA), a pioneer in teaching remote medical skills. Sawyer Alberi, a WMA instructor, came uniquely qualified to lead that effort. A graduate of the Coast Guard Academy and a former military medic (“I liked the idea of being a citizen soldier,” Alberi said in a phone interview), she wrote her doctorate thesis in education while serving in Afghanistan.

Alberi is sometimes bemused by her RISC students. “They are not used to working as a group; they are used to working as exceptions to the group,” she laughed. But alongside their hyper-independence, RISC trainees have, in Alberi’s view, an exceptionally strong work ethic: “They take seriously that other people donated money for them to take the training.”

The four-day course, which is eight or more hours a day, begins with some foundation of medicine and physiology and quickly moves to hands-on learning. “The most preventable death [in combat zones] is bleeding-related,” Alberi said, noting that strong attention is given to finding bullet entrance and exit holes and learning to apply tourniquets. Another key skill (Junger considers this the most challenging in the syllabus) involves driving a large-gauged-needle into the chest cavity, several ribs down from the collarbone, performed to relieve pressure built up from the trauma of a gunshot wound. “You don’t want to put the needle in the heart — that will kill them,” Junger noted. This skill is practiced on dummies. Other procedures can be done student-on-student (Banco recalled working on a dead chicken).

Journalists learning how to safely move an injured person — one of many scenarios they practice as they build skills throughout the course. | Photo by Scout Tufankjian

Every student is given a medical kit containing scissors, gauze, and other first-aid gear. But Alberi wants them to learn to improvise, if necessary, and will deploy around the training site certain items that might be found in any urban setting. “A tablecloth that could be used for insulation [injured bodies quickly lose heat, leading to hypothermia and possible death], or a blanket, or a garbage bag, even.”

In addition, Alberi leads her students in philosophic discussions of “when to put the camera down and get involved, a personal decision they need to think about beforehand.”

People who observe the trainings are invariably struck by the drama of smoke and explosions that RISC employs to mimic modern warfare and terrorist attacks. Banco — who prior to the training had experienced in the Middle East her share of real life car bombings, or at least their immediate aftershock — was impressed. “The simulation was similar to the chaos I experienced,” she said.

The use of explosives, which are prohibited in certain locales, has helped determine where trainings take place. In 2017, one was held at a campsite outside New York City, whose capacious outdoor space is a natural for RISC, and another in Medellín, Columbia. In addition, Junger explains that training sites need to be “in a place that’s cheap, that’s safe, that’s easily accessible to our students. And we need a country that’s not too corrupt, because we don’t want to end up having to pay bribes to get equipment in and out.”

Junger regards RISC as a kind of insurance policy and is happy that its students have infrequently made use of their training. But those who have had occasion to come to their colleagues’ medical aid describe the experience on the RISC website as “empowering.”

The idealism engendered by the training has intensely affected at least one participant. “I recently got an e-mail from a former RISC student who wanted to leave journalism and get into medicine,” Alberi noted. “She is growing increasingly frustrated with being the witness and not being able to help.”

RISC instructor Bill Frederick (standing), overseeing a practice scenario in which journalists come across the site of a catastrophic emergency with multiple injuries, details of which are given to those standing in as “patients.” | Photo by Scout Tufankjian

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