By Paul A. Anthony, Editor in Chief
American soldiers play with Iraqi children in the photographs ACU alumnus David Leeson took Monday morning.
His wife, Kim Ritzenthaler, a Dallas Morning News photographer like her husband, received the photos Leeson sent from An Nasiriyah, a strategic town bridging the Euphrates River.
Just hours later, Associated Press photos from the same town showed American soldiers carrying their wounded away from a bloody gun battle.
“I thought, ‘I’m so glad he wasn’t there,'” Ritzenthaler said. “But right after that, I thought, ‘It’s too bad he wasn’t there to take a great shot.'”
Leeson, class of 1978, is one of two alumni who are embedded as photojournalists with coalition forces as they march north through Iraq. The other is Chris Anderson, class of 1990.
The Third Infantry Division, Leeson’s company, left An Nasiriyah just as fighting was escalating in the city, his wife said. The division now is fighting Republican Guard forces just south of Baghdad.
“The photos that he sent were all happy photos,” said Ritzenthaler, who has been married to the former Optimist photographer for three years. “Within a couple hours, I saw all these photos of death and destruction.”
War often paints with bloody colors the tightrope journalists walk in war as they seek big stories while risking their lives. Already, one journalist has been killed in Iraq, while several others have been wounded.
“On the one hand, I’m very proud of him,” said Dr. Lynn Anderson, Chris’s father, as well as a former ACU professor. “On the other hand, I pray with every breath I breathe” every time news reports air talking about American casualties.
But the danger is not new to either photographer, family members said.
Leeson is a three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist. He covered the first Gulf War, the Nicaraguan civil war from behind both sides’ front lines and the American ousting of Panama dictator Manuel Noriega. In Panama, Leeson was shot at, and he still wears the scar on his chin.
Anderson also has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He has covered wars in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo. Working as a free-lancer, Anderson is covering this war for U.S. News & World Report and The New York Times.
“It is kinda cool,” Lynn said. “He’s done a lot of front-page covers for magazines.”
But often, pictures are the only communication they have with their friends and family.
Leeson calls his wife every two days from his satellite phone, and she turns around and relays information to his parents.
“You never get used to it,” said Kirby Leeson after he finished listing his son’s exploits: shrapnel in the mouth, captured and held overnight by South American rebels, living with the homeless in Dallas for 30 weeks. “He’s been through a lot.”
Anderson called his parents last weekend from a tank somewhere in Iraq, and they haven’t heard from him since. They keep track of him through his photo agency in Paris, France.
“I don’t know where he is tonight,” Lynn said. In their last conversation Saturday, Lynn said Chris reported cramped, noisy conditions that made it hard to sleep.
“He said this is the toughest, most grueling condition he’s been through yet,” he said.
Leeson reported similar conditions in Wednesday’s Dallas Morning News, where he filed a dispatch that said he was counting the days until he could sleep in his own bed.
“Right now, I’m exhausted and a tad war weary. I’ve had little sleep,” Leeson told the Optimist in an e-mail Thursday. “We went through a big battle last night and early today and I’m relieved to be alive and well and in relative good spirits. I’m just ready to be done with this thing and get back home.”
But until that happens, the two photographers-who are friends and ate dinner together in Kuwait soon before the war started-continue to walk that tightrope between the story and the danger.
“You just kind of live from one [conflict] to another and think, ‘This is the last one,’ and hope it is,” said Leeson’s mother, Dolores. “Each time he’s there isn’t easier.”