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Sebastian Junger Launches Medical Training Program For Freelance Journalists In War Zones

Posted: 03/20/2012 3:01 pm

Sebastian Junger Tim Hetherington
PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 21: (L-R) Directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger attend the "Restrepo" Premiere during the 2010 Sundance Film Festival at Eccles Center Theatre on January 21, 2010 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by George Pimentel/Getty Images)

NEW YORK -- Tim Hetherington didn't have to die in Libya.

It's that belief that has led Sebastian Junger, a close friend and colleague of the award-winning photojournalist, to launch Reporters Instructed In Saving Colleagues (RISC), an organization providing freelance journalists with emergency medical training.

Junger began thinking about RISC following Hetherington's funeral in London, where a combat medic told him that Hetherington -- who'd sustained a serious shrapnel wound -- may have reached a nearby Misrata hospital alive if someone, perhaps another journalist on the scene, had stopped the bleeding for 10 more minutes. But Hetherington, along with photographer Chris Hondros, died in Libya that day.

Junger has spoken to some colleagues about RISC in recent months, but the project didn't get wider attention until Monday. Junger posted a link on the Facebook page for The Vulture Club, a gathering place for journalists who regularly flock to war zones, several of whom have built strong bonds given their shared experience in conflicts around the world. Many in the group are freelancers who don't work full-time for a major network or newspaper, and thus they are less likely to receive medical training or have the weight of an institution behind them when working on the front lines.

"Most of the risks are being run by freelancers," Junger said in an interview with The Huffington Post. "People really in the meat grinder of the front lines are not, for the most part, insured or salaried network correspondents. They're young freelancers. They're kind of a cheap date for the news industry."

Junger, who started out as a freelancer in Bosnia and went on to write best-selling books like "The Perfect Storm," said RISC's sessions will be modeled on the informal training he and Hetherington received in Afghanistan, where the pair made the Oscar-nominated documentary, "Restrepo." The three-day RISC course, however, will explain in greater detail ways to try to save a colleague's life, including "clearing air passageways, stopping or slowing bleeding from wounds, stopping air leakage into the chest cavity from a chest wound and transporting the injured person to a medical facility," according to its website.

Requests started pouring in Monday. So far, over 100 journalists have applied for slots in one of the first three trainings, scheduled to take place in New York City, London, and Beirut over the next year. About 15 journalists have already committed to the first training session in New York, which has just 24 slots. While accepted journalists are responsible for travel costs, RISC covers their hotel accommodations and provides combat medical kits for them to keep with them in the field.

The first New York training takes place from April 18 to 20, wrapping up on the one-year anniversary of Hetherington's death.

On RISC's site, Junger wrote that he hopes "first aid training and preparedness will be the industry norm, like having a flak jacket and helmet."

Junger said the first RISC sessions will be paid for by donations from news organizations that Hetherington and Hondros worked for -- including CNN, ABC News, National Geographic, Vanity Fair, Conde Nast, Getty Images -- and the Chris Hondros Foundation. He plans to continue fundraising to pay for future sessions.

Given that the dangers facing journalists in war zones have only increased in the past year, Junger may be more likely to find news organizations and foundations willing to donate. In 2011, more journalists died covering political unrest than any year on record, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Since November, eight local and international journalists have died in Syria, including Times of London correspondent Marie Colvin and French photojournalist Remi Ochlik. New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid, who won two Pulitzers for his war reporting, died of an asthma attack reporting in Syria last month. Times photographer Tyler Hicks performed CPR on Shadid but could not revive him after the asthma attack, later carrying his body over a barbed wire fence and across the border into Turkey.

Unlike some civil wars -- where neither the government nor rebels want journalists around to bear witness -- Junger said that those involved in the uprisings across Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria have been "desperate for coverage." Given these conditions, many journalists, especially freelancers, have followed rebel fighters to the front lines.

"Reporters who are used to being told 'no,' when no one's telling them 'no,' they put themselves in situations that are really, really dangerous," Junger said.

For that reason, it seems more vital than ever for journalists to be trained to save a colleague, or themselves, on the battlefield. "Life and death is often determined in the first 10 minutes," Junger said. "It comes down to people knowing how to do a tourniquet."

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