USA Today Reporter Recounts Two Decades Of Battlefield Reporting

Oct. 8, 2003

by Marianne May, student writer

"Be naïve enough to think you can change the world, and you will," USA Today foreign correspondent Jack Kelley told students attending the Big 12 Student Leadership Conference hosted by Baylor University Sept. 25-27.

More than 40 student representatives from Big 12 schools listened as Kelley spoke about his experiences reporting from battlefields and war-torn countries across the globe. Kelley has been with USA Today since its birth in 1982, covering all major overseas conflicts since 1990.

"My editor says I get paid to get shot at," he said. "If there's a war and I'm not in the middle of it, I get depressed."

Kelley has reported from 96 countries and interviewed 38 heads of state, including Fidel Castro, King Abdullah of Jordan and the Dalai Lama, whom Kelley cited as the three people he most enjoyed interviewing.

Most Americans aren't interested in foreign news, Kelley said, and his goal in speaking to students was to grip them with his experiences behind enemy lines, in the trenches and devastated regions in which he has spent the majority of his professional career.

"I wish I could take every single one of you with me for one day," he said, "You'd never complain again. Your lives would be changed forever."

Kelley's career has given him plenty of his own life-changing experiences, some of which were so horrifying he said he sometimes relives them in nightmares.

During Kelley's 22nd visit to Israel in August 2001, he met a friend for lunch at a Sbarro pizzeria. On his way out of the restaurant, Kelley looked straight into the eyes of the man who moments later would detonate the explosives hidden under his clothing, killing 15 people and injuring more than 90.

Kelley said he didn't sleep for 48 hours, but he was able to write a story that gripped Americans with an eyewitness account of a suicide bombing and the impact it had on the Israeli and Palestinian communities.

During the Somalian famine in 1992, Kelley passed through a village that smelled so strongly of death that he said he burned his clothes later to get rid of the stench. One of the hungry villagers, a young boy, approached Kelley, begging for food. Kelley gave the boy a piece of fruit -- the only thing he had -- and followed the boy home.

The boy's parents were already dead, and his younger brother was barely alive and unable to move. The older brother put the fruit in his mouth, chewed it several times and placed it in his brother's mouth, working the boy's jaws so he could swallow it for nourishment.

It was in that Somalian village that Kelley witnessed pure self-sacrifice. Kelley later received word that the younger brother had lived, but his older brother had died of starvation.

"That experience taught me the importance of giving my life away," Kelley said.

In writing these stories, Kelley said his goal is to wake Americans up and "hit [them] right between the eyes with the truth."

Kelley brought a collection of items he picked up along the way: a diary kept by a soldier that Kelley himself had buried, photographs that had wallpapered one of Saddam Hussein's palaces and Iraqi newspapers full of anti-American propaganda.

Kelley showed students a 16-year-old Serbian girl's diary, full of colorful drawings and celebrity cutouts. On the surface, the diary resembled that of an American teenager, but the cutouts were Serbian war heroes, not movie stars, Kelley explained, and the drawings were graphic diagrams plotting the demise of her Croatian enemies.

During a question-and-answer time following his presentation, one student asked Kelley how he handled such terrifying people and situations.

"I never let them know I'm scared," he said, "Sometimes, I'm shaking in my boots, but I never let 'em know I'm scared."

And why does he continually put his life at risk?

"I'm very passionate about reporting the truth," he said, "And I will not allow anyone to tell me what to write or what not to write."

Kelley's reporting was recently featured along with that of Ernest Hemingway and Walter Cronkite in Washington, D.C.'s Newseum display on war correspondents. His passionate work has earned him numerous awards, including five Pulitzer Prize nominations. He is also the co-author of two books, Nearly One World and World Power Up Close. The Big 12 Student Leadership Conference marked Kelley's second visit to Baylor.

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