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Former CNN reporter speaks at the Athenaeum

By Erin O'Connor

Staff Writer

WESTFIELD "Strange things happen in the war. A little bird flew up and came into our vehicle and it sits on our shoulders, our arms. It was like it was saying 'You are going to survive- you are going to be okay',"former CNN senior international correspondent Walter Rodgers said to a crowd at the Westfield Athenaeum on Aug. 23.

Rodgers spoke of his experience as a reporter embedded with the U.S. Army's Third Squadron Seventh stationed in Iraq.

"Exactly the same thing happened to a friend of mine also in the war. A little bird started pecking around right in front of him. He jumped up and followed the bird while they were shooting all around. I had my bird and he had his."

The publicity campaign for Rodgers' book Sleeping with Custer and the Seventh Calvary: an Embedded Reporter in Iraq included a book signing at the Westfield Athenaeum. Rogers said this is the library where he learned to read as a young boy.

"It is a joy to be back here at this library, which to me is a hallowed building. I virtually learned to read from this end of Pleasant Street to the other side, where Abner Gibbs is," Rodgers said, "Learn to read and you learn to think."

Rodgers reminisced on the Saturday morning puppet shows that use to be presented at the library when he was a child. Rodgers said that the shows cultivated his love for the theater.

"Thank you Westfield library very much," he said.

He then went on to graduate from Southern Illinois University, was in broadcasting for nearly 40 years, and did reporting stints at ABC and CNN.

"While he was with CNN, Rodgers was based in London, covering the war against terror and the search for Osama Bin Laden. He was previously the CNN bureau chief in Jerusalem, and the ABC News bureau chief in Moscow, where he regularly appeared on ABC's 'World News Tonight'," said Christopher Lindquist of the Athenaeum in his introduction of Rodgers.

Rodgers encouraged members of the audience to write books and to start by just writing the first page.

"If I can do it then anybody can," he said, "Where does the inspiration come from? Most Americans don't listen. You must learn to listen if you are going to write successfully," he said.

Rodgers spoke of advice that his former Sunday School teacher gave him,

"Listen for ideas and if you do the inspiration will come," she had said to his Sunday School class.

The topic of conversation changed when Rodgers began discussing and commenting on his experiences with the Seventh Calvary assault on Baghdad.

"My reaction (to the War) I simply wanted to stay alive. That is what most Marines and soldiers will tell you that they cared about," he said.

Rodgers spoke about what prompted him to write this book.

"I began writing to validate an experience that I had," he said, "The feelings were very intense at the time there is nothing more intense then combat or war. I asked myself was it as intense and as dangerous as I remembered?"

Rodgers said that to answer these questions he called up enlisted men and they would confirm what he remembered and include their own narrations to him.

Rodgers told the audience he was not completely satisfied with everything he was able to put into the book because some aspects were censored.

"I was heavily censored by CNN. I believe they were afraid some of my comments would not make the Bush Administration look good," Rodgers said.

Rodgers followed his speech with a question and answer time with the audience.

One audience member, who appeared upset, questioned Rodgers statements.

"Freedom is not free and we must pursue those who would damage that," he said to Rodgers and then accused Rodgers of not supporting this cause.

"Personally I was not against Iraq from the onset but it turns out there were no weapons of mass destruction. If there were, there would be no one who would want to prove it more than the administration and they cannot do it," Rodgers said. "Theories are out there but I need proof."

The question and answering continued as topics varied from past, current and future situations involving the United States and war.

Rodgers drew parallels between the war in Iraq and the war in Vietnam, but said that he felt most similarities could be found in Iraq with a comparison to the war in Afghanistan.

"I know of no solution at all. We bounced back from Vietnam five to seven years after. In Iraq it will be a lot longer ," he said.

It is not safe for journalists to be embedded reporters in the current situation Rodgers said, "there are no longer any non- combatants. It isn't that way anymore where civilians and journalists are now combatants."

"The book I wrote had more than a few anecdotes in it and a few surprises," Rodgers said.

More information about Rodgers' book can be found by visiting the Westfield Athenaeum.