By Frederik Balfour
I never knew David Bloom when he was alive. He was brought to our medical tent at the 703rd Battalion of the 3rd Infantry Division (3ID) shortly before 8 a.m. on Apr. 6. Medics were still performing CPR on him when he arrived, but it was already too late. At 8:08 a.m. he was pronounced dead. As I was about to head to the medic station I overheard a soldier phoning in a report, in what I suppose was meant to be military efficiency. But it struck me as chillingly terse. "Report: initial. Enemy involvement: none. Name: Bloom, David. Military unit: civilian. Status: deceased."
Five short lines to summarize the last day of a man who was, by all measures, in the prime of life. Already known by millions of Americans as a co-host of NBC's Weekend Today show, Bloom's live coverage of the Iraqi war gained him an even wider audience, in large part because of the "Bloom-mobile." He traveled most of the time in an armored military-recovery vehicle with a camera mounted on a gyroscope that allowed it to absorb most of the shocks and bumps en route. A microwave antenna transmitted his voice and image to the rest of the NBC crew following several miles behind which then retransmitted the feed via satellite for broadcast.
The concept was Bloom's brainchild, and it was working brilliantly. NBC's viewers were able to follow Bloom and the 3ID as it advanced and attacked Iraq. He made his broadcasts on the move, while competitors resorted to traditional stand-ups and video clips. On the night before his death, Bloom was already planning how to celebrate his team's performance after the war. He had phoned ahead to London to try to book rooms at the Metropolitan hotel in the Mayfair district and a table at Ivy's restaurant.
Tragically, it may have been the long hours he spent cramped in the Army vehicle that caused his death. Three days ago, Bloom had complained of cramps behind his knee. Like most of us journalists "embedded" in the Army, he had endured days and nights of working, eating, and sleeping in our vehicles as convoys snaked their way toward Baghdad.
He consulted military doctors and described his symptoms over the phone to overseas physicians. They suspected DVT, or deep veinous thrombosis, and advised him to seek proper medical attention. He ignored their advice, swallowed some aspirins, and kept on working. On Sunday he died of a pulmonary embolism.
HANDLED WITH TLC.
I learned these medical details from Lieutenant Colonel Manuel Valentine, who many times already during this war had briefed me on the circumstances of deaths surrounding the soldiers whose bodies had been brought to our division for evacuation. But this one felt different. A fellow reporter, a father of three, a husband who just moments before collapsing on Sunday morning, had finished speaking to his wife on the phone.
I spoke to Sergeant Agnes Poston, who was to drive Bloom's body to an evacuation point. She explained to me why she volunteered to become a member of the Army's mortuary affairs unit. "I want to make sure bodies are taken care of safe and sound to their families," she said. "That's how I would want it to be just as if I was going home." I decided then and there that I'd do what I could to make sure Bloom got the same consideration.
Just then his producer from NBC, Paul Nassar came up. I introduced myself and hugged him. He looked drained, devastated. Nassar had been with Bloom since he collapsed. Until that point I hadn't grieved, truly grieved over any of the deaths from this war. But then we both cried.
"I ABHOR IT."
I thought of other journalists who have died covering this conflict. I thought of Michael Kelly the former editor of The Atlantic Monthly who died this weekend. I met him only briefly a few days before the war started. It was blazing hot in the Kuwaiti sun, and I told him to slap on some sunscreen. Even then it seemed a bit ironic considering our assignments. I thought of soldiers on both sides of the conflict and the hundreds of Iraqi citizens who have died. The more I see of war, the more I abhor it.
Then things swung into motion. Nassar and I rode together in the back of a truck with Bloom's body and transferred it to a refrigerated van several kilometers away and waited for a helicopter. An army chaplain came and blessed Bloom in the van. Under any other circumstances, the van's cool air would have made a wonderful respite from the desert heat. The chaplain recited the 23rd Psalm and read these lines from Corinthians, Chapter 15: "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?"
As I write this, Bloom's body is still in Iraq. Though we were told a helicopter was supposed to evacuate him in the early morning, 18 hours later none has come. It has been a frustrating wait. The mortuary affairs team of six young men and women live and work in one large tent apart from the rest of the soldiers in the bleakest part of the desert for miles around. Their radio battery is shot and can't be recharged, cutting them off further from the main body of the Army.
Not for the first time, I despair at the Army's lack of coordination even as our division penetrates the very heart of Baghdad. I hope David Bloom gets home soon.
Balfour, usually based in BusinessWeek's Hong Kong bureau, is embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq
Edited by Rose Brady