CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – Early one morning in 2007, journalist Willy Stern arrived at a palace formerly owned by Saddam Hussein to go on a friendly jog with retired Gen. David Petraeus, then-commander of U.S. troops in Iraq.
The general’s public affairs officer referred to it as a social run – three miles at a slow pace. Nothing to worry about, right?
“I can do that,” Stern recalled. “So I’m standing outside the palace at 0600 hours and 17 Olympic athletes walk out. I started to realize, hey, I’m being hazed.”
Petraeus and the other runners took off on a brutal 5.7-mile run at a six-minute a mile pace. Stern made it about three miles, before collapsing in the stifling desert heat. The experience that morning, later published as a celebrated article in the magazine Runner’s World, marked the investigative journalist’s initiation into the world of embedded, war reporting.
This fall, Stern is sharing the skills he honed in hot zones such as Afghanistan and Iraq at the Austin Peay Center @ Fort Campbell with a new English course, Investigative and War Reporting. The class, which is open to active duty military, dependents and veterans, begins Oct. 22. Several seats are still open.
“He’s been an embedded reporter in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and he approached me about offering a class in investigative reporting at Fort Campbell,” Dr. David Guest, chair of the APSU Languages and Literature Department, said. “His war reporting experiences have left him with a strong sense of obligation and commitment to soldiers and their families.”
Stern started his career as a small town newspaper reporter in Louisiana and worked his way up to major news publications, such as Forbes Magazine and Business Week. His forte was investigative journalism, but after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he felt called to do something more.
“Like a lot of people, I was thinking after 9/11, what could I do,” he said. “With a limited skill set, I thought maybe I could write the soldiers’ stories.”
Stern spent the next few years strapping on a heavy Kevlar vest and helmet, and riding in armored vehicles and C-130 planes to find those stories. In 2009, he was the only journalist to visit secret prisons run by coalition forces in Afghanistan. That piece was published in the January 2010 issue of The Weekly Standard.
Stern now lives in Nashville, where he continues to work as a freelance journalist and teach similar classes for Vanderbilt University’s Law School, where there are dozens of students on the wait list trying to get into the courses taught by the award-winning journalist. But he is volunteering to teach this new class at the Austin Peay Center @ Fort Campbell because, Stern says, “I care deeply about soldiers and their families.”
“I’m teaching at Fort Campbell for free,” he said. “I have enormous respect for who these soldiers are, what they do and the sacrifices they make every day. I stand in awe of the men and women in uniform.”
The class, listed as ENGL 3240, is a three credit-hour course that meets from 11:15 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays. Students will read investigative and war reporting pieces and learn some of the down-and-dirty, non-nonsense techniques used by investigative journalists.
“There are some really impressive writers out there doing great stuff. We’re going to look at that stuff,” Stern said. “We’re going to do ethics too. Like the Rolling Stone profile of (Gen. Stanley) McChrystal which changed history. Did the journalist handle it right? What mistakes did he make? Did McChrystal make mistakes too?”
Stern has humped it as a newsman around the globe—from Jerusalem to Tokyo, from Johannesburg to Iceland, from Timbuktu to Alaska, and many points in-between.
For more information on the course, contact the APSU Department of Languages and Literature at 221-7891.