Journalists and historians have borne firsthand witness to military operations for eons. During the Vietnam War era, media has effectively unfettered access to military operations. Access to the U.S. military during the 1991 Gulf War, on the other hand, was tightly controlled. 

The 2001-2015 Global War on Terror (GWOT) brought about a new approach by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) in how it worked with news outlets to embed journalists with troops downrange in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Reporters embedded with small military units, usually unsupervised by military public affairs minders, and free to report on what they saw, within the strictures of the military’s ground rules. 

The military generally views media coverage as an opportunity to build public and political support for their operational priorities. In my experience as a public affairs soldier planning and coordinating media embeds, the operative principle behind the GWOT-era media embed program was the belief that by sharing deprivation and serious risk with ground troops, bonds of affection will result, and that affection will translate into positive or at least sympathetic media coverage. So, when covering the U.S. military, it’s important to understand your own bias as a journalist, and to be aware of the circumstances and intentional shaping that inform that bias.

The purpose of this guide is to help you navigate the embed process, provide some insight into the effects that the embed program may have on your reporting, and help you have a safe and productive embed.  I was an enlisted military photographer for six years, processing and escorting media in Iraq as well as photographing combat operations myself.  After that I spent seven years working in Afghanistan as a civilian reporter, often embedded with US troops. 

If you wish to cover current U.S. military training or combat operations, on the ground and in person, there is little option for the reporter but to apply for an embed.  If you wish to cover the toll war takes on civilians, reporting unembedded will be much more fruitful. The point of contact for an embed is always the unit’s public affairs office (PAO). In general, embeds are handled at the division level or higher, so even if it’s just a specific company or battalion you’re trying to embed with, you will need to start the conversation with the Division PAO. Contact information is easy to find on the unit or base website, and unit social media pages are generally run by the PAO as well if you want to reach out there.

If you are looking for an embed in a theater of war, the process begins with a centralized PAO unit that handles all embeds in that theater. For example, The 2001-2014 International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was the overarching command responsible for the NATO military mission in Afghanistan. All media embed requests would go through ISAF, via an email address posted on their website. The ISAF PAO would hand these requests off to subordinate units, who would then provide the reporter with Invitational Travel Orders (ITO). While it was (and is) possible to travel to and within Afghanistan on commercial jets, civilian access to a military base or military aircraft requires a valid ITO.

As of late 2022, there is no established pipeline to place media embeds with forward deployed soldiers as there was during the GWOT.  Special Operations Forces are particularly difficult to embed with – sometimes if you have an existing relationship with soldiers in that unit, and your reporting will serve their strategic or recruiting interests, embeds are possible. Individual requests are handled by unit public affairs – it never hurts to ask!  

Paperwork and bureaucracy

If you’re a freelancer, the PAO will likely ask you to submit a Letter of Intent to Publish from a news organization. If you are on assignment, a letter from your editor at the publication will suffice. If you are reporting “on spec” and don’t have a client in mind, you can always ask a local paper with ties to the military unit if they will write you such a letter in exchange for some locally-focused dispatches from your embed. 

A similar letter may be required to obtain a visa for the host country. Even if you are with US forces the entire time, the military will still require you to have a valid visa for the country.

For embeds in a combat zone, the military will require you to have proof of insurance that will cover medical evacuation. If your newsroom’s insurance policy will not cover you, war zone insurance options are available through companies like Global Rescue, NYIG, and many others.

The military will have a set of ground rules for you to sign as well, as a condition of embedding. In a conflict zone, the typical ground rules cover safety, operational security, liability, and identification of US casualties. Let’s look at these four categories and what they mean for a reporter:

Safety: You’ll have to bring your own body armor and helmet. A plate carrier with Level IV plates will suffice, but an Interceptor-type kevlar vest with plates offers more protection. Surplus/used ACH helmets are fine, but you will want to buy body armor new – there can be hidden damage and degradation. Buy plates from a reputable source – has competitive prices and good customer support. Steel plates are cheap and heavy, ceramic plates are expensive and lighter – both offer comparable protection. A military plate carrier is ok, but do not wear a military uniform or camouflage if you’re not a soldier. Subdued, durable civilian clothing is fine. Media are not allowed to carry weapons for obvious safety and ethical reasons. Reporters will have to observe the same light and noise discipline tactics as soldiers do on the battlefield, as well as prohibitions on drinking and using drugs.

Operational Security: The military is understandably protective of information that could aid their enemies, and they will be specific about what information you cannot publish. In general, don’t take pictures of any military document, map, or computer screen without permission. Don’t publicize upcoming operations or tactical protocols – that will get you disembedded immediately. If you aren’t embedded through special operations command, don’t take pictures of any special operations forces you come across.

Liability: You can expect the military to patch you up if you get hurt while embedded, but once you’re off the battlefield, medical care is your own responsibility. The military is not responsible for your gear getting destroyed or abandoned, and they won’t let you borrow any of theirs. You’ll need your own insurance and backup gear.

Reporting on Casualties: The military prohibits identifying, by visuals or text, service members killed in action until their family has been notified. In addition, the military requires you obtain the written consent of any wounded servicemember you photograph before the images can be released. Of course, such consent is usually impossible to obtain on the battlefield and difficult to obtain afterwards. The unwritten rule is that even if you do follow these ground rules, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get future embeds. The military has an active interest in minimizing reporting on casualties, particularly graphic visual imagery. You and your editors will have to make an informed, ethical decision about whether to publish this kind of information, and be ready for backlash from the military, and possibly the families affected.

If you have never served or worked with the military before, you may be expecting an embed to be a culture shock. Although the Hollywood version of the military may be one-dimensional action heroes, in reality soldiers come from all walks of life and you’ll likely find the culture fairly recognizable. The professional language of the military consists mainly of slang and jargon, however, which can be daunting for an outsider. Soldiers are expected to speak plainly with the media, so don’t hesitate to ask for clarification if they throw unfamiliar acronyms at you. Do your best to learn some of these acronyms and jargon, as it will make conversation about their profession easier.

My book Attention Servicemember contains a glossary of GWOT-era military slang, but jargon is often highly specific to the branch of service, unit, and operational context. 

Your embed will be more productive if you recognize its limitations. Embedding is a good way to understand the military’s perspective and the soldier’s experience. Embedding is a woefully incomplete way to understand a war. For example, if you try interviewing an Afghan civilian while you’re out on patrol with Marines, you’ll be viewed as a foreign invader and you will not get any reliable reporting done in this manner. Some media embeds get star-struck by soldiers – which is the trap the military has laid for you. For example, several first-time embeds have told me that the unit they were with is made of utterly elite professionals when in actuality I would consider the unit the Bad News Bears.

Another inherent embed limitation is that the military is an insular society, and regardless of how soldiers may try to make you feel like you’re part of the team, without a uniform you are always an outsider. Especially in a conflict zone, soldiers perform complex tasks for complex reasons, and their actions may run counter to your own instincts. It’s important to balance your responsibility to hold our military accountable with your own lack of expertise. Barring obviously criminal behavior, make sure you understand what you observed by comparing notes with someone who has more experience with military tactics, techniques, and procedures. Restrepo and The Hornet’s Nest are two good films that lend some insight into this topic.

You may have to deal with the military’s institutional mistrust of the media, which can manifest in several different ways. While the Vietnam War ended 50 years ago, there is still a pervasive (though discredited) belief among soldiers that the media played an outsize role in that war’s failure. To a lesser extent, those feelings exist around the GWOT as well. Soldiers may be personally leery of reporters, which usually means they won’t engage with you. But the biggest thing to remember is that the military exists to fight and win wars, and they see positive media coverage as a tool to further their strategic aims. Public affairs is the branch tasked with soliciting that positive coverage and mitigating the effects of negative coverage. 

What to pack

The military will usually provide a packing list which may or may not be useful. Carry only what you absolutely need – traveling light makes transportation easier. For example, if you bring a large Pelican case, it may be difficult to find a helicopter crew with space to transport you and your gear. While wearing your armor and helmet, if you have everything else in one large hiking backpack, you should be able to travel without a problem. TV crews with tons of equipment generally won’t be able to get out to remote outposts and will be stuck at the main bases.

Cotton vs synthetic clothing: This is a judgment call. Synthetic clothes are durable, lightweight, easy to clean, and dry very quickly. They also melt easily, which can complicate injuries, as the melted plastic needs to be extracted from wounds before they can heal properly. I wear cotton if there’s a good chance of getting blown up. Nomex or other NFPA 1977-compliant fabrics are truly fire-resistant, but expensive, heavy, and breathe poorly.    

Buy gear with quality zippers.

A 30-degree sleeping bag with synthetic fill is a versatile setup for most conditions from air-conditioned tents to sweltering trenches. Down fill bags are a little lighter and way more compressible, but impossible to dry in the field. Primaloft is a great synthetic fill.

In hot climates, you obviously need to stay hydrated. Oral rehydration salts will make your water last longer, and there are sports brands that don’t taste horrible.

Bring a book – there will be a lot of downtime and waiting.


Hopefully this guide will give you some practical and philosophical insight into embedded reporting. There are pitfalls, as with any kind of reporting, but there are many opportunities as well. Happy hunting! 

Ben Brody

Ben Brody is an independent photographer, educator, and picture editor working on long-form projects related to the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their aftermath. He is the Director of Photography for The GroundTruth Project and Report for America, and a co-founder of Mass Books.

His first book, Attention Servicemember, was shortlisted for the 2019 Aperture - Paris Photo First Book Award and is now in its second edition.

Ben holds an MFA from Hartford Art School's International Low-Residency Photography program. He resides in western Massachusetts.

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