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Richard Engel: Covering War For A Decade

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Richard Engel, the chief foreign correspondent for NBC News, has spent the past decade going to some of the more dangerous war zones on the planet. He has filed from Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan — and more recently covered the uprisings in Egypt, where he was tear gassed, and Libya, where he was almost shot in Benghazi while covering the conflict.

It wasn't the first time Engel has had a close call.

While on an assignment in Afghanistan in 2010, Engel spent several weeks embedded with soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division. The troops were returning from a memorial service located off-base when the Taliban attacked their compound. Engel continued reporting as the battle raged just yards outside of the base's wall.

"If [the U.S. soliders had lost] the Taliban would have gotten inside the base and probably tried to kill everybody inside," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "They didn't. ... They got very close. They got right up to the outskirts — maybe 5 meters, 10 meters from the walls."

And the attack, said Engel, was not unusual.

"I've seen a lot of battles like this," he says. "They're attacked and they fire back and they fight ferociously for about 30 minutes or so and three soldiers are badly injured in this firefight. ... And I've seen battles like this on little outposts in other parts of Afghanistan and when you add them up, [you ask] 'Why? What are these amounting to?' And when I was talking to soldiers about this, they say, 'We're supposedly here to help the Afghan people but sometimes the Afghans don't want the Americans help.' ... So why are they fighting all these little fights in remote valleys that the soldiers have never heard of? I think some of the soldiers come back and the answer is: They don't know why."

Engel's report from the Afghan base is included in Day of Destruction — Decade of War, a new MSNBC documentary Engel co-hosts with MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow. The documentary examines America's response to the Sept. 11 attacks and how the cost of war has affected both soldiers and those back home.

On today's Fresh Air, Engel talks about covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and his ways of dealing with long-term stress. (He scuba dives.) He also discusses his reporting of the uprisings in Egypt and Libya, where he narrowly avoided an artillery fire attack while interviewing a rebel last March.

"There [was] quite a close explosion that landed in front of me and because it land[ed] in front of me, I didn't hear the whistle," he says. "And then the rebel I was interviewing pushed me aside as he was running for cover. ... And then [I heard] the other sound which was a very distinct whistle and I just wanted to get down low so I dropped onto my stomach."

Engel says he then looked for anything hard to stand behind, to shield himself from the blast. He ran to a concrete barrier and crouched behind it, while his cameraman kept filming.

"He didn't stop recording," he says. "He didn't even lose focus. He heard the whistle and turned to it and catches the smoke as it explodes."

Gadhafi's Home: 'Not Particularly Attractive, Bad Kitsch'

While reporting on the front lines, Engel repeatedly crisscrossed the country in a car with his cameraman. He also spent a considerable amount of time at Moammar Gadhafi's former compound, which has become a Libyan tourist attraction in recent weeks. Among the more unusual level of things he saw? A small museum dedicated to the 1986 American airstrike on his compound.

"He's kept bits of shrapnel and pieces of the aircraft itself," he says. "[Behind the museum] was one of Gadhafi's bedrooms. So I went into his bedroom and his bathroom with a big Jacuzzi tub. The bed was a large double-king-size mattress and over it was a very bad painting of a seascape with a stormy night. It looked like a bad motel room from the '70s. It reminded me of Saddam's palaces — not particularly attractive, bad kitsch, sort of a casino built on the cheap."

Saddam's palaces — and Saddam's children's palaces — were more sadistic, says Engel.

"We found torture devices that Saddam's son was using on his people," he says. "I remember there was something that looked like something you'd see in a medieval torture museum. It was a cage, made of metal, and it was in the form of a human body — and it opened up, and he would put people inside of it, and lower them in water, or lower them in water with battery acid. He spent time looking up torture devices. So Saddam's regime was truly sadistic. I didn't find anything like that in Libya."

Richard Engel has received a Peabody Award, the Edward R. Murrow Award, the Medill Medal for Courage and the David Bloom Award for his coverage overseas. He is the author of A Fist in the Hornet's Nest, which he discussed on Fresh Air in 2004, as well as War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq.

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