Former ENMU student returns to speak of embedded work

By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor

In his 50s, photojournalist Jim Spiri didn’t have to go to Iraq to fulfill a commitment to an employer. He made up his mind to do it on his own, in his own way.

“I felt compelled to share what the average soldier does today,” Spiri said from his Albuquerque home. “I did it kind of on a historical basis, like Joe Galloway or Ernie Pyle would have done.”

The 1989 Eastern New Mexico University graduate says he also spent a stint as an embedded journalist for his sons — Jimmy Spiri is a helicopter pilot in the Army deployed in Iraq and Jesse Spiri died of a brain tumor shortly after receiving a commission in the Marines.
Spiri will talk about his experiences and show photographs during a Veterans Day presentation 7 p.m. Monday in the Sandia Room at ENMU’s Campus Union Ballroom. He returned from Iraq in early October and is planning to present his program whereever possible across the country starting with ENMU.

“I wanted to start with ENMU because that’s where it all began,” Spiri said of his training in journalism at the school.

Spiri learned photography at ENMU under Greg Erf. He also credits former PNT publisher Marshall Stinnett and managing editor Scot Stinnett, along with Wendel Sloan, communications director at ENMU, as influences.

“I grew up with the Vietnam War (going on) and I liked to look at Life and Look magazines,” Spiri said. “I used to tell myself, ‘I could do this.’”

“I’ve always been kind of a patriot but I’ve been outspoken when things are wrong,” Spiri said.

He says that was one of the reasons he was drawn to cover the civil war in El Salvador while he was still in college.

“He’s always put himself at risk,” Erf said of his former student. “He likes that kind of action. He just liked the thrill of photography, especially the action.”

Spiri says that by the early 1990s he had laid down his camera and he was only recently inspired to pick it back up to record soldiers’ lives in Iraq.

He and his wife Candi have worked as civilian contractors around the globe, including Kuwait and Iraq. He said that work entailed loading wounded and dead U.S. servicemen on flights home something that further piqued his interest in what was going on in Iraq.
While he was in Iraq he was embedded with both the Marines and the Army as a free-lance journalist. He says he wasn’t working for any media organization and that allowed him to take an unbiased look at what soldiers were experiencing there.

While with the Marines he was based in the Anbar province as the recent troop surge was ramping up. He said he regularly went out on patrols and the units he was with frequently drew fire.

Later he hooked up with the Army and an outfit from El Paso’s Fort Bliss in the Mosul area. He said that area was heating up when he left as the border conflicts between the Turks and Kurds were making things tough on U.S. troops.

Spiri said the contrasts between Iraq and the Middle East in general with El Salvador are stark.

“The culture is completely foreign to our understanding,” he said. “When you’re in the Middle East, it’s something hard to describe — the culture is totally foreign. The value of life seems to be so different. In El Salvador there were no suicide bombers.”

Sloan said he hadn’t thought about Spiri in years but thought his program would be interesting.

“He’s one of those rare people who actually did what it would take to realize a dream,” Sloan said. “I admire him for that.”