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Line in the Sand: a journalist navigates trauma, lies, moral injury and accountability

Introduction by Croakey: In 2020, former Reuters journalist Dean Yates wrote a powerful article – which we cross-published at Croakey – describing the mental health threats faced by journalists, in conflict zones and when reporting on violence and death elsewhere.

“The good mental health of journalists is a press freedom issue,” he wrote. “Now more than ever, the world needs healthy journalists. More broadly, good mental health in the workplace is a fundamental human right.”

Yates, who has undergone treatment for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), has since released a book, Line in the Sand: a life changing journey through a body and a mind after trauma, which has been described as “a textbook for everyone working in mental health”.

As Marie McInerney reports below, the book raises timely issues as the world awaits news on the fate of Julian Assange, and as media and journalism organisations globally decry Israel’s lethal attacks on journalists in Gaza.


Marie McInerney writes:

Many years ago, while working as a freelance reporter for the Reuters international news agency, I followed the work of one of its rising stars, Australian journalist Dean Yates.

As he rose through the ranks as a foreign correspondent, he was posted to Vietnam, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel and Palestine, often first in line to cover devastating disaster stories across Asia, including the 2002 Bali bombings and 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

“I was the correspondent, bureau chief and editor every manager seemed to want,” he reflects. “Good news judgement, calm under pressure.”

It was after being appointed Reuters’ Baghdad Bureau Chief in 2007 that he would become the subject of his own brutal story about war, trauma, and moral outrage, triggered by the shocking deaths of two of his staff, photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22 and driver Saeed Chmagh, 40.

On 12 July 2007, along with nine others, Noor-Eldeen and Chmagh were shot dead by a US-manned Apache helicopter gunship with the call sign Crazy Horse 1-8, in an attack that Yates and others now hold to be a war crime or, at the least, that highlighted dangerously lax rules of engagement that allowed the killing of men who were neither engaged with nor threatening US forces.

At the time, the US claimed, and Yates accepted, that the Reuters staffers had been killed in a firefight with insurgents, that the helicopter gunners had mistaken Noor-Eldeen’s zoom lens for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

Over the next ten years, the truth of that unfolding tragedy triggered post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), threatening Yates’ mental health, marriage, family, and career, a gruelling story that he explores in his raw and compelling memoir, Line in the Sand: a life changing journey through a body and a mind after trauma.

Deep, withering shame

Released last year, Line in the Sand is a gripping story of multiple parts that links Yates to Australian Wikileaks founder Julian Assange through the release of the “Collateral Murder” video, leaked by Chelsea Manning, a former US Army intelligence analyst who was later pardoned by then President Barack Obama.

The video revealed lies told to Reuters and Yates by the US military about the deaths of Noor-Eldeen and Chmagh, as well as the gross callousness involved, with the US gunner pilots’ banter likened by critics to ‘teenagers playing video games’.

“Collateral Murder connects me to Assange and Manning by an invisible thread,” writes Yates, who has campaigned strongly for the US to drop espionage charges against Assange. “Namir and Saeed would have been forgotten statistics of the Iraq War if not for them.”

After Collateral Murder was published by Wikileaks in 2010, Yates, by then living in Tasmania with his wife Mary Binks and three children, began to feel a sense of failure and “deep, withering shame” that he had not more fully investigated the US military claims about how his colleagues died.

His mental health began to suffer. As he became increasingly distressed, angry and agitated, his family walked “on eggshells” around him, “trying not to drop cutlery, slam a door, clang dishes in the sink or have the TV too loud”.

“Tiny things irritated me while depression sucked me dry,” Yates writes, describing how his “volcanic anger has turned my home into a minefield for the people I love most in the world… Trauma is like a cluster bomb. Everyone around you gets hurt.”

Conveying the horror

Finally, at the urging of Binks and with the financial backing of Reuters, he admitted himself in 2016 to Ward 17, the first of three admissions over two years to the specialist inpatient PTSD facility based at the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital in Melbourne’s north-east, one of just a few facilities of its kind in Australia.

There an earlier diagnosis of PTSD was confirmed by his psychiatrist, Dr Maryam. He was told the Bali bombings, three assignments to Iraq from 2003-04, and the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, “softened” him up for PTSD before the Baghdad killings.

Yates graphicly recounts the trauma from covering those earlier events, including walking past corpses rotting under a burning sun to visit a mosque in Banda Aceh in the days after the 2004 tsunami, which killed more than 230,000 people in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and other coastal countries.

Bloated bodies, most still clothed, lay in rows on marble floors. The smell had concussive force. Dazed survivors, covering their noses with cloth or their hands, walked numbly past each body. Presumably trying to find loved ones.

I counted every contorted, blackened corpse until I got to 158. Someone later gave me a handkerchief to wrap around my face. How could I truly convey the horror?

‘I still see those bodies,’ I tell Maryam.

‘Why did you count them?’ she asks.

‘A news report needs specific details, numbers,’ I reply. But it was more than that. ‘I felt compelled, like someone had to do it. They deserved to be counted.’”

For a while Yates was reluctant to accept the PTSD verdict, feeling unworthy because he hadn’t experienced direct combat, while also worrying, as do many others in his circumstances, that he would be seen as “damaged goods” by bosses and colleagues. He was, he thinks, “a wimp” compared to other reporters who had spent far more time covering war and natural disasters and yet were still working.

So it’s perhaps no surprise that, in his early days in Ward 17, Yates launches into full journalistic mode, writing screeds about what he is feeling and experiencing, poring his way through books about PTSD or war and its impact on soldiers, reporters or civilians, like Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror “not exactly light reading”, a friend comments.

He ducks out of the ward to the local bookshop to get Man’s Search for Meaning by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl and heads off one day to meet with Cait McMahon, then the Asia-Pacific managing director for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, at her Melbourne office. At home after his first admission, bedtime reading includes Dispatches, “Michael Herr’s searing memoir of reporting on the Vietnam War”.

And he begins also to explore the concept of moral injury, not yet considered a recognised disorder or mental illness but described as “mental fallout from a situation where a soldier, or journalist, is put in a position where they compromise their moral principles, or are asked to cross a moral line by a trusted authority”.

Yates first reads about it in relation to American military veterans, mired in moral and ethical ambiguities from Iraq and Afghan, “shooting a child, losing a beloved comrade, feeling betrayed when a buddy was hurt because command made a bad decision, surviving a roadside blast that killed others, seeing evil done and being unable or unwilling to intervene”.

Bingo, he says, as he reflects on his self-perceived failure to instruct his staff properly on the US military’s rules of engagement and to more strongly investigate the military’s explanation of his colleagues’ deaths, including in the early days after Collateral Murder was released, when he says he froze with cowardice.

His psychiatrist observes him in those early days of treatment as “intellectualising your trauma, showing little emotion. Compartmentalising your experiences, avoiding dealing with them”.

“You are in your journalist’s skin,” she says. “You are trying to tell a story, rather than tell your story. It’s less painful that way.”

Virtually every occupation

Yates later learns to stop that intellectualising, to focus more on feeling and healing. Atonement becomes a key word.

But those journalistic skills, fuelled by anger and empathy, also give his memoir much depth, opening up the world of Ward 17 and beyond , and the battles experienced by so many people in frontline jobs, from police attending domestic violence incidents through to the devastating experience of a Timor Leste peacekeeper in the early 2000s.

Yates learns of PTSD’s prevalence among survivors of childhood sexual abuse, rape and domestic violence and in marginalised communities.

I’ve come to Ward 17 expecting to meet soldiers, coppers, ambos and firefighters. But I have no idea PTSD reaches into virtually every occupation. I’ll meet a schoolteacher, a truck driver, a chef. I don’t know yet that scores of journalists I worked with in Iraq and elsewhere are struggling with mental illness.

I’ll find out later that most stay quiet for fear of losing their jobs.”

This is the other great focus and service of the book, shining a bright and harsh light on the failures of managers, workplaces and insurance companies to support employees who are put in harm’s way and the compounding effect that has on their mental and physical health.

I’ll meet scores of men and women in Ward 17 who feel deeply betrayed because their organisations didn’t support them when they developed PTSD. Veterans, coppers and paramedics who were forced out, told they couldn’t serve their country or their community. First responders tossed into a workers’ compensation system that doesn’t just worsen their mental health but destroys it. Destroys their chance of recovery. Destroys their relationships.”

Raw and honest

Yates’s book has been frequently described as unflinching — as one reviewer says, it’s “excoriatingly raw and honest”, and not just about the deaths of his colleagues, his anger at the US military and over time at Reuters. He also explores his own masculinity, sexuality and sense of self, and how trauma played out in his marriage and for his kids.

As one reviewer observes, “such honest unveiling is rare from men but of utmost importance when research shows that it is personal relationships and supportive familial bonds that are the most protective elements for mental health conditions”.

Perhaps the one area he holds back about is his upbringing, and what might help explain his passion as a foreign correspondent, preferring to be on the road covering traumatic stories, for example, when one of his sons was born. “I missed the newsroom noise, the pull of a big story,” he writes of leaving Binks and their baby while they were still in hospital.

All his good clinicians, Yates says, had “zeroed in” on his upbringing to explain why he went into “emotional lockdown” from Bali onwards, maybe even earlier in his career.

He finds that hard to accept because he feels he had it “far better than most”. Growing up in the small New South Wales town of Portland, his family had little money but enough to give him a good education and get him into university, so he’s reluctant to attribute anything to them that might seem negative “even if they gave me few emotional skills”.

The message was to just get on with it, he says, revealing that a younger brother died several hours after birth when he was two, and that his mother was sexually abused at the age of nine by a relative and never told anyone: “coping was second nature to Mum”.

This aspect clearly also interests psychologist, parent educator and author Steve Biddulph, who lives in the same northern Tasmanian town as Yates. Talking with Yates and reading the book before publication, Biddulph challenges him over a paragraph saying he’d had a great childhood: never abused, never bullied.

“Dean, there is adversity in all childhoods,” Biddulph told him. “There is much emotional repression in what we call normal Western childhoods. Most children come to adulthood with considerable impairment, which is why trauma is handled so badly.”

Biddulph, author of Raising Boys, The New Manhood and Fully Human, has strong praise for the book.

Line in the Sand might have started as a personal odyssey, but along the way, Dean has produced a world class guidebook to the cutting edge of how we deal with traumatic wounds.

This should be a textbook for everyone working in mental health, and an inspiring read for anyone who cares about taking light into the darkness.”

Yates, who has this year begun work as policy and advocacy lead at the Mental Health Council of Tasmania, has also delivered a powerful guidebook for journalists and media organisations: a call for action on duty of care, and also to keep digging, to turn their gaze onto themselves and their workplaces, to champion truth, and to understand trauma – for their own sakes and those they write about.

And it’s a big and timely warning about war, particularly that truth can be its first casualty.

More reading, listening, viewing

Reuters: Return to Ward 17: making peace with lost comrades

The Guardian: ‘Detachment was considered a strength’: how a war correspondent’s calling created a trauma timebomb

Listen, ABC: How did Australian journalist Dean Yates heal from the trauma of reporting on some of the biggest conflicts and natural disasters for over 20 years?

Listen, ABC Hobart: ‘Nothing can prepare you for when people are killed on your watch’: Tasmanian warzone correspondent shares PTSD journey

Watch: Australian Story episode featuring Dean Yates


See Croakey’s archive of articles on trauma