Berkeley Woman's Iraq Quest
Sleeping Bag in Tow, She Hopes to Embed with Army and Blog
Jane Stillwater is a 64-year-old Berkeley woman who left for Kuwait on Wednesday, hoping to embed with the U.S. military there and in Iraq as a blogger. And if she is refused? She's got a sleeping bag and plans to sleep on the beach in Kuwait until her return flight in three weeks.Protection? A Berkeley city councilman tried in vain to get her some body armor; she's accepting online donations through PayPal so she can buy some in Kuwait.
Credentials? The military said the prolific blogger needs to be sponsored by a media outlet. No problem: The Lone Star Iconoclast, a 900-circulation liberal weekly in President Bush's vacation getaway of Crawford, Texas, is sponsoring her. Not that it's paying her. Then again, nearly all of the dozens of online columns Stillwater has produced over the past seven years for various publications have been labors of love.
Money for Arabic translators? Unnecessary. "I've been all over the world," she said, "and you always find people who speak English."
Stillwater's is the tale of one citizen journalist's quest for the truth in the Middle East. No matter what happens, it is bound to become a story. Conversations with Stillwater are punctuated every 45 seconds or so with the phrase, "That reminds me of a story." About selling 60,000 Girl Scout cookies with her daughter over the years. About meeting a blind imam in Afghanistan last year. About being asked if she wanted to appear on "Judge Judy" regarding a neighbor dispute.
Stillwater said she's going to Iraq to write about the war for "real people."
She's tired of getting news from TV journalists who throw on a khaki vest for a few photo ops before flying home first-class. She has lived in Section 8 housing in Berkeley for 27 years, and she saved for her $1,072 airline ticket the same way she has saved for other exploits.
"All I eat are peanut butter sandwiches," she said. She bikes everywhere, keeps her 17-year-old Toyota Tercel chugging along and wears clothes she finds discarded on the street -- like the green jeans and soccer jersey she wears now. "This sweater I bought at Goodwill, though. Maybe 2 bucks. These socks? I think my kids outgrew them."
"I don't go to movies, I don't do anything," she said. "You can save a lot of money that way."
So why did she book a ticket without getting the Defense Department to bless her coverage? She couldn't pass up a ticket at that price. Karma will take care of the rest.
A slight 120 pounds with silvery hair pulled back into a ponytail and round, brushed-metal-framed glasses, Stillwater calls herself a "responsible flake," someone who can be flaky and "take care of business when I have to." She proudly cops to being very "Berkeley" -- but old-school Berkeley.
"I'm more Berkeley in the way it used to be -- before the yuppies moved in and started buying $600,000 houses," she said. She got a master's degree in city planning from UC Berkeley in 1966, a time she called "the best time of my life, bar none," and worked as a legal secretary for years. She's never been married, but she had children with four different men. Each was a story.
Stillwater described herself as more of an "old hippie" than a grandma. In fact, she said she regularly communicates with three of her four adult children but has little contact with her grandchild. "One of my greatest accomplishments were my kids, and one of my greatest failures were with my kids," she said with a note of regret.
But other children are a part of her life. She's an emergency foster care parent, providing temporary housing for kids. She's a substitute teacher in a juvenile hall. And she befriended Berkeley High School students when she lobbied to get a crosswalk painted near their school; she was upset they kept getting tickets for jaywalking.
"She talks about tiny issues and big, serious subjects, but she always mixes her brand of humor in with it," said Berkeley City Council member Kriss Worthington, who tried in vain to obtain body armor for Stillwater.
Her farewell party for the Middle East on Tuesday night was subdued. Her 27-year-old son, Joe, and his girlfriend stopped by with the intention of taking her out to dinner. Afterward, they planned to do laundry at her place. Instead, they just chatted for a while before Stillwater shooed them away so she could finish packing.
The next morning, she took BART to the airport by herself. Cheaper that way.
Joe Stillwater said, "My mom may seem like a flaky Berkeley lady." But through a combination of luck, common sense and, he said, good karma, she always seems to come out OK. Which may explain why her friends aren't worried that among Stillwater's travel reading is the Lonely Planet guide to Kuwait, which she borrowed from the library a few days ago.
"We never had a lot of money growing up, but we were always going on these wild trips and adventures," Joe Stillwater said.
To Mexico. To a Buddhist retreat in Oregon. On a Caribbean cruise as a reward for selling all those Girl Scout cookies. The adventures are remembered in photographs taped across the walls of her two-story townhouse. A sign that reads, "Welcome to the Stillwater Museum," hangs on the front door.
If it's called a museum, Stillwater said, "then I don't have to keep it all tidy. I can just curate it."
Last year, she went to Afghanistan on a Global Exchange tour. To help pay for a ticket, she held a sign soliciting money at various liberal activist events and demonstrations.
This is the first time she's gone overseas solo. Stillwater isn't scared, though. She may walk stiffly up a flight of stairs, the by-product, she said, of doing 100 jumping jacks every day of her life. But she can still run and is confident she'll be able to shoulder the 30 pounds of equipment she's lugging.
Her pack doesn't include a laptop. She plans to transmit stories from Internet cafes. If she finds them.
Her editor awaits the results.
"I would like a source that doesn't necessarily adhere to the company line about what the soldiers are facing over there," said W. Leon Smith, publisher of the Lone Star Iconoclast.
He'd be disappointed if she doesn't get an embedded spot. "I'm really hoping she gets some interviews with people there."
As Stillwater waited for her plane at the airport Wednesday, the Army was still trying to find a unit in which to embed her.
"Oh, yeah, her application looks fine," said Army Spc. J. Wyatt Harper, a media embedding coordinator for Iraq. "We're just trying to find a unit anywhere that will take her. There's a lot of people out there now."
Even City Council member Worthington worries about how she'll be able to leap the language barrier without being able to afford an interpreter.
"But by the power of her personality and uniqueness, she might find some stories that other reporters might just overlook," he said. "And people tend to open up to you when you're a peace activist."
Stillwater's sense of mission goes back to the day in 1976 when she asked a hypnotist to look into her future. The hypnotist said she didn't predict futures. Oh, come on and try, Stillwater said.
So the hypnotist offered two scenarios. In one, Stillwater was told that she wouldn't die until she's 88 as long as she kept seeking the light of truth. In the alternative scenario, she dies while lying on a couch, inflated by a life of gorging on junk food.
"So everything I've done in my life since then goes back to that scenario," she said. "How do I want to live my life? Sitting on the couch or seeking the light?"
Stillwater makes little effort to hide her progressive politics and has drawn scorn from conservative bloggers for her commentary and activist stunts. On July 4, 2002, she traveled to Washington, D.C., to serve an eviction notice -- "Three-day Notice to Perform or Quit" -- on President Bush "based on multiple violations of their lease, The United States Constitution."
In her last blog post (www.jpstillwater.blogspot.com) before she left for Kuwait, Stillwater confronted what could happen next with her usual mix of self-deprecating humor and biting commentary.
She told readers that she was headed to "Baghdad to write fabulous stories for YOU all about how our brave troops are doing a bang-up job over there despite the fact that their bosses in the White House are sadistic bastards, terribly inefficient crooks and totally nuts -- or I will spend three weeks wandering the streets of Kuwait City waiting for my flight home, searching for internet cafes and trying to sell bootleg Girl Scout cookies."
© 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.