Sometimes, it's good to be the king . . . or at least the crown prince thrice removed. That's how I was able to tell Michael Heaton he had today off. I had something to tell you guys, and I couldn't do it in my normal space on the page next door.

I'm going to Iraq. I leave Tuesday night, arrive in Kuwait on Thursday morning, then drive into Iraq with the commander of Task Force Shield a week from Saturday. Though based in Baghdad, we'll be all over the country for two weeks, following the 7,000 kilometers of oil pipeline Col. Tom O'Donnell is responsible for safeguarding. For at least two weeks following that, I'll be on patrols and raids with the Fourth Infantry Division, most likely right outside Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.

The goal is to tell you about the people on all sides who are living - and dying - 6,240 miles from Cleveland, and perhaps a little of what that means to you. We'll get into some of the whys, but it's mostly about the whos. Maybe that means an Iraqi schoolgirl. Maybe it's Chagrin Falls native Maj. Tim Leroux, who's about to come back after a year as a helicopter pilot and staff officer with the 101st Aviation Regiment. Maybe it's the men and women still there, wondering when they will go home . . . and in how many pieces.

Even though I'm going to be out of the country, we'll still be talking, just as we always have. I'll be doing a daily "blog" online at, plus stuff in the regular paper. More about that in a minute.

Why me? Why the editor of Friday! magazine? Why not a "real" reporter?

I was in the right place at the right time. I was embedded before there was such a thing as embedding. I went to Fort Sill, Okla., in January 2002 to do an abbreviated basic training and write about the recruits. Most of them enlisted before Sept. 11, hoping to pay for college or a used Camaro.

O'Donnell was our brigade commander. He and I stayed in touch, and when he was sent to command the estimated 14,500 coalition forces and Iraqi nationals who protect the pipeline, he called. He was in Baghdad on a cell phone with a New York state number, and I had to call him back. I wonder if Cingular realizes that my nationwide calling plan lets me dial Iraq for free.

I have to tell you, I'm excited. Professionally, it's the chance of a lifetime, but I realize the danger. To date, more than 500 coalition forces have been killed, most of them after the "end" of the war. One Web site,, puts the number of Iraqi civilian deaths at between 8,000 and nearly 10,000.

And Reporters Without Borders says 12 journalists have died there.

I'm scared. I'm hopeful that will help keep me from being Lucky 13. My wife thinks I'm nuts, but we both take comfort in having friends we can count on if something does happen.

But it's a life I know. I did the basic-training story. I'm an Army brat, with a daughter who served and a son-in-law who plans to wear a Navy uniform for the rest of his adult life. I know the military about as well as a civilian can.

I know I'm NOT a soldier. I'm a reporter. I've spent 25 years holding a camera, pen and pad. True, the last 11 have been in entertainment, but before that I covered school districts, county governments, sports and politics (in Texas, the last two are pretty much interchangeable). It seems germane to note that I also spent time on the petrochemical beat in Houston and Abilene, two Texas cities that live and die on the price of a barrel of oil.

I want to use that experience to put you alongside your sons and daughters, brothers and fathers, sisters and mothers and aunts and uncles. As one editor here put it, I'm not going to be there as an advocate for the Army; I'm going to be there as an advocate for the reader. That's y'all.

I'll be writing those online blogs I told you about, and a diary for the regular paper. Then there will be the stories and photos from the day-to-day activities, plus pieces in each Sunday paper for the entire time I'm overseas, and a big wrap-up story when - if - I get back.

That "if" thing is a big one. Don't think I haven't thought about it. O'Donnell offered me an M-16, which I refused because carrying one basically would shift me from observer to participant. An old Army saying goes, "You never need a weapon until you REALLY need one." In journalism, we have a saying, too: "The pen is mightier than the sword."

Man, I sure hope so. I'll be talking to you, OK?

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:, 216-999-4534