Sean Carberry

Sean Carberry '91 walking through the Mansour district in Baghdad in August 2008 during an embed with a U.S. provincial reconstruction team. Carberry writes about his time as a war correspondent in his new book, "Passport Stamps: Searching the World for a War to Call Home." Photo provided by Sean Carberry.

‘Passport Stamps’: Lehigh Grad and Former War Correspondent Recounts his Experience

Sean Carberry ’91 writes about his time overseas in his new book, “Passport Stamps: Searching the World for a War to Call Home.”

Story by

Christina Tatu

Veteran foreign correspondent Sean Carberry ’91 has traveled to some of the world’s most dangerous places, including Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, where from 2012 to 2014 he served as NPR’s last full-time Kabul-based journalist.

During those years in Afghanistan, Carberry reported on the deaths of friends and colleagues as the Taliban began targeting foreign civilians.

“I realized over the years of doing that work that it was affecting me, that I was changing,” Carberry said. “You’re just absorbing trauma and the worst of humanity all day long for years.”

When he returned home from his overseas trips, Carberry said he was having trouble relating to people. He was always on edge and jumpy when he heard loud noises. He said he started partaking in risky behaviors, something he wouldn’t have done had he been in a better state of mind.

Carberry had training for physical safety and security, but there was never any discussion about the psychological and emotional impacts of being a civilian who works in a war zone, he said. In 2021, at the height of the COVID pandemic, Carberry decided to write a book about his experience, “Passport Stamps: Searching the World for a War to Call Home.”

Sean Carberry

Speaking with Afghan villagers in Lagham province, Afghanistan, during an embed with U.S. forces.

The memoir, published by Madville Publishing, has been both therapeutic and eye-opening, he said, while raising awareness of the lack of support for civilian workers stationed in war-stricken areas.

“Part of it is trying to educate the next generation, but also … put pressure on news organizations to provide resources and be cognizant that journalists are dealing with different things,” Carberry said.

He’s been busy promoting the book, including a presentation to the National Press Club last summer, and presentations to Lehigh journalism students in the Fall 2023 semester.

As a student at Lehigh, “journalism wasn’t on my radar as a thing,” Carberry told students in the senior seminar journalism class taught by Teaching Assistant Professor Meredith Cummings. Carberry had majored in urban studies as a fallback if his plans to go into the music industry didn’t pan out.

He spent several years working in a recording studio in Boston before getting a job as a producer on a Boston-based NPR talk show. In that role, Carberry researched topics, came up with ideas, booked guests and prepped the show’s host. A few months into the job, 9/11 happened.

“All of a sudden, this defining news story, this historic moment is happening in realtime and we had to go live on air that morning … ,” he said. “It’s a cliché, but it did change everything.”

In the following months, when the war in Afghanistan started, Carberry recalls coming into the office early in the morning and dialing satellite phones in the hope of reaching correspondents on the ground in the midst of the war.

“I was sitting in this overly air-conditioned control room in Boston talking to these people over scratchy satellite phone connections, and I just sat there and said, ‘I have to be out there … ’” Carberry said. “I didn’t know anything at the time about what it really involved, what it took to do that, what it was really like, I just felt the call to get out there.”

Sean Carberry

Sean Carberry and his cat, Squeak, at home in Washington, D.C.

In the summer of 2007, Carberry landed a job at America Abroad Media to produce a monthly, hour-long international affairs program. Within a few months, Carberry had moved to Washington, D.C., and was hopping on planes to some of the most dangerous locations in the world, chasing his new dream of becoming a war correspondent.

In his self-deprecating style of humor, Carberry described himself as the “Mr. Bean” of foreign correspondents during his early days on the job. He said his urban studies degree from Lehigh had helped prepare him for his new career by exposing him to many subjects, including government. A writing-intensive contemporary political philosophy class with Political Science Professor Rick Matthews had helped him find his voice as a writer and inspired him, he added.

As he became more experienced as a journalist, Carberry says he grew to understand the nature and importance of foreign reporting, and ultimately, the obligation to the people he was reporting on.

“You come into a refugee camp and people swarm around you. They see you as a foreigner and think you can help them in some way,” Carberry said. “Sometimes they literally want money or food from you, other times they want to tell their story because, ‘we want the world to know what happened to us.’”

Carberry said he spoke to people whose villages had been destroyed in acts of religious violence. He interviewed people in hospitals who had been assaulted by their government while peacefully protesting. During the Libyan Civil War, he said, he interviewed a father whose child died after being struck by a stray bullet while playing in front of their home.

“You’re there doing a job, but you’re interviewing someone who’s had unimaginable things done to them, or suffered incredible pain and horror at the hands of another human being,” Carberry said. “You, as a journalist, have to put that somewhere, and everyone processes it differently.”

Sean Carberry

Sean Carberry touring an internally displaced persons camp in Peshwar, Pakistan, August 2009.

In 2011, Carberry started working as an international producer for NPR, covering stories in Libya, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. In 2012 he was stationed in Kabul to cover the removal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, as well as the upcoming presidential election there. Violence was on an uptick, with the Taliban targeting foreign civilians and journalists, he said. In January 2014, Taliban gunmen attacked a popular Lebanese restaurant in Kabul, killing eight Afghans and 13 foreigners, including Carberry’s friends and acquaintances.

Carberry left Afghanistan in December 2014 when NPR shut down its bureau there. He currently works as managing editor of National Defense Magazine.

He ends his book with the realization that his years of foreign correspondence have permanently changed him.

“The way the book lands, there’s an ending and it’s not a Hollywood happy ending, it’s kind of like, ‘OK, I’ve confronted things, got through the worst of it and realized I’ll never be the person I was before,’” Carberry said. “Figuring out how to work with that and turn it into something is what I’ve been doing.”

Read more stories on the Lehigh News Center.

Story by

Christina Tatu

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