Benjamin Hall, Fox News reporter hurt in Ukraine, makes a comeback –
In a new memoir, a war correspondent offers a message of hope one year after an attack that also killed two colleagues
What becomes incongruous, what marvels people, even after only a few moments with Hall, is an ever-present smile on his boyishly handsome 40-year-old’s face, a face remarkably unscathed by the explosions that savaged so much of the rest of him — and cost the lives of four others — barely a year ago while he was covering the Russian invasion of Ukraine for Fox News.
There’s no better way for him to explain this smile (boundless “positivity,” as he puts it) than “post-traumatic optimism,” Hall says during an interview last week at Fox News’s Manhattan headquarters.
Hall was riding in a car near Kyiv last March with cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski, local producer Oleksandra “Sasha” Kuvshynova and two Ukrainian soldiers who were escorting them. The team was chasing a story about the urgent construction of defensive trenches as Russian forces pressed toward an expected assault on the capital. But they were impeded by roadblocks. They decided instead to divert to the heavily bombed village of Horenka, outside Kyiv. On the way back, their car was hit by what Hall believes was Russian shelling. He was the only one who survived.
It had been a trip with inherent dangers — a journey that took them closer to the fighting, though they believed they’d still be a safe distance away. Does he ever blame himself for the choices he and his colleagues made that day and for what happened? In a voice so soft it’s barely audible, he says: “No.”
“I’ve never once thought, ‘Whose fault was it?’ Other than the Russians,” says Hall, who recounts the incident and his recovery in a just-released memoir, “Saved: A War Reporter’s Mission to Make it Home.”
At Fox News, Hall’s book could be seen as a bit of uplift, even though it’s about the ravages of war. The network is preparing to defend itself in court in a $1.6 billion defamation suit brought by Dominion Voting Systems, and a raft of documents made public in recent weeks have shown how on-air personalities sowed doubt about the 2020 election results while privately thinking the opposite. In Hall, the network, which has been promoting the book, is able to showcase the bravery and inspirational story of one of its relatively small cadre of international field reporters.
And “Saved” is a compelling account, thick with intrigue, including the appearance of a shadowy former Special Operations officer, code-named “Seaspray,” who got Hall out of the country to receive the medical care that saved his life. Their harried departure, at a time when travel within the country was perilous and sometimes impossible, was accomplished with the help of the Polish prime minister, who allowed Hall, running out of pain medication, to board a train returning from a secret diplomatic mission to Kyiv.
The plan was so hush-hush that Seaspray, who was working with Save Our Allies — a U.S.-based group that rescues people in war zones — refused to provide details to Fox News executives scrambling to get Hall out of the country. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin sent a Black Hawk helicopter to the Ukraine-Poland border to pick up Hall, who was eventually taken to an American military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany.
The incident gained an aura of mystery as details of it slowly emerged. Hall, who is now assisting in a war crimes investigation of the attack, is filling in more of the picture, describing how their car was rocked by two explosions that dazed him. He slipped out before a third explosion because, as he tells it in his book, he thought he heard his then-6-year-old daughter’s voice, though she was thousands of miles away, say: “Daddy, you’ve got to get out of the car.”
Hall says he drifted in and out of consciousness for about 40 minutes, lying on the side of the road not far from Zakrzewski, a charismatic 55-year-old whom he describes as a “larger than life” figure. He remembers Zakrzewski telling him not to move and warning about Russian drones. The cameraman, Hall says, did not appear injured at first — but his femoral artery had been slashed just below his protective vest, and he bled to death at some point before Hall was picked up by a passing Ukrainian special forces agent he refers to by the code name “Song.”
Zakrzewski’s widow, Michelle Ross-Stanton, has raised questions about the procedures used that day, especially the fact that the Fox News team was not accompanied by security staff at the time of the attack.
Hall says they were forced to leave behind their security man at a checkpoint because there was room for only three passengers, as well as two Ukrainian soldiers, in the car they’d be using. The Ukrainians, Hall says, would not allow a second vehicle — for security agents — to join them because they did not want to attract too much attention.
“Maybe if they’d been following, they could have saved Pierre,” Ross-Stanton says in a telephone interview from Dublin. Publication of Hall’s book has been a “triggering” event full of emotion for Ross-Stanton and Zakrzewski’s family, she says, but she doesn’t blame Hall for his death. They were close friends. They were both veteran war reporters and they knew the risks, she says.
During his painful recovery, Hall has mostly avoided asking “what-if” questions. But he does wonder in “Saved” whether Zakrzewski might have survived if someone could have come to his aid with something as rudimentary as a T-shirt pressed against his wound, as they’d learned to do during conflict-reporting training sessions.
“I think there are a million questions that I could have said [about] what might have [been], what might have changed this,” he says. “Horrible things happen in war all the time. And it’s difficult to know how they happen, or why they happened, or how to prevent them.”
Hall, who’d spent his professional life chronicling the pain of others, began recording his memories in audio files within days of the attack. Alex Tresniowski — an accomplished ghostwriter he met through the Washington literary agent Gail Ross — gathered stories for a substantial 285-page book, which reads at times like a pulse-pounding thriller, at other times like an earnest inspirational text.
For Hall, working on the book became therapeutic. While recovering from his wounds, he’s met people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. They’re “living a nightmare,” he says. But he never has.
For all its moments of tension and terror, Hall’s book is in many ways a story of addiction. He was a child of privilege in England who traveled widely. As a young man, Hall was drawn to the rush of the battlefield, restlessly reporting from one conflict to the next, in places such as Somalia and Libya. When he first met his future wife, Alicia, he downplayed the risks of his assignments. (They married in 2015, the same year he joined Fox News.)
“When I wasn’t covering wars, yes, I did miss them,” says Hall, who was planning to return to Washington, where he’d previously been based for Fox, after reporting in Ukraine. “When you speak to some of the people you speak to, and you see the horrific things, I felt it really important to tell those stories.”
Early in his career as a freelance war correspondent, Hall and a colleague were targeted by Syrian forces after filming soldiers opening fire on villagers during that nation’s civil war. Rebels helped them escape into Turkey but not before their fixer — a local who helps guide journalists on foreign assignments — was detained by the Turks and falsely accused of being a terrorist. After the fixer was released, he said, “You almost got me killed,” Hall writes. When Hall returned two years later, the man politely declined to work as his fixer.
Now, more than a decade later, Hall mourns the loss of his fixer in Ukraine, the 24-year-old Kuvshynova, who’d worked as a festival organizer and in public relations before the war. Kuvshynova’s father told The Washington Post late last year that the Fox team made a mistake by going into a dangerous area. Hall says that despite Kuvshynova’s inexperience as a war reporter, she “absolutely” understood and accepted the risks.
“That was her way of helping her country,” he says.
Rather than avoid thinking about that day last March, Hall says, he summons it when he’s feeling down.
“I close my eyes,” he says, “and I remember what it was like to be sitting there on the ground so badly injured. And I think of this — the clear sky and the dirt beneath me, and I really paint a picture. It just reminds me that if you can get through that, you can get through anything.”
The vision in his injured left eye remains impaired, and he has undergone more than 20 surgeries, all told, with others to come. His left foot is gone. He envisions returning to reporting someday, but not to the battlefield. He’d rather tell the world about people such as the doctors at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, where he spent months recovering, and the patients he befriended there.
“Maybe spread some real hope, some real positivity, some joy,” he says.
At one point during the interview, he removes his prosthetic right leg and props it against a wall, saying matter-of-factly he needs to take it off from time to time because bone growths that affect how well it fits can feel “like needles” beneath his skin. As he speaks, his stump twitches. Later, he ambles down hallways and up small flights of stairs in the vast Fox News studios with the aid of only a cane.
He’s been wearing the same pair of Apex sneakers for months. His daughters — now ages 7, 5 and 3 — tease him that they look like “dad” shoes.
At home in London, Hall has a closet full of dress shoes that he can’t seem to make work with his prosthetics. He used to love them, polishing them himself.
His wife suggested not long ago that they should get rid of them, maybe sell them on eBay. But Hall told her no. He’s got a long way to go before he can figure out a way to wear them, but he’s determined to get there.