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Saturday
Mar132010

Return to Haiti

At the end of this month, the UN, the US, the EU and a handful of other countries host an International Donors’ Conference Towards a New Future for Haiti at the United Nations in New York on March 31, 2010. According to a UN press release, "the goal of the conference is to mobilize international support for the development needs of Haiti to begin to lay the foundation for Haiti’s long-term recovery" after the devastating January 12th earthquake.  The donor's conference will allow Haiti to present its vision for the future and map out a way for international support to assist.

I will be spending a week in Haiti from March 29 through April 6th, to examine the progress that US forces and funds have made in the three months since the earthquake.  You can tune into any FOX News Radio broadcast station or on XM Radio where we are also carried for my series of special reports.  I will also be working on a documentary for CSPAN at the same time, giving viewers a look into the efforts underway, now that the process moves from relief and recovery to reconstruction in the nation of Haiti.

Stay tuned!  and stay connected!

All best,

Jessica

Equipment:

Canon Vixia HF10 with multiple Lacie Tough Drive backups

Marantz PMD 620

Mics: 2 lavalier mics, 2 stick EV50s, 1 shotgun

Editing: MacBook Pro and Final Cut Express

 

Saturday
Oct172009

On the Other Side

In those moments after the blast of a roadside bomb, and the dust clears, the victims of the blast face a future that forever changes their army family and their biological family.  Improvised Explosive Devices or IED's are claiming most of the lives in Afghanistan, but the fact is -- most soldiers survive them, only to face multiple surgeries, agonizing rehabilitation, and the constant background of pain and pain medication.

Each year, thousands of veterans come to heal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and that is where I met the men of 3rd BCT one more time on Friday.

I went with a soldier, home on leave, to encourage and uplift the men I knew in Afghanistan.  I was a proxy for the brigade colonel and the chaplain, checking on the progress of a specific senior enlisted soldier, known and respected by many.

He's a gruff and sturdy sergeant major who ran the soldiers in a personal way - not from behind a desk, but from inside an MRAP.  That is why, he was in the convoy on a hot August Tuesday heading to a command outpost to set up a memorial service for a 23-year-old gunner whose life had been taken by an IED the previous Friday.  I had traveled the same road myself that Friday, just ahead of the gunner with a platoon assigned to clear the road of bombs.  We had been hit once, the rear vehicle, but no one was seriously injured. That gunner was not so fortunate.  Neither, it turned out, was the sergeant major.

But I didn't know any of that when I sat down beside him at lunch-time chow that Tuesday.  I'd had some business with him that morning, and decided to join one of the few familiar faces for a bite to eat, well aware that I might not eat that well again for a day, as I planned to stay overnight with the men, along with the battalion commander.

He spoke loudly and was full of bravado, at one point daring me to come with him on his journey - if I wanted to prove myself tough.  I explained that I'd 'done my time' on that road -- at that point, one of the most dangerous in Afghanistan because of the high number of IED's hitting convoys every day -- and that I'd be joining the battalion commander - a lieutenant colonel - on his helicopter.

"See you there!" I called as we dumped our plates in the metal trash cans outside the chow hall.

Thing is - I didn't.

The black hawk was hovering over Route Georgia - this IED-riddled road when it happened.

We saw a brown puff of smoke and the overturned MRAP.  We heard there were injuries.  But not until we were in the command post's plywood command center did I realize that we had witnessed the attack on this sergeant major. 

Broken Back.  Can't feel his legs.  

And the look on the lieutenant colonel's face -- deep concern and sadness.  In the army, it's so much more rare for a senior NCO (non-commissioned officer) to get hurt than a private or a specialist.  Their responsibilities can keep them behind the wire for longer periods of time, and thus safer.  But the lieutenant colonel would have to make the call.  He would have to speak to a wife on vacation with their small children.  His wife would have to activate the support network.  Now more than ever, he would take this attack personally.

I got to know the chaplain that night at the small command outpost, called COP Tangi, named for the Tangi Valley, a lush but very dangerous part of Wardak Province.  The chaplain considered the sergeant major a good friend and for the first time, the war hit him in the gut.  He was there to comfort the young men who'd lost a brother, a bunkmate, a leader in that gunner who died in the IED blast, but they - equally - comforted him.  And over cigars on a starlit night, they talked about what they remembered in their friends; what they treasured, telling dirty jokes and funny stories.

All I could think about was the dare I didn't take, and what unlikely friends the gruff sergeant major and the introspective chaplain must have made.

Then I met him at Walter Reed.  It was brief.  I'm not certain he really knew who I was even though he indicated he did.  He's in a robotic wheel chair, feet bandaged, tubes coming out of his arms, pictures of his kids on his hospital wall.  He still speaks gruffly, only softer now.  He says there's some feeling in his legs, and he's working hard in therapy.  He says he doesn't think he'll return to soldiering; says those days are over.

And now - instead of a towering, imposing man,  He's quiet, shrunken, emanating a quiet sarcasm and making sure he gets his chinese food before his next therapy appointment.  

Yes -- he's still in charge.

Monday
Oct052009

A face I'd recognize anywhere...

 

October 5, 2009
 
While I was in Afghanistan, I spent time with the guys in the command out posts - showering with bottled water warmed by the sun, eating lots of boxed mashed potatoes, wiping dust and gravel off every inch of equipment in a tent after a commander's helicopter pushed dust into every inch of the place, and always -- trying not to get sick, either from altitude or heat.  
And in the midst of that, I traveled with a group of weekend warriors from Wisconsin who have the most dangerous job in Afghanistan -- looking for and disarming roadside bombs.
 
Their Sergeant First Class - is Chet Millard, a 32 year old corrections officer with four kids at home and a wife who's as strong as they come.
 
Yeah, he's been to Afghanistan before - heck yeah. He's a reservist.  But between his sarcastic and dry wit, his hard-driving ways and his dusty grin, he could pull his guys through a 36 hour stretch without any hot meals, no time or safety conditions to even use a bathroom while they bore the burden of the bombs they found....and worse yet, the bombs they missed.
 
Because the roads where they were asked to work were so dangerous that they knew that as soon as they could no longer see that stretch of road in the rearview mirror - it would get  re-seeded with IED's.
 
They live with that.
 
And so - now that I'm back to this Norman Rockwell-by-comparison life of mine here in DC, surrounded by so many familiar, caring people, I come back from a run on a Saturday morning only to find my TIME magazine in the mailbox.  And I take a quick peak at the cover, and my heart freezes.  I don't want to see the picture of a body today.
 
It drops from my hands like a hot coal.
 
When I pick it up again, it's to take it inside.
 
Only then do I look closely at the cover...and see a familiar face.  
 
Only - there's only a date and a caption -- there's no article about him.
 
He's lying on a medevac with that cigarette hanging out of his mouth, his eyes closed...is he alive? or is he dead?
 
He's so wiley and cunning, I find it hard to believe he's dead -- but that's just it.  Roadside bombs are so unpredictable - that's the point.  And no one thinks they're going to get hit...and yet everyone takes precautions not to get hit.  But here's the thing -- you get into a routine -- and then in an instant, everything changes, and it doesn't matter who you are or what your rank is or how great you'd be in a firefight.  
 
I'm happy to report SFC Millard is not dead.  Members of his unit tell me he escaped with just a few bruises and scrapes.  In fact he's already been returned to duty and is helping out his unit in other ways.  But just last week, their company did lose a soldier - Sgt. Ryan Adams died from a roadside bomb.  Now more than ever - it's personal.
 

 

 

Thursday
Sep242009

When the dam broke...

I was at work, back to a busy day, a busy life, full of other mountains of achievement to climb.  It was a particularly demanding set of circumstances setting up stories for other people to tell, once again being a member of a supporting cast, rather than the front man for the act.  It's both a humbling and puzzling transition to be back in that dynamic after 2 months of exhilerating, critical work and learning.  But I'm resolved to stay positive...and to try to stay humble, believing that hard work and dedication will serve me well, whether the payoff is educational or financial.  No one can take this experience away from me.  No one.

Into this mindset - a little information fell, concerning a certain reporter who's been injured in the same province where I lived and worked at the same time.  She was injured in an IED attack. It could have been any one of us, and once again the update on this woman's condition - a woman I've never met - but feel tied to sent me over an emotional cliff.

Some might call it survivor's guilt. Others might call it PTSD.  Still others - delayed reaction from the stress and the pace of military life and reporting on it.  Nearly a month to the day of her injury, I found out some disturbing specifics about her condition which I will intentionally not mention here -- and I learned that I still haven't started working through the emotion of that day...because when I got this news,  I was once again in the middle of a brutally busy work day and unable to stop and cope.  But this time the emotion didn't wait.  It bubbled. It festered, and even though I tried to create windows of time during the day to let off some of the tears, the steam if you will.  There was a growing need to let go throughout the afternoon.

I finally got to talk to my counselor at 8 tonight...and begin the process of feeling what I haven't felt or faced for months.  Fear.  Raw emotion.  Deep sorrow.  Guilt.

I don't know how many more times it will blindside me or I'll have to withdraw from a situation that doesn't make me feel safe in order to process with a safe person in a safe place.  But I can tell you now more than ever, I am grateful for the few safe people in my life, who give me the opportunity to verbally process all these emotions so I can move past them, put them to work informing my compassion, my ministry to those in need and my lifestyle so that something good can come of this horror to another amazing human being.

I won't let this paralyze me.  I want to find the strength to contemplate returning again to Afghanistan.  I want to summon the strength to have the will to still ask the question..... why.  

 

 

Sunday
Sep062009

It hit too close to home....

That IED that hit CBS's Cami McCormick, and killed 22-year-old Spc. Abraham Wheeler of Columbia, SC. -- that IED was meant for me.  It was meant for anyone who traveled that road in Logar province at that time and place.  It was meant to disrupt, to disturb and to discourage, and despite the fact that I had long since crossed that patch of pavement, it did those things to me.  I don't know Cami personally, but I respect her immensely, and I now pray for her daily.  Her bravery and that of so many other journalists here is remarkable.  Some - push themselves out so far into the firefights that I wonder that they can ever sleep again because in editing their photos and video and in writing about their experiences, they will relive that horror so many more times to recreate it than those who were there at its genesis.

The weight of what happened to her and so can happen to anyone of us is heavy.  It is a brave, exhilerating, often thankless task that 'doers' do.  So many others would rather sit on the sidelines and collect a paycheck.  But if you truly want to understand - you must go into the thick of it.  

It's not a choice the soldier makes lightly either.   At 22 Spc. Wheeler certainly had talked of the increasing violence with his fellow soldiers, and was concerned.  I imagine that as a boy, his father - a Marine - might have given him some insight into the personal sacrifices necessary to serve one's country.  Nonetheless, to see the stricken faces of his fellow soldiers and even his commanders on the day they laid his body on a C-13 bound for Dover - was to see the personal pain of each mounting loss on these men.  As they struggled to carry his flag-draped coffin up the ramp that crisp sunny saturday morning at Bagram, there were stony faces.  But as a group of younger soldiers arrived to kneel beside his casket, there were tears of pain on those twisted young faces.  They would later come into the enormous embrace of their commander - Lt. Col. Tom Gukeisen, a man of great intellect and heart.  These men allow themselves to feel - if only for a moment - the grief and loss of each sacrifice.  It's an important part of the process. 

For me - this event hit me in the stomach like a knock-out punch.  I went numb.  I couldn't feel.  Even my tears didn't feel like they were my own.  I returned in a daze to my FOB, hoping that familiar faces and some silly musical dvd would distract me....it did for awhile, but I still don't know what the impact will be on my psyche.

I am but a first-time freelancer, so for me, I realized that because I don't have a big budget company behind me - the stakes are even higher.  So, while taking steps to be more careful, I am torn between following the story and following self-imposed new safety guides.  They are always at odds it seems.  But I contend that only faith is worth dying for; not a story.  At least not yet.  And so - for the moment, I have found a line I can live with...but it sickens me in the stomach to admit it because it means there's a limit to what I can and should see.  I never liked limits, but I suppose some are for our own good.  Perhaps that is the case now...