Snow is on the ground here in Fairbanks. The brigade's command officially changed hands earlier this week. Col. Burt Thompson and many others are soon jetting off to new assignments.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Snow is on the ground here in Fairbanks. The brigade's command officially changed hands earlier this week. Col. Burt Thompson and many others are soon jetting off to new assignments.
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
By Tom Hewitt
BAQUBAH, Iraq — Shortly after entering the police station, Staff Sgt. Daniel Blalock of the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment found himself in the embrace of an Iraqi officer.
“I knew it was going to be a sad day when we told them we couldn’t come back,” Blalock said, after he returned the hug.
Sgt. Blalock and other members of 1-5’s Charlie Company had come to the station, just north of Baqubah in Diyala Province on a mission to help train the Iraqi Emergency Response Force. The ERF, a special branch of the Iraqi Police trained for security operations, had worked with the American soldiers for months, and it was their final session...
Sunday, August 30, 2009
-Tom Hewitt for the UAF Iraq embed team
Friday, August 28, 2009
Soldiers from the 1st Stryker Brigade Canine Unit are helping Iraqi Security Forces train dogs to sniff out trouble.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
COP COBRA, Iraq - On a sunny morning at Command Outpost Cobra, Lt. Col. Michael Kasales of the 1-25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team was mending fences.
“This kind of cooperation doesn’t exist anywhere else in Iraq,” he told the assembled Iraqi forces at a joint security meeting. “There can be peace and understanding, or it can turn into a fight.”
On the border between Iraq and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, Kasales and the troops of his 5-1 Cavalry Regiment have their work cut out for them, trying to massage egos and build relationships between Arabs and Kurds. It’s a daunting task even under the best of circumstances, and the soldiers are dealing with an active insurgency and infrastructure projects to boot.
As the meeting wore on, the magnitude of friction between the authorities became apparent. The Iraqi army and police forces complained of poor communication between the security agencies – American, Iraqi, and Kurdish – in the region, and a lack of trust between forces was a major bone of contention. Still, Kasales urged the meeting’s attendees to continue working together, telling them, “The example you are providing here is coexistence and peace for the future of Iraq.”
Kasales has worked hard to ease tensions in his squadron’s area of operations, pushing Iraqi authorities to set up joint checkpoints and operations with the Kurdish pesh merga militia forces. The pesh merga have been successful at maintaining order and security in Kurdistan, and both the Iraqi and American governments believe that cooperation between Kurdish and Iraqi forces is key to keeping the peace, especially in the volatile disputed zone that runs diagonally through northeast Diyala Province – the 5-1 Cavalry’s backyard.
Efforts to foster cooperation between Kurds and Iraqis in security operations have been successful, but it’s still a rocky road. At the morning security meeting, Iraqi police and army representatives had arrived in force, but the pesh merga were nowhere to be seen. At the meeting’s end, word arrived that the Kurds had been hassled at the command outpost’s gate, and – feeling slighted – turned around, blowing off the meeting.
“It happens about once every three times we do this,” Kasales said after the meeting’s end. “Sometimes it’s where people are seated at the tables. Personally, I think it’s silly, and I let them have my seat if they’ll take it.”
An uncertain future
In the Kurd-dominated town of Khanaqin, Iraqi Police Col. Mahmoud was quick to suggest that Kurd-Arab tensions are overblown. “There is no difference between working with Arabs and working with Kurds. He is an Arab, and I am a Kurd,” he said, pointing to the officer at the next desk. “We work together. We trust each other.”
“He knows how we [Kurds] suffered under Saddam,” Mahmoud said of Kasales. “We will be sad to see him go.” Still, he expressed faith that the situation will not worsen when Kasales departs in September. “I do not know who will replace him,” Mahmoud said, “But I have faith in the Americans. If he is going to be like Kasales, then we will trust him and we will work with him.”
The American soldiers from COP Cobra were less hopeful. “The Kurds and Arabs play nice while we’re here,” one said outside the dining hall that evening as he smoked a cigarette, “But as soon as we’re gone, all bets are off. They’re going to go right back to fighting.”
Back at the base, Col. Kasales reflected on the meetings between the Iraqi security forces. “You get everybody together like that in one room, and they always complain and moan about something – there’s always something they’re unhappy about. But just getting them into that room, even if they’re complaining – at least they’re not out in the streets, shooting at each other.”
He acknowledged that the transition to a new American unit in the region will be delicate. “We’ve spent a lot of time establishing these relationships, and these partnerships. When the next guy comes in, we’ve got to make sure he’s up to speed.
“Because if you’re not careful, you’re right back at square one.”
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
August 15th rockets struck just outside of FOB Warhorse, the headquarters of the 1st Stryker Brigade.UAF Journalism’s Jessica Hoffman tagged along with the Iraqi Army and the U.S. soldiers from the 3-21 Infantry Regiment investigating the launch site.
FOB NORMANDY, Iraq -- Capt. Chris Hassan and Second Platoon, Charlie Company had a different mission scheduled with their Iraqi Army partners. Plans changed in the wake of an unsuccessful rocket attack against American forces the previous night.
"Jesus, that's down by Warhorse," the 28-year-old Hassan spluttered as the headquarters of 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment radioed the new instructions.
Each of the 1-25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team's sub-commands wields responsibility over designated portions of Dilaya Province. The rockets took off from a grove less than 10 miles from the brigade's headquarters at Forward Operating Base Warhorse, near Ba'qubah.
The platoon's home borders Muqdadiyah, roughly 90 minutes north. It might have made sense for soldiers from the closer base to respond. But Iraqis call the shots on U.S. involvement since June 30, and the IA command in Diyala Province wanted the assistance of Hassan's Strykers searching the date palm grove linked to the attack.
Local police met the combined force of Americans and Iraqis shortly after 8 a.m. in a village near the Shaki River. Hassan directed his soldiers down a narrow road, bordered with mud walls on either side, toward the grove targeted for searching. As the road emptied into a grassy field, the local sheik arrived with news.
"Guys were seen escaping when the rockets were launched," the sheik explained through a translator.
Monday, August 24, 2009
A few soldiers in the public affairs office gather around boxes. A care package shipment has just arrived. With excitement Joint Combat Camera member Navy Mass Communications Spc. 1st Class Kirk Worley opens the treasure trove. Inside the one-cubic foot USPS box, there are six smaller boxes. It’s like watching a kid on Christmas morning. The contents of each box spills onto his desk. Pulling the last package out, Worley says with a joyful tone, “This one is going to be the best one.” Each box was filled with candy, trail mix, beef jerky and a myriad of other treats. Worley organizes the snacks across his desk and lets his fellow Joint Combat Camera team member Air Force Staff Sgt. Ali Flisek choose her favorite goodies. With glee she chooses mini SweetTarts and dried mangoes. “It doesn’t matter what’s in the box. It’s just fun getting it,” said Flisek.
The Scarlet Macaw Community Arts Center in Sawyer, Michigan sent this particular package.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
To keep skills up to date, the Brigade offers its soldiers training in the warzone.
Good fences make good neighbors
It's easy to miss the most prominent architectural feature of Forward Operating Base Warhorse, even though it takes up far more space than any other object in the area.
Saturday, August 22, 2009
Capt. Tim Walton asked the police officer about how upcoming Ramadan fasting might affect his 50-member force. Walton wanted to know who made the call pulling police from many of the highway checkpoints. He and the Iraqi discussed the progress of local trials involving suspected terrorists.
The police lieutenant’s description of a recent arrest jogged the Fort Wainwright soldier’s memory. “Last October, we stopped that same guy with his big pole in the water,” Walton recalled.
Friday, August 21, 2009
Last week, Sgt. Melvin Lamb of the 1-25th Stryker Brigade walked into his classroom with an unenviable task: He had to teach a group of Iraqi Army soldiers, many of whom had never picked up a wrench, how to maintain and repair their vehicles. It wasn’t the responsibility that was onerous, it was the time frame.
He had to do it in 14 days.
“Trying to teach them everything in two weeks – yeah, that’s a crash course,” Lamb said, standing in the oversized container unit that serves as his mechanic’s school. “Some of them do have experience, but the bulk of what I get are drivers.”
With such a short time to teach the Iraqis, the American instructors have to focus on the high points – the vehicles’ major systems and sources of the most common problems. Although Lamb wishes he could teach a longer class, he knows it’s not realistic. “It would be better if they could embed with us for a year,” he said, “But their government can’t afford it.”
In fact, the Iraqi government has difficulty letting its soldiers attend the class at all, even in its two-week form. For the men who enroll, the class is treated like leave, and though there is air conditioning in the classroom, it’s hardly a vacation. Lamb and his fellow instructors teach HMMV maintenance, and though the Iraqi Army soldiers are eager, they often have a lot to learn.
“The main focus is trying to get them to use manuals,” Lamb said, adding that the Americans had their hands full translating the English-language HMMV manuals, already difficult for many U.S. soldiers to understand, into Arabic.
Despite their reluctance to crack books for answers, the Iraqi soldiers showed initiative in other areas. “They’re very intuitive,” Lamb said. “When something goes wrong, they’ll look all over for obvious problems.”
Without at least some instruction, however, the Iraqis’ eagerness can go to waste. “The first day of class, something was wrong with the HMMV, and it wouldn’t start,” Lamb said. “It took them two hours to figure out that it was in drive.”
Outside the classroom, Lamb’s Iraqi Army pupils sat at a picnic table, chatting and wearing refitted U.S. Army uniforms from previous conflicts. Kosovo, Somalia, Desert Storm, and even Vietnam were represented.
The HMMV maintenance class was valuable, they said, and they had learned a great deal. They expressed some frustration with having to use the manuals, but said they trusted Lamb and took him at his word that doing things by the book was worth their while. They had been working on the vehicles all morning, but as the heat of the day approached, they were taking a break before going inside for the four-hour classroom portion of the day’s lesson.
The short time frame made the class seem more like triage than a full-fledged maintenance program, but Lamb remained optimistic. “99 percent of the guys that go through this class are greatly improved by the end.”
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
UAF Journalism’s Jessica Hoffman was present for the 9th installation closure in Diyala.
As well, here's our weekly update of web coverage of our embedded journalists:
Anchorage Daily News (multiple stories from their dedicated Short Timers section):
Alaska Dispatch also has updated their dedicated section:
“Talk to the privates,” Col. Burt Thompson said early on, encouraging us to get the full picture on life in and around Warhorse Forward Operating Base.
I have encountered a few privates on missions and other stories we’re covering as embeds with the 1-25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team. But soldiers at Beetle Bailey’s end of the pay grades don’t appear that common among Fort Wainwright’s deployed ranks.
This is confirmed by the brigade’s top NCO, Sgt. Major Gabriel Cervantes. He said it’s a natural consequence of the 1-25th’s overnight formation as a “life-cycle unit” in 2006, and the U.S. Army’s promotion process.
“When they came in, 90 percent of these soldiers were privates. Now all those soldiers who were privates three years ago are sergeants.”
Cervantes expects the brigade will see big turnover this fall as many of those newly-minted sergeants either move on to new Army posts, or elect to get out of the service.
As an established brigade, however, the 1-25th should retain more of a mix in the ranks. “You’ll always have people rotating in and out,” Cervantes said, “but there won’t be such an abundance of NCOs.”
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Monday, August 17, 2009
Photos by Jennifer Canfield/UAF Journalism
COP COBRA, Iraq - “Ah yes, Cobra,” Maj. Chris Hyde said, laughing nervously and sucking air through his teeth. “It’s nice up there, really nice. But – how shall I say it – very austere.”
Austere was the right word. A lone soldier from the 1st Cavalry, 5th Squadron showed up to greet the arriving Blackhawk helicopters at the landing pad, and as he showed us to our quarters, he made no effort to hide either the plainness of Command Outpost Cobra or his affection for it.
“Sure, we don’t have a big mess hall here, or some of the other stuff they have at [Forward Operating Bases] Warhorse or Caldwell,” he said. “But I like it. We get our missions done, and it’s a little more relaxed than down at Caldwell. For one thing, there’s no Sergeant Major Greene up here.”
Soldiers at COP Cobra tended to speak of Sgt. Maj. Charles Greene, the squadron’s chief non-commissioned officer, with a mixture of mild resentment and respect. While several cited his absence as a reason they enjoy their stay at Cobra, they affectionately retold stories about Greene’s temper and his fondness for Diet Pepsi.
The soldier who greeted our helicopters wasn’t kidding about Cobra not having a big mess hall. While the dining facility at Warhorse had an overwhelming array of menu options, at Cobra there was only one choice: take it or leave it. There were no soldiers choosing the latter. Thankfully, the meal of the evening – spaghetti and meatballs with green beans and a roll – proved delicious. A nearby table held an open case of Pop-Tarts, presumably an alternative on nights when the food was less popular.
The men and women staffing COP Cobra may enjoy a more relaxed atmosphere, but they can turn it on and off like a switch. On a mission in the nearby town of Khanaqin the next day, the soldiers’ eyes darted back and forth as they walked through the half-empty market, looking down side streets and up to rooftops for harbingers of a coming attack. While Khanaqin has been calm for some time, the soldiers were visibly relieved when they finished the walk and got back into their waiting Stryker vehicles.
COP Cobra’s facilities ran from modest to extremely modest. A makeshift barbershop was set up one night in the corner of the laundry room. Only one set of electric clippers was in evidence, and a garbage bag stood in for a barber’s apron. Still, those waiting for a haircut were in good spirits, and one – equipped with an acoustic guitar – even indulged a request to play “Free Bird,” which he played flawlessly.
The only amenities on the outpost universally derided by its soldiers were the latrines. Even the bathroom at the squadron’s headquarters, widely considered the best at Cobra, only had one Western-style toilet, with the others little more than holes in the floor. In one stall, a folding chair leaned up against the wall with the seat cut out, in an effort to provide some measure of normalcy.
Despite the austerity, those stationed at Cobra find ways to import touches of luxury. The evening after the mission to Khanaqin, the squadron’s chaplain had a cookout, complete with steaks. “They won’t be the best steaks you’ve ever had,” warned Pvt. Joel Adams as we walked over to the grill, “But it’s a steak in Iraq.”
By the time the steaks were finished, the night was pitch dark. The soldiers stood outside the dining hall, smoking cigarettes and talking about home. Almost all of the soldiers were less than a month from the end of their deployment, and they held forth on the places they would go, the music they would buy, and the beer they would drink as soon as they got back to Fairbanks.
“What a night,” said Spc. Joel Adams as the cookout wound down, looking up at the night sky. “Feels almost like home.” The stars rose over the outpost, and the Big Dipper shone brightly, comforting and yet somehow out of place above the desert.
The next evening, Adams and Sgt. Christian Ozuna sat with me in the mess hall at FOB Caldwell for dinner after a convoy ride from Cobra. The two shared good-natured gripes about their housing. “We were supposed to get new housing units,” Adams said. “They talked about it for weeks and weeks, and then they gave them to 3-66 [Cavalry Regiment]. Always the way.”
“We have a mouse in our quarters, actually,” Adams continued. I volunteered that I had seen the rat poison set out in the corner of Cobra’s dining facility.
“Yeah,” Ozuna said, smiling and looking into the distance, “Those steaks last night sure were tasty, weren’t they?”
Sunday, August 16, 2009
Then I heard the alarm, "Incoming...Incoming..." and realized that it had been going on for several seconds. I was so engrossed in the conversation I was having that I hadn't noticed it earlier.
Saturday, August 15, 2009
"You should try the peach cobbler. I make it myself."
I looked up from my tray. Across from me sat a man with a name tag that had "Rodney" embossed on it.
Read more at Alaska Dispatch
Friday, August 14, 2009
"Taking pictures," I said pointing to my camera setup and the memorial wall. He turned, as if to walk away, but instead started pointing at names. After touching nearly a dozen names he turned and walked back to me.
"I remember them in here," he points to his head.
"I hate that thing," he said pointing back at the wall, "It's obnoxious."
We were quiet for a minute, maybe five.
Read more at Alaska Dispatch
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Anchorage Daily News has dedicated an entire section to the stories of our embedded students: UAF Students in Iraq
- Alaskan Dispatch (8/13): Noisy Neighborhood (B. O'Donoghue)
- Fairbanks Daily News-Miner (8/12): Fort Wainwright soldiers find themselves... (B. O'Donoghue)
- Alaskan Dispatch (8/10): The Ashraf Powder Keg (T. Hewitt)
- Sacramento Bee (8/9): New breed rewrites rules of global reporting
You can follow our group's tweets by searching Twitter for "#uafiraq" or by following this link.
The dust settled, revealing a star blanketed sky. It was about 3 a.m. Orion could be seen, but here, the celestial warrior stretched horizontal. The half moon illuminated furrows from farming and a plateau jutting from the mostly flat land. Beyond the plateau ahead of us, sparse lights from a distant village could be seen.
Within the plateau, the soldiers spotted an unexpected light. This caused concern and the soldiers stood fast with their rifles ready. It was possible this light could be from a fire inside a cave.
Soldiers immediately moved to investigate the light. The Iraqi Army and a small squad from the 1st Platoon, B Co., 1-25th Stryker Brigade led the way, beginning a mission that would continue past dawn.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Monday, August 10, 2009
The Iraqi Army and police forces, though derided by many as ineffective, are at least strong enough to maintain a general stability among the many groups jockeying for power here.
It's a fragile peace, however, and one feels that it's always just one incident away from being shattered. With that in mind, senior officers here at Warhorse and around Diyala are keeping a very close eye on the situation at Camp Ashraf.
More at Alaska Dispatch.
- Alaska Dispatch (8/8): Dust can be your friend
- Fairbanks Daily News-Miner (8/7): A tangled justice weaves its way in Iraq
- KTUU (Anchorage, 8/7): Sweeping for bombs with the Stryker Brigade
- Alaska Dispatch (8/7): The rule of law
- Alaska Dispatch (8/6): The look
- Anchorage Daily News (8/5): UAF students in Iraq have first close call
- Alaska Dispatch (8/5): The base at night
- Alaska Dispatch (8/5): Getting body armor
- Fairbanks DN-M (7/30): Three Fairbanks students, professor to embed...
- ADN (7/30): UAF students, prof embed with Strykers in Iraq
- UAA Northern Light (7/28): UAF students get real world experience reporting in Iraq
- APRN (6/30): UAF Journalism Students Heading to Iraq
- Editor & Publisher (8/5): A Close Call Already for Embedded Journalism...
- The Chronicle of Higher Education (7/27): UA Journalism Students to embed...
Saturday, August 8, 2009
Dust kicked up from the leaves of the small green bushes as we trudged across the desert. Walking alongside the Iraqi Army and soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Field Artillery Regiment, 1-25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team was tough. The body armor, weighing in at about 40 pounds, combined with brick oven temperatures was grueling. Somehow it all seemed bearable, but the dust. Breathing it in was almost like the smoke, suffocating and annoying to the sinuses.
More at Alaska Dispatch.
Thursday, August 6, 2009
The base at night
"I'd rather not get you killed," he said.
Sgt. Jeremy Pitcher was tasked with escorting me around base late last night. The night we arrived at Warhorse, I'd noticed how the buildings - unremarkable during the day - were fascinating at night. Under the moon the buildings took on a sparkling, ghost-like quality.
Full article at Alaska Dispatch
Getting body armor
"After 15 minutes," said the Army National Guardsman we talked to in the Amsterdam airport, "you won't even remember you're wearing it."
If only he had been right.
Full article at Alaska Dispatch
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Passing people on the street, the convoys always draw stares. It's easy to guess why - the vehicles are imposing, and there are often turret gunners rolling their .50-caliber barrel back and forth, looking for possible vectors of incoming fire. Since July 1, too, the American military has made a concerted effort to stay out of urban areas whenever possible, so the mine-resistant vehicles are more of a novelty than they used to be.
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Our posts lately have been pretty narrowly focused on particular situations we've encountered in our travels, so I thought I'd briefly recount what we've been up to since we arrived in the Middle East.
We arrived in Kuwait early Saturday morning, and were taken to a transfer base for processing and to arrange a flight into Iraq. Our processing there took almost exactly 24 hours, whence we got aboard a C-17 and flew to Baghdad. We were met there by a public affairs officer from the 1-25th Strykers. He helped us obtain our press credentials and secure transport to Forward Operating Base Warhorse in Diyala province.
While on our way to get our credentials at the Combined Press Information Center in the Green Zone, our convoy came within a few minutes of being hit by an IED, which made the situation getting into the Green Zone a bit tricky due to fears of another attack. We eventually made it into the CPIC, however, and got credentialed. Late Sunday night we flew out of Baghdad by Blackhawk helicopter - an awesome experience - and landed at FOB Warhorse.
Since Monday morning, we’ve been getting our feet back under us, and we're getting to work on our real mission: getting some stories produced. I'll keep you updated.
Monday, August 3, 2009
I was watching the movie Yes Man on the flight from Minnesota to Amsterdam. The film’s premise is saying yes to any opportunity that presents itself.
In the beginning, the main character (played by Jim Carrey) goes out of his way to escape from doing things. He makes up stories to avoid his friends. Instead he sits at home and watches rental movies.
At some point, a friend from high school invites Carrey to a motivational seminar. After the seminar, he begins his journey as a yes man.
During Carrey’s encounters he finds himself in situations he would never normally accept. If he refuses to say “yes” to the opportunity, something bad happens. Through trial and error, he finds saying “yes” brings good fortune.
This trip is not a movie and something could go horribly wrong. But if I said “no” to opportunities like this, what would I miss? And… I wouldn’t have cool stories to tell the grandkids.
The military realities of life on base were still prevalent; checkpoints were extremely tightly controlled and there were forms to fill out and command hierarchies to navigate at every turn. Also, the relaxed nature of some of the soldiers could be explained away by the fact that many of them were on their way out of the war, either for a few weeks of leave or for good. Still, you could almost forget that there was a war going on, and how close by the base was to the "front," if the notion of "fronts" still applies in modern warfare.
When we boarded the "Daytime Rhino" in Baghdad yesterday, the difference in tone from Kuwait was unmistakable. The "Rhino" is a short convoy of heavily armored vehicles known as MRAPs (short for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle) that travel between Baghdad International Airport and the Green Zone, through some of the most attack-prone territory in the city. The woman manning the turret was friendly but extremely firm as she explained what to do if our vehicle was attacked.
As we rumbled down the streets of Baghdad, no attack seemed forthcoming, and it seemed again like the war was a concept that existed someplace far away. Despite all of the security, I began to wonder exactly how dangerous the situation really was.
Just outside the entrance to the Green Zone, the convoy rolled to a halt. No one seemed to understand what was going on, and apprehension filled the air inside the vehicle. The turret gunner swiveled back and forth, anticipating a possible attack from an uncertain direction.
After a few minutes, the gunner knelt down and passed on what she had heard over the radio: An IED had exploded on our route minutes before we arrived, and the Iraqi Army was locking down the Green Zone. No word had yet been given on potential casualties. We were turning around and heading back to the airport immediately, presumably to avoid being sitting ducks for a second attack.
The realization that we were minutes away from having triggered an IED triggered a reaction that came like a flood:
This is a war, and while as embeds we might sometimes be divorced from the immediate realities of the fighting, our lives are in the hands of the people whose job it is to never get complacent, to never forget where they are and what the consequences are if they let their guard down.
I hope they do a better job remembering that than I did.
Saturday, August 1, 2009
Brian’s Luddite Manifesto earlier prompted a defensive reflex in me, so I’ve decided to offer a counterpoint.
I could pick Brian’s assertions apart piece-by-piece, or hold forth on the questionable wisdom of attacking the very same technology that allows you to post your content directly to anywhere in the world wirelessly from the floor of the Minneapolis airport, but I won’t. What I’ll do instead is tell a little story.
As we prepared to leave the airport in Amsterdam, a series of bizarre delays left us stuck on the tarmac for over two hours. Brian, looking worried, passed me an email (printed out, naturally – the man doesn’t use a computer unless he has to) from the military liaison who was scheduled to meet us upon our arrival in Kuwait.
My first thought was to contact her via email, but only secure wireless networks were available. I noticed, however, that the liaison had attached her international cell phone number, so I paused the music on my iPhone and selected a local cell provider’s network. Two text messages later, the liaison had all the information she needed. I turned the phone to airplane mode again and went back to listening to music.
Try doing that from inside a plane with a reporter’s notepad or a Selectric typewriter, and let me know how it works for you.
All you Facebook friends out there, Twitter devotees and the like, forgive Jessica, Tom and Jennifer for their relative silence during a passage that actually warranted status updates. Look for them to fill in the blanks as soon as they power up.
We crossed the globe, passed security checks on three continents and bunked in military tents as a rosy desert dawn lit this gateway camp outside Kuwait City. The name goes unmentioned in accordance with military rules governing our embedding.
All the way the professor squashed student passions for updating their every move. Call me paranoid, but it struck me that our group, being unusual in its Alaska student involvement, invited problems from those looking for ways to embarrass the U.S.
My nerves began fraying when a recent article by the Chronicle of Higher Education unleashed a wave of national publicity about our embedding project. I really worried after our commercial media partners announced our departure Thursday, ignoring or perhaps misinterpreting my request to fudge on the travel dates. “Leaving this weekend,” would have covered our tracks nicely. The reporter is a friend. I was likely unclear. And I’ll never fault journalists for printing the truth.
Jessica’s dad gets ultimate credit for Friday’s sleepless night en route from Europe. It was his suggestion I prepare for this venture by watching the movie “Taken.” I kept putting it off this summer. It seemed fortuitous when I came across the flick on the list of free videos offered on our final-leg KLM flight.
The plot certainly resonated: A beautiful young woman flies off to Paris-- over her doting daddy’s objections—gets kidnapped, virtually from the airport, and soon lands in white slavery.
Stand down, retired Master Sgt. Hoffman, the entire base has her back now.
By the time we huddled in Kuwait City’s airport lobby, every stranger seemed a threat and I summoned the A-Team in the form of Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kelli Roesch, a Navy reservist, and her cohorts from the camp’s Media Transit unit.
We’re being issued flak jackets at noon.
None too soon.
None too soon.
Thursday, July 30, 2009
This news business never gets easier.
When I first ventured overseas in 1979, traveling by way of an $1,800 settlement from a motorcycle accident and doors opened by a press card gifted by Trans World News, a basketball-sized Domke camera bag held all I needed: two sleek Olympus 35-mm bodies, a flash and my trim, light 28-, 50- and 135-mm lenses.
What I didn’t wear, I toted in a ridiculously simple aluminum-frame backpack, including a small portfolio and carefully hoarded store of hand-rolled Tri-X and slide film.
My old college friend and collaborator, Jeff Greenwald, had it even easier. A pen and notebook, items readily available on the road, empowered the writer’s pursuit of any story, anytime. Being as young as we were, his burden came from hankering to, perhaps, branch into sculpting. He often complained about the unused chisels and carving tools clanking in his kit.
The prospect journalism might someday require laptops, chargers, converters, thumb drives, backup drives, and programs to make the tools work, internet connections to distribute the results and ensure that same software keeps working — that technical frontier lurked blissfully out of view.
We’ve had time to get used to laptop screens expanding from a few blue-lettered sentences to world-opening portals. We’ve become accustomed to spinning hourglasses eating away our inspiration. We’re conditioned to keep an eye peeled for outlets in the airport. These things took over our lives incrementally; hunger for the possibilities opened trumping the tonnage and worry associated with all these astounding devices allowing us to report stories in compelling new ways.
UAF Journalism’s Iraq reporting gear cost roughly $11,000. We’re bringing a pair of so-large-they’re-hard-to-pack Macbook Pros suited to editing HD video; a pair of new Canon HG-21 camcorders chosen for their built-in 120GB hard drives; two older PCs; a trio of digital audio kits; two very cool Canon T1i SLRs—one being mine financed out of pocket--and, lastly, a Sat phone courtesy of the UA Risk Management Office.
We have to pay for the minutes. Ouch.
We’ve consulted other embeds and collected info from the brigade and soldiers we know regarding the likely working conditions at Forward Operating Base Warhorse and other places we might end up. Honestly, there’s no end to what we might belatedly discover we should have brought given today’s ever-widening appetite for news delivered in differing formats.
Those years ago in Egypt, my flash busted right off the bat. By then, Greenwald had continued on to India and Nepal, which became the setting for his signature book, Shopping for Buddhas.
Freelancing for the UPI Cairo bureau netted about $35 a week, enough to survive, but well short of what I needed for the flash I coveted at the local shop window. You make do. No one even noticed at UPI Cairo that the skinny American stringer shot everything, including portraits of Arab-Israeli peace talks and summit meetings between Sadat in Begin, in natural light. Mainly I hunted the right light, if need be shadowing the TV guys. They always brought wattage.
Redundancy and self-sufficiency is, theoretically, our mantra for this assignment.
Our savvy department tech, Jason Lazarus, pulled all nighters ensuring all hums as it should.
Our equipment list is good on paper. It rivals the complexity of an Iditarod Team’s food drop, which mushers and handlers will appreciate.
Yet, dread fills my soul.
Watching Jessica, Tom and Jennifer testing and packing gear for UAF Journalism’s invasion, I know there’s a cable missing in the pile. An ill-chosen power converter. Software poised to demand an update. Things will crap out, crash, or beep uselessly. Students are going to confront that and, if we’ve done our job back home, adapt and overcome it—as the soldiers we’re here to cover surely must every day.
“Stay tuned,” the professor said, again with the dated material.
--Brian Patrick O’Donoghue
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
It seemed impossible yesterday that today would be busier, but somehow it happened.
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Saturday, July 25, 2009
I have lived in Alaska for most of my life. My dad was in the Army and was stationed at Fort Wainwright and later at Fort Greely. We also spent a short time in Massachusetts. But, most of my childhood memories involve living and going to school in the Fort Greely/Delta Junction area.
In 1999, I graduated from high school and moved to Seattle, Washington to attend college at the Art Institute of Seattle. I graduated in 2001 with an associate of applied arts degree in video production.
In Seattle, I worked for a variety of productions companies. Most of my jobs were as a camera operator but I also worked as an assistant editor, engineer, Chyron operator, AV technician, and technical director.
In November of 2003, I moved back to Alaska to work for ECIII, a contractor for Cold Regions Test Center at Fort Greely as a videographer. My primary duty was to document the testing of military and civilian equipment.
While working for ECIII, I started to pursue my bachelor’s degree at UAF. Since I was working full-time, most of my studies were via correspondence. I did find time to take basic photography and radio production at the University. It was a grueling drive. I think I averaged 12 hours of driving a week, just for school.
In 2008, I went to North Carolina and started working part-time for Research, Analysis and Maintenance as a photographer. Although hired as photographer, my duties also included some videography.
Yearning for sub-zero temperatures, well, maybe more to get closer to finishing my degree, I came back to Alaska for the spring 2009 semester at UAF.
In February, I began working for The Sun Star, UAF’s student paper, as a reporter and photographer. Working as a reporter for The Sun Star happened, as I see it, the sheer cunning of the editor at the time, Kortnie Westfall. I had attended an assignment meeting hoping to pick up a photo assignment and got that, along with an article. I had no intention of writing and was convinced I really hated writing. As fate would have it, I really enjoyed writing and continued throughout the semester. In the fall, I plan to continue working for The Sun Star.
For the summer, I went back to North Carolina and resumed working part-time for RAM. Also, I’ve been taking summer classes through UAF’s Center for Distance Education.
There are a lot of reasons why I’m interested in going to Iraq. For one, I love traveling. I like expanding my worldview and learning about different cultures. Secondly, I have family, friends and co-workers who have gone to Iraq as members of the military or as contract workers. Another, I like little adventures...
Monday, July 20, 2009
At some level, all of us know we’re going to die someday. We do a pretty good job of not letting that knowledge dictate the way we live, and for the most part it’s an easy thought to keep out of the front of our minds.
There are times, though, when you’re forced to confront the reality – I’m going to do something that might get me killed – head on. In ordinary life, these moments usually come after the decision has already been made, on a black-diamond-rated ski slope or a moose you didn’t see crossing the road until it was too late. When going into a war zone, on the other hand, you have the unlooked-for opportunity of savoring the prospect of your death, with a dozen questions on forms you fill out asking about your blood type and your helmet size.
The embed application had two spaces for names of people to contact in case of my death. I assume the second is there in case the first person doesn’t pick up the phone. In the first space, I put my mother. No surprises there. As for the second space, I think I’ll keep that to myself for right now.
Who knows, maybe it’s you.
Unless you know one of us personally, it’s likely that you’re a bit in the dark about the fundamentals of our expedition. Here’s what you need to know to understand what’s going on:
- We are three journalism students from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Our names are Jennifer Canfield, Tom Hewitt, and Jessica Hoffman. We will travel to Iraq with our professor, Brian O’Donoghue.
- We will be in Iraq for a month and will embed there with the Ft. Wainwright Stryker Brigade (1stBrigade, 25thInfantry Division).
- We will send reports back to print, radio, and television media outlets in Alaska. In addition to those dispatches, we will regularly update this blog with news on our experience.
There are a lot of finer details, but those are the broad strokes, and they should be enough to get you by. Please understand that the reason we aren’t always forthcoming with exact dates, locations, and other specifics is that the military, the university, and our families are all concerned with our safety and the safety of those around us during our time overseas. Loose lips sink ships, and all that.
What we don't have to be skittish about (and neither do you) is sharing this blog with others who might be interested. The blog is super easy to update (I can actually do it from my phone via text message!), and it will be our most reliable communication link while we're abroad. We're excited about this, and we want as many people on board as possible. Tell your friends!
Sunday, July 19, 2009
When traveling out-of-state for any kind of training opportunity, I'm usually quite critical about what is taught. Technology has advanced in ways that make most of these trips unnecessary. Don't get me wrong, I love a free trip to Los Angeles as much as the next person, but now isn't the time for a vacation. I think this workshop should have been offered online.
The workshop attendees and presenters all went to dinner together last night. It never ceases to amaze me how personable and chatty people become after a few glasses of wine. The quietest ones become game show hosts.
If I had a dime for every time someone asked me, "Are you scared?" I'd buy you and me a bottle of this. But no, I'm not scared.
Friday, July 17, 2009
We were told of our selection as embeds on May 20. The intervening months have been a blessing – plenty of time to prepare, research, and get gear together. The wait isn’t without drawbacks, though. Three months is a long time to think about the potential what-ifs, and there are a great many. The question I keep coming back to is the one I expect to hear the most when, God willing (insha’Allah?), we return: "What’s it like over there?"
I’ve tried my best to answer this question for myself, reading up on the war from the perspective of other reporters and soldiers. I’ve seen some video from friends in the military that probably treads pretty close to the edge of what the armed forces will allow their soldiers to send home. I even ran across some good photos from around the base where we’ll be stationed.
Even with all of that background material to study, the conclusion I’ve come to is that Iraq isn’t a place that I can comprehend until we arrive. I’m reminded of the first time I went to New York City. I had seen countless pictures of the Manhattan skyline, flown through it in movies, and read about it for three years thanks to a gift subscription to The New Yorker and the New York Times online. When it came down to it, though, the first time I really understood what it was like to be in New York was when I emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel into Manhattan and lost the sky to buildings so high I couldn’t see the tops from my window. I learned more about New York in that instant than in the previous 17 years of my life.
I have a feeling Iraq will be the same way, which poses an interesting question: when people ask me, “What’s it like over there?” what am I going to say?