A Decade Ago I Went To Afghanistan As A Soldier. Last November, I Returned As A Journalist
“RS (Resolute Support) will return the deceased or injured media member (after first aid) to the nearest commercial transportation facility, but (INDIVIDUAL MEDIA MEMBER) or my estate will be financially responsible for repatriating my remains.” As I initialed the appropriate space next to that statement, I couldn’t help but think about how the ground rules that I had to agree to before my embed was approved were blunt, if nothing else.
Having to research which insurance company would cover “repatriating” my remains from an active combat zone, should I take a round to the ol’ dome piece during my embed with U.S. and Afghan special operations forces, was the first indicator that this trip would be a lot different than the last time I went to Afghanistan. Which was in 2009, nearly a decade earlier. Back then I was carrying a rifle, not a camera; I was trying to capture terrorists, not a compelling story.
I was also in a very different stage of my life back then, and this trip was a stark reminder of how much had changed for me, personally.
Journalists who go over to cover a war usually haven’t also been an armed combatant in that same war, and most armed combatants in a war don’t usually go back as journalists. There are notable exceptions, of course, but it isn’t normal by any stretch of the imagination. Going back as a journalist proved to be a completely different experience in both good and bad ways for me though.
The Stuff You Need Before You Even Leave
You take for granted how much the military actually takes care of you during the pre-deployment process. Most service members see SRP (soldier readiness processing) as a cumbersome event that takes away from precious time with family and friends before an upcoming deployment. But when you “deploy” as a journalist, you have to figure out not only what you need for every contingency, but also how to get it.
For starters, standard health and life insurance won’t do the trick. I needed to find a temporary policy that covers high risk areas around the world, as well as medevac in case of injury or repatriating my remains back to the U.S.— if it comes to that. Of course, whatever unit I would be with would conduct any lifesaving measures needed (can you imagine a platoon medic asking about your health insurance policy in the middle of a fire fight?) and get me back to the CASH, but after that it’s all on me. And that includes any follow ups or rehab I’d need once I got back to the States.
After taking care of my health and life insurance, I had to go update my immunizations to cover any third world diseases I might encounter. Then, find a ballistic helmet as well as plates and a plate carrier, and since I’m embedding with SOF, I also had to find a SOCOM-compliant safety lanyard for any missions I might be on that involved helicopters.
Navigating the bureaucracy of the Afghan Embassy in Washington D.C. was no easy task either, especially since I wasn’t, you know, in Washington D.C. I had to acquire a media visa so that I could actually get into the country (unlike in the military, you actually need the host nation’s permission before entering). Pro tip: They don’t actually list a media visa as an option on the embassy website, you’ll have to ask for it.
All of this is taken care of for you when you deploy in the military. Hell, I don’t think I even had a passport for the majority of my deployments. But if my publication or I neglects any of this when embedding as a journalist, it can completely derail the trip.
Fortunately, one thing about pre-deployment prep doesn’t change as a journalist: I still drank my weight in whiskey the night before my flight.
On Hailing A Taxi In Kabul
My prior experience in traveling to Afghanistan involved ingesting copious amounts of ambien, stretching out on the floor of a C-17, waking up for a footlong cold cut from the Subway in Ramstein, Germany, then more ambien and maybe a benadryl thrown in for good measure for the last leg. Upon landing in Afghanistan, all I had to do was walk off the bird and stroll into the relative safety of a well established major military forward operating base. Nothing to worry about, except maybe flushing those sedatives out of my system.
As my commercial Emirates flight descended from the sky on the final approach to Kabul, I watched as the women donned their scarves and the men, mostly government contractors it seemed, donned their game face. A rapid descent led to a rough landing on what felt like a very exposed runway at Hamid Karzai International Airport, where we then taxied and eventually deplaned right onto the tarmac. As soon as I stepped into the airport, I was immediately hustled by local do-gooders who wanted nothing more than to help me with my bags… and a twenty dollar bill.
From there I boarded a bus that would take me to parking lot C— the only place taxis were allowed on airport grounds. The bus itself was about what you’d expect from public transportation in a third world country; I decided it was probably best if I stayed standing. After arriving at the parking lot, I called a local taxi company and began enduring what would be a significant period of impatience on my part while waiting for my transportation across town to Resolute Support Headquarters.
I tried to reassure myself that it’s not a big deal, that I’m just waiting for a taxi at an airport. No big deal, people do this all the time all around the world. I’ve done this a million times before! Nothing’s different here, right? Right?
Wishful thinking, unfortunately. I’m 6’5” tall and hover around 250 pounds. I’m as white as the refrigerator you grew up with, and I’m dressed in a flannel shirt and khaki outdoor pants. I couldn’t possibly stick out anymore than I did, and unlike most airports, locals loitering was allowed if not encouraged. There were Afghans lounging about on their lawn chairs on the edges of the parking lot, just doing a little afternoon people watching at the airport. Because that’s normal, right? I’ve seen Narcos, they were probably lookouts for the Taliban, at least in my mind anyway. Oh, and those dudes in mismatching uniforms with Ak’s at the ready over there? I’m sure they would probably side with me if an altercation were to arise.
And my phone wasn’t working right. So I had that going for me.
I stood there for nearly two hours. Two hours of me, sans weapon or body armor, just standing around “outside the wire.” Two hours of me thinking about the kidnapping issues in Kabul, about Daniel Pearl and what his family must have went through, and Peter Kassig, and…
The taxi finally arrived. The driver was young, spoke decent english, and drove a nice enough car so I didn’t give it a second thought before throwing my bags in the trunk and hopping in. Get me the fuck out of here! was about the only thing going through my head at that point. Then, IED’s be damned, we dodged and darted our way through Kabul rush hour on the way to RSHQ.
I obviously made it to my destination safely, and the cab driver was actually great company for the drive. Maybe I let my imagination get the best of me, or maybe I was just being practical. Most journalists would probably say I was overreacting, but it’s a bit different experience if you look at it all through the lens of my previous experiences in this country.
Journalists Don’t Carry Guns
During my embed, I had multiple people ask (on social media) if I was packing a gat. The simple answer? Nope.
Not only was it specifically prohibited in the ground rules that I signed with Resolute Support, and not only would my high-risk insurance be void if I was found to be carrying or using a firearm in country, but it’s simply unethical for a war correspondent to ever carry a firearm. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely believe in the usefulness of carrying a firearm as a means of protection, but you have to clearly establish that you are an independent third party reporting on war— not taking part in it.
That’s a hard pill to swallow for many, and did I feel vulnerable not carrying in a war zone? Hell yeah I felt vulnerable! I was completely dependant on the servicemembers I was with, and should they fail, my only recourse was hoping that my medium-sized ballistic plates prevented any effective fire from penetrating my vitals. After that… well, I had a couple of tourniquets on me at all all times along with my decade-old training in self aid.
I was realistic though. Carrying a firearm over there only helps you in one specific situation: other people shooting at you; and in that situation I should be shooting back with my camera— because that’s my job. But if I am in a vehicle that hits an IED, or we take IDF (looking at you, Bagram), a rifle or pistol isn’t going to do much for me.
If you want to get your man-dance on during a TIC, then journalism isn’t for you— go find your local recruiting station. I knew I wouldn’t be able to carry when I volunteered for the embed, but I also knew the rewards outweigh the risks. Sometimes being a storyteller involves more than sitting in a Starbucks sipping a chai latte while waxing poetic on a macbook.
You Are Now Officially An Outsider
Not long after the initial formalities of assigning rooms and issuing credentials, I soon realized that I was now officially an outsider. It’s not that anyone was rude to me; it was much more subtle than that.
Service members, to include officers, addressed me as ‘sir’— I was never an officer so that immediately felt awkward. I required an escort everywhere I went on RSHQ, and was always introduced with the caveat that I was a member of the media. The underlying message was, of course, to watch what you say around me. In fact, one of the first interviews that I conducted was with a general officer at Resolute Support Headquarters. There was literally a fire team’s worth of PAO’s in the room to monitor the conversation, and the general himself was very guarded with every word that he spoke.
I couldn’t help but scream, on the inside, I’m one of you! Just relax and be candid!
Of course they can’t, and nor should they. I am there to do a job after all (more on that later), and they knew that. Nonetheless, it was disconcerting to a certain degree to feel like you were no longer on the hometeam. I may as well have been a Yankee fan at Fenway, most treating me politely with a few regarding me as the enemy.
It got better as the trip went on. They figured out that I wasn’t trying to pull a Michael Hastings during the embed, I just wanted a good story and to report what I saw and heard accurately and without bias— as I do in everything I write. But issues would occasionally spring up to remind me I still wasn’t one of the boys.
One chilly evening, I was waiting outside the TOC at Camp Morehead for the PAO I was with to go to chow. A soldier who I became fast friends with over the course of my stay at the camp invited me into the TOC and out of the cold. I declined at first, but he insisted. I walked in so as not to appear rude, but was asked to leave in very short order by another soldier on the grounds that there was sensitive material out. I could hear his remarks after I left, “he’s a freaking journalist, man!” He may as well have said ‘spy’. The one who invited me in in the first place apologized profusely, and I of course didn’t hold it against him— I should have insisted on staying outside.
After all, I’m an outsider now.
I’m Here To Report
I had to occasionally remind myself that, despite how much I was enjoying myself being around like minded folks again, I was there to do a job. You can make friends, be pleasant and all that touchy-feely stuff, but at the end of the day I needed to chase down the story with every bit of resolve I had when I was on my last trip to Afghanistan.
I had to ask tough questions of men and women that I previously would have only spoken to at the position of attention. I needed to establish rapport with folks that had immense multinational responsibilities, folks that would have been extremely inappropriate for me to “establish rapport” with as a junior enlisted soldier.
I had to remain unbiased, which means I had to approach every event, every statement, every interview with an open mind. I needed to set aside my own biases as a former soldier, and look at everything on behalf of the Americans that couldn’t be in Afghanistan to see how it was going for themselves. As a reporter, my job was and still is to be the trusted eyes and ears on the ground— a responsibility that many Americans think the media is neglecting.
Nonetheless, I embraced my change of hats. I was still wearing a ballistic helmet, but the dynamics of my responsibility to the American people had changed in a drastic way. That may seem over-dramatic, and maybe it is, but my realization of the new job at hand was visceral.
Surf ‘N’ Turf Is Still Amazing
Walking into the chow hall on my first Friday of the embed, I had completely forgot about surf n’ turf being a thing. Fortunately for me, the U.S. military didn’t.
Surf ‘n’ turf in Afghanistan is usually steak and some sort of seafood, generally crab legs or a lobster tail, and it’s typically every Friday evening. Seems lavish, right? I don’t think it would hold up to the steak and crab legs you would find at many restaurants in the United States, but it’s definitely a treat for anyone deployed overseas.
The contract cooks were grilling outside, the smell floating through the mountain air carried a fit of nostalgia my way. I loaded up with a hot-off-the-grill steak, two ribs, and some corn on the cob before taking my seat in the hall that was filling up with soldiers.
Sitting there enjoying my meal, I couldn’t help but think back to the old days. I could distinctly remember the last time I was in Afghanistan; recently married and carrying the guilt of lying to my new wife about why I needed (truth: wanted) to go on one more deployment with 1st Ranger Battalion.
Life seemed simpler back then. We would wake up around 3 pm for our “hooch”-mandated coffee hour, go to the daily “poop” meeting (a nightly update about the upcoming nights targets) about 4, and then head over to the DFAC for surf ‘n’ turf at about 5 for a good meal before it was time to get ready for a mission later that night. We were “going out” about every other night, trying our best to embrace the new rule about offsetting our infil to a target a minimum of five kilometers. That usually turned into a 10k+ walk through the mountains, much to our disappointment.
Back then, I wasn’t a journalist, I wasn’t a father, and I didn’t really have much in the way of responsibilities outside of keeping track of a few sensitive items and doing my part to catch the bad guys. I eagerly looked forward to my deployments, and life was measured in training cycles. Fast forward to the present day, as I was digging into my friday night treat, I couldn’t help but think how no combat embed will ever replace that experience, or that time in my life.
I love my job. I love being a reporter and story-teller; a newly minted war correspondent who (this time) didn’t need his body “repatriated.” But no matter how different it was to go back on an embed, certain things will never change— and sometimes that’s a good thing.