Farewell, Sgt. Denny

Denny and me in southwest Baghdad. March 2006. Curtis Compton took this photo.

Denny and me in southwest Baghdad. March 2006. Curtis Compton took this photo.

I first met the boys of Charlie Company, 1/121 Infantry, in December 2005. I was an embedded reporter, a lost soul among the rough and tumble men of the Georgia Army National Guard. What did I know about the military, about the U.S. Army? Very little.

I arrived with trepidation in my heart. But the soldiers of Company C welcomed me. One of them was Sgt. Thomas Denny.

He was known by his last name, as is standard in the Army. Denny. He worked in the main office of Charlie Company, the admin guy. For that, he took hell from the guys who went out on patrol after patrol. Denny. Yeah. He’s the guy who sits at the desk. But that wasn’t true.

Denny told me about how he felt bad that he was the lucky one who got to spend so much time on base while his buddies went outside the wire, on the menacing streets of southwest Baghdad at the height on the Sunni-Shia wars. He talked to me for hours. About how he grew up in Ohio and moved to Georgia in high school. About how he loved the outdoors—hunting and fishing.

Denny in the Charlie Company TOC at Camp Liberty. March 2006.

Denny in the Charlie Company TOC at Camp Liberty. March 2006.

He told me he wanted to go out on every patrol. “But, I’ll be honest, Miss Moni,” he said. “Every guy who goes out there… well… you just never know. You just never know if you’ll make it.”

I wrote down Denny’s words on December 18, 2005, in my Iraq journal. It was among the many conversations I had with him.

One morning, before I flew south to Tallil, he gave me a cross made out of steel hung on a leather chain. “Wear it,” he said. “And think of us poor f—s. Think of me. Be safe.”

I looked at that cross today when I got home from a trip out West to Alaska. Maj. Will Phillips informed me two days ago that Denny had died. He survived Iraq. But he did not survive cancer.

Denny didn’t always sit at the desk. He went out on missions. He put himself out there. He told me he was devastated that some of his Army comrades thought him a coward.

I stand testament that he was not.

The photograph of me in Iraq that has been publicized the most is the one on this post. Of me with Denny. Of me, protected by Denny.

Farewell, brother. Rest in peace.

We said we would not forget Haiti

 

I spoke with my friend Jean Mariot Cleophat by phone today. It has been five years since I first met him.

He was my guide for much of my reporting journey through Haiti after the massive 2010 earthquake that left Haitians is utter despair. They called in “La catastrophe.”

Reporters from around the world rushed to Haiti then, hungry to tell the story of the disaster. Ordinary people felt moved to make donations, by cell phone even. The world pledged billions of dollars.

Everyone said: Haiti will rise from its ashes and finally succeed in its long struggle to overcome poverty.

Mariot and me in May 2010 in Port-au-Prince.

Mariot and me in May 2010 in Port-au-Prince.

Everyone said: We will not forget Haiti.

But we did forget Haiti, by and large.

It is the fifth anniversary of the earthquake and the world’s focus is not on Haiti today.

The earth shook for a mere 60 seconds that Tuesday and 220,000 people died.

Millions were left homeless, desperately seeking shelter in camps that grew to become huge tent cities.

In their vulnerable state, Haitians braved killer hurricanes and a cholera outbreak.

There are places in Port-au-Prince now that show no hints of the catastrophe.

The palace has been fixed up and shiny new buildings built. There are new roads, new houses. The markets are do brisk business. But, said Mariot, they belie the truth about Haiti. They belie the plight of ordinary people.

I asked Mariot how his life has been.

“I feel without hope,” he told me.

Mariot is not yet 30. He is educated and speaks English fairly well. Since the last time I saw him in early 2011,he has gotten married and now has a four-year-old daughter.

He’s worked numerous jobs in international companies. He got himself OSHA certified and was working for a construction firm but when the World Bank contract ran out, so did his job. He’s moved to the countryside because it’s cheaper there than Port-au-Prince. I asked him what he was dong for money.

He said he finds temporary jobs here and there; makes $300-400 a pop. It pays for food. But it’s hardly enough.

“There are no jobs here,” he said. “What happened to all the promises of jobs for Haitians?”

That got me thinking about a conversation I had with a friend whose father used to work for a major cruise company. He told me how he had been to Haiti as a boy when tourists flocked to its turquoise waters and white sand beaches. I know there had been efforts to restart tourism in Haiti, a notion that irks those who see it as exploitative. But I wondered how much Haiti might profit from a booming tourism trade.

If we can talk about Cuba opening up to Americans who want to sun themselves in the tropics, then why not Haiti?

I don’t know what happened to all the people I met in Haiti. How did they recover? Were they able to regain a semblance of normalcy?

I think of them this week and pay tribute to their fortitude. And resilience.

Before he hung up, Mariot told me he lives by faith. Like all Haitians, he said, he lives by the grace of God.

Read my Haiti stories on CNN.com:

Buried alive for six days, survivors reunite

A day with Sean Penn in Haiti

Rescuer was woman’s last hope

Burying the dead

What it was a year later

 

 

Cuba, Si!

CNN interviewed former President Jimmy Carter tonight about the thaw in relations with Cuba. Carter, of course, made a historic trip to the Caribbean island in 2002 with the intention of improving relations.

I was fortunate enough to make that trip with Carter. I will write more about that. But for now, here is one of my favorite pieces from that assignment. It ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and is about the Harlistas.

 

HAVANA — Cuban legend has it that Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara buried a thousand Harley-Davidson motorcycles after the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power.

Harleys, perhaps one of the noisiest symbols of America, were used by the police and army under the U.S.-backed leader, Fulgencio Batista, and Castro felt compelled to reject them.

The tale has it that the bikes were put to rest on the eastern tip of the Caribbean island–buried deep in the soil of Communism but not forgotten.

Ask Adolfo Preito, 44, who as a child watched officers roar by on their hogs. He is an engineer for the Castro regime, but his life revolves around his white 1950 Panhead Harley. His wife, Linett Suarez, is convinced that he would forsake her for his Harley.

“I love this bike. It’s my life,” said Preito.

Not one new Harley has entered Cuba since the revolution–and parts and mechanics are scarce.

Many of the old bikes barely work, patched together with bits and pieces from Soviet-made Ladas and other vehicles, but they represent high-speed rebellion in a land struggling for free expression and civil liberties.

About 200 Harleys are running in Cuba.

Preito has been trying to organize a Harley club with 30 fellow “Harlistas” since 1976. An official stamp of approval of the club’s charter would mean the Harlistas could gather at formal meetings instead of having to get together at streetside cafes and taverns.

“But in Cuba, it’s difficult to form an association,” said Preito, tucking his Latin American Motorcycle Association T-shirt into his jeans. “We are not a political group but a social one. But if we were officially sanctioned, then we could have a clubhouse behind walls, and the government doesn’t want that.”

That’s why Georgia Tech professor Kirk Bowman decided to dedicate time for his 23 study-abroad students in Cuba to meet with the Harlistas.

“I wanted students to get a feel for Cuban civil society,” said Bowman, not revealing at first his love for all things Harley. “Civil society, according to the revolution, is a bourgeois practice and as such has become almost nonexistent.”

That makes organizations that seem conventional to Americans–from church choirs to the Sierra Club–rare in Cuba. Bowman, a specialist in Latin American studies, said that as a social institution, the boisterous Harlistas fall into the same category as Cuba’s independent librarians who quietly defy the government by making materials available for everyone to read.

When he left Atlanta for Cuba, Bowman had no idea whether he would be able to contact the Harlistas, but he brought souvenirs of the American motorcycle maker just in case: T-shirts, bandannas and a new mirror for Preito.

Even with the ears and eyes of Cuban authority monitoring them, the Harlistas find innovative ways to keep their traditions going. They barter for parts to keep their bikes running and make a special homage ride each Father’s Day, which was when Cuba’s most famous mechanic, Pepe Millesima, died.

“Everyone looks at us with admiration,” Suarez said. “People identify it as something American.”

The Harlistas are ordinary people with ordinary jobs making not more than $15 a month. They dream of the day when new Harleys will be available and when they will be able to journey to Daytona, Fla., to join the 300,000 bikers at Bike Week each year.

Some signs of change are starting to surface in Cuba, however. As many as 370 Masonic lodges exist, Bowman said.

“I don’t want to say there is a boom in civil society, but it’s definitely percolating,” he said.

Ferguson

Many businesses on West Florissant Avenue are boarded up ahead of the grand jury decision.

The convenience store where Michael Brown allegedly stole cigars is  boarded up ahead of the grand jury decision. 

I did not cover the story in August when a black teenager was killed by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Nor did I have any idea that I would be thick in the middle of things one day.

But here I am, amid a deep freeze in Missouri, waiting with everyone else for a grand jury decision on whether the police officer, Darren Wilson, should be indicted in the killing of Michael Brown.

So far, it’s been an eye-opening experience. I am learning about a part of the country that I have not seen before.

Here are links to a few of my stories:

It’s her Ferguson — and it’s not all black and white

Ferguson awaits grand jury ruling

A tale of two streets

In the shadow of the storm, a quiet grave

 

 

Rembering Blacksheep on Veterans Day

IMG_5339

 

Here’s to you, Blacksheep — 3rd platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment.

Thinking of that hot day in April, 2006, when you completed your last patrol.

I was with you in the worst of times and you showed me the best. I feel proud to know all of you. Saluting your courage on Veterans Day.

ERC.

 

Mechanic, missionary, master of massages

IMG_4105

 

My friend Val gave the coolest birthday gift: a vanity plate for my Mini Cooper that says an abbreviated form of “EVILREPORTERCHICK.” So on Sunday, I went about trying to get it mounted on the front of my car.

Val and I stopped at an AutoZone on Memorial Drive only to learn that the store does not do any installations. I was disappointed but not for long.

IMG_4102“What do you need done?” said a man in the checkout line.

We showed him. He said he could do it. Wouldn’t take but a few minutes. If we wanted, we could follow him to his auto shop just down the road.

“I’m in the convertible Jag,” he said.

Sure enough, he climbed into the forest green Jaguar. I’d say it was circa 1980 or so. We followed it to a small house that looked like it was stuffed with things inside and about to fall apart on the outside.

“I’m Rodney,” the man told us.

Then he closed the gate to his back yard, teeming with junky cars and trucks. I looked at Val, wondering why Rodney felt compelled to close the gate. No one could see us anymore. What if Rodney turned out to be a troubled man?

But he wasn’t. Not really.

cardsHe told us how he was a preacher at the Emman-U-El Remnant Church. He does “special prayers” and marriage counseling, according to one of the business cards he gave us. He said he traveled all over the world as a missionary. He’d just been to Ethiopia.

Another card advertised Genesis Luxury Auto Broker, Inc. And a third said: “Rodney Holder, Master of all Massages. By appointment only.”

Whoa. I could have had him tackle my neck ache.

Instead, Rodney drilled and screwed and within minutes, my vanity plate was firmly attached to my Mini. He wouldn’t say how much we should pay him but we gave him a $20 — for his labor and the conversation. It was certainly the most interesting afternoon I’ve had in a while.

Whether it’s a auto repairs or soul searching or back pain, keep Rodney in mind. He’s a jack of all trades and apparently, a master of a few.