Stop the politics today — and remember

Spc. John Figueroa of the 30th Infantry Regiment patrols Arab Jabour, southeast of Baghdad in 2008. Fig, as he was known, had seen the worst of #war and shared his thoughts with me for
Spc. John Figueroa of the 30th Infantry Regiment patrols Arab Jabour, southeast of Baghdad in 2008. Fig, as he was known, had seen the worst of #war and shared his thoughts with me for “Chaplain Turner’s War,” a newspaper series and ebook I wrote on an army chaplain. Photo by Curtis Compton/AJC

Amid all the political noise of today, I want to stop and think of all my soldier  friends I met in Iraq and back here at home in all the years I covered the military.

Today is Veterans Day, a time for pause and reflection about the courage and sacrifice of our men and women who served in uniform. I am afraid that they will not get the attention they deserve given the current post-election situation.

Here’s to you, Fig, (see photo caption) and every veteran throughout the land.

You can find Fig’s story here: Chaplain Turner’s War

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David Gilkey: remembering an incredible photojournalist

Credit: Michael M. Phillips / The Wall Street Journal
Credit: Michael M. Phillips / The Wall Street Journal

I woke up to extremely sad news today. NPR photojournalist David Gilkey was killed in Afghanistan, along with interpreter Zabihullah Tamanna.

Another friend who worked tirelessly in the world’s most difficult places, gone.

David and Zabihullah were traveling with an Afghan army unit, according to the report I heard on NPR this morning. They came under fire and their armored Humvee was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Also killed was their driver, an Afghan soldier.

David was only 50 years old.

He was an incredible photojournalist. His photographs were often difficult to look at and yet I could never turn away. He was so good at capturing the essence of a place through its people.

He won many well-deserved accolades, including the Polk Award. I encourage everyone to look at his work: His NPR profile page and the NPR tribute today

I first met Gilkey in Iraq. I can’t remember exactly which year it was or even where it was. Later, I got to know him better through Military Reporters and Editors. We were both newspaper journalists then — he with the Detroit Free Press and I with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

I ran into him in Haiti, after the earthquake in 2010. By then, we had both left the shrinking newspaper world. He joined NPR in 2007 and I had been with CNN for about a year.  We spoke about our transitions and he said:

“You’re a writer who works for a cable television network and I’m a photog who works for radio. Go figure.”

We laughed. He told me he was thankful he could carry on his work. And it was such important work. David gave us an understanding of people who are so often forgotten.

He said this about his work in Haiti, according to NPR: “It’s not just reporting. It’s not just taking pictures. It’s, ‘Do those visuals, do the stories, do they change somebody’s mind enough to take action?’ So if we’re doing our part, it gets people to do their part. Hopefully.”

We forget the risks that journalists take to bring us important stories. We forget until we are reminded by tragedy.

A few days ago, I spoke with Paula Bronstein, another photojournalist who has put herself in harm’s way countless times to tell the sad story of Afghanistan. Paula recently returned to the United States to receive a courage award named for Anja Niedringhaus, also killed in Afghanistan in 2014. You can see that story here: http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/31/middleeast/cnnphotos-afghanistan-between-hope-and-fear/

I thought today of all the journalists I knew who were killed in conflict. In all, 1,192 journalists have died this way since 1992, says The Committee to Protect Journalists. So many important voices silenced too soon by war.

 

Memorial Day is not National BBQ Day

 

Arlington National Cemetery.
Arlington National Cemetery.

Occasionally, I pick up my iPhone and am pleasantly surprised to see an incoming call from a soldier I met in Iraq. The other night, it was Mike Brown, who helped train Iraqi security forces for a year in Baghdad.

He wanted nothing in general, nothing in particular. Just to say hello.

His call was a good reminder, just ahead of Memorial Day.

There’s a photo that went viral on Facebook and Twitter of a grill. The caption says: Memorial Day is not National BBQ Day. So true.

For many of us, the three-day weekend has become synonymous with the beach or hamburgers or a chance to get away. It means the start of summer, the start of lazy afternoons under a hot sun.

We are quick to forget the true meaning of the holiday.

Civil War depiction at Gettysburg National Military Park.
Civil War depiction at Gettysburg National Military Park.

It used to be known as Decoration Day and was started after the Civil War to remember the thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers who died on bloody battlefields. Later, Memorial Day became a remembrance of all men and women in uniform who gave their lives for America.

Mike Brown served in the 48th Infantry Brigade of the Georgia Army National Guard, which lost nearly 30 soldiers in the year it spent fighting in Iraq. I covered memorial services for the 48th as well as other brigades in Iraq that lost almost as many soldiers. I attended too many services.

They were men and women who lost their lives too young. They left behind shattered families and communities. I think of them and all our servicemen and women this weekend and salute their courage. I urge all of you to do the same.

Sad news from Afghanistan

Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 9.21.02 AMWe lost another amazing journalist today.

Anja Niedringhaus, 48, an acclaimed photographer for the Associated Press, died instantly after an Afghan policeman opened fire while they were sitting in their car in eastern Afghanistan, the AP said. Correspondent Kathy Gannon was wounded and is in stable condition in hospital.

“Anja and Kathy together have spent years in Afghanistan covering the conflict and the people there. Anja was a vibrant, dynamic journalist well-loved for her insightful photographs, her warm heart and joy for life. We are heartbroken at her loss,” said AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll.

Two days ago, Niedringhaus had tweeted about a tribute to another journalist, Sardar Ahmed, who was killed March 21 in the attack on the Serena Hotel.

I did not know Niedringhaus, though I am familiar with her incredible body of work. But I can imagine what kind of woman she was. Her fortitude. Her courage. Her convictions.

Just yesterday, I spoke on a panel at the University of Georgia about reporting on trauma. There was some discussion there about journalists in conflict zones. One student asked me how journalists deal with fear.

I did not have a good answer for her because the fear never goes away. It’s a matter of not dwelling on it and getting on with your work. But then, when news of tragedy comes, like today’s from Afghanistan, it’s difficult to remain composed.

Here’s to all my colleagues working at this very moment in places near and far where they are in harm’s way. They make me proud of my profession.

Silenced too soon

Michael and me at Camp Striker near the Baghdad airport in September 2005.
Michael and me at Camp Striker near the Baghdad airport in September 2005.

Michael Hastings died Tuesday in a car crash in Los Angeles.

The news hit me hard. He was 33. He was a great journalist. He was a friend.

Most people know his name for the Rolling Stone story “Runaway General,” the profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal that exposed him as a loose cannon, chiding his civilian commanders in the Obama administration.

“Great reporters exude a certain kind of electricity,” said Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana, “the sense that there are stories burning inside them, and that there’s no higher calling or greater way to live life than to be always relentlessly trying to find and tell those stories. I’m sad that I’ll never get to publish all the great stories that he was going to write, and sad that he won’t be stopping by my office for any more short visits which would stretch for two or three completely engrossing hours. He will be missed.”

Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed praised Michael’s incredible instinct for a story. He also said this:

“Michael was also a wonderful, generous colleague, a joy to work with and a lover of corgis — especially his Bobby Sneakers.”

Michael was known for his aggressive reporting. He believed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were misguided and didn’t for a second let any U.S. official — whether it was McChrystal or Hillary Clinton — get away with an easy answer.

His fiancee, an aide worker, was killed in Iraq when Michael was a Newsweek correspondent. He wrote about that relationship in his first book, “I Lost My Love n Baghdad: A Modern War Story.”

I never met his wife,  Elise Jordan. I cannot imagine her grief today.

As much as I respect his journalistic prowess — I leave it up to every media outlet to give him the proper reporter’s eulogy — the Michael I will cherish the most is the one I met in May 2005 at a hostile environment training put on by AKE in Virginia. I was there with AJC colleagues. He was there, I guess, on his own, determined to make a career for himself by going to the wars America was fighting.

He entertained us with his NYC white-boy rap — he was really good — and acerbic wit. Not bad, I thought, for a 28-year-old kid.

Three months later, Michael messaged me. “I am in Baghdad,” he said. “Going to Camp Striker tomorrow. I hear you are there. Lunch?”

So we ate standard military fare at the chow hall and shared stories about being embedded with the U.S. Army. He made me laugh when I hadn’t laughed in weeks. For that I will always be grateful.

An incredible young man robbed of life. An amazing journalist who will never again be able to write all the words that were within. Or expose the world for its sins.

Goodbye, Michael. May you rest in peace.

Read Michael’s advice for young journalists.