After decades of traveling to war zones across the world, I was in for a new experience in 2003. Embedded journalism. We were actually part of the unit upon which we were reporting. We had to come to the realization that we were not reporting on the overall war, but on the individual stories within our unit. This would be more like the war correspondents of history. Ernest Hemingway, Richard Tregaskis, Joseph Galloway, and Ernie Pyle. They all put on uniforms. They all told the stories of young people sent to war to fight, to die, and to be maimed. Someone else had the job of telling the stories of the politics or the economics, or the morality of the war.
Please do not misunderstand. I do not put myself in the league of the names mentioned. However, they were my muse, and much of what I used as my raison d'etre. For I truly have always believed in every war I have ever covered that the story of those who set out in full knowledge of the danger involved deserve to have their existence and the end thereof chronicled. The story of their food, water, breath, love, desire, injury, should be transmitted back to mom, dad, lover, wife sister, brother, husband, neighbor, as unadulterated by my personal biases as possible. This I tried to do, and in doing so saw people who have remarkable lives, and fantastic gifts. Gifts that do not stop giving when the helicopter takes off to start the journey back to...the world.
Let us start the story of these men and women with 2003, Iraq. HMM 364. The Purple Foxes. The mission of this squadron of CH-46 helicopters was to fly to the point of injury, the middle of a battle, pick up the wounded, stabilize them on board and transport them to the nearest trauma center as fast as possible in all conditions. Passengers included Marines missing legs blown off by landmines, and kids caught in the cross fire with arms shot off. Floors were awash in the mixed blood of Iraqi civilians, U.S. Marines, Enemy Prisoners of War with significant trauma, and crew members fighting for the lives of fellow crew and passengers.
Obviously there are experts on these helicopters. Pilots, corpsmen, machine gunman. But, they are oh so much more. Let me tell you about Rocket, Deuce, and Captain Jennifer Harris. Rocket and Deuce came back so I will protect their identities. Jennifer did not so I will hold her name up in the bright lights she deserves as an American hero (and a personal hero of mine).
Rocket was just a freckle faced, ginger haired, 2nd Lt. when I met him in 2003. A pilot yes, but I started noticing when anything electrical needed fixing or building they called Rocket. When a computer fried, or when an entire network went down, they called Rocket. Seems like just the guy you want if you need someone to fly low level missions through all kinds of conditions and machine gun fire to fix your laptop...or just about anything else.
Deuce was a young Marine Lt. when I met him first in 2003 -- a co-pilot who loved the Marines and his home in Pennsylvania. The man could fly, proving the point by saving me and the whole crew one night when at 25 feet and 100 knots in a sand storm we nearly hit a TV tower. He turned the chopper on its side and flew between the guy wires and the tower. Something no one would have believed had there not been 5 live witnesses to recount the tale. Deuce was also a planner extraordinaire who now runs a tool company that specializes in parts for nuclear power plants and oil exploration.
Captain Jen Harris was a second Lt. in 2003, fresh from Annapolis and flight training in Pensacola she was low person on the totem pole with about 15 jobs including pilot, and public relations. That meant she was my handler. She obviously did it well because she was promoted more quickly than most and when I went back to Iraq in 2005 she was already a captain and had been through the Marine version of Top Gun. Then, while at my news desk in San Francisco on February 7th 2007 I learned that a helicopter had been shot down with all killed. Somehow I knew it was her. I had heard from friends that she was on her 3rd and last tour and had been picked to come back to the states as head of an ROTC program. It was her. Her call sign was The Dove.
So many veterans don't make it back. Energy, expertise, love and affection lost. We cannot afford to lose the same from those who do make it back. They have so much to give and they want to give it, to us.
Quite often it seems there is a fear of these veterans, a fear born of not knowing, or not wanting to know what they have been through and how they dealt with it. This is not a new thing. Veterans of all wars seem to have been through this with the effort to re-employ World War Two veterans a stark reminder of what happens when so many young people are re-introduced to the work force suddenly, and after a prolonged absence.
One thing the WW2 vets had going for them was the total and complete participation of the nation in their war. Modern day vets have no such benefit. Indeed it seems as if the USA has made every effort to distance themselves from the wars. There is no shared sacrifice and veterans return from a place about which the rest of the nation knows little or nothing.
Every effort should be made to educate and expose the nation, to who these veterans are, where they have been, and what they bring to the table that could start unification and healing of a country that is so obviously at odds with itself.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and OPS-USA, a television initiative focused on helping veterans help communities. For more information on OPS-USA, click here.