Friday, September 15, 2006
A little 'MacGyver' goes a long way
Editor's note: Students from U.C. Berkeley's graduate school of journalism present their films on military life on "360" tonight at 11 p.m.
Shooting the Djibouti piece was a case-study in Murphy's Law -- anything that can go wrong will -- and do-or-die improvisation, like using electrical tape to keep the dust out of our camera or developing characters that we had never planned to meet.
Roadblocks went up each way we turned: A de-mining operation in Kenya was put on hold; a training mission in Ethiopia was canceled; Yemen proved to have hardly any story at all. That left us stuck in Djibouti. Totally boring, right?
Actually, it was a blessing in disguise. Being stuck at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti meant that co-producer Najlae Benmbarek and I had ample time to meet and strongly connect with troops who would eventually become central characters in our piece, most notably Lt. Steve McKnight.
The short story is that Murphy's Law can create the conditions in which you're left to rely on chance encounters and/or your own improvisational prowess, which, if you're into "The Real World" and "MacGyver," respectively, means a bad situation can lead to a rather satisfying outcome.
(Watch Aaron and Najlae's film on life on a U.S. military base in Africa -- 6:11
Would soldiers talk to 'liberal' Berkeley students?
Entertainers get to see a side of soldiers that civilians rarely see, which is why producer Aliza Nadi and I wanted to follow Hello Dave, a Chicago-based rock band, as they toured American military bases in the Middle East.
We had no idea what to expect, since neither of us had ever set foot on a military base before. But we were given the chance to take the journey, and it paid off.
Because we would be moving from base to base so quickly, we were afraid we wouldn’t have enough time to get anyone to open up to us on camera. We also had a few other strikes against us. Not only were we from the media, but we were students from "liberal" University of California, Berkeley. But this was never a problem.
People were usually surprised to see two women on base who were not in uniform and holding a video camera, but most of the soldiers we met were too young to even remember what Berkeley once meant. We not only got access to six military bases in five Muslim countries over 11 days, but in some small degree, we also got access to the "hearts and minds" of the soldiers serving on them.
(Watch Cerissa and Aliza's film on a rock band's tour of military bases in the Middle East -- 9:49
Berthing doesn't mean what you think it does
Boarding a Navy ship is a little like traveling to England: The fact that people are speaking English veils how different things really are -- from the culture to the way people live to even how the language is used.
When I first boarded the USS Tortuga to shoot a short documentary film, entire conversations eluded me due to their strange vocabulary and acronym-laced verbiage. Sure, I had read books on the military before my departure, but I had focused on strategic issues, like why the U.S. military was in certain countries or where it was training foreign militaries, not the day-to-day lives of sailors. After all, we were there to witness the Navy's exercises with six Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea.
But within the first day or two, co-producer Lee Wang and I realized the big Navy strategy story we hoped to record was only the backdrop to what was much more fascinating -- the lives of ordinary sailors who make the ship run.
So we followed three sailors -- Ensign John Cobb, Undesignated Seaman Mike Plitt, and Boatswain's Mate Seaman Noelle Tschudy -- as they went about their lives.
I spent the night in a women's "berthing" (dormitory-style rooms with bunk beds and lockers) and watched Noelle, a 21-year-old New Jersey native with red streaks in her hair, wake up at 3 a.m. for her shift to watch for small boats that the ship's radars might miss. When Mike's boss ordered him to fix a broken water machine in the mess hall, I watched him find the clogged pipe and without a moment of hesitation, put his mouth to the pipe to suction what looked like gunk at the bottom of a drain.
I had never seen people in their early 20s work so hard and give so much of themselves. Many nights, Lee and I struggled with the question, "What is this all for?" But the more we got to know the individual sailors and their reasons for joining the Navy, the less the big naval strategy questions seemed to matter. It might have been a troubled family or a life of partying leading to nowhere. But the people I met were those who had the gumption to get away and do something interesting with their lives.
(Watch Emily and Lee's documentary on life on a Navy ship -- 10:28
Young students on America's young warriors
Anderson and I are jazzed about a terrific new project we are debuting in the 11 p.m. hour tonight. We're building the show around three short documentaries shot and produced by students from U.C. Berkeley's graduate school of journalism.
These students -- ages 25-35 -- fanned out across the world in groups of two to produce reports providing a sense of what life is like for American soldiers. What we've done is take their material (though we did not edit it other than to shorten it to fit our format) and weave in Anderson's interviews with the grad students to get a fresh feel for who really is fighting overseas for America.
This is not an hour about casualty stats. But instead, you will really get to know some of the young people serving our country aboard the supply ship USS Tortuga and at a military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and at a number of bases in the Middle East. The students' work and perspectives are thoroughly professional and yet they are slightly rougher, a little less polished and especially candid. We were drawn to the material as soon as we saw it.
We've streamed the pieces online, so check them through the links below and let us know what you think. And tune in tonight at 11 p.m. to experience these pieces on the big screen and watch as Anderson interviews the students about their work.
(Watch a piece on winning hearts and minds -- 6:11
(Watch a short film on a rock band's tour of military bases -- 9:49
(Watch a mini-doc about life on a Navy ship -- 10:28
Thursday, September 14, 2006
Tonight on "360" we'll look at the human catastrophe that is taking place in Darfur, Sudan. Earlier today, John Roberts interviewed George and Nick Clooney after George spoke to the UN Security Council. We'll bring you that interview tonight.
We'll also feature an on-the-scene report about Darfur, where more than 250,000 men, women and children have been killed (some put the number closer to half a million). If you are interested in doing something about the situation in Darfur, here are a few organizations you might want to contact:
- World Food Program
Are we losing the war on terror?
Against the backdrop of anti-American protests (Translation of sign at left: "No no America"), occasional terrorist bombings, and continuing battles in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush administration has said time and again that the United States and its allies are winning the war on terror.
And there has been undeniable progress: Some terrorist leaders have been arrested, funding and supply lines have been disrupted, and plots have been foiled. In addition, there has been not one major attack on American soil since 9/11. Five years. Not one.
But security and foreign policy experts seem to be talking more and more about the long-term effects of this conflict and painting a bleak picture.
What is the problem? I asked that question of Steven Kull, an analyst who specializes in conducting global opinion surveys. Kull's office overlooks Washington, D.C.'s Massachusetts Avenue, which is lined with embassies representing many of the world's nations. That is where he told me about what he has found through his Program on International Policy Attitudes
"The perception is that the U.S. isn't simply trying to pursue the war on terror in a sense of trying to stop terrorism. The perception is that it's being used as a pretext for the U.S. to promote its interests, to increase its presence in the Middle East, to gain greater access to oil, and to just generally gain a more powerful position in the world," he said.
The key to this rising mistrust of America, he says, is a broad sense, especially in Muslim nations, that America is using its military and economic might to do whatever it wants, with no regard for international opinion. And this, he said, is fundamentally undermining efforts to promote broad-based political alliances, democracy, and sustainable peace, and it is pushing more young Muslims closer to terrorist groups.
The war on terror is a deadly serious matter, and some folks say worries about popularity should and must wait.
My question is the one being posed by numerous foreign policy analysts these days: Are we winning the battle but losing the war?
Father seeks truth in CIA son's death
Several times during my brief visit with Johnny Spann, he expressed concern that he would be portrayed as a man obsessed with a conspiracy theory. It was clear to me he wasn't. Spann was a loving father who, five years after the death of his only son (pictured left), simply wants to know how his son died.
The CIA gives the obvious details. Mike Spann was working for the agency, questioning captured Taliban prisoners at a fort near Mazar-I-Sharif in Afghanistan. He was killed when those prisoners revolted and took over much of the facility. Since then, Johnny Spann has been to Afghanistan and back, trying to fill in the painful blanks.
Was Mike executed? Was he tortured? Or was he shot and killed in those first chaos-filled moments of the uprising?
I asked Johnny why he needs to know this and why he's worked so hard and so long for answers. He compared it to losing a child in a car wreck. He said you want to know how the accident happened, where, who caused it, what kind of injuries were inflicted, etc. Except in Johnny's case, his child was killed more than 7,000 miles away and in a chain of events that few witnesses lived to describe.
When I asked about Mike's final moments, Johnny spoke softly. He said Afghans who were there at the time say his son went down fighting, firing his weapons until he was out of ammunition, then hand-to-hand until prisoners overwhelmed him. But that's where the story stops.
Johnny Spann told me his son lived an honorable life and died an honorable death. I saw evidence of this is all over Spann's real estate office in Winfield, Alabama. Pictures of his son as a young Marine and a proud father of three are on display along with his funeral at Arlington and the framed flag that draped his coffin on the flight home.
I thought it was very interesting when Spann said his son once told him not to believe he was dead until he saw his body. It was a son's way of trying to comfort his father who worried about the dangers of a risky and secretive job. But Johnny Spann looks back at it now as a challenge to discover the truth about his death. He's decided he can't rely on others to tell him what happened. He has to find out for himself.
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
Taliban profits from U.S. heroin addicts
I don't get scared easily, but busting suspected heroin dealers with undercover cops in St. Louis this week really sent my heart racing. We went there to see what happens when heroin from Afghanistan hits America's streets.
We watched as an undercover officer from the St. Louis County P.D. invited a suspected dealer into his car after the guy promised he knew where to get heroin. They call this "tripping with a steer" -- that's when a suspect is taking the undercover cop on a ride to find drugs. (The things you learn on the street!)
There were about seven cars, including ours, tailing the suspect and the undercover cop. We could hear the suspect and the cop talking on the walkie-talkie because there was one hidden in their car. That's how the street team knows their guy is still safe.
It's scary stuff though. Heroin only costs 20 bucks a pop, but people are willing to kill for it.
We watched as the suspect made a buy on the street. Turns out it was crack, not heroin, and he wound up getting away after the deal. But the police pounced on the dealer who sold the suspect the drugs. They were yelling, "Don't swallow it, man."
The sad part is the work for these guys never ends. Reports suggest Afghanistan's Taliban are responsible for a growing number of poppy fields. (Poppies are a raw ingredient used to make heroin.) It is estimated that Afghanistan now supplies around 90 percent of the world's heroin.
So in a strange twist, the Taliban, a group at odds with the United States, stands to profit handsomely from the sale of drugs on America's streets.
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
The hidden dangers of jingle trucks
Beware the jingle truck. That's what we learned when Anderson, photographer Phil Littleton and I spent the day on patrol with members of the 10th Mountain Division on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Jingle trucks are flat-bed vehicles about the size of a U-Haul truck, painted with intricate patterns and bright colors. They get their name from the thousands of chimes that dangle and ring from base of the vehicle whenever it moves.
The trucks come down from the high mountain passes that separate the two countries and have traditionally carried mostly firewood to sell local markets. But during these days of war, they're sometimes carrying something different -- U.S. troops have lately found smuggled rockets buried in the firewood.
The recent discoveries are prompting something of a new policy for the troops here. When units are on patrol, they stop and inspect nearly every jingle truck that passes.
It's really a striking sight -- young soldiers with M-16s and high-tech gear talking to talk to grizzled, bearded men traveling in their colorful trucks on old silk routes.
We stood by and watched as translators explained to drivers why they and their trucks were being searched. None of them seemed to mind. They climbed down from their cabs and emptied their pockets and were frisked. Their trucks sat idle as the wind rang the chimes and soldiers pulled back wood and looked for missiles.
Of the half dozen or so trucks we saw inspected today, none carried weapons. You can't fault the soldiers here for conducting the searches. They're sustaining casualties in war against a tough and clever enemy.
Some of them told us the hardest part about this war is not knowing who exactly is the enemy. The village elder who invited you into his home yesterday might shoot at you today, they said. You have to be aware of everything, even jingle trucks.
Why are Ground Zero workers getting sick?
Could this be a coincidence? Is this for real? How will we ever know? Those are just some of the questions I asked myself when writing about workers and emergency responders from Ground Zero who now claim they're sick from the toxic cocktail to which they were exposed.
I got to know two guys in particular. They are former New York Police Department detectives Rich Volpe and John Wolcott, partners for 11 years in the narcotics division.
They worked together on the pile at the World Trade Center site for nine months. Now Wolcott has leukemia and Volpe has double kidney failure. Both blame their illnesses on the toxins at Ground Zero, like benzene and dioxin.Click here to read more
Monday, September 11, 2006
The last person pulled from the towers
Five years ago, as darkness fell and fires burned at the World Trade Center site, I reported live on CNN about the heroic people I was watching trying to rescue any survivors who might be buried under the rubble.
As it turned out, I was standing very close to where one woman, who is now my friend, was buried alive with her head stuck between two concrete pillars and her right leg crushed. Her name is Genelle Guzman McMillan, and 27 hours after the North Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed on top of her, she was rescued.
Genelle, who was working for the Port Authority at the time, wound up being operated on four times over the course of a six week hospital stay. I was with her in the hospital during the days after 9/11, doing a story about how she survived. Twenty survivors were pulled out of the rubble of the stricken buildings; Genelle was the 20th.
Now, five years later, I just finished spending the day with Genelle, updating her inspirational story. Doctors thought they would have to amputate her leg; but they saved it. They thought she would not be able to walk without a cane; although she has a slight limp, she no longer has the cane. They weren't sure if she'd be able to work full time; she's now back at her old employer working out of an office at JFK airport.
Genelle was engaged to be married when the towers fell. Her fiance was sure she was dead. Today, they are married and have had two children since she was rescued.
I often think about Genelle being buried under the rubble while I was reporting from Ground Zero. But more often than that, I think of the other people who undoubtedly were still alive under that rubble and were never found. Five years later, that still haunts me.
A helicopter ride to remember
It doesn't matter how many times you do it -- taking a ride on a helicopter is as about as close to good sex as it gets.
I'd taken along a book for the flight from Kabul, Afghanistan, to a U.S. military forward operating base close to the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. I shouldn't have bothered, as this was yet another ride to remember.
We flew on a twin-rotored U.S. Army Chinook helicopter, a massive beast of a bird. I sat next to the open tailgate and watched smooth new buildings almost shine against the rough rock strewn terrain. I saw too the stark contrast of new black tarmac road cutting a sinewy trail over a mountain pass. I smiled. The last time I drove that road, roughly two years ago, there were more potholes than hardtop.
The beauty of the country, as we skimmed mud roof tops, wove down mountain valleys 10,000 feet up, was staggering. From up here, Afghanistan looked fresh. The darkness that drenched the country under Taliban rule before 9/11 appeared to be washed away.
After touching down at the forward operating base, I watched my colleague Anderson Cooper begin a live broadcast with troops from the third brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, who were gathering for a minute of silence for the dead of the 9/11 attacks. Suddenly, a rocket whistled in, landing a half mile or so from the base. (Watch Anderson Cooper dodge rocket attack -- 2:24
It got my adrenalin pumping. What I felt was pure momentary fear, then the realization I'd better get on with my work and get reporting.
The reality I'm finding here is that while some parts of Afghanistan may be all shiny and new, Taliban fighters are hitting back with a vengeance not seen since 9/11. They may not be strong enough to overthrow the country, but they are still a force to be reckoned with.