A change in me

Covering the buildup to the Iraq War…

I had a discussion recently with a friend – a belated birthday lunch for a woman I know from a previous incarnation of my professional life.  The discussion was innocent enough, really, just about the jobs we’ve held and the things we’ve done.  I never looked, really, at what I do as particularly earth shattering or dangerous.  But as I told the stories of some of my ill-fated adventures I realized that I really took a lot of risks that I shouldn’t have.  It’s not really something I’d considered, but it’s also registered a change in me.

Now . . . don’t get me wrong.  Sure, I could be like one of those parents who takes a separate flight so that if the plane crashes their kids never lose both parents.  However, since that ship has sailed, there are a number of things I’ve done I realized had me changing without even realizing it.

In 2002, New Year’s Day, I went – against my wife’s wishes, by the way – to Israel to cover how a country deals with terrorism far more often than the US does.  At the time I knew there was a cease-fire between the state of Israel and the Palestinian Authority and HAMAS.  I thought nothing of it.  As I told the story to my friend, I recounted how my reporter and I were shooting a segment where Israel and the West Bank are at their closest: a mere 80 yards apart.  As I shot my video standup, the reporter describing said short distance, I noticed two or three soldiers running up toward us, shouting in Hebrew.  It was clear they were agitated and I was concerned . . . you are highly discouraged from entering the West Bank, which is obviously why we went.
“What the hell are you doing?!” was the question from the kid in front of us.  He looked no more than 17 and carried an automatic rifle over his olive green body armor.
“We’re just shooting a television segment.”
As the kid turned around we noticed a bullet hole in his back.  “What happened here?!”
“I got these when I signed up,” the kid told us of his uniform.
“Obviously it didn’t serve its previous owner well,” my reporter mumbled to me.
“You have to leave,” was the line.  Before we could ask the kid added “we disarmed a roadside bomb, an IED, on this very spot today.”

You see, a couple hours earlier we might have triggered that very bomb.  Now, I’m not saying we were close to death, and I hardly ever think of it that way, but my friend’s look was shocked during our luncheon conversation.
She asked, expecting I’d say no, if I’d been to other zones like this.  The answer sounded odd as it came out of my mouth.
“Well, I did a 6-day trip with a medical evacuation unit to Afghanistan,” was my response.  It truly was not a dangerous trip, we only spent about 2 hours on the ground at Bagram . . . but it sounds . . . irresponsible, when I realize I have four kids.  I say that, because the reporter I travelled with on that story had to be convinced how safe it was.  She refused initially, under the guise of a promise to her family, to never cover a war zone.

At Bagram Air Base with Colonel David Talley and Major David Baker

I can’t say I ever made the same promise.  Before the boys were born, I’d covered the buildup to the Iraq war.  I had all the shots, filled out the paperwork, even had the visas stamped in my passport.  The war was supposed to start in October or November, I was ready to go.  But then it got pushed to December…then January…then February…by the time they got to March I had said “no.”  We aren’t going, I won’t miss my boys being born.  I didn’t, either, but it killed me to watch the reports going on the air and be sitting in the newsroom.

Shooting Blackhawks loading cargo

Hell . . . as we moved to California and I had no job I was considering covering – in person – the hidden front of the war on terror as a freelance reporter.  That front?  Northern Africa.  I had inquired with the State Department and hit up for all the visas already.  Then I got the CBS job as we were moving and I let it slide.

So why am I less inclined to do this now?  Does my brain go along with it and ignore all the things I see?

No.  It still kills me when I see the news happening without being there.

You see, I was never an adventurer, but I loved the coverage and the news from those zones.  I wanted so much to cover it and this was my chance to dabble.  When major news happens it really does bother me when I see it happening and can’t be there to cover it.  I’ve covered the wake of 9/11 in Washington DC.

I covered the crash of the Space Shuttle Columbia, finding debris, videotaping the burned mission patch of one astronaut as it lay in the grass like a discarded piece of paper.

The difference . . . is I know it’s not a choice now.

Part of me realized that, during those times when I volunteered for whatever the news wanted, even though it would be hard on them, I’d come home.  I never thought I wouldn’t, which was silly.  Bad things happen all the time.

The other part of me knew that the kids had their Mom, and that was a good thing.  I wasn’t reckless and never volunteered to cover things I couldn’t handle.  I don’t have the experience of Bob Simon or Bernard Shaw so I wasn’t going to go chase Iraqis willy-nilly, or so I told myself.  I wasn’t going to be hiding under a table while the bombs blew up . . . but part of me always wanted to say I had.  No, I realized after the horror that day in March – not the horror of losing my wife, but of the looks on my kids’ faces having to tell THEM that she was gone – that I couldn’t do that.  Not to my kids.

So I noticed in that discussion with my friend that I’ve changed, without even knowing I had done it.  Sure, I went and knocked on the door of an alleged illegal gambling/racing operation, but I had others with me.  I was cautious.  My kids know that no trip would come before them now.  Mainly, I can’t stand the fact that they might have to go through this all over again . . . and this time it would be worse because they’d have lost both of us.

Ending my conversation I admitted “Yeah, I did a lot of stupid things, particularly knowing I had a family.”

The first step in growing, I know, is admitting that you were kidding yourself before.  I still crave adventure . . . but now it’s with my kids and with those I love.

Beside, the world looks better from my eyes . . . not through the lens.

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