CDS Column: Socialized Soldiers on Quieter Battlefields

CDS Column: Socialized Soldiers on Quieter Battlefields

Iraq-1020772The ceilings hung squat and low, traced by fluorescent lights dotted among recessed tiles. The hallway was dingy, scraped paint along bare walls and floors that wouldn’t shine no matter the scrubbing applied. Worn signs hung on the bathroom doors, faded now after too many handprints, only half the words now visible. Someone redrew the head on the men’s bathroom symbol, but they’d drawn it square. Inside, a black Magic Markered smiley face stared out.

It didn’t look like a hospital. Or it didn’t look like an American hospital, particularly not one in a major city. American hospitals are shiny and well-lit, with glass walls and artwork lining the corridors. They are regal, siblings to university buildings and museums and federal government offices.

But this wasn’t. What came to mind was Cuba — the dark hallways and simple plastic-upholstered seats lining the waiting room walls in the public clinics, the cement stairwells and overcrowding.

But even in Cuba the lines of patients move. People get seen promptly. Not here.

The emergency department was full. Some people stood along the walls. The woman behind the desk said it was a five-hour wait, maybe more.

“Busy day?” my friend asked.

“No,” the woman said looking apologetic. “This isn’t bad.”

We sat down beneath an overhead television. It was 1 p.m. The afternoon soaps were on.

Seven hours later, the evening news was coming to a close. Our wait also was ending.

Welcome to the VA system.

I’ve heard not every Veterans Affairs hospital is the same. Some, I’m told, don’t feel caught in the Soviet era. I don’t know; I’m not a veteran, and I’ve only ever been to one VA hospital. But that one visit was disturbing enough.

My friend and I were in San Diego. Our visits to California overlapped by a few days, so we decided to team up for some surfing, snorkeling and exploring the city.

But on day two she began complaining of lower back pain. An Air Force vet, she Googled the local VA services. There was a hospital on the outskirts of the city, just outside La Jolla Cove where we’d been snorkeling the day before.

She looked at me. “This should be fun,” she said.

Being a veteran, she knew. I did not. But within a few steps of walking in the door I understood viscerally. All the news stories I’d heard in recent years came flooding back, about long wait times and how the head of the VA had resigned and the system was again due an overhaul. It was akin to walking into an inner-city school — one look was enough to know the facility was under-resourced, that the job it was expected to do far exceeded its capacity. Long waits, substandard care, lost files and missed diagnoses seemed to ooze from every exam room. This was less a hospital than a holding pen. Prisons are better equipped.

And sitting there I had ample time to consider the string of ironies I was witnessing. Here I was in a VA hospital, and I kept having flashbacks to Cuba, a country where the population lives on a fraction of the American standard. But despite appearances, Cuban hospitals get better results. Their version of socialized medicine competes favorably with the profit-driven system employed by the United States, and it blows the VA system out of the water. I was looking at America’s finest — the soldiers, airmen, seamen and Marines of the U.S. military — as they were served up the worst of American health care. Some of them may have even served on Cuban shores, may have stood guard on Guantanamo Bay, Cold War warriors who fought the spread of communism.

What did they earn in return for their service? Socialized medicine.

It almost made me laugh: Fight in honor of American values and you earn guaranteed free government-run health care. “Oppose communism to secure your place in socialism.” I doubt that made it onto many recruiting posters.

But there is a tragedy hidden within the comedy: The modern American application of socialized medicine offers veterans few gifts. They give us their best, and we give them our worst. The VA system is known for wait times that sometimes outlast patients, for diagnoses that come too late. “Support our troops” seems to only hold until the fighting is over. After that we leave them to die on quieter battlefields.

The problem, of course, is not socialized medicine. Plenty of countries pull that off at a high standard — most of Europe, Canada, Costa Rica. But the United States has proven incapable at setting up its own system, even for soldiers. That U.S. soldier who was stationed at Guantanamo Bay may have done better to wander off base to see a doctor than visit the hospitals provided by their own government.

So, every day we rob veterans of what they have earned. We underfund and understaff and under-resource to the point of no return, to the point that servicemen and women die as a result.

It’s easy to blame the bureaucracy, to rest at the myth government can’t run anything well and move on. But that is a farce. Government-run health care works worldwide, just not here.

But the VA has to work. Not marginally, not sluggishly, but well. Efficiently. Smoothly, with dynamism and grace. We owe it to every American willing to pledge more than taxes and a vote every four years for his or her country. It may not have been on the recruiting poster, but it is the promise we made.

And we’ve failed. For a generation now we’ve failed. We’ve accepted the myth that government can’t work, that socialized medicine is doomed to fail, and our soldiers have paid the price for it. Sagging buildings and five-hour wait times are not the best we can do. Our veterans are worth more than that.

This piece appeared in today’s edition of the Conway Daily Sun.

On the Big Screen

On Thursday evening I gave a talk to about 25 people at the Conway Public Library on my reporting trip to Iraq last year. A friend of mine has a son in the library youth program, and his son asked if I would be willing to come speak. It was open to the public, and there was a pretty good turnout. It was my first formal revisit of the trip, and in order to give it I had to root back through my posts while I was there to remind myself of the experience.

Every story I told reminded me of another story, and every vignette sent me directly into the next vignette. It was my attempt of sharing everything I couldn’t cram from that three week experience into the radio stories and blog posts. I had a fantastic time, and my friend tells me it was well received by the audience as well.

I’m bouncing a few of these types of projects around as we speak, although none of them are as comprehensive or with as solid a foundation as that one was. There have been a number of changes at NHPR since last year, and though I still feel welcome to contribute I doubt I could find the same level of support I found then.

That has me mulling around just what the next such project should look like. Like I said, I’ve got a few, but none of them are on the same scale. It is hard, however, to imaging matching the pace of reporting on U.S. troops in the midst of a country that had been a top American enemy for more than a decade.

And besides, I’ve been enjoying rocking the local paper. Day after day I’m churning out interesting stories on real issues. The past year and a half have taught me a ton about the practice of journalism, and I intend to keep those experiences coming.

I do foresee, however, some cool projects on the horizon. Keep your eyes open.

A Plane Ticket Away

Riots in Russia had me thinking about buying a ticket to Moscow. Shelling in Syria got me wondering what it takes to get smuggled across the Lebanese border. Elections in Libya have me looking at maps for Tripoli. And burning Korans in Afghanistan have me thinking it’s time to keep my head down.

After more than a year since Iraq, I’m starting to think about what’s next. I’ve worked out a situation where if I can come up with a cool story I will be able to go, so now I just need that story. I’ve been looking at a lot of war photojournalism lately, like this from James Nachtwey, and it has me again thinking about a trip, only this time without embedding.

I’ve also been shooting a lot of photos, working deliberately towards improving my composition. Some of my shots have been popping up in cool places, like these on a local ice climbing site. Photography is barely a part of my day job now because the paper has an awesome photographer, but every time I can I pull out my camera. Mostly my photos wind up all over Facebook because I’m just out there having fun, but I’d like to take one of those trips with a mission to only shoot, shoot, SHOOT.

I felt that way when I got back from Iraq, where I spent more time playing with microphones than behind the camera. I wanted the other side. Now I’m trying to figure out how to find the time to make all sides — print, audio, photo and video — happen in one trip. And along with that, how to make money doing it.

So I’ve been perusing plane tickets again, and I’m pretty close to buying. It isn’t the sort of thing where I’m looking at AK-47s this time, but instead an environmental story from South America. I am looking at the whole kit — video, audio, photo and print. But at least this time IEDs won’t be a part of the mix.

That will be soon enough.


It’s the time of year everyone is doing their “Year In Review.” I’m no different — at work I started writing up 2011 today, and I hope to be finished by tomorrow. For the Sun my year was two things: Dittmeyer murder and Irene. For LPJ, however, it starts a few months earlier:

Iraq — It seems that would obviously be the seminal experience of any year, but in a year like 2011 three weeks in Iraq and Kuwait quickly falls into the background. Looking back, however, it still amazes me I got on that first flight out of Boston, made it to the Iran/Iraq border and made it home. It was one incredible trip.

Dittmeyer — She was killed on a Saturday night, and by Monday the Mount Washington Valley was seething with reporters. We were able to beat all of them, however; probably one of the coolest experiences of the year.

Drugs — I’ve said this before, but sometime in August I wrote what was probably the best story I’ve done so far about how drugs and crime are intertwined in the Mount Washington Valley, and how the problem is only getting bigger. It was a great narrative, something I read today and am still surprised I wrote.

Investigations — There were really two, both involving the police department. One was into how they spend their money, and the other was into money stolen from the evidence room. Both of them wound up being one-off stories in a sense, but they proved that the Sun knows what it means to be a watchdog newspaper.

Irene — This was a big one. When the storm hit we were out of town, and the Saco and Rocky Branch flooded, blocking us from getting home. We slept in Portland, Maine, and when I got dropped off at the paper in the morning I went right to it. That week was all about telling people’s stories, stories that most people didn’t realize had happened. It was a blur, much like the week of Dittmeyer, but it was one where the paper made a difference in how people saw their experience. Again, that’s why I got into this job.

Candidates — From Newt to Mitt, Santorum to Paul, nothing is more interesting than getting to sit down with the people vying to sit in the presidential seat. I’ve been able to argue with and push several of these perspective contenders, something few people get to do. It only happens once every four years, and I’m sure glad I was there for it.

Court — This is the latest in a string: arguing before a judge about the public’s right to know about the actions of elected officials. I still don’t know the outcome, but it was still an experience to be going to the courts to fight for transparency.

There have been dozens of other notables, from producing videos to my first NPR paycheck and being named employee of the year, but that’s the highest highs. Hopefully 2012 will burn even brighter, but I’m not sure how it can.

Happy New Year.

Sometimes You Don’t Know What You Have

I shot this photo today of Steve, a 21-year-old man just back from Afghanistan. He won several medals while he was there, and his grandmother is from Fryeburg. I’m writing something up for our 9/11 10 year anniversary edition. Steve is going to send me some photos of him from while he was in Afghanistan, so the photo was an afterthought. I was flipping through the images on my computer tonight, however, and I came upon this one. Now, granted, I know he was part of team that was attacked after an IED attack, and he was one of those who counterattacked and maybe saved someone’s life. I also know he was at his base when IDF—indirect fire—started raining down, and he and the rest of his platoon left the protection of the bunker to respond with M240 Bravos. And I know when I was his age I just as easily could have joined the army because my hometown seemed boring. But the fact is I look at this photo, his anchored gaze, and it catches me. I feel like he can see me now, hours after I thanked him for his service. It is an incredibly powerful image, because it shows just who is risking and sacrificing for the United States: kids. Well-intentioned, friendly kids. Kids who loved the Red Sox in 2001, when the war he just returned from started.

That’s why I love photojournalism—one photo can change your entire day, your entire experience, your entire life. One shot can tell a story. This one does for me.

(Unfortunately the colors don’t reproduce well here. I’ve got to figure that out.)

Sad Reminders

See this photo? This is the Tigris River in Iraq, where it passes though the city of Al Kut, or Kut. I passed through there on my way from COB Delta to Camp Shocker this winter. I remember being amazed to see so much water. It didn’t seem possible amid the country I’d seen.

At 7:45 a.m. yesterday, according to the New York Times, two car bombs exploded there, killing 35 people and wounding 71 more. Those were just two of 42 intertwined attacks around the country that killed almost 90. It was the most violent days there in a long time.

It is chilling to look at this picture, just one of several I snapped out the window of the MRAP as it drove through Kut, and think how exposed the people there are to the daily violence. Yesterday was a bad day to be an Iraqi living in Iraq. If this level of violence continues many more days will be bad days. Last trip I was behind a blast wall almost the entire time. I may do the same for the next trip, but at some point real reporting requires you to walk among the people, even if some of them want you dead. It’s a terrifying proposition, but that’s where the value comes from of having someone there.

Maybe it comes from having just watched The Killing Fields, but the story can’t always come from the mouths of lieutenant colonels. We’ll see where that idea gets me…

The Next Project

I’m starting to brainstorm for the next cool thing.

It’s been a bit over six months since I flew back from Kuwait. I’d like to think the experience changed me forever, but that would be a lie. I look back on the photos and my posts from that trip and it’s like another world, one of many I get to dive into briefly as a reporter.

But unlike most other trips, it’s the one with the story most worth telling. I’m in the midst of War, the book by Sebastian Junger about the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. His descriptions have dredged up feelings and memories from my brief trip and reminded me of some of the lessons I learned.

It’s an incredible feeling, to read a book like that and feel a bit like you understand. I’ve read many classics in the genre, from The Things They Carried to The Forever War, but the fear and the camaraderie experienced by soldiers was only abstract. Now when Junger describes the stress soldiers feel waiting to be attacked, I get it. I remember my night ride to Camp Delta in the back of an MRAP, feeling woefully vulnerable, like I was in the middle of a drum about to get pounded.

Those memories scare me, but they also remind me of what is still going on out there, what kinds of stories are always happening. I love my job and have no intention of leaving it, but I am starting to look for a way to tell more of those stories. Where will the next one come from?

In the WAR Zone

I stumbled on this piece the other night, about what it’s like to think you are going to die while reporting. I had a similar (albiet infinitely less) situation when I was in Iraq, where I felt like I was a sitting duck just waiting to get killed.

I know when I was finished with that ride I wanted nothing more than to be home. I didn’t have the choice to leave at that time, but you have to wonder why after a real brush with death (not just perceived, as mine was) people keep going back.

I can’t thank them enough, though, for being willing to, because it is those stories that tell us about what is going on in Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. It feels like you are alone, but you are there for everyone else, so they can no what is happening and lend some kind of support.

In Syria, for instance, where reports are soldiers are turning on soldiers but there is no independent verification, it feels like there is a war in a vacuum. Who will win? Who will lose? When will it be over? How will the world know? That’s the scariest thing to me. It may even be worse than feeling like a sitting duck.

Iraq, Four Months Later

I was just scrolling through a bunch of the photos I shot while I was in Iraq for New Hampshire Public Radio. It’s a bit crazy to think it has only been four months since I was getting on a C-130 headed for Victory Base in Baghdad, but I’m itching to do something like that again. It was terrifying, didn’t always go right, and it was probably a bigger leap than I intended. There were nights when I wanted nothing more than to be home (especially after I missed my flight), but it was a fantastic experience all the same.

I’m not sure what the future of reporting is, but I know the places where we have to scroll through pictures to remind ourselves we were there are the places that likely need another set of eyes. I’ve been watching the latest iterations of the Arab spring thinking that’s impossibly fertile ground for stories, ground far to threatening to just dive into. But that is where the stories are.

I’ve been covering a murder case for several weeks now. The experience has been revealing for me. Watching roving reporters elbow each other out of the way for details that they’ll all get eventually illuminates exactly why people look down on the profession. The best day for me as a reporter in this story was when I found out who the father of Krista Dittmeyer’s child was. The worst was the following day, waiting in a parking lot alongside every other reporter for the official word on the body in the pond.

Show up in Libya right now, and I’m in the parking lot. There will be better financed reporters just itching to broadcast the story, one that is essentially spoon-fed. But somewhere out there is the story no one is paying attention to. It’s in some random place, where everyone else already isn’t. Those are the stories worth telling.

And looking back on Iraq, that has become the story no one tells. It’s crazy that people acknowledge we have 50,000 troops there, but it still isn’t enough to be the national story.

To hell with national, tell the story that needs telling. What that is right now? I’m not sure, but I think it’s time to start digging…