Monday, March 31, 2003

Heading Downrange

KUWAIT CITY - It was painful to sit the first week of the war on the sidelines. I was on an assignment to document the American Forces Network Europe’s 60th anniversary by interviewing former AFN’ers in Florida. That’s when bombs started falling over Baghdad.

Each day I sat and watched the events unfold on CNN and NBC, and watched as embedded reporters charged on top of M1-A1 Abrams tanks across the line of departure in Kuwait and headed north towards Baghdad. Each time a report aired from the battlefield, I kept saying to myself, “That’s where I should be.”

I’ve been preparing for this war ever since 9/11. It was easy to see from the increased reporting that Iraq was squarely in President Bush’s sights.

My trip to Afghanistan last summer was the first step in a learning process about what it’s like to be involved in covering real conflict, with real soldiers.

That education continued in Kuwait last November and December when I visited several desert camps to document what it was like for these soldiers to be deployed during increased tensions. We visited the Udari bombing range and covered live fire exercises, and ate and slept with soldiers in the sandbox. The same was true of our mission on board the Nimitz Class Aircraft Carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the North Arabian Gulf. Just feet away from the afterburners of F/A–18E Super Hornet fighter jets makes you realize there’s fewer places closer to the action than the Lincoln’s flight deck.

Some where in the back of my mind in all of this, I really thought that this war rhetoric was a bluff, a show of force, that would show Saddam Hussein that we were serious. I also didn’t think he would bring it to this.

I finished my work in the states the third day of the campaign, and headed back to Frankfurt, Germany, my home base. On the road, I diligently called my supervisors and tried to convince my commander at AFN to let me, a civilian, head “downrange” to join the action in progress.

It wasn’t easy getting confirmation from the Coalition Press Information Center that they could help us once we got to Kuwait, and, as always, information and assistance, especially in the middle of a war, isn’t very forthcoming. My commander also didn’t want us bogged down in red tape, since we weren’t embedded when the war started. He also didn’t want us embedded, something I think I’m going to thank him for since the coverage of embedded journalists tends to have too narrow a focus. We’re hoping for free access to the battlefield.

We also had to get ready. That included several hours of training on MOPP gear. That’s the protective suit worn when there is the threat of a chemical weapon attack, a very real and sobering reality about our destination. It joins the flack jacket, kevlar helmet, and just about a hundred pounds of protective equipment I’ve packed in my rucksack.

There was also the mandatory equipment and technology preparations, which is where my colleague, Army Sergeant Joe Thompson comes in handy. A computer guru and excellent military journalist, Joe is the reason for any success we’ll have on this mission. He’s been able to rig a laptop computer to our satellite videophone, allowing us to access the internet and transmit photos and video from any location, even the remoteness of the Southern Iraqi desert. He also carries a weapon, something I hope we won’t have to rely on. I joke with him about his abilities, calling him “The Joe” – a one-man military reporting machine. Every reporter should be issued one.

After a week of touch and go, some days thinking it wouldn’t happen and other days being jolted by false hope for departure, we finally got our marching orders.

Head to Kuwait, hook up with units deployed from Europe, and report via videophone on whatever access we get. And get as far forward as we can.

It’s good to work for the Army in instances like this, which is another reason I like working at the American Forces Network. Since we’re well known to the troops as a source of information and entertainment, and a valuable public affairs and command information tool for military commanders, we almost always get the access we’re looking for, and don’t have to worry about public affairs officers looking over our shoulder. They trust us. We’re not looking for the scoops and the exclusive stories. Our mission is one more closely related to the work of Ernie Pyle in World War II – telling the soldiers story.

We’re heading for war, me and “The Joe.” We could be there two weeks, or we could be there a couple of months. I suppose our stay in the region largely depends on the will of Saddam Hussein, and the resolve of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Either way, it’ll be a hell of a story.

Sunday, March 30, 2003

OTTAWA DAILY TIMES: KC-10 Crews Support the War Effort

KUWAIT - Before the bombs start falling and the bullets start flying, they first have to get to the battlefield. It’s part of the massive military airlift that falls on the wings of the U.S. Air Force, and it keeps the war-fighter in business.

“These planes are constantly running,” says flying crew chief SSgt Michael Hojnicki, as he points out the window during a flight into the Middle East. “It’s the road to Kuwait.”

Out the cockpit window is a line of U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo planes spewing contrails into the afternoon sky somewhere above Europe.

We’re on board a KC-10 refueler, the military version of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10. The plane has a dual mission when heading into Central Command’s battlefield.

“Our primary mission is refueling, but we can carry almost as much cargo as a C-5,” says Airman First Class Carl Wise II, referring to the C-5 Galaxy – the biggest plane in the Air Force inventory. Airman Wise entered the Air Force nineteen months ago, and just got certified as a refueling boom operator last month.

“As you can see, it’s hard to fit tanks in here,” he remarks as he checks the safety harness on the dozens of crates in the cargo hold, “but you’d be surprised at what we can carry.”

“We just unloaded a lot of ‘boom-boom’,” says one airman. “Boom-Boom” is slang for ammunition, and it’s a part of the regular cargo flowing into the region. “It’s amazing the amount of work these planes are doing.”

About a dozen of these KC-10’s from McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey are constantly airborne, forming a chain that stretches from the states to Ramstein Air Base in Germany and then on to Kuwait. Dozens of crews swap in and out, but for the most part, the planes fly around the world, around the clock.

“Sometimes we fly into Kuwait and we’re in MOPP [Mission Oriented Protective Posture] level 4,” says Hojnicki, which means everyone has to don chemical protection gear. Kuwait is a frequent target of missiles launched from Iraq.

The pace of operations in and out of Central Command’s Area of Responsibility (AOR) puts the crew of these KC-10’s on grueling schedules, some working 26-hour shifts. It also keeps many of the airmen away from their family for long periods of time.

“In the last four months, I might have seen my wife about 12 days total,” says SSgt Hojnicki. “I joined the Air Force eight years ago, and when the recruiter asked me what I wanted to do, I told him I wanted to travel. I’ve done a lot of that.”

He just got married last August, and his wife isn’t thrilled about him being on the road all the time.

“She cries every time I leave. She never gets used to it.” He’s scheduled to take his honeymoon, delayed since last year, in three weeks - if he makes it back to New Jersey in time. He’s keeping his fingers crossed, and looking forward to some time on the beach in Hawaii.

SSgt David Guerrero has similar headaches. He’s scheduled to get married on July 5th.

“We’ve got wedding insurance, but hopefully I’ll make it back and we won’t need it. They’re still honoring leave.”

The crew keeps in touch with family and friends through e-mail, on the infrequent occasion they have internet access when they’re on the ground. They can also make phone calls using MARS (Military Affiliate Radio System) through the HAM (amateur) radiophone patch on board the aircraft.

Joining the fight in Operation Iraqi Freedom is different for these airmen. Instead of a dusty tent somewhere in the desert, these guys get an air-conditioned cabin and occasional shut-eye in and out of hotels, where they also get updates on the war through CNN. Despite the tough schedule and the separation from friends and family, the crew says they’re proud of their role in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

During a break in his duties, SSgt Hojnicki explains why that patriotism and pride comes naturally with this mission.

“If we weren’t doing this, we’d be training, so this is what we train to do, and now we get to do it. I wouldn’t want to be on any other plane. I love it.”

Friday, March 28, 2003

On the War Path

Hello everyone!

CURRENTLY...I've had a lot of people ask me where I'm at and what I'm doing ever since the war started, so I figure since I'm about to head out I would send everyone a message and let you know that indeed, I'm headed for the war.

Myself and another Army Sergeant are flying into the Central Command area of Operation to conduct news gathering for the American Forces Network Europe. The exact length and location of our stay there isn't known.I'll keep you updated as I can.


That said, life in Europe over the last several months has been extremely interesting and rewarding for me.In October, I spent two weeks in Rome and Naples producing several installments of our weekly travel and lifestyle magazine "Destinations" from Rome, Naples, and the Vatican, where we got to meet the Pope at the Papal Audience.A trip to Kuwait, Bahrain, the USS Abraham Lincoln in the North Arabian Gulf and Dubai as well as a brief trek into Oman was the highlight for November and December. There we covered the buildup to war and the operations over Iraq's southern no-fly zone, as well as a little vacation spot in Dubai for some rest and relaxation, courtesy of the USO in Dubai. All of the work we (SSG Dan Millbauer and I) did tranlsated into several documentaries and an installment of "Destinations."

I spent Christmas with my family and took a brief rest stop in Ottawa, I got to hang out with friends from High School. I spent New Years in Columbus with some old buddies from Charleston, WV.

January, we said goodybye to a good friend here at the network. Broadcast Services Director Herb Glover reired after 43 years with us at AFN.

At the end of January myself and AFN Public Affairs Officer Roger Williams flew to New York to attend the Mercury Communications Awards Banquet where we walked away with the best of videos award for our Afghanistan documentary "4th on the Front." We also got a chance to take a tour of the Fox News Channel and got an intimate look at what goes on behind the scenes. I'm a big Fox News fan, so it was cool to see that.

In late February I had the pleasure of hosting "Destinations" from Carnivale in Venice, Italy, and it was a great time. One of the best shows to date, SSG Gina Gray was a fabulous co-host and it was neat to see another side of life in Italy. I also spent a week on the island of Sicily producing "Destinations."

Just a few weeks ago, I was reunited with Herb Glover to travel all over the state of Florida to interview former AFN'ers for our 60th anniversary. We're planning on producing a landmark documentary about our organization, and just opened our museum exhibit here in Frankfurt two nights ago at the Frankfurt Historical Musuem.

Life keeps me pretty busy, as you can see, but I love every minute of it.If I'm back in time, I'm hoping to attend the Midwestern Regional Emmy Awards at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio on April 26th. We're up for an Emmy Award for our documentary "4th on the Front."


I've got a lot of e-mails from people on both sides of the fence with this war issue, and I have to ultimately say that I really have no firm belief either way about what is happening. One thing I've come to understand is there are a lot of people out there who have an opinion about it, though.Living in Germany you get a different perspective on things when the general population you live with is fiercly anti-war. But it hasn't influenced my beliefs either way.When word of our travel surfaced, the one thing that many people want us to let the soldiers down there know is that "They have our support." This has been said to me by both Germans and Americans, and it's the message we're taking with us.

I thought I would leave you all with this link... an on-line photo essay that sums up a lot.

It was sent to me by a Marine friend of mine, and was produced by a Navy Journalist. Hope you enjoy, and I hope to hear from many of you.

Take care of yourselves, and I'll write when I'm back from the sandbox.