A trip to a war zone
This week, public and private celebrations are being held in honor of KBTX's 60th anniversary. With that, I'm looking back on some of my favorite and memorable moments and people from my 12 years-plus at the Brazos Valley's first television station.
I believe it was October 2013. I was preparing to anchor a newscast when I got a call from KBTX management. There were on-going talks about our sister station, KWTX in Waco, going to Afghanistan early in the new year to cover Fort Hood soldiers' final days serving in the war zone. There was discussion about adding me to the team of two going over in order for me to find Texas A&M-related stories to send home. I was told to keep quiet about the possibility.
My lips were sealed to everyone but my parents. I texted my mom right after the call and told her it was being discussed, nothing finalized. She asked if I would be going over with the Department of Defense. I said I was sure I would be. Her response, I believe close to verbatim: "Good. I don't think Afghanistan is the safest place right now."
Some 30 minutes after the initial call and the mother of all understatements, KWTX management called and told me that whole discussion and possibility thing was now finalized. I was going to cover a war.
Life moves fast sometimes.
For the station, this was big. Rarely before had we gone to some place like this, sending someone halfway around the world to a site filled with such danger. My friend Nicole Morten had gone to Ghana a couple years earlier to cover a local non-profit's efforts to rescue enslaved children. That may be the only comparable moment. Assignments aren't just crews in the field. They're reflections on the media outlet. Those crews have responsibilities to not only the stories, the facts, the subjects and truth. They represent an organization, and the investment by two stations was great in this case, something I will always appreciate.
Being paired with then-KWTX reporter Rachel Cox presented another set of challenges. I immediately liked her, but we had a matter of weeks to get to know each other and prepare ideas for our assignment. She may not admit it, but I'm pretty sure she had her doubts about me. War zones have a way of bringing people together, though. I know service members who have permanent, unique, strong bonds with their brothers and sisters from combat. Rachel and I would carry cameras, not guns, save for one time on a shooting range. We never found ourselves under fire and rarely "outside the wire." The bravery is not comparable when you consider who we were covering, but the stress of location, distance and deadline can make close comrades, and I consider Rachel a truly great friend and confidant. She was a great reporter. She's a better person.
I could ramble for a while about the experiences with our team and our friends Sophia and Jordan from a different Waco station who were along with us. There were meals at the various DFACs, including now-infamous Rip It drinks. There were the first days and nights in below-freezing, snowy conditions in Kyrgyzstan. There were the bag drops and pick-ups, lugging our gear and our clothes and our armor from spot to spot, often on foot in less-than-great weather. There was the communication between war zone and America when the clock was 10.5 hours different. There were the hilarious moments that may just be funny to us -- "Happy Birthday" and the seemingly forgetful Miami Dolphins cheerleader come to mind -- many captured on a blooper reel safely tucked away. There was an evacuation from our dorm and a missile lock alarm on our plane.
More than any of that, though, are the stories we sent and brought back. That was our job. Sometimes, jobs are easy. Sometimes, they're really tough. Often, they're privileges. This assignment in my job was the biggest I could have imagined in my time in quiet, quaint Bryan/College Station, Texas. I never thought seriously about getting it, but having the chance to meet soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in that hot corner of our world was unmatched. I've included my favorite story, one about the son of the commandant of Texas A&M's Corps of Cadets who was serving at Bagram Air Field. The general dad got to hear words from his captain son that he had never heard in person, much less from the other side of Earth.
I'm the son of a general myself. I grew up around the heroes of the nation. However, seeing them at work in Afghanistan gave me an even greater appreciation for what they do for all of us in the United States. I'm forever grateful for having been given the chance to take that trip.
Our half-hour special from Afghanistan is below. It's something I'm very proud of, and hopefully was worth it for a great station in a great community.