The Iraq War became real in a dirty hotel conference room on the outskirts of Colorado Springs. The cleaning crew hadn’t yet wiped off the table or cleared the empty water cups left over from whatever meeting had gone on before. But it didn’t matter; we just needed a space to interview 25-year-old Army specialist William Swenson.
"My worst day was probably when Mort was killed," Swenson told reporter Kate McCarthy. He began to choke up and sighed. "Mort was my buddy. He was misunderstood."
The two had been friends in Iraq. In fact, Swenson was one of Mort’s only friends, he said. The two had just finished a patrol on which Mort had found a large cache of IED’s (improvised explosive devices) — the same type of weapon that would ultimately send Swenson home with brain damage and a spinal disorder that will likely kill him.
They were cruising up the Euphrates River when the soldiers got ambushed. People with machine guns "just lit up our boats, which had no armor," Swenson said. Mort took one in the throat. Swenson recalled asking, "What do you want us to tell your parents? ‘Cause, we’re not going to b.s. you, you’re not going to make it." But Mort couldn’t say anything because of the hole in his neck. All he could do was lie there for 10 minutes dying.
I’m not sure what Kate’s response to the story was. I was focused on the camera settings, trying to ignore the dry stinging in the back of my throat and the sudden burning in my eyes.
For the first time, the war — which was politics and policy talk, budget authority and casualty figures, campaign rhetoric and dueling bumper stickers — was real. It became heroic, tragic, visceral, incomprehensible, beautiful and grotesque — in a word: human.
Swenson’s story never made it into the ABC News piece, "Coming Home: Soldiers and Drugs." While I understand why — there is only so much air time — that moment made me believe there are an infinite number of stories out there that give at least a small snapshot of what our soldiers confront not only when they’re overseas but also the issues many face when they return home. The challenge lies in getting those stories and finding a way to tell the public.
Overcoming Reporting Barriers
For the past several years the Brian Ross Investigative Unit at ABC News has partnered with the Carnegie Corporation on a graduate reporting fellowship [see Editor's Note below]. Last summer, six graduate journalism students from around the country, myself included, joined the investigative unit for 10 weeks as fellows, giving us an opportunity to try our hand at investigating a story that would be broadcast on the nightly news.
The producers at ABC News had heard for some time about issues soldiers faced when returning from war. In particular, they’d learned that many veterans of this war were grappling with the same type of substance abuse that was common after the Vietnam War. On the surface our job was simple: talk to soldiers and see if there was any merit to the concerns. But to get the story we had to face a number of reporting barriers — a military wary of so-called negative press; communities afraid to anger their largest employer, the military, and soldiers hesitant to talk about their personal demons.
"See what you can find," was essentially our instruction from producer Joe Rhee and correspondent Brian Ross. With that journalistic kick in the butt, the six of us began casting the net looking for sources, leads and stories. We spent several weeks reading reports, searching for clips, and talking to mental health experts, as well as anyone we thought might have an insight on the possible story.
I spoke with numerous addiction specialists and veterans’ organizations. All said virtually the same thing: We think this is a huge problem and are very concerned there aren’t enough services in place to help these men and women when they get back from the war overseas. The problem was, while all surmised the problem existed, few were actively treating soldiers dealing with such issues. It can take a while for mental problems to appear after war, and many people are good at hiding their substance abuse issues for quite some time, experts told us.
We soon realized that to get the story we’d need to go on or near the military bases where the greatest number of veterans live. Each of us focused on a different military base and began finding sources within the neighboring community. But doing so posed a problem. While mental health experts in upstate New York — a good distance from a military base — might freely discuss their concerns about the care of returning soldiers, those outside Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, for example, are more wary. There, they rely on a good relationship with the Army. So it took a number of conversations for us to build trust. In time, I learned that while many civilian mental health experts had some serious concerns and wanted to help the soldiers, they were afraid of angering the military leaders with whom they needed to work.
What I really needed was a guide into the community, and the best one I found was an advocacy group, Veterans for America. They’d done much of the initial work on the ground, helping soldiers deal with the military justice system and social services, if and when they were discharged. Without having this "in" to introduce us within the community of veterans, I doubt we would have succeeded in finding soldiers willing to talk candidly about drug use.
Persuading Veterans to Talk
The six fellows broke into groups of two and headed to the field to report — to Camp Pendleton near San Diego, California, to Fayetteville, North Carolina outside Fort Bragg, and to Colorado Springs near Fort Carson. By then, we had created a list of names of soldiers whom we had reason to think had grappled with substance abuse problems since being deployed. The challenge now would be getting them to talk about the issues.
Several factors worked in our favor. For one, the military was in the process of punishing many of the soldiers for drug use, and people angry at the system are more likely to talk. Secondly, despite the harsh feelings many of the guys felt toward the institution of the military, all seemed to share a sense of loyalty and duty to their fellow soldiers. So when offered the chance to potentially help numerous soldiers — showing the public the failings in the system and letting people know the personal battles many returning veterans face — most of the guys were willing to put themselves out there and speak on the record.
My reporting partner, Kate, and I spent 10 days in Colorado Springs gathering stories. We were fortunate in that any wall of silence that might have existed had already been breached by several other reporters, including NPR’s Daniel Zwerdling, whose fine reporting on soldiers in the Fort Carson area seemed to embolden others to speak out. Also, the town was big enough that civilians didn’t feel quite as tied to the post as they would have in a town like Fayetteville outside of Fort Bragg. (The fellows who went there had a very difficult time, for that reason, getting people to talk on the record.)
As things turned out, much of the "20/20" report was based on stories from Fort Carson soldiers. We found a number of soldiers who turned to drugs and alcohol as a way to self-medicate for their mental trauma connected with the ravages and stress of war. There was William Swenson, who used marijuana to dull the physical pain of injuries from an IED blast; Spc. Alan Hartmann, who used methamphetamines to keep himself awake and escape the nightmares that haunted his sleep after returning from Iraq; soldier Michael Bailey, who tried to commit suicide twice after his wife left him while he was serving overseas and used cocaine one night out at a Colorado Springs bar.
The military’s response: No mercy. In all cases, the Army tried to kick the soldier out of the service, and some of them faced life as civilians still grappling with mental trauma but without the Army’s medical benefits.
We also found a surrounding town struggling to treat the increasing numbers of combat veterans in need of social services. Penrose-St. Francis Health Services, for example, was not treating any active duty soldiers for drug and alcohol abuse before the war. At the time of our report, this hospital had between 30 and 40 such patients. Other area clinics were also seeing a similar increase, and one addiction specialist was in the process of opening a treatment center just off the post, specifically to deal with these problems.
Health experts told us that from 30 to 50 percent of people with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will abuse drugs. With almost one in four combat soldiers at risk of developing PTSD, the dimensions of these drug and alcohol problems are likely to increase as time goes by.
Shoe Leather and Thumb Drive
There’s no substitute for going out into the field, talking to people, following leads, knocking on doors — and that’s how we got the stories we did. This is a bold new era for telling such stories, at least as we see it through our youthful eyes, as opposed to being seen as "the death of news," by some older colleagues. And we have a number of tools at our disposal that makes this kind of reporting easier.
With one larger camera and a small handicam, Kate and I did the filming ourselves. (Actually Kate did the filming. I’m a print guy, so my job was to not touch anything or trip on any cords.) We were able to log the tape on our laptops at the hotel after a day of shooting. We scanned photos at Kinko’s and downloaded them onto a thumb drive.
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ComingHome/More technology also means more ways to tell a story, so the producers pushed us to produce multimedia content. In addition to our footage, which made it into the "20/20" piece and a story on "Good Morning America," we were able to use screen grabs to make a photo slide show, pull interview footage for Web exclusive video, and take all of the information — details, anecdotes, context and facts — that usually hits the cutting room floor and weave it into "print" articles that were posted on the ABC News Web site.
The reporting all of us did turned into six articles on ABC’s Web site, as well as the "20/20" piece that aired November 30, 2007. It was a challenging assignment, and I’m sure there’s more we could have done. Hopefully, what we were able to do contributed to an important dialogue in this country about what soldiers deal with when they return from war.
Robert Lewis is a recent graduate of the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He is now interning at ProPublica.