I am assured on a regular basis that journalism is the career path I’m purposed to be in.
I was sent on assignment for the campus magazine a few weeks back to write a profile on a prominent figure in the University of Idaho’s ROTC program. I talked to Brad Townsend, the program’s Battalion Commander, who at the close of the interview invited me to observe a crash simulation him and the other seniors in the program were preparing for the underclassmen Friday afternoon.
When Friday afternoon came, I ducked out of class early with my camera swinging around my neck, my pocket heavy with a recording device, a pen and pad of paper, and a hot cup of coffee I knew wouldn’t keep my hands as warm as I hoped it would. The sun was already slipping underneath the folds of rolling hills to the west, as if it had done its job well that day and thought it could excuse itself early.
Unsure of the exact meeting location, I followed a pair of cadets running through campus in their boots and fatigues, rucksacks jiggling and breath halted in an attempt to get there on time.
When I arrived, Townsend introduced me to Professor Brad Martin, who has improved the Army ROTC program tremendously since his arrival. His attitude toward developing leaders is genuine and precise, and his recruitment tactics nearly doubled the program in size.
Martin’s attitude toward my presence was incredibly welcoming. He was unbelievably excited that the students before him were getting recognition.
I hope he found my attitude similar. I felt privileged to be observing.
Students were separated into three platoons and sent in three different directions for hour-long classes. The first focused on IEDs (improvised explosive devices), the second KLEs (Key Leader Engagements), and the third on how to apply tourniquets.
The platoons rotated between the classes. I did, too.
As someone interested in pursuing military journalism as a career, I listened intently to every word said. I picked up on terms quickly, learned how to approach a given situation with responsibility, and scrawled down quotes from people I was lucky to get to talk to.
My pen quickly ran out of ink. Disgusted with myself for not remembering to bring an extra (one of the most classic journalism faux pas I could have possibly made), I admitted my mistake to Townsend, who slipped a black ballpoint from the sleeve of his uniform and handed it to me.
Martin directed me to the pair of seniors teaching the medical course. Hands clasped behind their backs, they politely and humbly explained that on top of ROTC and a full-time university course load, they are National Guard members, brothers to separate fraternities, and work part-time jobs to compensate for the cut in scholarship money the ROTC program experienced recently.
I was baffled.
As the classes ensued, Townsend led me through the forest and showed me the “crash site.” Two 200-pound dummies lay in the leaves, next to crates and large spools of thick rope. He told me that the goal of the simulation would be for each platoon to exercise the knowledge fresh in their minds from the three classes taught that afternoon through the course carefully plotted by him and the other seniors. They would stumble upon the site, treat any injuries, call in a Medevac report, and try to make their way to the “landing site” (water tower) without hitting any IEDs or upsetting the “civilians” (two seniors in tunics and turbans, having too much fun saying ridiculous things in questionable Afghani accents).
“They don’t know?” I asked.
I figured everyone had been told why they were required to stay in the ’til 11 PM on a Friday night.
“Nope,” he said.
We forked in the opposite direction. It didn’t take long until my shins hit a tight, clear wire.
“Oh, you hit an IED,” Townsend said.
I looked down, hoping I hadn’t severed it and very thankful it wasn’t hooked up to a bullhorn yet.
“Yeah. But I did, too,” Townsend admitted.
Before darkness fell, I drove to the local Co-Op and downed a bowl of thick, steaming soup. I went to my sister’s dorm room and put on an extra pair of pants, a flannel, and gloves. I knew that the cold would eventually seep through the layers, and that the rain wouldn’t let up anytime soon, but neither would I. I was determined to make it the full eight hours.
I parked in the same spot I left and scrambled out of the car. I tried to snap a shot with my camera, hoping the flash would enable me to capture the platoons in action, but my lens wouldn’t even focus; it was simply too dark.
I shoved my camera back in my car and trudged down the steps toward the crash site. A small, bright light, accompanied by the crunch of boots on uneven ground, approached me.
“We’re just about to start the first walk,” Townsend said under his breath.
Suzanne Avery is a girl I’ve known since elementary school. Because of mutual friends, we attended the same birthday parties, sleepovers, and went to a Vandal basketball game before we were Vandals ourselves.
The First Platoon Leader that night happened to be her.
I stuck close to Townsend and the path of light his headlamp cut through the dark as First Platoon came across the crash site, was held up by their first IED, conversed with the civilians pertaining to KLE standards, and huffed up the hill with pounds of equipment strapped to their backs and carried in their arms.
Suzanne took initiative and pressed forward with persistent strength. Though I had spent time with her before, I had never seen her working in her element. And though I had assumed her spirit was colored with the blacks of practicality, blues of a communicator, and yellows of a fighter, I had never seen it as clear as I did that night in the dark.
At the top of the hill, with the water tower in sight, I felt a strange contentment.
The cold felt refreshing. My mind felt clear. The air in my lungs came and went with gratefulness.
Splayed beneath us were the warm lights of Moscow. Little bulbs in a sea of darkness. The fraternity house at the base of the hill probably had one room heavy with an alcohol-laced breath of relief. I imagined the white house in the distance had pajama-clad children curled up on the couch, watching a Disney movie. Downtown, people were most likely already weaving in and out of the bars and coffee shops, clasping hands with friends and listening to local musicians.
I didn’t envy the lights below me. I liked the lights beside me, streaming from the headlamps of future militants. I liked the glow stick whirling near the massive silver legs of the water tower, symbolizing safety and the relief of a job well-done.
The simulation holds as my favorite assignment yet. Because of my deep fascination with the path and resilience of the human spirit, I am feeling, every day, more and more called to making military journalism a section of my career.
Last weekend, one of the ROTC members asked me if I would be willing to go somewhere dangerous. Somewhere in the line of fire. Somewhere journalists are getting beheaded.
I told him that if he’s in, I’m in.
Why should I play it safe when safe doesn’t serve, or reap purpose? Why should I keep my pen and paper to myself when there are lives swollen with hurt and joy and perspective that need to be recorded?
Words. Communication and information are just as threatening as a gun barrel. People die trying to get word out, and people die trying to keep things classified.
Sometimes, writing is less about bringing characters to life than it is making sure people live after they die.
It’s amazing, how lives can be changed by a story.
Look for Brad Townsend’s profile and complete coverage of the University of Idaho’s Army ROTC’s simulation in the next issue of Blot magazine.