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Lucas Nelson
Lucas Nelson

Top Gunner: Danger Zone

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The opening credits sequence is identical, almost shot for shot, as if to reassure audiences the filmmakers haven't forgotten what worked the first time - airmen readying sleek jet fighters in predawn light on the deck of an aircraft carrier, planes silhouetted against a sky just starting to glow orange as the sun burns off the mist, then the whine of jet engines as one plane fires up, then another and another and a roar as each one rockets into what Kenny Loggins is about to remind us is the danger zone.

Top Gunner: Danger Zone

MONDELLO: We are in the zone here, going straight to shots of a still seriously fit, almost 60-year-old Tom Cruise revving up his Kawasaki Ninja, roaring down a highway to what looks like a gigantic arrowhead that he's supposed to fly to Mach 9. But, I mean, seriously, 9 with Ed Harris about to shut down the test? How about 10? How about 10.2, just so they'll have something to talk about when he's called on the carpet?

But Maverick, on the edge of extinction, has one last job for the Navy: Train a group of young hotshots for a dangerous bombing mission in Iran. One potential snag: The young hotshots he must train include Goose's son, call sign Rooster. Will Maverick be responsible for cooking another Goose? Can he outwit John Hamm, playing an imperious by-the-book officer with delicious calm fury?

The Packers led the NFL last season in red-zone offense, converting 80 percent of their trips into touchdowns. This season, that percentage is down to 55.3, according to, which is 25th in the NFL.

For Colvin, whom some media watchers credit with taking thepersonal touch in war reporting to new heights, it is simply a matter ofstrategy, of utilizing the most powerful tools to make battles in far-offlands meaningful to readers. "It is incredibly difficult to report onevents and put yourself in the story, even when it is relevant," saysthe war correspondent, who often finds herself the lone journalist in some ofthe world's most dangerous places. "It is easy to gooverboard."

Others, like Serge Schmemann, deputy foreign editor of the NewYork Times, see an explicit danger in the personal style of "I wasthere" journalism. His correspondents, he says, adhere to a strongtradition of presenting information "as fairly as possible,"keeping emotions and judgments in check. "We are not referees in thevarious conflicts of the world. We are there to report what is happening andlet the readers decide whether it is truly horrible or not," saysSchmemann, who for 21 years covered Israel, Germany and Russia for the Times."Advocacy journalism, in our eyes, is always suspect."

There is the danger, for instance, that journalists who become tooclose to one side in a conflict might report only what fits their notion oftruth, ignoring other factors. And while a first-person approach might bemore creative, Schmemann noted, "It's precisely that sort ofcreativity that we are a little afraid of. We want our reporters to beaccurate and fair--and not creative."

Outside of the letters pieces, first-person journalism is used"selectively" at the Tribune, only when reporters can broaden astory by including personal experiences. "The journalist still has anobligation to write objectively and not become involved. There's adanger when you go over that slope," says O'Shea, who overseesinternational coverage. "But I think there's a place for the firstperson when, by telling this small story, you're really telling a largerstory."

Watchdog organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalistscompile reports on attacks against the media in conflict zones. PulitzerPrize winner David Rohde, then with the Christian Science Monitor, wasarrested by the Serbs after he sneaked behind the lines to document masskillings of Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995. Rohde, now with the NewYork Times, was held for 10 days, interrogated and accused of being a spy.

Yet journalists covering brutal wars, such as in Chechnya, havefew options. They either report the story from the "safe" side,allowing their activities to be directed and monitored, or they defyauthority and smuggle themselves beyond safety zones to act as eyewitnesses.

While Colvin was no stranger to danger, thetravel-at-your-own-risk bar was raised in Chechnya, a place she calls"far worse" than Kosovo. Staying alive became an obsession after aroad offering her best chance for retreat was captured by Russianparatroopers.

"Disappearing" is a way of seeking a safety zone for thereporter, who returns from near-death experiences, such as the one sherecently endured in Chechnya, physically and emotionally spent. Instead ofrushing to share war stories with other foreign correspondents, she heads toa circle of friends in London she calls "family"--a poet, anovelist, a film producer. That, she says, and her favorite pastime, sailing,keep her from becoming "obsessed" with her work.

There is no doubt that she gets a buzz from being in the thick ofthe action. Surviving danger, she says, "gives you an adrenaline rush.It's more exciting than sitting in London wondering, `Did I pay mytelephone bill?'

When she's traveling in conflict zones, she keeps notebooksin a "diary form," recording everything from what the dawn lookedliked to descriptions of the people she meets along the way. When she'sready to write, she culls out what she plans to use on a separate sheet ofpaper, a "kind of prompter," she calls it.

Whew. I'm happy to admit I'm a bit exhausted from this most recentround of package-opening tonight, and because of that I have to say, beforeI mention anything about life over here, that I couldn't possibly telleveryone how thankful I am for everything they - you - have thought tosend me. It has been truly overwhelming, and while I am going totry to write as many thank-yous as I can (I know I can afford to do nothingless to remain in the Speakers' good graces ;)), I must at least say nowhow appreciative I am and all of my soldiers are for each and every packageyou've sent. I promise I personally want nothing to do with pistachiosor coffee, for example, but the guys really do appreciate them! Itmeans a lot just to know people are back home thinking about them, particularlyin this time of the year.Life here has been, for the most part, fairly uneventful and routine sincelast I wrote, believe it or not. To say that, though, leaves outtwo particularly notable events, and it would be a disservice if I didn'tmention them. It was just about two weeks ago to the day that myplatoon was waiting, as QRF, to respond to events out in our area. (TheQRF, or Quick Reaction Force, is an element that stands ready to be availablefor the battalion leadership to commit to a course of action they see fit,most commonly to help another unit that might comes into contact with theenemy). It had been a largely uneventful day, really, when we gota call that there were reports of an attack involving small arms fire,rpgs (rocket-propelled grenades), and incoming mortar rounds in part ofour area and that we needed to move to that location and attempt to neutralizewhatever was going on. As it turns out, the reports of such coordinatedattack were somewhat overblown, as we later came to find out. Allof those things had happened at some point throughout the day, but therewasn't any kind of planned, complex attack on a position. In anyevent, when we were close to the area we certainly did hear plenty of gunfire,although we couldn't identify precisely where it was originating untilwe were practically on top of it. Once we did, I've got to hand itto my gunners for being as disciplined as they were in not engaging anyoneuntil they could maintain positive identification of their targets. Iknow this is delving into the realm of jargon, and I want to avoid thatif I can, but that term is pretty important. It means, quite sensibly,that you need to have reasonable certainty that someone you're thinkingabout shooting at is either in the process of committing a hostile actor clearly showing hostile intent, so that you can justify taking actionagainst him. There's an endless catalogue of "what if?" scenariosthat come into play when you're talking about situations that could potentiallyinvolve using lethal force; thankfully for me, this time a guy on a rooftopraised his AK and began firing at us. So that much was more or lesscut and dry. We returned fire, and within minutes there were helicoptersoverhead, another patrol was on its way to aid us, and - of course - bythe time they got there, all shooting had long since stopped. Ifyou were under any impression that there are hours-long firefights thesedays, I think, for the most part, you're mistaken. That was certainlynot the case with us, when after a few minutes, everyone had stopped firingand we'd secured the area. Bold though the anti-Iraqi forces maybe, I can't blame them for not wanting to stick around when multiple bulletprooftrucks with machine guns are firing at them and helicopters overhead canpotentially see their every move. So, brief though it was, that wasby far the most action our platoon has seen yet. We've been involvedin two IED attacks, but they didn't damage the vehicles and, unsurprisingly,we were unable to return fire since we couldn't identify who was detonatingthe device.So, that night, my platoon felt pretty good about ourselves and our disciplinedactions as we returned to the battalion headquarters, briefed the commanderand intelligence officer, and then returned to our staging area to continueour role as QRF. That was still our mood the next morning when wewere about to be relieved as QRF when we all heard a loud explosion outin our area of operations. We didn't think much of it at first; afterall, explosions of some sort are routine, and I'm sure that's the casein most parts of Baghdad. But I knew something had gone wrong whenI heard another patrol (from another company in our battalion) requestmedical evacuation just seconds after the blast. They said they wouldneed evacuation by helicopter, and they immediately began to move to ourlocation, since where we were was one of the locations that helicoptersare prepared to land to evacuate casualties. We prepared the helicopterlanding zone, waited for the patrol to come in with its casualty . . .and when it did, well, it was without a doubt the most vivid, enduringmemory of my time in Baghdad so far. I can't imagine - unless oneof the patrols I'm on involves a wounded soldier - that anything over thecourse of the next year could replace it. The wounded soldier wasa staff sergeant from another company, and it was tragically obvious tome - and I think to anyone who laid eyes on him as they pulled him outof the HMMWV and the medics did what they could to try to treat him - thatthere was virtually no hope of his recovery. I can't begin to describewhat it was like to prepare yourself to receive, say, a casualty with ashrapnel wound, or maybe a half-amputated foot or leg, and then see someonein the shape he was in. His wounds were probably - thankfully, in a way- just irreversibly fatal. The trauma to his head was severe andI don't think it would have made one bit of difference if they'd had anoperating room with a surgeon standing by just feet from the site of theblast; it seemed like a truly hopeless situation. I say "thankfully" becauseI can't imagine a more horrible feeling than that of the guilt that youcould have done something to save someone's life, but didn't. Inthis case, I just don't think anything could have been done. It wasa horrible sight, one that I'm quite sure I will never forget, and a horriblereminder to everyone in the battalion - just weeks after we arrived inIraq - that we're still involved in a very deadly struggle, like it ornot.So you see why, although it's been a mostly uneventful few weeks sinceI last wrote, that's not to say that certain very pointed events haven'tbeen foremost in everyone's mind. For my platoon, those were undoubtedlysome of the most memorable hours of our lives, and I think I can speakfor all of my soldiers who were there in saying that sudden change of emotions,that instant evaporation of any feeling of success or a job well done,was all too grave a reminder that our job here is dangerous and far fromover.As I said last time, though, I don't want to give the impression that patrolshere are fraught with danger. Is the potential always there? Ofcourse. And I think it's that knowledge that keeps soldiers healthilyaware. If anything, though, it's the fact that so many patrols are completely uneventfulthat makes staying vigilant so hard, as I'm sure any veteran can tell you. Youmay have heard the old saying that war is weeks of sheer boredom punctuatedby moments of sheer terror, and that's absolutely correct. It's thoseweeks of total boredom, of patrols that seem lifeless and unimportant androutine, that cause soldiers (and leaders) to lose their diligence, tostop taking precautions they should and rehearsing things they should andmaking checks they should - and, so it seems, it's always precisely thatmoment when you've settled, when complacency has nestled comfortably onyour shoulders, that you're shocked back into doing the right thing. Youjust hope you're not shocked because it happens to you.The sectarian violence has been somewhat less spectacular since the much-publicizedattack in Sadr City some weeks ago, but it is persistent nonetheless andcolors everything that happens in the city. I can't claim to havestudied war and warfare enough to be able to pronounce one way or the otherwhether Iraq is in the midst of a civil war right now, even if I had everysingle bit of evidence that might support one argument or the other. Tothe extent that the happenings of the country are shaped by and shape inturn the violence between the two sects, proclamations of a civil war are,at the least, not unfounded. It's all very difficult for coalitionforces, too, because we don't want either side to "win." I'mnot saying that it would be justified to side with one of the participantseven if we did; at least in that case, though, we'd be able to identify "theenemy." As it is, you all probably remember talk of the "Sunnitriangle" that was so publicized earlier in the war, and for goodreason: since Saddam's party (Sunni) was in power when we entered the countrythree and a half years ago, we had every right to expect those loyal tothe regime to resist our attempts to bring about change. Sure enough,they did, and not for nothing was Fallujah the site of two major offensivesin this war, in April and November of 2004 (our battalion took part inthe latter). While that Sunni resistance is still there, though,and while they make up the entirety of the Al Qaeda members in Iraq, it'snot as though the Shia population is without blame. Plenty of themare more than willing to do harm to coalition forces too, and the JayeshAl-Mehdi, or Mehdi militia, is one of the most disconcerting organizationsin the country. Certain Shia weapons and tactics, moreover, are considerablymore feared than Sunni. So it's not as though there are any clearrights or wrong. Do the Sunni holdovers from Saddam's regime, nowdevoid of most of the power they had, still hold a grudge and pose a threat? Sure. Butdo you see coalition forces strolling peacefully through Sadr City, a Shiaenclave? Of course not. In some areas you have units workingto prevent Shia infiltration (like ours), and in others you have unitsstill fighting bitterly against Sunni insurgents. There are no clearanswers here, from the top to the bottom.But, as for life on the FOB, well, still few complaints ;) I'm suremy complaining that the internet works inconsistently in my room is goingto draw reactions of contempt from those who actually had to fight as anepeditionary force months or years ago; I still feel that complaining aboutmuch of anything here is practically sacrilege when viewed in light ofthe conditions endured by soldiers in every conflict in years past. Inlight of that, I can't say much of anything is lacking at the FOB. Whenthe worst you can say is that your internet doesn't work much of the timeand that the water in the showers is sometimes "only lukewarm," well,you've got it pretty darn good. I wouldn't have you think anythingdifferently. The folks out the chow hall now are apparently so boredwith themselves that they've decided to implement a karaoke mic every Fridayat lunch and dinner (they thankfully spare people that terror early inthe morning, which is wise). I listened to a soldier croon Al Green's "Let'sStay Together" the other afternoon and simply had to smile. It'sChristmas time, of course, and the day itself is fast approaching, butmuch like Thanksgiving, I find myself not missing it much. Well,frankly, it doesn't feel a bit like Christmas, except for the packagesthat you all have been wonderful to send. And it's not because theydon't try to make it feel like Christmas; it's just, well, it'sjust another day. Again, I imagine if you ask any veteran, he'llsay the same thing. You think about loved ones, and you hope they'reenjoying their holiday, but the 25th will simply be the day between the24th and 26th, a day either to go on patrol or get paperwork done for guysand awards, or do PT, or catch up on sleep (a favorite pasttime of mine). Itrust I'll take time to think about some special people that day, as Ido every day, but most of me is glad I'm not too bent out of shape aboutit. (It could be, of course, that I'm simply soulless and deadto the world, but I think it's just the routine over here ;))To all of you back home, though, I hope this finds you extraordinarilywell, happy, and healthy, and I hope you do plan on spending yourholidays with your loved ones (I realize we don't all celebrate Christmas,Jewlenko, thank you) and enjoying them. Be sure to enjoy the winterweather for me - it's not exactly warm out here, but I'm trying to savorwhatever coolness I can before the spring and dreaded summer roll around. Please,take care, be safe this holiday season, and feel free to offer a smalltoast on my behalf around midnight on New Year's - I'll be thinking ofyou eight hours beforehand ;) 041b061a72


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