The Last Journey

Article #21 “In Good Company”


20 August 2010, Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan

Today I am in Bagram.  It is August 20th.  It is my birthday. It’s been a bit of an ordeal in the past 24-hours.  I knew that leaving Salerno would be more than a headache.  It was and continues to be.  It’s just part of how it is in this place.  But I am a bit ticked off  but of course will get over it.  Sure glad I can vent by writing something.  It’s usually what gets me into trouble,  hopefully not this time. But I’m going to write anyway.


When I left FOB Boris, on 18 August, I left with the company commander who was headed to Salerno.  Somebody had mentioned to me that he was going to receive a prestigious award for valor from a very high ranking Army general.  I knew what that meant.  It meant I better be there, this is going to be a good photo opportunity and it’s time for me to move on anyway.  That is how and why I went to Salerno.  Once in Salerno, I determined through my PAO contacts that I wanted for sure to be present on the 19th in the afternoon to witness this presentation.  Well, that was one heck of request that I had pending as it was kind of a big secret that all this was going to take place.  Now the problem was that the little guy, (Spiri Freelance) just happened to be in the same neighborhood as the big boys, CBS News.  It was kind of supposed to be an exclusive on CBS’s part and then here comes this little ole guy with shaggy hair from New Mexico showing up.  I was not going to leave Salerno without taking one particular photo.  I’m here, I’ve come this far, and I don’t care how big Katie Couric is (or is not), I’m staying and I’m taking the photo too.  Period.


When General David Petreaus walked onto the scene I knew I was in good company.  Actually, I had been in good company the entire journey, but today would be even better.  Captain Watson along with several others were to receive extremely significant awards for their bravery and performance under severe combat conditions.  Among other things, General Petreaus had come a long way to recognize these soldiers and I happened to be once again, at the right place at the right time.  I felt quite honored to be present. 


Back on August 1st, I had arrived in Salerno and ended up being stuck there due to bad weather for almost a week.  At that time I found Salerno to be kind of a small place, out of the way and a nice place to be stuck. In the two weeks since I had been to Salerno, it had changed dramatically.  The population had seemingly doubled and everything was crowded.  It was still a nice place, but, the surge was evident.  This place was getting crowded and it was happening at lightening speed.  I immediately longed to be back at FOB Boris.  Crowds displease me.  Too much non important stuff to deal with. 


By mid afternoon, the gathering of soldiers at the designated location had arrived and were in place.  Katie Couric and her little entourage had assembled and were strutting around the place like they owned it.  I introduced myself to her and she basically shrugged me off.  I did not give her my autograph.  As the soldiers prepared to receive their guest, General Petreaus, I looked around at everything going on.  Here I was in Salerno, at a small gathering of very big soldiers.  This was an important day.  Each designated recipient would receive their medals and awards for their acts of heroism.  It was no small thing.  Although the number of folks present was minimal in number, I knew it would be of even greater importance in the years to come what was about to transpire this day. 


The General came out.  I had followed Gen. David Petreaus for some time over the years via news reports, etc.  He always seemed to me as a genuine person, a man of good character.  I knew recently his health had been in question.  The responsibility that he shoulders, especially now with the resignation of Gen. McChrystal, is enormous and the plight of the effort in Afghanistan rests pretty much on his shoulders now with the current surge efforts underway.  It’s just not everyday one is allowed to be in the presence of such a responsible warrior.  I had been told by the Army PAO official that I was not to ask the general any questions and I could only be at a certain location during the ceremony.  I was not to cross the boundries. 


As I watched Petreaus come out I took note of his stature.  He’s not a big man.  Not like Odierno who is one that towers over you.  Petreaus on the other hand is smaller, thinner, and looks a bit frail compared to the stature of say Ray Odierno.  But when you look at the four stars on his uniform, you know he commands some authority and respect.  From the beginning, he gathered the soldiers around him as they all took a knee and listened to his words.  He made them all feel at ease and just talked with them about the war going on and what they, the Rakkasans are doing and will continue to do.  It was more or less, a small, informal gathering, except for the fact that the CBS News cameraman was constantly at Petreaus’ back breathing down him like a heat seeking sidewinder missile on track to eliminate its target.  I kept thinking how I was told to hang back when this idiot is basically got this gigantic camera at the general’s right ear.  It was ridiculous.  This was my first sign that some things are orchestrated for certain audiences.  I don’t like this part.


The general on the other hand just let it all be.  He had been around plenty of video cameras in his time.  This would just be another time.  I listened to his talk and his words as close as I could.  They were genuine.  He explained that for sure we are in a fight now and the heat is on.  All these men present, knew that already.  But hearing it from General Petreaus adds something stronger to the mix.  Then, one by one, the General came to each designated soldier and the inscriptions on each respective award was read aloud over the simple microphone system that had been set up.  Here I listened ever so closely.  I cannot detail exactly what was said word for word because I was listening with every fiber of my being as to what was being said.  I was in awe of the words being spoken and of the soldiers before me.  Each one looked like very simple and modest men.  Most seemed very, very young.  As the battle was described for each soldiers’ award, I could only barely contain myself within.  In front of me were soldiers whose lives had been brought before them all in single and specific events of war.  They had survived and performed gallantly with valor.  Valor.  This word has strong meaning now in my vocabulary.

Photo and audio by Jim Spiri.  Capt. Watson, (L), Gen. Petreaus (C) and Lt. Lohnert (R)

Both men received high awards for their courageous actions in combat.  General David Petreaus came to forward operating base Salerno, Khost province, eastern Afghanistan today, August 19, 2010 to present awards to these two soldiers as well as some other soldiers. 



The General came to my friend Capt. Watson as his award was read aloud.  I wanted to make sure I got this photo right.  I listened and snapped as many as I could.  I pressed forward with the PAO guys’ permission.  I was here for this moment in time for my new friend, Captain Watson.  I was honored to take this photograph.  I will catalog this one and print it out and make sure he and his family get these.  The General continued down the line of honored warriors.  He came to one and I just watched the soldier.  As the words were read he relived each moment.  He began to tremble and his eyes welled up.  He knew what he was here for.  It was the most moving part of the day.  It is times such as these that I am so glad I came to this place.  Just to be in the presence of such ones simply sheds some light into my being from them. 


The ceremony soon came to an end.  Afterwards I audio interviewed two people, Captain Watson and Lt. Lonhert about this day and what it meant to them.  Each just said, “we were only doing our jobs”.  They meant it.  I was glad to be there and have this time to speak with them.  The group disbanded and people began to go their ways.  I watched as every handler for the General bent over backwards to make sure Katie Curic and her crew were being treated like royalty.  This part did not go down so well in my stomach.  It still makes me ill. 


After recent events with the Rolling Stone reporter and the resignation of General McChrystal, media folks with “power” are like narco terrorists.  They think they have to be accommodated to the very uttermost.  I don’t understand that part.  If I were in control of a huge Army and was trying to defeat the war on terrorism, well then, I would not want one thing to do with the likes of them.  I would send them out to where I was and make them stay there and make them carry their own bags of equipment.  For some reason, CBS News gets to ride on the General’s plane at the taxpayers’ expense to report what they think we should know.  They are under the same orders I am.  But with them it’s different.  They have some kind of power, just ask General McChrystal.


Later that day, I walked down to my friends at the hospital where they were all sitting outside having a cigar break.  They all got up and greeted me with big open arms.  While we talked, they got a call that a wounded ANA soldier was being flown in via medevac and asked if I would like to assist in being a litter carrier.  I immediately said yes.  While waiting for the patient to arrive I watched as a Chinook helicopter hovered in front of me in the

twilight sunset between trees.  It was a good site to see.


The patient arrived on time, we went to the helicopter and downloaded the patient and brought him to the emergency room that had lots of medical staff awaiting him.  This patient had been shot in the chest, but looked good for the moment.  He had been in trouble they heard over the radio.  They all work fast and without skipping a beat.  It felt good to be a part of the crew again.  It brought back memories of the 31st CSH in Balad, Iraq in 2004. 

I was once again in the presence of good company this day.


That night I was to go to the pax terminal and wait for four hours through the middle of the night for a 30-minute flight to Bagram.  At this moment, I am here in Bagram where more CBS News people are.  They are right next to me and should be out of here in the morning.  There has been some confusion of things but I once again got to stay right where I am, even though CBS might think I should be somewhere else.  I’ll be a good boy but I will make it clear to the world that CBS News doesn’t run my life nor will they ever.  Part of being a “freelancer” is that I can say such things because I am my own editor. 


It’s been a struggle these past 48-hours.  Yet I am reminded of the good company I’ve been among during this journey.  Nor can I forget the words spoken to the soldiers that received honors from General David Petreaus.  Having to put up with a difficult night or two while in transit to my next location pales in comparison to what the soldiers I’ve been among lately have gone through.  No doubt, I am in good company and will continue to be.


Jim Spiri Last Journey