Sunday, February 26, 2017

Jeremy Pierce, I can't forget you

Jeremy was a personal hero, not just because he survived an IED blast, not just because he was a tough guy, but because he made me feel like the human spirit could endure anything as long as you had the strength to say, “Fuck this, I’m going to make fucking lemonade.”
I was at the chow hall when it happened. I walked back to my room and found a note on my door that said come down to the Medevac base ASAP. I immediately assumed I was in trouble for something ( as a journalist people were constantly telling me I was in some kind of infraction against military rules) so I dragged my feet. I took a shower and brushed my hair and trudged to the base about a mile away. 
I had missed the best photo op of the month. An Oregonian soldier had been injured and the Oregonian Mededvac unit I was embedded with took the news personally in a beautiful way. About 30 of the Oregon Medevac soldiers lined up in front of the hospital.
As each Medevac soldier saluted the patient rolling by one medic remarked later, “That shocked me, it’s a feeling that you can’t describe when you're walking to the ER and your Medevac Company is standing outside paying their respect to a soldier’s sacrifice. We were surprised that this had happened, but it feels good being able to help another soldier from Oregon.”
I was not allowed in the hospital so I loitered around the base wondering how I would get an interview. I did not want to be callous but I knew this would be a story for the Oregonian paper and I wanted to get something soon.
I found out that the soldier’s name was Jeremy Pierce and he had serious injuries including the loss of his leg, toes and fingers. 
He was from an infantry unit and the colonel wanted his story to be told so I was allowed in the hospital room.
I found this note I wrote after meeting him:
“Jeremy’s eyes were like the last lights of the sun, gradually dimming, but they were beautiful, that drug induced deepness, the vulnerability… I don’t remember much of how else he looked. I knew he was missing pieces of himself, but his legs were covered in gauze and blankets and he was laying down and he looked strong and he was making jokes.”
It is hard to describe seeing a young man of 22 in such a wounded state and you could see that just one day ago he had been in the peak of his physical strength.
And the loss of limbs was so new to him I don’t think he was even able to register that his life would change. 
I remember he was charming he asked me something like, “How are you doing?” and his eyes sparkled mischievously and I thought, “Is this guy messing with me?”
But he was the kind of guy who could flirt and joke even while lying in a hospital bed and he instantly won me over. 
I asked him a few questions, but didn’t want to push him. He answered very directly about the blast and how he survived making sure to attribute his survival to his fellow soldiers. You could tell he was really loved by his unit. Someone was always by his side during his time at the hospital. 
The following is from an article I wrote:
 “I remember being put into the vehicle [for ground evacuation], looking at my left hand noticing that I had part of my finger missing. I knew I couldn’t stand up; my boot was in another spot. I remember wanting water.” When no one could understand what Pierce was asking for he managed to get a pen and paper and write his request. 
At Balad Theater Hospital, Iraq, Pierce, surrounded by his fellow soldiers, shivers underneath a patriotic blanket. “Despite the events I wouldn’t change it for the world,” says Pierce who loves his job as a soldier, and jokes that he would like some new toes and maybe a leg.
In the afternoon of his second day at the hospital, Pierce receives a Purple Heart decoration for his injuries sustained during combat. The specialist already has a bronze star with valor on his last deployment for receiving enemy contact and exchanging fire. Pierce finished his deployment in Iraq with the Alaskan National Guard in 2008 and jumped on the next deployment with Oregon. “I am proud to be part of the Oregon National Guard,” says Pierce.
 “But you can’t really prepare yourself for this,” Pierce add, his bright green eyes illuminated by the fluorescent lights. “I knew what I was getting into.” 


I told Jeremy I would send him a copy of the story and I never did. I guess I figured he would have read it online, but it bothers me that I did not fulfill that one task and I ask myself, “Why, why did I not just send it?” But this story is not really about me is it?
I thought about Jeremy a lot but I knew that if anyone was going to survive this war it was him and perhaps that was a selfish thought. I had no idea what he was enduring in the aftermath of Iraq. I just remembered his strength in the hospital room and I wanted him to be okay because if he was not okay than none of us would be okay.
So when I heard that he was killed in a car crash, it stunned me and the loss of his courageous heart struck me as such a crime agains the human spirit. I still grieve that loss even though he was really a stranger to me.

A fellow solider told me  “The kid’s got heart, got spirit,” those are the words that I can never forget.

Monday, June 18, 2012

RadioLab Remix

Now that I working as a journalist on the San Juan Islands I haven't updated to this blog, but I have been working on a project that may be of interest to some of you about the Iron Man. The piece is part of a remix contest for NPR's RadioLab. Take a minute and listen at and send a vote my way if you like it.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Corpse Without a Grave

As some of you may have noticed this blog has been sedentary for a few months, such is the nature of my freelance career. I feel like one who climbs a high mountain only to fall off once I reach the peak, but I do not despair there are other paths in life to take, paths far less treacherous. Just a few days ago I accepted a job as a reporter for the San Juan Journal in western Washington.
But I do not leave behind the war, I carry it with me, just in much smaller bags these days. Before I depart this blog, I want to leave an essay I wrote during my time in Iraq. Another essay left unpublished, another corpse without a grave to call home. 
The Land of Dust
The wind hit my face. I reared back, surprised by the force capable of knocking my skull around in my Kevlar helmet. I wanted to lean out of the UH-60 Blackhawk’s open window overlooking the sand, the palm trees, the beige colored square building and the tiny figures playing soccer. I wanted to leap out and walk alongside the river snaking into the distance.
For two months I lived in Balad, Iraq working as a journalist with close to 100 soldiers from a Medevac unit based out of Salem, Oregon. We spend our days waiting for missions called in on heavy black radios strapped to our belts. Some days we sit and talk, tired from walking to the chow hall with heavy boots in heat reaching 115 degrees. Other days go by with the constant roar of the rotor blades spinning as pilots fly on and off the landing zone. Their skin smelling like hot earth and sweat trickling down their backs like a broken faucet is attached to their necks. There are days when an Iraqi mother wails because her daughter body is ravaged by burns. There are days when the medics see broken and limbless bodies. There are days when all we want is to forget. Then there are the days when the dust storms come in, the aircrafts can’t fly and the dirty fog stings your eyes and burns your throat. I have learned to stop smiling because the dust covers my teeth and gums like spackling paste.
We have an Olympic size pool here, large dining facilities and gyms, but we live behind great concrete barriers. There are no weekend trips to the freezing and wild coast. There are no old growth forests, no dark organic soil to dig your feet into, no clear lakes to bury your head and listen to silence. I don’t complain out loud. I’ve grown familiar with the diesel fumes, the pits of burning plastic from the other side of the post and the aroma of feces as the port-a-potties are cleaned, but sometimes I want to get out. I want my old life of climbing trips to Smith Rock State Park near Bend, Oregon and nights camping in the grasslands.
At night I race my creaking bike around the airfield. Gagged by the dust and nearly losing balance I wipe particles off my glasses and wheeze. I wish that I could go uphill or downhill, but its flat, flat, flat. Inside one of the trailers near the airfield, soldiers are watching A River Runs Through It. I sit down for a moment watching the images flash across the large screen. I’m captivated by the river, the water running over rocks like tongues running over smooth teeth, the high grass in the wind and the mountains rising in the distance remind me that out there are some things humans cannot cover in concrete.
So I walk home watching the armored vehicles roll by like dinosaurs, their steps vibrating in my spine. In my trailer the wind throws gravel against my door and window. I have the strangest dreams of howling artic wolves outside the greenhouse door where tomato vines wrap around my legs. When I awake I wish I could have dreamed about rain, instead I close my eyes in the shower pretending I’m in Oregon in spring. If I step outside my wet hair dries within minutes, powdered with a fine dust.
I hang a worn map of Oregon in my room and stand facing it, running my fingers over those great green areas with only one road leading to the lakes. I feel like a child running my hands over my father’s face after he returned home from months of working on the oil fields far away from home. I was three. I knew him, but I had forgotten what he looked like. I had to feel his face back into my memory.
The best scenery here is untouchable, it is the colors in the sky. Strapped into my seat on the Blackhawk I crane my neck to watch the sunset settling against the pilot’s shadowy helmet. If you look straight up you can see midnight blue, then a bit lower there is deep ocean blue bleeding into shallow sea blue then gray-blue and a bit of pink and orange. As the lights fade we fly further into the darkness. These are colors we cannot replace with computer or television screen images. Colors that fade so quickly that we can still say, “Wasn’t that beautiful?"

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

With Delay

I have been home from Afghanistan for about a month and I have finally updated my website. If you want to see more photos from Afghanistan go to

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The World is Getting Bigger

Just a few weeks ago I left the small outposts and positions of Marjah. I arrived at Camp Leatherneck, with street lights and busy roads and Pizza Hut. I felt overwhelmed by the new faces in the chow hall and the fact that you can't see all sides of the base at once.
I traveled to Kajaki, where there is a large dam, river and vegetation. I covered the construction work of Oregon Marines. Within two days I was back at Leatherneck. I traded the vastness of the base for a five day mission with more Oregon Marines who spend their days and nights in the cramped quarters of an armored vehicle. I must say it is the toughest living conditions by far, but I was able to see first hand the sacrifices Marines make in this desolate place.
These stories can be found at

Now I am making the slow journey back home with feelings of indifference. I can't say that I want to stay here, but the feeling of leaving is like walking out into the darkness without a light. I will have to find another job, another story and another life.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Q&A with myself

Here are some questions I have been asked during my time in Marjah, Afghanistan:

Why did you want to come to Afghanistan?
My first motivation was Dan Morrison, a professor and friend from the University of Oregon, who initially wanted to make the trip. I thought if I was going to go to another war zone, what better way than to go with an accomplished photojournalist and maybe learn a few things. The second reason is that I believe that we as the American people have a right and responsibility to know what is going on in Afghanistan. Whether you agree with it or not we are a country at war and we should not let this fact slip away. As a journalist, I try to engage the civilian populace about the U.S. military and all the good and bad of Afghanistan. I can only bring home a snapshot of Marjah in two months, but at least I can say that I went and I told the story. That gives me a sense of purpose.

What will you do when you get home?

I will continue to work on the information I have gathered during my time here. I have some long term articles and multimedia projects I have been working on. I will also do some speaking engagements in Portland and Eugene. In December I am heading to New Zealand for a family reunion and in January and early February I am traveling to Bangladesh. I will continue working as a freelancer.

How does your family feel about your job?

My parents are very supportive, although I can tell that this embed in Afghanistan is causing them to worry a lot. Firefights and IEDs will do that, but every parent worries about their child over here.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


During my last week in Marjah I decide I want to go south, far, far, south into an area without Marine presence. The mission was to search this area. "It's either going to be like the apocalypse or really boring," said one Marine. So at 7 p.m. I boarded a vehicle and went off into the desert. Nineteen hours later the desert looked the same, flat and vacant. No gunshots, no IEDs, just silence and some camels wondering across the land. So what did we do? We sat, we joked, we played cards and I tried desperately to stay awake the whole time. It's all about solidarity out here. But as fate would have it I managed to find a comfortable position, with vest and helmet, and I passed out for a good two hours. Or as the Marines put it, I was drooling, hardcore. So as the young Marines stared out into the desert I snored, but what can I say I am a freakin' civilian.
The low point of the whole journey was at about 10 am, when I first had to go to the bathroom. Luckily we were headed back to the base, but of course the convoy stopped midway for another hour. One of the lead vehicles found an IED and so of course that became the priority and I debated over whether I wanted to pee in a bag. Turns out I can hold it for a long time.
So there I was, in a vehicle, in the desert and am I sorry? No. You don't know what a mission like this feels like, until you actually go out and sit there with the Marines. And so I lived and learned and it was good.