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February 10 2011

19:42

Basetrack in Limbo as Embeds Removed Due to Map Concerns

Over the weekend we learned that someone, somewhere, decided that Basetrack's journalists would have to go. So after we posted up the letter, we scratched our heads and wondered why. Actually, we're still wondering, especially since we received this note from the Marine Corps public affairs office in Afghanistan:

Teru,

Good chatting with you.  As discussed, we very much appreciate the Knight Foundation's efforts in highlighting the important work of our Marines and Sailors of First Battalion, Eighth Marines over the past six months in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.  Your team has not been disembedded; media ground rules were not violated.  Instead, the unit made the decision to not entertain the next team of Basetrack.org members, since many of the Marines and Sailors were beginning turnover preparation for redeployment.  There had been concerns by a number of individuals on the use of online maps to portray service members' positions.  I understand that you deliberately off-set actual locations in order to safeguard force protection.  Additionally, First Battalion, Eight Marines' Executive Officer (Maj Ansel) verified each post to basetrack.org. 

This close partnership between the command's leadership and Knight Foundation members is important to note.  While most media embeds last only two weeks, this unit committed to assisting with this project in order to better connect the public to what their service members are doing each day in Afghanistan. 

I think the project was incredibly worthwhile and the relationships you forged with our Marines and Sailors impressive; I heard nothing but positive things from the unit. 

Please know that the unit is hoping you will attend their homecoming.  Also, we welcome you back to Regional Command Southwest and Helmand Province in the future. 
 
Regards,
Gabrielle M. Chapin
Major, U.S. Marine Corps
Director, Regional Command Southwest Public Affairs
First Marine Expeditionary Force (FWD)
Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan

Not Sure of Next Steps

The public head-scratching continued on our Facebook page and through interviews with PRI's The World and elsewhere.

Some of the comments were touching:

To be honest not sure what y'all do..but I do know that my brother is in the Marines and we haven't seen him in a very long time...and I see my mother posting on here and even called me when you did a wonderful piece on him...since you make my mother smile and bring those happy tears to her eyes I thank you...We love you Nenish..come home safe to us and my prayers go out to the basetrack family and all those involved...

Some were heated, particularly when discussing Operational Security and legitimate safety concerns.

Some were just confused. The most interesting thing about the project is watching the audience -- a very small, but committed and diverse group of people -- grapple with the complexities and nuances of a very difficult subject, war, that is also incredibly personal. If you had told me a year ago that I would be discussing the The Hidden War: a Russian journalist's account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan with a group of civilians, who asked probing, complex questions about the policy in Afghanistan that puts most of the public debate I've seen on television or read in a newspaper or heard on the radio to shame, I wouldn't have believed you.

Yet now, here we are, planning the next stage. I wonder where it will go.

February 07 2011

22:42

Marines ask Basetrack to leave amid security concerns

A curious development over at Basetrack this afternoon. (You may remember Basetrack as Teru Kuwayama’s Knight News Challenge-winning project to use social media to tell stories about an American military unit in Afghanistan.) Word from Kuwayama is that they’re being asked to leave the Marine regiment they’ve been working with.

Posting on Basetrack’s blog, Kuwayama wrote: “It was hard to get clarification on why, how or who issued the order…but we’ll keep you posted.”

While praising Basetrack for the work they’ve done to highlight the lives of Marines serving overseas, a memo from the unit’s public affairs officer says they’re asking Basetrack to leave because of “perceived operational security violations.” From the memo:

These concerns are legitimate. Specifically the websites tie in to google maps to display friendly force locations. At this time there has been no official OpSec determination yet and therefore they are being asked to leave and NOT disembedded (disembedding is a formal process that occurs after OpSec determinations have been finalized). RCT 8 Public Affairs concerns lie in the fact that anytime too much information is aggregated in one place in a fashion tying unit disposition and manpower together we have facilitated the enemy.

The news is a surprise to say the least: Kuwayama has spent extensive time embedded with Marines. The about face by the military is more surprising, as Kuwayama told The New York Times last year that the Marines were the ones who asked him to come along to chronicle the lives of soldiers. One of the more remarkable aspects of Basetrack is the collaboration between soldiers and the project’s photographers, a melding that allowed Marines to connect with family and friends back here in the states. (A quick look at responses on Basetrack’s Facebook page shows a mix of confusion, sadness and pragmatism as troops safety is their top priority.) And the integration with mapping tools is one of the most impressive elements of Basetrack’s site.

Kuwayama was a speaker at December’s #niemanleaks conference, where he told the audience about the lengths Basetrack goes to to make sure they don’t release sensitive information. Kuwayama called it a “denial of information” system, that allowed for the military to quickly and easily redact information as needed. We’re reaching out to him to see if we can get more clarity on what exactly this means for Basetrack.

January 12 2011

16:04

The War After the War Plays Out for Veterans in Psych Ward

Basetrack is following the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, 1-8, for their tour in Musa Qala, Helmand, one of Afghanistan's most dangerous and strategically important locations. The goal is to tell a small fragment of their story in real time, as it unfolds. We aim to create a connection between the Marine strapping on his helmet and heading out on patrol and the public who have little or no personal stake in the war. For the Marines and their families, there is a perception that no one cares, that no one even remembers there is a war going on.

(For more on this project, read this previous blog post.)

War stories are frustrating -- especially the true ones. They've been told a million different ways since Homer. Each one is unique, each one the same. Cruelness and beauty, savagery and charity, shame and pride, cowardice and valor, idiocy and genius are in full bloom in war. War is full of life's extremities compressed in tiny explosive packets, full of experiences that defy expression. Firefights and bombings and their aftermath -- a tongue can't contort those sights to language, a brain can't take full measure of them even long after the fact. 

Explaining it to an audience half a world away, desensitized and bored after 10 years of war is even more difficult.

Attracted to Risk-Taking

The Marines are halfway through their tour now. For many, this isn't their first and for many, it won't be their last. It has been a difficult tour. We communicate directly with people interested in the project and the Marines' families through our Facebook page, and the ebb and flow of emotion and strain of this deployment on the families is digitally palpable. 

(Note that out of respect for very real concerns about operational security and safety for all involved, there is a delay between the time a photograph or an audio interview or a story is composed and when it is posted on our site, which allows for redactions.)

I can't say for sure, because I haven't spent any time with the Marines yet, but if my past combat experience is any indication, many will come home with war still in them. They will have stories they are unable to tell -- stories that reside in limbic systems that were remapped for combat and now strain to adjust to life back in the States.

A footnote in the Army's report [PDF file] about the ever-increasing suicide rate within its ranks said, "The all-volunteer Army attracts and recruits individuals who enlist knowing they will be sent into harm's way. A segment of this population is not only aware of the risk but may be attracted to risk-taking."

Shared Commitment

I fought in Afghanistan and I miss it. I miss the risk, the bonding and the sense of purpose, which is one of the reasons I was attracted to Basetrack after I got out of the Army. I served 16 months in Afghanistan as an infantryman with the 10th Mountain Division.  

In Sebastian Junger's book about an infantry company's experience in the Korengal Valley, he wrote about the thing infantrymen miss most when they come home: The sense that someone has your back.

"The Army might screw you and the girlfriend might dump you and the enemy might kill you, but the shared commitment to safeguard one another's lives is unnegotiable and only deepens with time," Junger wrote.

This bond cuts both ways, however -- especially after a tough deployment when the absolute single-mindedness of combat action is replaced with the mind-numbing and often frustrating kaleidoscope of experience in the real world. The strain of combat presented itself in different ways when members of my battalion came home. Some of the more extreme examples: 

  • Drunk out of his mind, one soldier walked up to a police station with a pellet gun, threatening the cops. The officers said that he was trying to commit suicide-by-cop -- to let someone else have the responsibility of pulling the trigger for once. 
  • A friend's wife stole $4,000 from him and spent it all on heroin, the irony not lost on anyone. He divorced her, but not his emotions, and put himself into an early grave. 
  • The MPs went to a house on post to investigate a 911 hang-up call. By the time they came to the door, the Staff Sergeant was a bottle of vodka deep. He told them there was nothing wrong. They wanted to investigate more. He invited them in, produced a concealed pistol, forced them on their knees and took their weapons away. When their backup arrived and tried to talk the Staff Sergeant down, he fired two shots at them.  They shot him in the neck and the face and killed him dead in the house where he lived with his wife and three children. 

Of course, there were also divorces, fights, drinking, drug use, arrests, and other expressions of frustration with life after war.

These stories aren't unique; they're representative of the things that happen after war, when the bill for the psychic debt incurred after months of sustained tension comes due. It happens after every war.

Ward 1A

inuse.jpg

My story isn't unique. I spent my last two years in the Army back in the U.S., in a good job, with a wonderful girlfriend and the promise of better days ahead. Still, something was wrong. I couldn't sleep. I was depressed. Morose. Bitter. Angry. Drinking.

I took anti-depressants. I saw counselors. I spent 12 days in an in-patient psychiatric ward at the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, after I took matters into my own hands. I was not a happy patient. Here's a note from my art therapist:  

"Patient did attend and participate in art therapy group. He was agitated and attempted throughout the session to instigate and provoke arguments with other group members. This patient eventually calmed down...the graphic conversation and commented that 'I can draw bullshit all day!' He was loud and confrontational. He was not able to receive feedback and was not able to provide meaningful feedback to others. He was resistant to even hearing about others' assessments of their own work. During this session, the patient's mood was agitated and was congruent with his affect. The patient was challenging and distracting to others."

Getting out of the Army last summer didn't change much except my health care.

Less than a month ago, on the day after Christmas, I checked into Ward 1A of the Veteran's Hospital in Fayetteville, Arkansas -- the psych ward. The staff called it the "VA Spa," a place where a bunch of seriously messed up vets check in to chill out. Another patient, a Navy guy, called it the "flight deck" because it's where vets crashed and then had short take-offs, often to return or transition to another form of treatment.

"1A ain't spittin' out winners," he said.

On the ward, in plastic chairs molded around heavy weights to prevent throwing, sat combat vets from Korea and Vietnam, along with other veterans who had no combat experience, just serious mental conditions. All were clad in sterile hospital scrubs color-coded by size.

Blogging From Hell

I was the only one from Iraq or Afghanistan, but it was a slow time, the doctors assured me. Plus, most of the Vietnam vets hadn't started to show up at the VA until five or ten years after their combat tours. All of us were on potent cocktails of medications. Pretty much everyone in there had some sort of dual psychiatric diagnosis. PTSD. Drug addiction. Depression. Suicidal thoughts. Homicidal thoughts. Schizophrenia. Bipolar disorder. Delusional. Actively psychotic. Alcoholism. Pretty much anything in the DSM-IV

You could put all those conditions up on a bulletin board, throw a couple of darts and come up with someone's condition. Darts, of course, weren't allowed in Ward 1A.

For many on the ward, the war never ended. Many, like me, had been there before. I talked to Teru Kuwayama, who leads Basetrack, and we decided there was value in covering the way the war continues in individuals, long after deployment ends. 

So here I am, blogging from a VA psych ward now that I've transitioned to an intensive outpatient program. Kuwayama and I couldn't have written a script like this, but here it is, and it's important. If people can ignore a public war in it's 10th year, they will certainly ignore the private war that continues long after.

At the end of my first day in 1A, a nurse introduced another veteran in-patient, prompting him with standard questions -- name, hometown, current place of residence, that sort of thing. The man, a Vietnam Special Forces combat veteran whose father was one of the first 100 Americans killed in Vietnam, answered. 

"Where do I come from? I come from my mother. Where do I live? I live in hell."

December 21 2010

17:00

At #Niemanleaks, a new generation of tools to manage floods of new data

Whether it’s 250,000 State Department cables or the massive spending databases on Recovery.gov, the trend in data has definitely become “more.” That presents journalists with a new problem: How do you understand and explain data when it comes by the gigabyte? At the Nieman Foundation’s one-day conference on secrecy and journalism, presenters from the New York Times, Sunlight Foundation, and more offered solutions — or at least new ways of thinking about the problems.

Think like a scientist

With the massive amounts of primary documents now available, journalists have new opportunities to bring their readers into their investigations — which can lead to better journalism. John Bohannon, a contributing correspondent for Science Magazine, said his background as a scientist was great preparation for investigative reporting. “The best kind of investigative journalism is like the best kind of science,” he said. “You as the investigator don’t ask your readers to take your claims at face value: You give them the evidence you’ve gathered along the way and ask them to look it with you.”

It’s not a radical idea, but it’s one being embraced in new ways. For Bohannon, it meant embedding with a unit in Afganistan and methodically gathering first-hand data about civilian deaths — a more direct and reliable indicator than the less expensive and safer method of counting media-reported deaths. He also found his scientific approach was met with more open answers from a military known for tight information control. “Sometimes if you politely ask for information, large powerful organizations will actually give it to you,” he said.

The future will be distributed: BitTorrent, not Napster

Two of the projects discussed, Basetrack and DocumentCloud, invite broader participation in the news process, the former in the sourcing and the latter with the distribution.

Basetrack, a Knight News Challenge winner, goes beyond the normal embedding process to more actively involving the Marines of First Battalion, Eighth Marine Regiment as they deploy overseas in reporting their experiences. Teru Kuwayama, who leads the project and deployed with the battalion to Afghanistan, said ensuring that confidential information wasn’t released, putting lives in danger, was essential to building trust and openness with the project. So Basetrack built a “Denial of Information” tool that allowed easy, pre-publication redactions, with the caveat that the fact of those redactions — and the reasons given for them — would be made public. It’s a compromise that promises a greater intimacy and a collaborative look at life at war while ensuring the safety of the soldiers.

Fellow News Challenge winner DocumentCloud, on the other hand, distributes the primary documents dug up through traditional investigative journalism, such as historical confidential informant files or flawed electoral ballot designs. Aron Pilhofer, editor of interactive news at The New York Times, said he was unsure about whether journalists would actually use it when his team began working on the project — but since then dozens of organizations have embraced it, happy to take readers along for the ride of the investigative process.

These new ways of distributing reporting were just the beginning, Pilhofer said, with a trend that will likely push today’s marquee whistleblower out of the limelight. “WikiLeaks was very much a funnel going in and very much a funnel going out,” he said. “Distributed is the future.” A new project, called OpenLeaks, will embrace a less centralized model, building technology to allow anonymous leaks without a central organization to be taken out.

Big data’s day is here

The panel also tackled how to digest truly massive data sets. Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, detailed how his organization collected information on everything from earmarks to political fundraising parties. Allison said making this data actually meaningful required context, which could be simple as mapping already available data or scoring government databases based on understandable criteria.

“We try to make the information easy to use,” he said. But beyond the audience of curious constituents who use Sunlight’s tools, a much broader audience is reached as hundreds of journalists around the country use Sunlight’s tools to dig up local stories they might not otherwise have noticed — creating a rippling effect of transparency

15:00

Tracking documents, numbers, and military social media: New tools for reporting in an age of swarming data

To conclude our series of videos from the Nieman Foundation’s secrecy and journalism conference, here’s a video of the day’s final session — the Labbiest of the bunch. Our own Megan Garber moderates a set of presentations on new digital approaches to dealing with new data and new sources.

The presenters: John Bohannon, contributing correspondent for Science Magazine; Teru Kuwayama, Knight News Challenge winner for Basetrack; Aron Pilhofer, editor of interactive news at The New York Times and Knight News Challenge winner for DocumentCloud; and Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation. Below is an embed of the session’s liveblog.

December 15 2010

15:00

#Niemanleaks on Thursday: After WikiLeaks, a flood of new questions

While WikiLeaks’ recent document dumps have answered questions large and small (How many civilians have been killed in Iraq? Does Muammar al-Gaddafi prefer blondes or brunettes?), the organization’s controversial brand of journalism has raised a lot more questions that scholars, working journalists and legal systems around the world are just now beginning to tackle. The Nieman Foundation is hosting “From Watergate to WikiLeaks: Secrecy and Journalism in the New Media Age,” at which speakers ranging from The New York Times’ executive editor Bill Keller to The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus will offer their insight into how the rules are changing.

Here are a few of the questions we’ve seen raised, and where you might begin to figure out some answers tomorrow. If you won’t be in attendance, check back here Thursday morning for the live video stream, or watch #niemanleaks on Twitter.

Is WikiLeaks journalism? What does that mean when everyone can blog, Tweet and share instantly with an audience around the world?

Check out the 2:30 p.m. (EST) panel, “Secrets 2.0: Exploring Entrepreneurial Answers to Journalistic Obligations,” which will feature the Sunlight Foundation’s Bill Allison, Basetrack’s Teru Kuwayama, the New York Times’ Aron Pilhofer and others who are helping answer that question through innovative approaches to what journalism is, while pushing back on the notion of what it isn’t. For example, Knight News Challenge winner Basetrack pairs professional war correspondence with the thoughts and reactions of U.S. Marines and their families, who are also blogging their experiences. The Sunlight Foundation, on the other hand, takes massive data sets and made them more accessible and useful, often leaving it up to the reader to connect the dots in creative new ways.

What should we make on all the legal and political pressure being put on WikiLeaks and other news organizations? Should the law dictate how and what is reported, and where do you draw the line on either side?

The “Prosecuted, Banned, Blamed: Reporters Push Boundaries as a Voice of Public Accountability” panel at 10:00 a.m. features a global perspective from current and past Nieman Fellows, including Stefan Candea, who helped map out Romania’s complex web of political and media ownership, as well as fellows from Chile, Cambodia, and South Africa. It will be moderated by the Nieman Foundation’s Stefanie Friedhoff.

For a more local perspective, head to “Whither the Gatekeeper? Navigating New Rules and Roles in the Age of Radical Transparency.” It’ll feature The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus, Clint Hendler from Columbia Journalism Review, Maggie Mulvihill from the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and Danielle Brian from the Project on Government Oversight. It’ll be moderated by Nieman Reports‘ Melissa Ludtke.

So in the end, what’s changed post-WikiLeaks?

The conference’s keynotes will tackle the big question of what changes between media and their sources as those sources can increasingly go direct to the audience with their message. Kathleen Carroll executive editor of the Associated Press, will discuss freedom of information in the digital age at 9:10 a.m., while the Times’ Bill Keller will address secrecy, national security, and the press at 1:15 p.m.

November 30 2010

14:30

From Fighting in Afghanistan to Blogging for Basetrack

ser·en·dip·i·ty [ser-uhn-dip-i-tee] -noun

1. an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.

2. good fortune; luck: the serendipity of getting the first job she applied for.

2007

I'm sweating despite the snow on the ground. I'm at the wheel of my humvee, silently begging the platoon leader on my right to stop the banter that gets us through most long missions. The missions are routine now, a year into a 16-month deployment to Afghanistan, but I still hate this drive. 

A photographer from a national magazine rides with my infantry platoon up into the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan, in the Omna district. At some point during the trip -- as we inch up the vertigo-inducing, narrow switchbacks, hugging a road that ascends three thousand meters from the valley -- the photographer snaps a photo. I don't talk to him at all during the trip.

Going to Omna always made me nervous. Going up was fine, I guess. Coming down involved wearing night vision goggles to navigate a muddy and slick road when there was always something. I wasn't sure if I'd really checked the brake fluid, or changed the batteries in my goggles. A mistake meant my squad would descend the few thousand meters to the valley very fast, for the last time. Oh, yeah, we could also get shot at. I am a bad driver.  

Months later, the photo I never gave a second thought to is published. It shows an Afghan man on a motorbike looking down through the magnificent, scary panorama at the humvees snaking their way up towards Omna from the wide valley of Paktika province. My folks buy a few copies of the magazine for my scrapbook and we all go on with our lives.

2009

I'm behind a desk at Fort Monroe, Virginia, counting the days until I get out of the Army and wondering what I'm going to do after I take off my uniform. I'll go back to college, I guess, but I need something else, some plan, right? I'm well-educated, well-read, and in-shape -- but utterly devoid of any useful skills or qualifications suitable to long-term employment.

I can walk all night through mountains wearing 80 pounds of gear. I can shoot a grenade into a window at 300 meters. I can set up a radio that broadcasts encrypted messages off a satellite. I can speak, read and write some Pashto, an interesting and nuanced language (though my vocabulary contains little poetry and much violence).

"When my three-year enlistment expired in 1967, I was almost completely ignorant about the stuff of ordinary life, about marriage, mortgages, and building a career," Philip Caputo wrote in his Vietnam memoir, "A Rumor of War." "I had a degree, but no skills. I had never run an office, taught a class, built a bridge, welded, programmed a computer, laid bricks, sold anything, or operated a lathe. But I had acquired some expertise in the art of killing. I knew how to face death and how to cause it, with everything on the evolutionary scale of weapons from the knife to the 3.5 inch rocket launcher."

I don't even have a degree. I do have a set of wings showing that I graduated from Airborne School.

I wonder if I could get my old job at Lowe's back, selling toilets.  

My web browser wanders and I end up on Gizmodo, with an article called "Ask a Pro: How to Shoot (and not get shot) in a War Zone." Some photographer is answering questions. I'm skeptical but I read on.

The guy sounds legitimate, and I see that reflected in his packing list, which features things like zip ties, zip lock bags, tape, and batteries. It doesn't include crazy gizmos or expensive, trademarked, patent-pending outdoor gear worn mostly on New England liberal arts campuses. He has a website, www.lightstalkers.org that serves as a community for other people who travel and work in places that don't have a ministry of tourism. Or tourism. His name is Teru Kuwayama, and yeah, I realize we've seen each other before on the road up to Omna. My platoon leader was from Flushing, Queens and that's one neighborhood over from Teru's. Small world. 

February 2010

After four combat deployments, my brother is killed in a helicopter crash in Germany. I post a note on Lightstalkers mentioning this. I am overwhelmed by the empathy and compassion in the notes I get back. Teru writes:

We didn't know it then, but I was embedded with Matt's platoon in Afghanistan. Only years later, during a random stateside conversation, did we realize that we'd been a humvee apart in a small convoy that snaked it's way through the mountains along the Pakistani border.

In the small world that is LS, I don't doubt that some of us have crossed paths with his brother, or strapped into his blackhawk at some point during the course of those four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

all my respect to the Farwell family - and thanks for getting us home to ours.

T   

Teru is now my friend. I go on Facebook and make it official. 

September 2010

I'm in Arkansas, back in college.

Teru is about to go to Afghanistan for some crazy-long project he got a grant for. This project, Basetrack. There are some visa problems. I know some people, and I know the military bureaucracy and the lingo. I volunteer to help. One thing leads to another and pretty soon, over Facebook chat, Teru asks me what my schedule is like in January. Would I like an all-expenses-paid trip to Musa Qala, Afghanistan? He offers me all the MRE's I can eat and says I can borrow some of his body armor. It's a weird conversation. I'm sold. 

Now I'm writing for www.basetrack.org. Monica, our lead writer, and I exchange phone calls and emails daily. She corrects my grammar. I burp and offer to send her cold weather gear and tourniquets. We help each other out. 

Balazs and Tivadar, two photographers from Hungary, travel to Afghanistan with Teru. They suit up and head out with the Marines, carrying iPhones and cameras rather than rifles. At night they come back and curse the satellite phone and its 1995-era uploading speeds. I curse David Hasselhoff being voted off "Dancing with the Stars."

Basetrack continues to grow and evolve. We all learn. Patient phone calls and emails from David Gurman and the rest of the web team help me empathize with what a senior citizen taking a library's "Introduction to Computers" class feels like. They're based in California and Utah. Sadika coaches us on Central Asian geopolitics. She's in D.C. We have a funky little crew. 

We're getting to know some of the Marine's family members via our Facebook page. I do pushups and now add one more for Chesty Puller. This whole thing is new to everyone. It's exciting and I'm glad to be a part of it.

A few years ago on those switchbacks up to Omna, though, I couldn't see all that. I just saw the twists in the road. 

Serendipity.

October 19 2010

14:14

Basetrack Pushes Off to Follow Marines in Afghanistan

Safi Airways flight 4Q-52. Sept 28, 2010 at 20:00 GMT-Zulu -- I'm airborne and en route to link up with First Battalion, Eighth Marine Regiment (a.k.a. "one-eight," the subject of our Knight News Challenge grant), in southern Afghanistan.

We're at cruising altitude, somewhere between Hungary and Turkey, on a civilian flight into Kabul. The first leg of our trip, on Singapore Air between New York and Frankfurt, was fully packed. Frankfurt to Kabul is almost empty. Go figure. Apparently Afghanistan has yet to re-establish itself as a vacation destination for European tourists.

Battling Red Tape

Plan A was to travel from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to Afghanistan with one of the first waves of Marines from one-eight -- but the battalion lost its first skirmish to red tape. Adjutant Lt. Hull, over at battalion HQ, waged a months-long campaign to clear me for travel on the chartered jets that the Marines use to reach Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan. I traveled to Camp Lejeune repeatedly as identification cards and travel orders were being processed.

Ultimately, I don't fit into any of the Pentagon-approved categories for non-military passengers -- I'm not a contractor or a detainee -- and so I find myself standing by and watching as the first group of Marines push off from Camp Lejeune at 5 a.m. on one of the last days of August.

I drag my kit back to the civilian airport at Jacksonville, N.C. the next morning and head back home. I'm actually more than slightly relieved to have the departure postponed -- I need every second I can get to scramble this operation up to half-baked status. We're still a long way from cruising altitude.

Preparations

Over the next month, my place in New York takes on the appearance of a propeller-head survivalist compound. Piles of Kevlar flak jackets and bullet-proof ceramic rifle plates accumulate in the corners of my living room, with satellite phones, GPS navigators, and head mounted fiber-optic cameras spilling out across the floors. Stacks of portable hard drives are wedge between waterproof expedition packs, shockproof hard cases and Camo Bivy sacks.

Dubious looking men with shaved heads and laptops occupy all available couches, and a pervasive smell of spray paint and WD-40 fills the air, as gear gets modified, tricked out, and dialed down. Conversation is limited to Skype conference calls between cities across the planet as blueprints are drawn out for everything from website architecture and digital data management to water purifiers and solar power generators. Airline weight allowances and national regulations pertaining to body armor become subjects of almost obsessive concern. AmEx calls me several times a week to inquire about the "unusual activity" on my credit cards.

Occasionally my 3-year-old daughter wanders into the living room, puts on a ballistic helmet, and turns on the CD system, thus injecting Shakira and mil-spec interpretive dance into the mix.

Exactly one month after the original deploy date, the first two-man crew heads out for Afghanistan. We barely make our flight, dragging more than our combined body weight in baggage with us.

But the project is finally wheels up and mobile -- and it now has a name and a website: Basetrack. (Here's a recent blog post about my flight to Dubai.)

Everything else is TBD, but ready or not, here we come.

More soon from the other side.

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