Combat Camera Group Pacific at Naval Air Station North Island was (and presumably still is) as good as it gets for journalists and photographer’s mates in the Navy. The best of the best are hand-picked to serve and many spend the rest of their careers there and CCG Atlantic in Norfolk. The unit’s primary mission is to operate as the eyes and ears of the Pentagon and White House, documenting Navy and Marine Corps operations around the globe using video and stills. Our secondary mission included writing feature stories and creating produced video pieces for the commands we covered.
I was assigned to the post production division where Cesar worked with two more first class petty officers taking raw footage shot across the Pacific area of operations (stretching from the American West to the Persian Gulf) and transforming it into finished products using Avid Media Composer, the state of the art video editing system at the time. In addition to advanced training as a video editor and specialized training for deploying with front-line units, I got to play with all the new toys coming out of Canon, Nikon and Sony. We routinely received boxes of video and still gear from hopeful vendors looking to capitalize on an American military looking to stay on the cutting edge.
We were analog natives forging the digital processes and procedures that would become the foundation of a totally new Navy rating (mass communications specialist) that combined the duties of illustrator/draftsmen, journalists, lithographers and photographer’s mates into a single job description. Before the advent of information technology and digital imagery, such a merger would have been near impossible yet was pretty much inevitable as the new digital tools became commonplace.
One of the first challenges to face and overcome in my Combat Camera tour was attending Field Medical Service School (FMSS) with Photographer’s Mate First Class Brent Gresham at Camp Pendleton, a Marine Corps base 45-minutes north of San Diego near Oceanside. We would both be moving to Japan for a six-month Detachment Alpha deployment in November of 1999 and FMSS was being tested as an innovative way to get all new combat cameramen up to speed on the non-creative aspects of their job, including the weapons and small unit tactics vital to surviving with a frontline Marine unit.
Field Med has been training hospital corpsmen and dental technicians to serve as “Docs” in the Green Navy with the Marine Corps for decades. Once an HM or DT made the transition, they rarely went back to the regular fleet. Gresham and I weren’t students, exactly, though we lived in the student barracks and followed their schedule. Our task was to attend all the FMSS courses, including trauma medicine and medical management, while at the same time documenting the experience with still cameras and video. For my photographer friend, this meant regular trips to headquarters on North Island to develop his 35mm film and create proofs of his work, sleeping in his own bed but facing an hour-plus drive to be back by revelry at 0500. At least it was against the traffic streaming south from the suburbs to the bases in San Diego.
Since we were both first class petty officers, we bunked with the student leadership and were expected to be leaders in our own right, which wasn’t a problem for either of us. We were both hard chargers and embraced the Oorah atmosphere full tilt, including razor-sharp creases in our heavily-starched battle dress uniforms (BDUs) and the Marine Corps standard high-and-tight haircuts underneath our razor-sharp caps. With the exception of the haircut, it was the same standard at Combat Camera as well, and we felt right at home with the unusual temporary duty situation.
From 0730 to 1530 every day, the student companies marched to the schoolhouse to learn the intricacies of practicing medicine with the Corps. The assumption that they knew nothing and everything they needed to know would be provided gave us a leg up on the rest of the students. We could learn everything we needed during the day and use the extra time afforded by our quasi-staff status at night to study our asses off. Gresham even completed our final exams in second place with exactly zero prior medical training going in. I was sixth. We learned how to apply pressure bandages and start IVs and place endotracheal tubes in the rubbery throats of dummies simulating the collapsed lungs of someone with a chest wound.
Weekends found us in field mode to learn how to set up a camp and as part of a unified company. We consumed Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) three times a day and slept under the stars in vintage, two-man green canvas shelters. We dug latrines and shaved our faces with ice-cold water every morning. During the daylight hours, we learned how to walk a patrol as a rifle team and tackle other more physical challenges like obstacle courses with machine guns emplacements and gas mask requirements or ten-mile marches with 50-pound packs on our backs and M-16s slung over our shoulders. Gresham and I had it a bit rougher on the hikes since we also had to jog ahead of everyone occasionally to shoot stills or video as the students passed us by. We carried our camera gear in addition to the standard load, adding another ten or fifteen pounds to our packs. It was the price we paid for avoiding the physical “punishments” that came with mistakes in specialized military training courses. That usually meant inhuman numbers of pushups or sit ups followed by running in place with an M-16 held at shoulder height.
Six weeks later, we were given an extensive series of field exercises to test our skills once the classroom work was completed and final exams passed. We embedded ourselves with student companies as if on a mission to participate in the war games in as realistic a way as possible. If it comes down to a journalist or photographer grabbing a weapon, much less the company’s Doc, things are going downhill fast. I forget the exact scenario being played out, but there were field hospitals and casualties and the whole nine yards to test the mettle of the new Docs being sent to the fleet the following week.
As much fun as FMSS was for both of us and as much as we learned about emergency medical techniques, we were the first and last of the current crop of combat cameramen to attend the training at Camp Pendleton. It was decided that the time and expense wasn’t worth it all things being equal. Our commanding officer went back to the drawing board and started to design custom field training we would carry out as a unit in support of area commands during their own training exercises. It was a pretty ingenious way to prepare us for war in a country enjoying an extended period of peace. A period that would end in a few short years when the World Trade Center buildings fell in New York City.
* * *
Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training starts out with a week of history, strategy, and tactics in a building at NAS North Island followed by a week of getting your ass kicked in the California high desert. As interesting as the Vietnam-era beginnings of the program and as important as the techniques were that we would use to survive, the students seemed eager to start the “real” training. We were a mixed bag of ranks and ages and job descriptions, mostly pilots and aircrew with a smattering of SEALs, Marine recon and two combat camera guys of which I was one. A handful of women were also in attendance as they were deploying with forward units in ever increasing numbers.
The day arrived too soon when we loaded aboard a white Navy school bus to make the two-hour trip to the Cleveland National Forest just outside Warner Springs. We first got rid of most our personal belongings and changed into new dark green uniforms with no adornment or insignia of any kind. The same uniform used by Vietnam era soldiers and Sea Bees. Our actual duty uniforms had patches and nametags attached with rip-away Velcro in the event we needed to ditch our identities.
We each carried a small “pack” of stuff we could take with us into the field, tucked into a carrying device formed from our long-sleeved field jackets. The very short list included the clothes on our back, boots, extra socks and underwear, a flashlight, a watch, a knife or multitool along with a compass, some parachute cord and a canteen with a cup and web belt to secure it around our waists.
The long bus ride ended at the field training facility that consisted of a headquarters area with an administrative building, staff barracks, wastewater treatment plant, and a training compound. Scattered throughout the enormous property were small building and permanent training installations, including the simulated prisoner of war camp where we would spend three days getting our asses kicked and our psychological mettle vigorously tested.
The week-long field portion of SERE school started as soon as we disembarked and were divided into teams of two. With an odd number of students, I was in the one group that had three guys teamed up. This would provide an advantage because three are certainly much better than two in any emergent situation requiring quick thinking and body heat to stay alive. We immediately started putting into practice the theories we had learned in class the previous week in San Diego. Turning my piss into drinking water using a solar still was especially instructive and life affirming. We spent three sunny days learning how to survive three bone-chilling nights and evade capture starting the fourth day as we simulated going down behind enemy lines and our specially trained instructors started to track us down.
The most difficult part was trying to maintain a high degree of situational awareness when you haven’t eaten. Whatever naturally-growing food stores that existed in the past had been picked clean by the time we showed up. The most we could find was prickly pear fruit that had to be carefully cleaned before eating lest you end up with hundreds of fine, almost invisible, stickers in your mouth that were much more of a nuisance than an empty belly that faded into a sullen grumble by the end of the first day. We would eat the occasional bug or brew some “buckwheat tea” but mostly we went on a water fast (of which there was plenty to avoid a real emergency) until the evening of our third day in the field when we finished training near a huge clearing, a large fire raging in the center and short logs or stumps scattered around as seats.
A large pot like the kind shipboard cooks used to make food for hundreds of sailors at a time along with what looked like a mirepoix of carrots, a couple of onions and a stalk of celery rested on picnic table near the fire. We were ordered to form up around the fire as one of our instructors came walking out of the shadows petting a small brown rabbit, looking sinister as hell in the flickering flames and the setting sun disappearing rapidly behind the trees. He explained we would find a time when a small animal was all that stood between us and death. Killing, skinning, cleaning and cooking said furry woodland creature was therefore an important skill to learn or at least see happen first hand.
We watched with saliva sloshing in our mouths, quite ready to sacrifice the cute little rabbit for the hot meal that would result from its demise. The instructor killed it with a quick jerk of the small neck in his powerful hands and then hung it from a tree for the more gruesome task skinning and cleaning the dead animal. This was done with practiced ease and the carcass was handed over to the cook for the evening, another instructor who cut up the veggies and added them to the pot, followed by the quickly butchered rabbit and plenty of water. A lid was placed on the pot and we moved off to learn some skill or another in the fading daylight while the rabbit stew cooked for later consumption, constantly in our peripheral vision and imagination.
I doubt we learned much during that session (setting snares and traps maybe) while the intoxicating scent of simmering meat and vegetables filled the crisp evening air. We eventually paused for chow and gathered around the pot with our canteen cups in hand as the cook stirred the wondrous stew with a huge, stainless steel spoon. After an eternity it seemed, we were called forward to form a single file line and eat our fill. The gathering took on a festive atmosphere as our mostly young bodies responded to the flood of nutrition and the taste of a warm meal. I helped myself to seconds along with a couple of other guys, but most of the students had all they could handle with a single canteen of the rich stew. Bellies full for the first time in days, we broke into our individual teams and slunk off into the night to learn how to navigate by the light of the bright three-quarter moon, a skill that would come in very handy during the Evasion, Resistance and Escape portion of the training starting in the morning.
That rabbit stew and the seven Skittles our instructor shared earlier in the day during a break are still the best things I have ever stuck in my mouth. To this day, classic Skittles make my mouth water to an inordinate degree. Context really is everything.
The next day before dawn, we rolled out of our makeshift shelter, again thankful we had three of us to provide a fairly comfortable amount of body heat despite the frozen ground under our pine-needle bed. The other teams who made up our training section were also waking up and breaking down their shelters in preparation for the day’s activities. There was an entire script for how the last three days of SERE training would go, from our relative freedom in the field to being thrown into dog kennels at the prisoner of war camp for more hands-on instruction.
The group set out for our destination, navigating with maps and compasses to find our first scheduled “reconnoiter” point with the friendly forces being sent to rescue us. We weaved our way through the desert canyons and arroyos, avoiding capture by a set of SERE instructors playing Oscar-caliber performances as soldiers in an unspecified eastern European army. The longer you evaded capture the less time you would spend as a POW getting your ass kicked, so we were highly motived to stay focused and quiet during our travels.
We got to our first stop around ten or so, a parachute hanging from a tree to form a tent. This would become a familiar target as the exercise progressed and not the first tent we find ourselves in before our eventual capture. We settled inside to nap and chat while waiting for our appointed rendezvous time to arrive in a couple of hours. The time we were waiting for came and went, so we headed out to the next hastily scrawled set of coordinates on our map. Halfway there we encountered “friendly locals” who passed along intelligence that sent us off in another direction after being verified using the techniques we were taught.
We progressed in this fashion until night fell. Then shit got real.
Angry accents punctuated with gun shots and flashlights turned the dead and dark mountains into a storm of activity. It was impossible to know where the voices and engines were coming from since noises echoed and rebounded all around us. At some point, our group split to avoid getting caught and our threesome was on our own for the first time in three days. Orienting by the night sky came naturally to me, even though I had a severe learning disability when it came to using a map and compass, so I took the lead as we stuck off toward the north to get outside the noose that was rapidly closing around us all.
We identified a remote area near a “friendly local” outpost as our best hope to avoid capture. We were shooting for dawn and the signal that would send anyone not already captured toward the first hanging parachute tent we could find. Our extra set of ears and eyes came in very handy at noticing trouble as bobbed and weaved our way through the desert canyons and over short steep mountains. We spent nearly an hour around 3 am under a low-hanging tree branch while boots and flashlights interrupted the terrified breaths and inadvertent tremors of our tightly-clenched limbs. The search party eventually moved on and so did we, never staying in one place for too long to avoid being found as we had been taught.
The sun was lightly kissing the eastern horizon when an air-raid siren pierced the silence, calling all successfully evading lambs back to the slaughter already taking place in the POW camp somewhere nearby. Resigned to our fate, we took off in the direction of the tent we had scouted the previous evening and had in our sights for the last few hours as we circled around the perimeter to stay mobile. A few of our fellow students were already holed up with the friendly locals who gave us carrots and apples and pointed to the stack of sleeping bags nearby, all in broken English and gestures to get the point across that we were to nap while we still could.
We were shaken awake a few hours later, the sun climbing into the pale blue morning through the tiny hole overhead where air passed through a fully-deployed chute. A few more apples and carrots and a hastily sketched path on a map was all we got before being sent on our way. Not much more than a quarter mile from our much-needed rest stop, we were jumped by dozens of guys in mismatched pick-ups with AK-47s and menacing glares. They also spoke broken English, but it was pretty clear what they wanted when we were marched off down the road with our hands on our heads and barrels steady at our backs while the trucks took off in a cloud of dust to find more captives.
The first stop was a group of tiny shacks made from scrap wood where a couple of our compatriots had been stripped to their T-shirts and tied to upside-down boards. A rough-looking guy in tattered camouflage from bygones era was filling a gallon milk jug with water from a hose. We were placed in a line facing away from the scene unfolding at our back, our imagination and ears now providing the lurid details behind us. Our captors repeatedly shouted “Grab you knee balls!” which was a command to bend slightly at the waste and take a fistful of cloth from our pants at the knees. It left us vulnerable and off balance with our lower backs screaming with pain in short order. We were stripped of all our belongings, including boots, jackets and eyeglasses for those of us that wore them.
When the guy taking my shit realized the seemingly fragile and expensive nature of my glasses, he broke character to assure me they would be safe until training was complete. For the time since I started wearing glasses at age seven, I was effectively blind to the world around me. It’s hard to explain to people who can see what the sensation is like. When everything beyond a certain distance fades into a soft haze of indistinct shapes and motions, an utter helplessness keeps you on edge. Straining to make out details leads to a throbbing headache that beats just below your eyebrows and doesn’t go away until you start to see again or go to sleep. A bag was placed over my head almost immediately, so I didn’t have long to worry about not seeing, though it would become fairly painful later. They loaded us bagged, barefoot and baffled into a bigger truck for transport to the camp where shit got really real.
Our final destination was a series of concrete dog kennels without doors behind barbed-wire fences. We were given a “war criminal” number that matched the number stenciled above the door to our cage. I was War Criminal 37. The kennels were maybe two feet wide by three feet high and four feet deep. They came equipped with a coffee can to pee in and a slatted wooden board to sit cross-legged on at all times when in our cells. There was a curtain that could be draped down while we did our business but had to be raised at all other times. It became the first act of defiance to our captors edicts as we left our curtains down and stretched out as much as possible behind until we were forced to raise them by the guards when they pretended to notice what had been obvious all along.
The rest of the compound consisted of maybe three or four dusty acres with skeletal guard towers and low-slung admin buildings where precise beatings were delivered to extract what little information we had that might still prove useful this long after our “plane” went down behind enemies lines and how many ever hours we had evaded capture. Resisting your captors in every way possible and for as long as possible while also staying alive was your only mission once you became a prisoner of war. You didn’t lie, exactly, because you could be caught in a lie and that was never a good for your health. The trick was to shade the truth with a confused demeanor. Fake a head injury or fatigue or lack of understanding. Ask questions in return.
Distract. Dissemble. Disassociate. Rinse and repeat.
The sun rose on our second full night in the camp to find the lot of us pretty much fried to the bone. We had been kept awake by loud speakers blaring marching boots and indistinct martial themes and crying babies and gun shots. When we weren’t in our dog cages being alternately frozen or baked depending on the time of day and the position of the sun, we were kept busy using our fingers to draw lines in the dirt using just our fingers and moving piles of rocks from one side of the compound to the other and back again. A Japanese Zen garden brought to life on a much larger scale by prisoners of war.
We were dragged from our cages and lined up before the flag of the country that held us flying high over the podium where the camp commander had addressed us the day before. The flag was lowered to waiting hands and replaced with the stars and stripes before being run up the pole to the accompaniment of the Star Spangled Banner. It was a long, tense second before we realized our training was complete. We tentatively came back to reality as our “guards” started speaking with normal voices and assuring us that it was indeed all over.
The same white bus that had brought us to the field was waiting outside of the camp’s now open gates. We staggered aboard for the short ride to the intake building to retrieve the personal belongings taken from us at the beginning of our incarceration and to eat a box lunch before getting back on the road to San Diego. My dark green Nissan pickup was waiting right where I had left it in the SERE parking lot. I gave my shipmate a ride home, but not before we swung through the Wendy’s drive-thru to grab a bag full of cheeseburgers and sodas. We had been warned to wait before eating any “real” food, but fuck that noise after a week in the field with very little to eat.
The ordeal was officially over when we took our first bite of the best burgers ever.
* * *
SERE was the last step in preparing for a six-month deployment to Naval Air Station Atsugi in Japan as the forward-deployed documentary arm of the Pacific fleet in Hawaii and Joint Combat Camera Center in Washington DC. Our primary mission was to skedaddle to any emergent conflict in our op area, stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mississippi River as I mentioned before, and hold down the fort while the larger crew prepared for the extended deployment in San Diego. We had weapons (both M-16s and nine millimeters) stored in the NAS Atsugi armory along with every sort of still or video camera or field item one might need, including helmets and body armor and tents. Once we took over from the det on station, our only job was to be ready to go wheels up at a moment’s notice.
In the years leading up to my Japan deployment, I was a faithful user of a new website called Match.com as a means of meeting girls. It was a perfect venue for a writer who had never been much for hitting on girls in person but was nonetheless considered charming in the right context. I actually met my wife Megan on the site, so my instincts were clearly on point if a few years early. By the time I left for Atsugi, I had been on a couple of dates with cute girls and psycho chicks and every flavor of female in between. Though I was loving my time in Combat Camera, I was already planning on leaving the Navy when my current enlistment ended in April of 2001 and going into business with Caleb Wilson who was now working in northern Virginia as a high-tech recruiter during the Dot.com Boom of the late nineties. That being the case, I was writing to girls near DC in the hopes of priming the pump before I arrived.
Katerina 2 came into my life by way of that electronic spigot of hot and cold running women. Unlike the woman I met in Halifax by the same name, Kat 2 was white-hot crazy though she presented as perfectly normal when we started corresponding not long after I moved into my room at an Atsugi visitor barracks that operated much more like a nice motel, complete with maid service. I was feeling lonely and vulnerable, so I dismissed significant warning signs of the madness to come and leapt face first into the deep end of the pool.
One of the perks to living on a military base overseas was unlimited Internet access at a time when people were still paying by the hour. I started spending all my non-working hours communicating via a new service that allowed me to dial a phone in the United States over the Internet as if it was a local call and used pre-purchased minutes at five cents per minute. I was being paid a nice daily per diem for every day I was in Japan and spent the majority of it on phone cards to speak with my new lady love half a world away whom I had never met in person, thousands of dollars in phone charges over a few month period before the whole fantasy came apart during a gig in Hawaii.
Kat and I proceeded to get very close, very quickly. We celebrated New Year’s Eve twice in the same day, first in Tokyo where I was sitting in my barracks room rather than celebrating in one of the world’s great cities. The year 2000 was greeted by each location around the globe in turn while we watched together on TV and spoke on the phone. I went to sleep the next morning just as Kat watched the ball drop over Time Square in New York City and went to sleep herself.
The following week I found out I would be flying to Hawaii in February to cover the two-week long Pacific Area Special Operations Conference being attended by the elite special warriors from twenty-five Pacific Rim countries. I was being put up at the hotel where the conference was being held, so the bulk of my expenses in paradise were covered by the military, including a bump in my per diem due to the cost of eating in Honolulu and a rental car. I made plans to fly Kat out and surprise her with the gift of meeting in person for the first time in Hawaii.
I arrived a week before Kat and started documenting the conference each day while scoping the sights each night. When the scheduled day arrived, I drove to the Honolulu Airport to pick her up. I was waiting outside the secured area where passengers stumbled out of the terminal and into the warm air, sublime sunshine and flowers gone out of control. Hawaii is a study in sensory overload that takes a few minutes to acclimate to for most people, myself included.
I am not entirely ashamed to admit that I didn’t recognize the plus-sized girl who turned the corner and walked straight toward me. With a noted inability to keep my feelings from my face, I am sure my surprise was unpleasantly palpable to a woman who finely attuned to the merest hint of scorn. She was pretty to my eyes, just not what I was expecting based on the photos we had shared since November. I gave up a ton of candid shots of me as I was at that moment in time.
Dead sexy, of course.
She had shared the best of the best of herself, captured at a time when her self-confidence was never higher and tomorrow never brighter. The outlook had gone down significantly since whatever snapshot in time had healed her wounds and it was obvious in every move or strained expression from the moment we met in person as lovers who had enjoyed fairly hot phone sex numerous times but had never met in person. She clearly knew the ruse she played and was curious how I would respond.
I reacted with aplomb after swallowing my initial disappointment at not welcoming the hot theater actress and singer who melded with me perfectly in so many ways with the unfortunate exception of being honest to a fault. I had already decided to make the best of an awkward situation, but Kat didn’t let me off so easy and queried me relentlessly the first few days she was in Hawaii. We had a knock-down, drag-out fight on day three that found me chasing her down the street in downtown Honolulu, crying and screaming about how big a prick I was for thinking she was fat and ugly, neither of which was true but had gained mythic status in her eyes.
Tiny and thin was never a requirement for attracting my eye but was an exalted state every girl I had dated (as well as the one I married) aspired to attain despite the obvious fact that we were already together when they came to that completely unfounded conclusion. Somehow we found an accommodation with reality and agreed to start from square one to enjoy what little time remained in the visit. Kat settled in poolside while I covered the last day of the PASOC events before I was free to enjoy the sights and sounds of Hawaii without anything to occupy my time other than the unstable woman I had flown out from northern Virginia.
I timed the end of my official duties with three full days of fun in the sun and tropical adventures before I headed back to Japan and Kat went back to the States, starting with dinner at one of Honolulu’s nicest restaurants followed by a moonlight limousine drive to a scenic overlook above the city. The last our time together was either spent in bed or driving around the island checking out the many sights to be seen. The elephant in the room stayed silent, for the most part, as we simply tried to enjoy ourselves for these few brief days in paradise. We stayed far away from any mention or acknowledgement that this was most likely the beginning of the end for whatever relationship we might have had together.
One unique positive came from the long weekend came when Kat handed me a gift the day I took her to the airport. It was a double compact disc of the original Broadway cast recording of the musical Les Misérables. It was one of her favorites and she had a feeling it would become one of mine. After listening to it religiously for the next few months and memorizing every song, it definitely did. It was the first time my voice felt precisely in tune with what I was singing. I am a fan that Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert was physically painful for me to watch, though Broadway vet Hugh Jackman was great as always.
A tearful goodbye was the last I saw of Katerina 2, though the fallout would continue for a couple more months.
* * *
The next time I saw Hawaii was on the way to film the American Samoa Centennial celebrations with a three-man crew that included PH1 Brent Gresham and PH1 Tom Grady, the latter tasked with shooting video, like me, while the former focused on capturing stills. In a previous career, Grady was some sort of store manager, but he joined the Navy at the 35 age limit to become a photographer, the oldest and most curmudgeonly of the first classes in the unit. Gresham was none better. Neither traveling companions was known for playing or even tipping back a few for fun, so it was a trip that would be all business even though it included my thirtieth birthday.
We boarded a Hawaiian Airlines DC-10 in Honolulu along with some serious tonnage of American Samoans heading home for the once-in-a-lifetime celebration. Gresham and I were lucky enough to get aisle seats with a minimum of legroom. Grady, on the other hand, was sandwiched between two large women in colorful silken muumuus who each required a quarter of his seat as well their own to be comfortable. This left the chronically polite and thankfully skinny sailor trying to occupy as little space as possible between the two opposing forces. Six hours later, the uneventful flight delivered us and our gear to American Samoa.
We had two rental vehicles waiting at the airport – a minivan and a Pathfinder – and three rooms already secured by the local government at a great hotel right on the water in the island’s capital of Pago Pago. Our main mission was covering the Arleigh Burke Class guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur (DDG 73) that would be showing up in a couple of days to help kick off the centennial events that included feasts and parades and outrigger canoe races along the ruggedly beautiful coastline of the small, lush island in the south Pacific. We were also on hand to cover the arrival of a couple admirals and senior state department officials from Hawaii and parts they were playing in celebrating a hundred years of “eastern Samoa” being an American territory while the western Samoan went to Germany and gained independence after World War II.
Like most of the gigs during my time in Combat Camera, it entailed a lot of hurry up and wait for something to happen at which point we went into a flurry of activity until waiting for the next moment to arrive. I remember spending a lot time in my room processing the footage I was shooting and on the beach chairs near the water beyond the cement deck behind my ground-floor room, dashing inside when the sky opened up from time to time with tropical downpours. Within walking distance were a couple of solid choices for local fare, including a decent restaurant/bar in the hotel itself. I couldn’t get into the bread fruit or poi, but the grilled fish was better than anything I have ever tasted before or since.
We bounced back to Japan following the American Samoa job just long enough to turn over to the next group of combat cameramen coming in from San Diego. Since I was the driver for our time in Japan, it was my duty to train the replacement driver in how to get around in a country that was dense and complex and written in kanji. It takes a special kind of brain to drive on the opposite side of the street while at the same time managing a stick-shift with your left hand and the clutch with your right foot. Every newbie would test-drive the Det Alpha van to see if they had the aptitude to take over the duty as the assigned chauffeur.
I binged on my new obsession golf for the final few weeks in May 2000 before we said good bye to Atsugi for a final time and pushed off for Honolulu in support of the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises taking place through early July. For the last six months, I had enjoyed unlimited green’s fees for $18 per month as I learned the insanely difficult skill of smacking a little white ball with a club. Our place of business shared the parking lot with the golf course, so I was playing maybe three or four times a week for many weeks at a time. It was a spoiling of epic proportions that hasn’t been repeated.
It made more fiscal sense to have us go straight to Hawaii rather than going all the way back to San Diego only to turn around and deploy to RIMPAC for six weeks. Rather than a posh hotel in Waikiki, we each had a room in the enlisted barracks and access to one of half a dozen white minivans assigned to us for the duration of the exercise. Each day we would wake at dawn to exercise as a unit before divvying up the amazingly awesome set of tasks required to fully cover a multinational military exercise involving the combined naval forces from seven nations including America, Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, the Republic of Korea and the United Kingdom.
We were disseminating digital imagery in real time for the first time in history, so there was a certain amount of joie de vivre that came with being on the bleeding edge of your career field at a given moment. I would experience the polar opposite in a few short years when I left the Navy to pursue of technology-recruiting marketing firm at the beginnings of the Dot.com Boom. I would be perennially off in my timing for years to come but enjoy the ride nonetheless because it usually involved exercising creativity in one shape or form as mediums shift and audience expectations change accordingly.
We took helicopters and small boats out to large ships or fast attack submarines that were busy lobbing live ordinance at wrecks destined for the bottom of the Pacific. Marines from the United States and the Republic of Korea assaulted the beach in coordinated amphibious assaults. For the peacetime military, it was about as bad ass as life got until the twin towers fell the following year. Then combat camera would be expected to live up to its full charter in the sands of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Six weeks later we were back in San Diego, training for the next gig by running three times a week, hitting the gym more days than not and shooting endless retirement ceremonies or changes of command. Occasionally, shooting our weapons to maintain qualifications. Living the bachelor life with Cesar at our pad near downtown was interrupted by the occasional weekend visit from his three bambinos. The beginning of the end of our friendship started one weekend when I leaned into a bottle a Scotch a little too hard and passed out on our sofa when his kids were supposed to be over. It became a thorn in his side and turned into something worse than I would have thought given the easy disintegration of our ties following the unlikely election of Barack Obama and Cesar’s abrupt transition to a far right ideology where a moderate republican once existed.
I moved from writing short stories and incomplete science fiction novels to screenwriting while at CCG. My first script was a short dramatic film called “Fathers & Sons” that Cesar and I planned to produce but never got further than a single night of shooting in our apartment with a director of photography who drank a few too many Budweisers and melted down before we got through the first ten pages because his camera skills went downhill in direct proportion to the empty bottles stacked on the kitchen counter. I don’t remember exactly what tipped him over the edge or what was said, but he is still embarrassed by it today.
The story followed a poker game between four friends with varied male role models in their lives. Not my best work, to be sure, but the screenplay form came naturally to me, so I turned to my first feature-length script written as an homage to the James Bond franchise. It started with the supposition that 007 was a position rather than a person and opens with the current Bond (then Pierce Bronsnan) breaking into a Russian gulag to complete an intelligence mission and discovering a Bond thought long dead being held captive. It was called “By Any Other Name” and is a storyline I am quite proud of even though I never expected to do a thing with it commercially. I couldn’t even show it to people and say I wrote it without permission.
I mailed a copy of the finished script and a cover letter explaining my premise to the copyright owner in London, Eon Productions. A Cease & Desist letter arrived in reply. I ceased and desisted but am happy to note the coincidental turn the Bond series took a few years after I sent my script in, though I would never take credit for the Daniel Craig reboot and am not doing so now.
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I had just wrapped up changes for the RIMPAC 2000 video based on the rigorous feedback I received at a Murder Board the previous week, so my schedule was unencumbered when the call came in to cover a NATO submarine rescue exercise with the deep submergence rescue vehicle Mystic (DSRV 1) and fast attack submarine USS Dallas (SSN 700) at Aksaz Naval Base in Marmaris, Turkey. I had just 24-hours to pack when Deep Submergence Unit requested Combat Camera Group to cover Sorbet Royal 2000. It was most likely my experience with the unit as the command journalist that got me the last minute nod, but it was flattering to be asked for personally nonetheless.
The DSRV was loaded aboard an Air Force Reserve C-5 Galaxy as the sky faded to purple on a runway behind the DSU storage facilities at Naval Air Station North Island to fly the 30-person crew, 50-foot long mini-submarine on its semi-truck and all the support gear from San Diego to the lush Turkish coast across the Mediterranean from Greece. From there, we would get underway for two-weeks of submarine rescue exercises with the Dallas and its crew along with an Italian diesel-electric submarine named Prini as well as a number of surface support ships from the Turkish Navy.
The day started at 0500 with a simulated distress call from a stranded submarine. In a real emergency, this meant a 48-hour clock had started ticking as a sub could only store a small amount of oxygen without producing more as part of its normal underway operations. The DSRV and its crew had a mandate to be anywhere in the world within 24 hours where submariners could be rescued and bring them to the surface. I showed up before the call went out to start documenting with video and stills. I had an aircrew bag and backpack stuffed with civilian duds and uniforms enough for a three-week journey in addition to my camera bags and batteries and tapes.
People started showing up within the hour and the facility came alive in a flurry of coordinated efforts to prepare the unique vehicle for transport and to plan the air, land and sea route to the rescue port. Spare batteries and various other support gear were strapped to pallets on a permanent basis for just such a day. Forklifts darted this way and that carrying stuff to the runway near the tall fences proscribing the boundaries of the Deep Submergence facility where an enormous C-5 Galaxy would park in a few short hours to begin the DSRV loading process that lasted late into the night. I snapped the best picture of my career laying on the tarmac with the “bulb” open for a full thirty seconds at sundown as Mystic aboard its semi-truck carrier was being winched aboard at molasses speed into the gaping maw of the transport plane that would fly it to Turkey.
Open Google and search for Jason Everett Miller and C-5 Galaxy to see the shot. It’s a beauty.
Our first stop was for gas at an air base in Dover, Delaware, before continuing on to the Azores for our next load of fuel and to stretch our legs. What I didn’t know was the propensity for Air Force Reserve C-5s to breakdown at inopportune times, though the guys would joke about it as soon as we heard the news that we had to switch planes in Dover when an irreplaceable part needed replacing. The rescue scenario’s ticking clock was put on hold and we loaded aboard a bus for transport to the base’s enlisted quarters. We checked into our rooms and went on the prowl for chow while the Air Force loadmasters and DSRV crew moved the vehicle and its gear to the new plane.
We were wheels up the next day to fly five hours due east to Lajes Field in the Azores, a tiny island off the north Atlantic coast of Portugal. Another quick meal out on the town while the Portuguese Air Force turned around services on our plane and we were on our way to our final destination at Turkey’s Dalaman Airport, three hours by car from the port outside of Marmaris but twice that with a 50-foot submarine on back of a semi-truck traversing the mountainous coastal terrain in the dark of night.
I shot a bunch of pictures and video of the off-loading operations and convoy heading out into the night before joining everyone not involved with moving the DSRV in a couple of large vans that would drive us to the five-star resort that was our final destination. The world was a gigantic black hole outside the windows of the van, so most of us were quickly lulled to sleep with the twisting and turning of the narrow road through sleeping villages and extensive farmlands. We eventually hooked up with a highway and picked up speed for a while before moving back to a winding two-lane road to get to Marmaris.
By the time the DRSV was pulling into the port at Aksaz Naval Base and parking near the pier where USS Dallas was tied up in anticipation of its arrival, we had checked into our rooms and snagged a quick nap. A handful of us stumbled out to the curb around noon to catch a van out to the base, a good forty-five minutes away via a narrow, winding road along a steep coastline, apparently the only kind of roads that exist in that part of Turkey. It made for beautiful vistas as each hill climbed led to even more amazing view on the other side.
I lost track of the number of times we made the trek out to the boat while the SEALs’ Advanced Delivery Vehicle was removed from the Dallas escape hatch to make room for the DSRV and the torpedo room was emptied to house its crew under the racks and support gear scattered throughout the boat. In a real submarine emergency, the speed at which all these operations took place would have been amped up to a significant degree, but the watchword was slow and steady when it came to training exercises.
I forget what broke, but something didn’t pass muster when we got stuck on the surface on our way out of port while testing the DRSV systems in advance of the exercises to come since it would look really bad to break down during the Sorbet Royal event taking place with NATO forces. We suffered temperatures well over one hundred while we bobbed on the surface waiting to be recovered. The start of the exercise was postponed to fix the problem in a makeshift dry-dock next to the pier, but a few days later we got underway for two weeks of submarine rescue awesomeness in the Mediterranean.
I packed my stuff and boarded the van for one last trip out to the boat via the winding route I had learned so intimately. A fast attack submarine has zero extra space for the influx of people and gear that accompanies a submarine rescue operation, so the torpedoes that allowed Dallas to remain locked and loaded at sea were moved to make room for the DSRV and DSU crew who took over the empty space that remained.
Huge metal racks previously held long green torpedoes in two rows, top and bottom, to provide the boat’s primary attack method. On the top rack, gear and other miscellaneous items were stored, but underneath was an empty space maybe two and half feet high by 16 feet deep, stretching the length of the long compartment. Six-inch thick mattresses were placed side by side to provide sleeping accommodations for what must have been twenty guys. I stored my camera gear at the foot of my bed with my toiletries and extra uniforms, while my backpack and aircrew bag were shoved into an odd corner of the berthing with everyone else’s stuff.
Time aboard a submarine comes in oddly timed intervals throughout the day. The Deep Submergence Unit had a very specific mission with very specific parameters that played counterpoint to the 18-hour schedule the Dallas crew followed with six-hour watches followed by twelve hours divided in sleeping, eating, qualifications, and free time. Days for the visitors aboard Dallas were measured by meals with occasional bursts of activity that required documentation. The remaining hours were spent reading one of the many fiction novels of all genres that get passed around a ship at sea or napping underneath a space previously housing bad-ass weaponry purchased by a never-ending supply of American tax dollars.
Not a bad gig, all things considered, but I was happy when my time at sea was cut short by unforeseen events since ten days on a submarine underway was an eternity.
My last day on Dallas started the same as the previous ten when I woke up for breakfast. The one redeeming feature of life on a submarine was really good food compared to the rest of the fleet. Perhaps it’s cooking for fewer people, but the food on subs was heads and shoulders better than any chow I had eaten onboard numerous other Navy ships. That morning was no different and I would be happy for a stomach full of fried potatoes, French toast and bacon when I started downing Peroni lagers aboard an Italian submarine named Prini later that afternoon.
Launching a DSRV is a lot like watching paint dry without all the excitement, so I shot some pictures and video and settled in for the long wait in the rear of three titanium cylinders with the other passengers. The crew got us ready to launch by checking and double-checking and then rechecking the systems for propulsion and ballast and life support before filling the “skirt” that kept us attached to Dallas with positive pressure in addition to the DSVR’s steel cradle clamping down on its sides. The anchoring devices were cut loose and we flew away from the larger fast attack submarine using rudders and rotor to move into the warm waters of the Mediterranean around us.
Without the life support system pumping fresh air into the cylinders, surface temps rise to intolerable levels. At depths of as little as five hundred feet, the same systems kept us from freezing. As when my dad and I participated in a DSRV trip a couple years earlier, the first thing the crew did was test the “Angles and Dangles” the nimble vehicle was capable of attaining to attach to a submarine in distress and at a potentially odd position on the ocean floor with the crew’s countdown to death already started. Mystic was able to achieve up to forty-five degrees of both pitch and roll to mate with the emergency hatch and offload submariners. As they emptied and filled ballast and spun the rotors this way and that, we clung to the pole running around the interior circumference of the sphere we were in to keep from falling out of our seats.
It was kind of fun, actually, like an amusement park ride. All systems came back green and we made our way to twelve hundred feet to begin rescue operations with Prini, an Italian diesel-electric submarine that was significantly smaller than the larger American vessel floating nearby acting as the mother submarine. Dallas provided on-going life support and medical assistance to the downed submariners in the case of an actual emergency as they were transported thirty at a time from their watery tomb to safety via the DSRV.
We found Prini using a sonar array in the nose and high-definition camera underneath the DSRV to guide us in. Our pilot was picture perfect on first approach and achieved a “soft seal” with the high-tech skirt hanging underneath the mini-sub that provided entrance to the center sphere. The next step was to pump out the seawater trapped between the two hulls to create the tighter “hard seal” that turned them into a single vessel capable of withstanding the pressure. We signaled to the sailors on the other side of the hatch to open it up by tapping on the steel with a wrench. Maybe ten minutes after that, we were staring down at the smiling face of an Italian sailor wearing small round glasses much like my own and standing at the top of the hatch ladder. He beckoned us forward in Italian and disappeared below.
The passengers disembarked, including a couple of Turkish officers from nearby NATO commands, the DSU commanding officer and a few Dallas guys. Waiting at the bottom of the steps were officers and enlisted guys speaking in rapid-fire Italian, while one guy translated in halting English and gestured for us to follow him along the narrow passageway. Behind us, another “translator” helped guide Italian VIPs up the steep ladder to the DSRV perched overhead and ready to give rides back to Dallas for a similar visit without the benefit of an American sailor who spoke Italian. I snapped what pictures and video were possible in the dim-light provided by red bulbs in wire cages at regular intervals, but it was mostly a futile effort so I became a tourist instead.
We emerged into a large compartment at the center of the submarine containing the enlisted crew mess and kitchen. It was already packed with gregarious sailors drinking Peroni and passing out cold cans to the newcomers. One guy in the corner had an acoustic guitar and was ripping it up while singing in a clear, pleasant tenor. Though we couldn’t understand any of the words, I can still hear the lyrics in my mind’s ear as going something like, “La, da, da, da, da, da, da. La, da, da, da, da…” with a jaunty tune playing on the guitar underneath. Every now and then his compatriots would jump in to complete a verse as a chorus.
We sat there for a couple hours drinking beers and trading uniform insignia while VIPs ferried between the two submarines aboard Mystic to get a firsthand taste of the submarine rescue process using the DSRV system. This would be one of the last such exercises with Mystic before it was deactivated like its sister vessel Avalon in 2008 and rescuing submariners became the responsibility of the Submarine Rescue Diving Recompression System, a tethered chamber that can operate from any number of surface support ships as needed and dive to depths up to two thousand feet.
The final trip of the afternoon took the last of the stragglers, including me, back to the Dallas and the entire paint-drying process was completed in reverse. Before I knew it, I was carefully climbing down the ladder of the escape hatch, more than just a little buzzed from the skunky Italian beers we just downed aboard the Prini. Soon as my feet hit the deck, I learned that I’d be heading back to shore with the Deep Submergence Unit’s commanding officer and a couple of other sailors leaving for various reasons. Dallas prepared to surface while I hurried to pack all my stuff. The boat would be completing further maneuvers, but my bunk was needed by someone vacating another bunk to make room for a new VIP. I had documented what I needed, so heading back to shore early was mostly a vacation for me until they offloaded Mystic and started the journey home by way of Germany and Dover.
Getting off a carrier in the middle of the Indian Ocean was a snap compared to getting off a submarine in the Med.
A sleek cruiser from the Turkish Coast Guard was waiting a hundred yards off when Dallas surfaced and opened its forward hatch where everyone getting off was standing by the ladder forty feet below with their stuff. We vagabonds began climbing toward the bright blue circle of sky overhead and onto the bouncing black steel of the sub’s hull, still slick with seawater. At the rear of the vessel, Mystic was secure in its cradle after performing flawlessly over the last ten days of exercising with our NATO allies.
I was more than a little buzzed on Italian beers and cheer, so carrying my gear and bags up the steep steel ladder to the deck and then negotiating the hard orange plastic of the pilot’s ladder attached to the curving bulk of the submarine to a smaller boat bobbing alongside to transfer us to the larger cruiser was a superhuman feat much more impressive than anything I had done to date. We all did it without getting wet and were soon standing aboard the cutter for the long trip to Izmir to catch planes to our final destinations in Turkey and beyond. The port was many hours away at top cruising speed, so I settled in with a good book after shooting some video and stills for the official record.
We arrived early the next morning to find a waiting NATO van to take us to the downtown hotel we would stay while we each waited for our departures, a variety of destinations with planes leaving at different times. Mine was returning me to Marmaris by way of the Istanbul Airport in two days. In the meantime, I wandered around the gorgeous Turkish port city with golden light and yummy food to people watch and buy some knock off labels to supplement my anemic civilian wardrobe. Mostly I stayed close to the hotel and the pool, working on my bad ass tan and finishing my latest novel. My supply of reading material was dwindling fast, but I would be able to restock back in Marmaris due to the number of English-speaking tourists and a pretty decent selection in the resort gift shop.
I got back to Marmaris with a week to burn while the Dallas and Mystic crews completed the submarine rescue exercises with the Italians and the Turks. Extra days next to the pool eyeing topless European tourists and playing water polo with the DSU crewmembers left behind to hold down the fort were interspersed with trips to area sights (the mud baths were particularly disturbing) and “window” shopping in the narrow passages and alleyways of the commercial district. I was introduced to multiple Red Bull and vodkas at one of the town’s ubiquitous nightclubs, a concoction that almost put my lights out during a night of partying lasting past dawn.
The impromptu vacation was extended for an additional week when the C-5 Galaxy waiting to fly the DSRV back to San Diego “broke down” again and a part had to be procured and flown in from the United States. All told, we spent nearly six weeks on the gorgeous Mediterranean coastline of Turkey, most of it in a five-star resort on NATO’s dime with a daily per diem to make the deal even sweeter.
The trip home started one beautiful morning before dawn that was indistinguishable from the rest. We reversed course from Marmaris back to Dalaman Airport and on to Rhein-Main Air Base in Germany for an overnight pit-stop. We enjoyed another evening of unexpected liberty in nearby Frankfurt. The half-hour cab ride delivered us to a great commercial area with a ton of pub and restaurant options. It was the middle of the week, but everywhere we went was packed with people enjoying a night on the town. We concluded the festivities with a night cap in the hotel bar before heading back to our rooms for a 0500 wake-up call to head back to the air base for the flight back to San Diego by way of Dover.
By the time I unlocked the door to my truck, still parked in the DSU lot, I had been away for six weeks. Since most of that time was spent next to a pool or in a bar, Sorbet Royal 2000 continues to be the best gig I ever had in the Navy.