Army Major Scot Keith had one of the toughest assignments in Afghanistan during his 2009-2010 tour at Bagram: getting reporters around the country to see the progress that was being made. “They wanted…to see the kinetic fight and, of course, we were interested in guiding them some more on the governance and development-type things,” he recalls. “So, it was usually give and take and we tried to get them to where they wanted to go, or they wouldn’t want to come, and along the way we would make sure they saw more than just the kinetic fight.”
Keith talked about the challenges associated with the assignment during a November interview with the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Excerpts:
My job was officer in charge (OIC) of the Media Operations Center for regional commandees, and we were responsible for coordinating for all the media embeds that occurred in Regional Command East (RC-East) as well as kind of the reception and onward integration of the reporters as they came into RC-East, and we made sure they got pushed out and then received them back, and then sent back home…
I was surprised at the conditions. When we were in Iraq, Balad was very established. We lived in hard-stand buildings with climate control and all that. We lived well in Balad. I was surprised to arrive in Afghanistan, which was obviously a more mature theater, and to be living in the same plywood buildings that had been there for the entire time.
It just seemed more disconnected. Balad seemed like one large logistics support Afghanistan, where even though Bagram was kind of the hub for RC-East…it seemed like it was broken up into little disparate parts as opposed to one combined effort.
[How many reporters did you have in country at any one time?]
Probably no more than 25 or 30 at one time, and over the course of the year we saw around 300.
[How long would they usually stay?]
Really it would vary anywhere from just a couple of weeks, which is probably about the minimum just to get them from the time they arrive to us, including all the transit time between units and to give them an opportunity to see what they were intending to see, so it would take a couple of weeks. We had one who was embedded with the brigade for the entire length of their deployment…
It was a “give and take” process where they would have a specific story idea in mind and would want to see things. Most of them wanted to go to the Korangal Valley because that was the most kinetic area in RC-East at the time.
They wanted to be there to see the kinetic fight and of course we were interested in guiding them some more on the governance and development-type things. So, it was usually give and take and we tried to get them to where they wanted to go, or they wouldn’t want to come, and along the way we would make sure they saw more than just the kinetic fight. We exposed them to the provincial reconstruction teams and stuff like that…
It was a good experience. We ran the gamut from bloggers all the way to those nationally recognized. I think the Nightly News came and did a live broadcast from Bagram, so across the whole spectrum, they all did well. It was all about managing their expectations.
Yes. There was one, Cami McCormick. She was injured in an improvised explosive device attack and she actually came out for the media panel for our class. She ended up losing part of her leg…That was something the Army took care of because she was with us in a convoy at the time. I actually was on R&R leave when it happened, but she was flown back to the treatment facility at Bagram and then evacuated to Landstuhl. She eventually went back to Walter Reed and received care there.
[What was the most difficult challenge you had to overcome?]
It was managing the expectations of so many different personalities.
I would imagine that going to a different part of the world than where you are from, with very specific guidance from your employer, and then not having any control over how you are going to get to where you want to go, what you get to do, when you are going to get there, or how you are going to have access to transmit the information back to wherever it needs to go.
If you cannot control any of that, I would imagine it is very frustrating. You never knew what you were going to get in terms of how frustrated some of them would be, and so learning to work with all the different individuals was the most challenging part…
This last deployment was interesting. It was a little surreal to get to see people that you would see on television, recognizable people and interact with them. You feel, “I can’t believe I’m in Afghanistan talking to Barbara Starr,” or “I’m showing her around the base,” or whatever. That was a different experience…
They probably don’t understand the challenges that we face moving them around, etc. It is a foreign idea for them to think, “Why can’t I go to this particular place? I’ve read about this place and I want to go here specifically.”
They do not always consider the impact that would have and the difficulties it might cause. 60 Minutes wanted to do a story about unmanned aerial vehicles. So the load-in was in Las Vegas with the pilots of the UAV’s, and they had sent a cameraman out to us.
They wanted him to be on a patrol where back in the States they were flying the UAV, and he was there filming the UAV flying from the U.S.
He got weathered in with us for a couple of weeks.
It was a very frustrating experience for him, because he came there to do one specific thing, and every couple of days we would try to fly him and flights would get cancelled, or they would go out and have to turn around because the weather was bad.
He did not get to where he wanted to go until the last possible day that he could. It ended up working out, but it was those kinds of frustrations that were hard to deal with.