Ever since my story about an Army Special Operations unit summiting Mount Adams last month was published, friends and readers ask, “Did you really do that with them?”
That’s when I stand a little straighter, smile, and say, “Yeah, I kept up with the guys.”
The guys are an elite team from Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The summit stands at 12,276 feet. The hike called for about 7,000 feet of elevation gain over two days with temperatures dropping into the low 20s. I had reason to be proud.
What I don’t tell my skeptical friends is that I spent the following two days in a dark Oregon hotel trying to regain the sight I lost on the summit.
I neglected to bring sunglasses and two clear days on the snowy mountain scorched my eyes. I knew better, but I just forgot.
This, tragically, is not unusual for me. I make my living as The News Tribune’s military reporter following capable people to dangerous places, yet I am so clumsy I suffered a gaping flesh wound in wartime Baghdad while practicing yoga.
We’ll come back to that.
The trouble started in June 2004 when I nearly wrecked not one but two Sheriff’s Department ATVs on an overnight pot bust in the woods of rural Merced County, California. I sunk one in a manure-soaked cow pasture and then immobilized the other when I tried to take on a boulder.
I fared no better without machines that day. The deputies put me on a docile horse and I cracked my head on a low oak branch that appeared out of nowhere.
I’d spend the next few years having all the fun a young newspaperman can chasing after a tax-dodging mayor, a delusional developer and dirt in city hall for The Modesto Bee. I was at no risk for trauma except from exposure to the artistic personal sex photos that said developer handed me along with his business proposals.
Things changed when McClatchy, owner of The Bee and The News Tribune, sent me to Baghdad in late 2008 to fill in for a couple months while our Iraq bureau chief took a break.
The company prepared me by sending me to a weeklong class in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley where former British Royal Marines taught us the basics of surviving in a war zone: Use common sense, don’t make obvious patterns in your routines and bring bandages.
Surprisingly I emerged from my first wartime stint unscathed. My team tracked down human rights abuses, talked politics with Iraqi lawmakers and got me in the room when a disgruntled journalist hurled his shoes at President Bush. I was in the right place at the right time doing work I loved.
So I was all gung-ho when McClatchy sent me back that summer for a second two-month assignment. It had little of the serendipity that characterized my first Iraq trip.
I came down with a case of Saddam’s revenge after drinking “bottled water” during a meeting with an anti-Iranian Kurdish militia operating in mostly ungoverned territory between Iraq and Iran. I settled my digestive tract on the morning of my flight from Kurdish-controlled Irbil to Baghdad with the just-in-case Cipro I packed.
Baghdad seemed to be in worse shape than I remembered, with a pair of bombings that killed more than 150 people in state buildings. My partner, Mohammed al Duluaimy, and I kept going back to the scene of one of the attacks to see the chasm in the ground and talk with civilians who lost loved ones to the bombings.
I took a well-deserved break one day by returning to my room for an hour of yoga. It was the only exercise I could manage living in a hotel outside the Green Zone. I flipped over to try to stand on my head, getting closer to balancing unsupported on my hands than I ever had before.
I tried again, convinced my moment of Zen was a few deep breaths away. But I toppled over, crashing through my shatterproof window.
I soon noticed thick crimson blood gushing out of my knee.
Good thing I listened to those ex-Royal Marines and packed bandages. Many bandages.
I tightly wrapped my leg and returned to my newsroom where McClatchy’s Iraqi staff kindly held back their laughter. A sandstorm was on its way, and we had to act fast to tape up my window with clear plastic or I’d be sleeping in the hall that night.
The LA Times office upstairs had an Iraqi reporter who also was a doctor. I was too embarrassed to ask him for stitches. I waited out the bleeding with my bandages.
Windows of the hotel had been blown up twice during the war when insurgents targeted our building. They had shattered in heated arguments among passionate journalists. I smashed mine in an attempt at inner peace.
Both of my embed disasters weighed on me when my editor, Matt Misterek, gave me the green light to tag along with soldiers from the 4th Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment on their Mount Adams trek.
How would I hurt myself this time? Would I fall off the mountain? Freeze while snow camping? Get dehydrated and dizzy? Get left behind while much fitter men ascended to the peak?
The answer was none of the above. I did just fine on the mountain.
The pain came on my drive home when every passing car gave me a headache. I could hardly keep my eyes open by the time I checked into a Hood River, Ore. hotel with a bag of fast food for dinner.
By 2 a.m., I could not see myself in the bathroom mirror. I couldn’t sleep because my eyelids felt like they had tiny razors in them.
In the morning, I got a call from a friend who wanted to talk about a great military reporting project he read in the Colorado Springs newspaper that weekend.
I told him I hadn’t seen it because I spent a couple days climbing a mountain with soldiers. I finally admitted I was suffering from snowblindness because of my own thoughtlessness.
“No, no, no, no, no,” he said. At that moment, I would not be able to see my hand in front of me but in my mind I could clearly see my friend shaking his head.
I found my way to an emergency room a few hours later. Doctors gave me some antibiotics and orders to shut myself in a hotel again. My boss and my wife checked in and offered to pick me up, but I passed. The last thing I wanted was for anyone to see me suffering from giant swollen eyes and the vision of a mole two days after one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.
It’s what I do. Injuring myself in an unlikely and preventable way in the pursuit of news. Next time I’ll grab a pair of shades and leave the yoga mat at home.