Morgan Counts Journal
I am a third-year student at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh (UWO) studying journalism and economics. I have been a part of a few of Grace Lim’s projects before, including Endeavors Magazine in Spring of 2012, and the second volume of War: Through Their Eyes, which was published in the Fall of 2012. Mark Maurer, the soldier I will be profiling for this project, is also a third-year student at UWO. He is majoring in criminal justice and minoring in military science, but his true career passion is in finance. Mark enlisted in the National Guard when he was 17 and a junior in high school. He served in Iraq from Jan. 2009 to Jan. 2010, and began his college career in Sept. 2010.
After a week and a half I hadn’t heard back from the original soldier I was assigned to (along with at least two other people in the class), and Grace was reaching desperation. No one is more productive than Grace Lim in desperation. When I arrived to class there were two men standing near the doorway, one of them was in uniform. The soldier in street clothes, she found him in the hallway. As for the soldier in uniform, she found him sleeping on the couch in the reading room next to our lab. The man in uniform had to dig in his pocket to get Grace a quarter, which she used to determine who got who, and just like that Mark Maurer was mine. We returned to the reading room where Grace woke him up, and I found out that he had not heard of our project before, and had not met Grace before, which is a series of life-changing events in itself. Not knowing at all what he was getting into, I had to brief Mark on our previous War projects and get some basic information from him.
When I sat down with him and started asking the basic questions, reality sunk in. The reality was that I was meeting Mark three weeks into a 14-week semester by the end of which I had to produce a full profile and multiple podcasts of his story, and I knew nothing about him. Mark had to get to class though, so in 10 minutes our initial interview was over. So much for a relaxing nap!
After taking some time to reflect on our impromptu meeting, I recorded a few things that really stood out to me about Mark. I didn’t know a lot about him yet, but I did learn that he served in the military quite some time before he was actually deployed. He traveled to a few different camps, and even did some training in Japan. The most striking thing he told me was that after a while, he volunteered to deploy to Iraq in 2009.
I could not wait to dig deeper into Mark’s story - our first interview is was set up for the next day, and I had already written down two pages of questions!
Less than 24 hours after Mark woke up to find Grace hovering over him, he met me in the basement of Polk Library for our first interview and photoshoot - talk about jumping in head first! I could tell Mark was a bit apprehensive because he still did not know what he had gotten himself into (I made the mistake of telling him yesterday that Grace ordered John Ackerman, the soldier I worked with for the previous War project, to take his shirt off during the photoshoot to capture his patriotic tattoos). Thankfully, Shawn McAfee did a wonderful job of making Mark feel as comfortable as possible in front of the camera!
Mark and I had about an hour for our first studio interview, and we barely skimmed the surface of his incredible story. He told me that he always knew he would go into the Army; he wanted to be either a soldier or a pirate when he was little (he still holds on to that pirate dream a bit). He always wanted to experiment with explosives, or watch things blow up, which makes sense now, he says, with the fact that he went into artillery (he served as a Fire Support Specialist). He told me about how he grew up with his grandmother for eight years before moving back in with his parents, who were working hard to make a good life possible for their son. His grandmother is nearing the century mark now, but is strong as ever he says, and continues to take care of his two disabled uncles. I wonder if it is people like his grandmother who help mold these soldiers into the brave, selfless people that they are. Mark will be back with me in the studio shortly, and we will be digging deeper into his time spent in Iraq.
Although Mark trained as a Fire Support Specialist, most of his time in Iraq was spent as Military Police (MP). He worked as a guard on a TIF (Theater Internment Facility) on FOB (Forward Operating Base) Cropper, a TIF (known as Camp Cropper) that held some of the worst enemy prisoners of war, including Saddam Hussein up until his execution in 2006. In 2007, the population of Camp Cropper was reported as 3,300 - about ¼ the size of UW Oshkosh. Mark said his 12-15 hour shifts on the TIF tested every bit of his mental strength.
My second interview with Mark had to be postponed, so I spent part of my free hour listening to Grace play Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.”
The interview process with Mark has definitely been a learning process for me! Sometimes I have him spell things out for me, more than twice. For example, when he told me what the unit he deployed with was called - Bravo Battery 1-120 Field Artillery (said bravo battery first to the 120th field artillery) - he said it so quickly I think I stared at him for 10 seconds as if he had spoken a new language. My background in military lingo, or really military-anything, is limited. I have no family members involved in the military, and no close friends who have served. I learned a little bit of the technical side of things writing John Ackerman’s story, but since I didn’t interview him before writing his story, I didn’t get to enjoy the same learning experience I am on now. Camp Cropper, the prison Mark and his unit guarded, was Baghdad’s central booking compound for detainees. Although Mark spent most of his time on base, he did venture into Baghdad a few times. Baghdad, the capital and largest city of Iraq, has a population of roughly 7,145,470 people and an area of 2,830 square miles. Compare this to Wisconsin, which has a population of roughly 5,726,398 people and an area of 54,158 square miles. That means in Baghdad, there are about 2,525 people in every square mile, whereas there are only about 106 people for every square mile in Wisconsin.
March 19, 2013 marked the 10th anniversary of the start of the U.S. war in Iraq. It is incredible to think that veterans like the student vets in this project are still fighting a war when some of them were barely even teens yet. Two veterans who were there when it all began recently wrote moving blogs for the New York Times about how the war still affects them today. Jason Davis, who wrote “Still Bleeding, 10 Years Later,” served in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division for five years. Davis described those first days in a way that would send chills down the spine of anyone who read it. The reality of what these men and women were forced to deal with while those of us who weren’t there watched from our living rooms is unthinkable.
Brandon Friedman, who wrote “The End of War Stories,” served as an infantry officer, also with the 101st Airborne Division. He said he enjoyed dramatically telling his stories of war when he came back, and he remembered every detail (He wrote a book called “The War I Always Wanted”). He said, “I had to put the memories somewhere. So many were toxic, and I needed to purge.” He wrote every night and said, “I never slept at night - at least not for the first five years after I left.” That line stopped me right in my tracks. Five YEARS of never sleeping at night? He said many veterans open up with time, but he was the opposite. He shut down with time, and now tells the stories as if they were memorized lines from a script - someone else’s story. Friedman’s post made me wonder about what this process is like for Mark and the other veterans we are interviewing. How many of their stories are recited like scripts? I don’t think someone can ever understand what the “story-telling” process is like for them without actually being there first.
“The president said God was on our side, but I was thankful for the many 2,000-pound bombs carried by the United States Air Force,” Davis wrote. “My muscles were exhausted, and I would soon find out that in war, there were no days off.”
A Black Hawk helicopter, like those featured in Zero Dark Thirty, flying over Baghdad; Courtesy of Mark Maurer
This past weekend my friend and I watched the newly released film Zero Dark Thirty, which focuses on the black ops mission to capture/kill Osama bin Laden. While watching the movie, I realized how much I have learned from getting to know Mark’s story. This process has allowed me to get a glimpse in Mark’s shoes, and now I when I hear stories about the war or war veterans, watch surprise homecoming videos that have gone viral or watch movies like Zero Dark Thirty, I see them from a whole new perspective. They have become more meaningful and personal. I appreciate what these men and women in the military do so much more now than I ever have before.
I finished my final draft (after going over about five drafts with Grace) just days ago and met with Mark to fact-check. I think he’s probably sick of going over the same information over and over again, but you can never be too sure as a journalist. On the first day of class, I think Grace told us if we misspelled a proper name in the final draft we would fail the class. As scary as that sounds, I appreciate the pressure to get things right, I don’t think you can learn it any other way.
I have learned so much from this project, as a person and as a journalist. As a journalist, I am walking away with an invaluable set of skills that I don’t think I could have gotten doing anything else. I am used to working on stories and projects that take maybe a couple days to a week. You interview the subjects, write the story, and that’s it. This project took 10 weeks, and that’s really pushing it. You’re not just asking the vet a few questions and that’s it. You’re getting to know them, learning as much about them as you can. And then you have to sum it all up in 2000 words. That’s not a skill that comes overnight, or even over 10 weeks, but this project gets you pretty close.