Wednesday, January 20, 2016

On publishing the early work of James Foley, the brave journalist brutally murdered by ISIS

On March 27, 2010, when I was the Executive Editor for RAW STORY - a left-leaning political website that fairly reported on both sides, during my reign - I received an email from a journalist named James Foley, who was embedded with US troops in Eastern Afghanistan.

Foley was born in New Hampshire, but he used the word "phoenix" in his email address, because - I presume - before he became a journalist, he "was a teacher through Teach for America at Lowell Elementary School in Phoenix, Arizona from 1996 to 2000" (link).

"Dear editor," Foley wrote. "I was given your email from a colleague, Jeremy Gantz at In These Times."

The email continued, "I'm currently embedded with US troops on a remote combat outpost in Kunar Province of Afghanistan. It's a uniquely interesting place featuring daily Taliban harassing fire, a mostly dysfunctional relationship with the Afghan Army and the efforts of young soldiers to reach out to village elders who don't believe in outside government. Please see my latest reporting on my blog at-"

But if you click on that link, now, you won't go straight to Foley's blog, instead you'll reach the home of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, because two years later, that brave freelance journalist was abducted in Syria, and two years after that, on August 19, 2014, he was beheaded by cowardly, hooded ISIS terrorists.

I've never been able to watch the video that was posted of Foley's murder, and I never will. Not long ago, I saw a screenshot on someone's Twitter timeline, and I wish I could unsee it. I don't hold it against anyone else who watches real life snuff videos that terrorists use to spread fear, but it's just something I can't stomach, since I had the honor of editing and publishing some of Foley's early, amazing journalism.

Although I've mentioned that Foley reported for RAW STORY on Twitter, podcasts and a few times on editor's notes for stories I've published regarding ISIS - because I'm obviously biased against them - I resisted writing a story about working with him, because I didn't want to exploit his tragic murder. But I'm writing about this now, because the death of the coward - I won't even name - who beheaded him was finally acknowledged by ISIS, plus a memoir by his mom and a documentary on Foley are on the way, and his heroic and extraordinary reporting for RAW STORY should be recognized, too.

Also, a few days ago, the Obama Administration negotiated for a Washington Post reporter imprisoned in Iran, but Foley's mother was reportedly threatened with arrest if she tried to get her son back, and the media acceded to White House requests to not even report on his two-year captivity. The United States government also reportedly only conducted one - unfortunately - failed raid to rescue James Foley, even though his family claimed they knew where he was being held for nearly a year.

I don't know if Foley was treated differently because he frequently criticized the Obama Administration, while journalists at the Washington Post often shill for the White House. But I do think that their actions are hypocritical, since that wasn't the first time Obama's White House negotiated to rescue Americans, and they should have done all they could do to bring James Foley safely home.

Foley's email continued, "The unit: Able Co. of 2-503, 173rd Airborne out of Vincenza Italy, last profiled by Sebastian Junger in '08 Vanity Fair-".

"This week: we'll be visiting a mostly hostile village to see if village leaders will come out to talk; climbing the tallest over watch position to see about setting up an observation post while avoiding gun fire; and meeting with the district sub-governor to tactfully explain why U.S. forces aren't going to approve his spending his entire allocated budget on two retaining walls and a well," Foley wrote me in March, 2010. "I'm interested in writing freelance pieces for your publication. I would send a more refined pitch if you have any interest in first hand reports from Afghanistan complemented by photos and short video."

Absurdly, James Foley apologized for not getting back to us for a few days due to "sporadic" internet reception while reporting from a war zone, but he humbly only asked for his usual "compensation" which - even more absurdly - was "usually $100 per story with photos." I asked my publisher, John Byrne, if we could at least double that, and - to his credit - he quickly agreed. "[H]ey we have to give him more than that per story or i wont be able to sleep at night lol," I emailed my former boss. And then brave James Foley - also absurdly - apologized for not finishing his story until a few weeks later. I was supposed to edit it, but I was overwhelmed running the site, writing stories, doing research for other reporters, and interviewing others, so John Byrne did it himself.

James Foley wasn't the first reporter who reported from the battlefields for RAW STORY. The conservative-leaning military blogger Bill Roggio also did some reporting from Iraq for us in 2006, after I did a story on how the Washington Post had slandered him by including him in a propaganda article, which their former Ombudsman Deborah Howell backed me up on, after I wrote her about it.

Also, in 2010, when Foley wrote us, we were trying to get another journalist embedded with US troops in Iraq, but the US military vetoed it. And, during President George W. Bush's administration, I worked with White House correspondent Eric Brewer, who did many great stories for us, including one on the Pentagon pundits scandal, after he had been "blacklisted" by former spokesperson Dana Perino for six weeks, and other journalists prodded her to allow him to ask a question. "I thought it was shameful that 10 days after David Barstow's NY Times article about how the establishment media colluded with the Pentagon to sell the war in Iraq and the 'war on terror' to the American people by hiring the Pentagon's 'message force multipliers' as military analysts, no one had asked the White House about it," Brewer wrote in April of 2008. But after President Obama took office, Brewer's credentials were mysteriously revoked, and we couldn't get him back in the White House.

Describing his first article for RAW STORY, James Foley told us on April 2nd, 2010, "I'm working on a follow up to a Special Forces raid in this valley. It's kind of like a react piece with the context of the volatile security and lack of in-roads with mountain villages."

"The New York Times reported that nine religious students were killed at a religious school in a March 15th article, and used it as one of three examples of why Special Forces command would be brought under more centralized control to reduce civilian casualties in Afghanistan," Foley added. "But here in the Badel valley, the story is not over. There are still differing opinions and deep wounds from the raid."

On May 3rd, 2010, RAW STORY proudly published "Exclusive: In Kunar province, civilian deaths from Special Forces turn some Afghans against US" written by James Foley. Here's the first three paragraphs from the first story he reported for us:
"UNAR PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN – It was two nights after Christmas on a fortified dirt hill called Combat Outpost Badel.

2nd Platoon, Able Co. 2-503rd soldiers had strung Christmas lights along the improvised roof beams of their sandbagged bunkers. They munched homemade cookies sent in care packages. Their platoon had just taken over running the outpost from the previous unit, but there was little holiday cheer.

The young soldiers were mostly sleep deprived. The privates pulled hours of guard shift. At dusk, all heads scanned the mountains outlined in the distinct green of their night vision goggles. They got shot at about every third day. In fact, Christmas marked the rookies’ first firefight. Their helmet cams recorded the staccato of automatic guns and red tracers and shouts. Afterwards, they collected and replayed the shaky video and laughed at the things they said during their first unforgettable minutes under fire.
This fantastic paragraph by Foley also stands out: "Capt. Joseph Snowden also attempted to quell the villagers’ anger at the meeting arranged by the Sub-governor. According to the interpreter, the elder selected to speak for the village said, 'Give us the source of the bad intel. We want to kill him.'"

In late May of 2010, Foley contacted us to tell us he had Visa issues, and RAW STORY publisher John Byrne helped him regain it. "The fact is my Visa is expired, and just now Afghan law is coming down on embedded media with expired Visas," Foley wrote. "So I have to jump through some hoops to get a new one in Germany. I truly don't think it had anything to do with the last article, although they look at everything."

"Anyways, a very short form letter that states I'll be writing for you all on U.S. troops in AFghanistan this summer, would actually help," Foley added. "If you could attach it in an email... thanks much!"

Foley returned to Afghanistan in June of 2010, but it took a few months for him to finish a fantastic four-part story for us about veterans suffering after they returned from fighting for their country. So we only got that one story straight from the battlefields of Afghanistan.

On September 7, 2010, we published, "Exclusive: One Iraq veteran’s harrowing journey from the battlefield to suicide (Part I)," and I assigned Sahil Kapur, who now reports for Bloomberg News, to edit the series. I did what fact-checking we could do (since it's hard for even larger media outlets to fact-check what journalists report risking their lives overseas, while we sleep securely back home in our beds), proofread, and helped with the headlines.

Foley's harrowing lead paragraph: "'He said three times that he should have just died in Iraq and I would have loved him forever, because he didn’t think we were going to get back together,' Krissy Caudill, Sgt. First Class Spencer Kohlheim’s fiancĂ©e said after his grandmother found him hanging in her garage less than a month after he returned from Iraq."

Here's another great paragraph from Foley's story, which I wish received more attention, at the time: "In Indiana, citizen soldiers run in generations of families. For several years after 9/11, the Indiana Guard outpaced states as large as Texas and California in total numbers of Guardsmen recruited. It’s a tight knit group, with only a few degrees of separation between any Hoosier deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001. But Kohlheim had been deployed more than anyone had heard of — over seven times in twelve years between his service with the Guard and regular Army."

A day later, we published "Exclusive: An Iraq veteran’s descent from PTSD to suicide."

"When we see of images of returning soldiers, more often than not, we see their homecoming," Foley wrote. "Young wives or husbands crying with joy, group hugs, children picked up and spun around, and parents rejoicing. We do not see what happens when the parties are over, when the vets have to re-invent their former lives and become husbands and fathers, mothers and wives again. Fellow soldiers said Spencer Kohlheim wanted to out-process just as fast as they did. None of them admitted to picking up on any post-trauma issues he might have been having."

Yet another great Foley paragraph filled with vivid description that leaped from the page when you read it: "The American Legion at 100 Industrial Parkway in LaGrange looks like a bingo hall from the outside. Inside there’s a square wrap-around bar with an island of liquor bottles, a big screen TV, round Formica tables. The walls are decorated with photos of local veterans wearing Korean and Vietnam-era uniforms. Everyone at the Legion knew Spencer. It was his home when he was back from deployment."

Part 3 - Exclusive: Iraq vet, rattled by IEDs, ‘carried Ziploc bags full of pills’ - was published on September 9, 2010.

Here's a few paragraphs from that story:
"Sgt. Spencer Kohlheim had been wounded on two separate attacks in Iraq. They were concussions; invisible wounds that caused migraines and led to an increasing sense of hopelessness according to his family and close friends.

'The IED is our number one injury right now,' said the manager of a transition program for returning soldiers at the Northern Indiana Veterans Affairs hospital in January of ‘09. 'IEDs can cause traumatic brain injury without [the solider] being hit by any fragments. Depression is a standard reaction to traumatic brain injury.'

The New England Medical Journal has linked depression to multiple concussions, or mild traumatic brain injury, within the three to four months after soldiers return home.

Sgt. Patrick Clouse, 27, was there when Kohlheim got out of the base hospital after the second IED attack. 'He had constant headaches,' Clouse said. 'He was taking meds all the time; those heavier Ibuprofen they give you after the IEDs. There would be very few days that he didn’t have a headache.'
The final chapter - "Cold December: Sgt. Spencer Kohlheim hangs himself in his grandmother’s garage after harrowing battles in Iraq and Afghanistan" - was published on September 10, 2010.

"It was a cold December night, and the last of Sgt. Spencer Kohlheim’s life," Foley wrote. "He was at the Detroit Street Bar with his brother, when he called his ex-girlfriend Krissy to come to meet him. He was clearly intoxicated, she said, and he talked non-stop about getting back together."

"'He was loved by a lot of people,' Beth said, 'and he helped a lot of people, but just couldn’t seem to help himself."
This was the last email Foley personally sent to me, on September 8, 2010.

"Ron, thanks for publishing the vet story in the serial as we discussed," Foley wrote. "Sahil was excellent as an editor and offered very constructive suggestions."

Always so humble, Foley added, "I was thinking as a serial, the compensation would be $200 per. Does that sound fair? Let me know, I should be away from email for a few days. Going up to an outpost overlooking the Korengal."

I left RAWSTORY a little bit over two months later, so I don't know why he didn't do any more stories for them. We followed each other on Twitter, and I sent him a tweet on Christmas eve in 2010, but I wish I noticed that he had suddenly stopped tweeting on November 22nd, 2012, after he was captured by terrorists that very same day. But I feel privileged that I had a very small part in a very gifted journalist's short career. And I hope that people are inspired by this story to contribute to his foundation to honor his fantastic journalism.

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