March 7, 2003 – Source readers can now read reports from the front lines in Kuwait from a most unusual source — a 35-year-old former Source reporter, Darrin Mortenson, who returned from the Virgin Islands last year to his native California, only to find himself now in the Middle East.
Perhaps he knew he'd get there all along. Mortenson displayed a taste for adventure in his somewhat brief journalistic career in the territory, where he won several journalism awards for a series in the V.I. Daily News on U.S. military-civilian clashes on Vieques over the Navy bombing exercises there.
Mortenson, who is fluent in Spanish, was welcomed by militant Vieques groups while he at the same time was able to maintain a good relationship with the military. He was zealous in his reporting. One particularly bristling account had him ensconced in a Puerto Rican fishing boat being shot at by the U.S. Navy — a claim the Navy denied.
Back home in California, Mortenson went to work last July for the North County Times, a suburban San Diego daily newspaper, mainly reporting on education.
Just north of San Diego is Camp Pendleton, a U.S. Marines military base that is a primary training center for troops destined to fight in the Mideast if the United States declares war on Iraq. The Washington Post reported in late December that the base's 1st Marine Expeditionary Force "will likely be well-represented among the thousands of U.S. troops President Bush has said he will send to the Persian Gulf early next year."
The Post noted that the base's arid terrain, including a high-tech "urbanized terrain course," makes for "an ideal training ground for desert warfare." And, it said, "An undisclosed number of Marines from Camp Pendleton are already stationed in Kuwait under the U.S. Central Command, which has jurisdiction over northeast Africa and the Middle East."
That makes whatever happens in the Mideast involving U.S. troops a local story for the San Diego County newspaper. As the Doonesbury comic strip has been chronicling, hundreds of U.S. news media representatives are being put through boot camps sponsored by the Defense Department in preparation for their being "embedded" with specific military units if war breaks out. With their assigned unit, they will travel, eat, sleep and duck when shots are fired.
Mortensen and North County Times staff photographer Hayne Palmour were offered the opportunity to deploy with a unit from the crack 1st Marine Expeditionary Force — and given two weeks to get ready to go.
To be there, to write about it
In an introductory article to their coming dispatches, the newspaper described Mortenson's reaction to the assignment. "This is one of the reasons I got into journalism. I wanted to be there. The things that we would read about, I get to write about."
Many in the media see the United States' potential war with Iraq as the most dangerous that reporters have ever covered because of the belief that Saddam Hussein has, and plans to use, weapons of mass destruction. Marines and reporters alike are receiving training in dealing with chemical, biological and radiological attack.
Mortensen was philosophical about fear: "I think about it. But I also think about living right next to a nuclear power plant in a stage orange terror alert — and flying, just getting there."
He and Palmour left San Diego on Feb. 14, laden with a couple of duffle bags, laptop computers, photo equipment and satellite telephones to transmit their stories and pictures. Their assignment: "a yearlong journey to tell the stories of the Camp Pendleton Marines who will fight if the United States declares war against Saddam Hussein … to take North County Times readers where soldiers go, into war."
After the initial jitters, they haven't had time to be fearful.
The Source recently received this e-mail from Delbert Mortenson: "Hello. I'm Darrin's dad. As you may or may not be aware, he is in Kuwait … He has requested that I send you his articles from the last week and put you on my mailing list for his article links."
The articles, which the senior Mortensen is e-mailing from the online edition of the North County Times, are fast becoming current history. They are reaching not only Mortenson's friends, but relatives of the Marines from "Camp Coyote" in Kuwait with whom he is stationed, and the much larger world.
He and Palmour came across something one day that had a barnyard as well as a military smell about it — a "fleet" of 35 white chickens, in cages, sent to serve in the field with the marines. Their mission: to alert the soldiers to the presence of an invisible, odorless but potentially lethal enemy — poison gas. (See "Chickens arrive to help the Marines".)
The chickens photograph and story were picked up by The Wall Street Journal and made the front page of The Australian, Sydney's leading daily. Palmour's photo appeared on CNN and in some European papers.
For a mother, almost like being there
Their coverage has touched hearts at home, too. The newspaper received this e-mailed message one day: "I am the mother of a US Marine in Kilo Co, 3/5 , stationed at Camp Coyote, Kuwait. No matter how long you live, you will never know the joy I felt when I signed on to Wednesday's NCT online page and saw my son's picture! I haven't heard from him since his deployment, so it lifted me so high to see that he was all right — and clean — finally!"
The letter continued, in part: "Darrin Mortenson is doing a terrific job bringing Camp Coyote to those of us back home. His writing is so descriptive and clear that I can feel the sand in my face, hear the constant noise, and, yes, I can even imagine the ripe odors of unbathed Marines!
"I know we're about to move forward into grave danger, but I hope Darrin will be keeping us 'in the loop' as long as he is able. It's very difficult for the families and friends of these 'forward line' Marines to live a 'normal' life during these times of extreme crisis. However, Darrin's articles have brought us closer to our loved ones because we can now picture their daily comings and goings and envision their environment."
The stories bring home from a young Marine's point of view what it's like to be in a foreign land, covered in sand, hope and little else. The reporting is going beyond the Marines, as Mortenson and Hayne get to know some of the Kuwaitis. One young woman in particular has become a kind of anonymous mentor for them in the local culture.
Some days Mortenson and Hayne are in the 13th floor of their Kuwait hotel having "all the smoked salmon we can eat" for breakfast, only to be in a foxhole eating MRE rations the next day.
In addition to reporting on daily life among the troops, they have covered current tensions from Kuwaiti perspectives ("Kuwait readies for war") and taken readers on a tour of the "demilitarized zone" established in 1991 and manned by U.S. forces and observers that runs the length of the Kuwait-Iraq border from Saudi Arabia to the Persian Gulf ("120-mile barrier keeps Iraq, Kuwait at arm's length").
Friday's account was about Navy Cmdr. David Gillis, the senior surgeon of the U.S. Marines 1st Service Support Group and possibly the "oldest person on the battlefield." He was celebrating his 65th birthday.
Gillis told Mortenson that the hardest part of being there "was that this week I missed my grandson's first birthday." He said it was doubly painful because he also had missed the first birthday of his daughter, the mother of tha
t grandson, when he was deployed to Vietnam.
"I'll make up for it when I get back," he said.
To follow Mortenson's ongoing stories, which appear most, but not all, days, make regular visits to the online North County Times. To access earlier stories, type his name into the keyword search box.
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