Burlington journalists give a voice to local military heroes

Telling the untold stories of local heroes was the main objective of five journalists from the Burlington area who traveled to Afghanistan last summer. While in Afghanistan, the journalists were able to check in with the Vermont National Guard stationed there and report on their experiences. A panel of five journalists, Ryan Mercer and Sam Hemingway from the Burlington Free Press, Darren Perron and Lance MacKenzie from WCAX-News, Steve Zind from Vermont Public Radio and Louis Salome, an award-winning reporter and author, discussed their trips to Afghanistan and experiences reporting from war zones. The event was sponsored by Champlain College’s Professional Writing Program and the Vermont Council on World Affairs, and moderated by Mark Johnson from WDEV 92.1 FM. “We wanted to go to places off the beaten path, to the fringe areas and write about conditions nobody had really reported,” Mercer, a photo and video editor from the Burlington Free Press, said. Hemingway, a journalist from the Burlington Free Press, discussed how the trip gave a humanizing view to readers. “People don’t really know much about Afghanistan,” Hemingway said. “Our reporting gave Vermonters an inside view. It helped to humanize Afghanistan and make it more than just car bombs and violence.” “There is more going on there than just battles,” Hemingway said. “A huge amount of money is being used to help bring Afghanistan out of the 15th, 16th century.” Zind, a reporter from Vermont Public Radio, spent his time in Afghanistan at a small outpost with some of the Vermont National Guard. Zind said he was interested in what the Vermont Guard was doing and how that related to the bigger picture. The guard was part of training Afghani police officers, which is important for engaging the Afghani citizens. “I wanted to know exactly what was happening with the 1,500 soldiers from Vermont. I was surprised about what was actually going on. There was less combat than I expected and progress in some ways. We saw some schools being built and negotiations between local leaders,” MacKenzie, a photo editor from WCAX-TV, said. “There was progress in small ways and it varied from village to village. Also, the Vermont soldiers like seeing familiar faces and were willing to share their experiences,” Perron, an anchor from WCAX-TV, said. Hemingway said that he got to experience first hand what soldiers thought about the war. “The soldiers’ opinions about the war itself varied; they were both positive and negative,” Hemingway said. In peaceful places, the soldiers felt that progress was being made. However, in more dangerous places, they were less optimistic, reporter and author Louis Salome said. “Many of the soldiers think ‘we’re getting it right’ in the past few years. There has been a strategy change in the past two years,” Louis Salome said. Although the panel had different experiences while in Afghanistan, they were in agreement about the worthiness of the trip. “If I had to do it all over again, I would still have made the trip,” Mercer said. “I only wish we could have spent more time there.” Hemingway agreed with Mercer’s sentiments. “These are stories worth telling,” Hemingway said.