“So you just take pictures, right?”
I’m often asked this question by fellow paratroopers who are unfamiliar with my career field. In their defense, this is the only aspect of my job that most people see on a regular basis. As thousands of paratroopers with bayonets affixed to their rifles stand at attention on the parade field for hours in the summer heat, I roam freely along the sidelines snapping photos and jotting notes. My duty is to capture the event, while theirs is to stand rigidly straight to represent their unit with pride – and be sure not to lock their knees.
As a public affairs print journalist for the 82nd Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade “Falcons,” being exempt from standing among the ranks during ceremonies is a perk, but only accounts for a fraction of the job description.
In all honesty, even I wasn’t aware of some of the aspects of the job until attending advanced individual training at the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, M.D., in early 2009. One of my instructors, a bear of a man with a baritone voice, showed the class a video from one of his deployments. He and a group of soldiers were sitting in an armored vehicle, laughing and joking, when there was a loud explosion and the video scrambled – their vehicle had struck a roadside bomb. The passengers were unscathed, but when the camera refocused his eyes were the size of dinner plates.
The video received a round of laughter from the class simply due to the absurdity of the situation; this big guy looking so startled. But it also drove home the fact that we weren’t going to be skipping around taking ‘happy snaps’ all day. We would go to combat, and in order to tell our unit’s story and preserve our history we would have to be out there where the action is.
After graduating from DINFOS, I completed Airborne School and reported to Fort Bragg, N.C. Shortly after my arrival, I was given several opportunities to travel to cover brigade events. I took photos from horseback in Little Big Horn, Mont., and interviewed members of Queen Elizabeth’s Royal Guard in Holland.
My globetrotting was short-lived, however. The operational tempo at Bragg ramped up that summer as the 2/82 assumed the mission of the Army component of the nation’s Global Response Force. We conducted Joint Operational Access Exercises every two months to keep our skills sharp and continue earning every dollar of our jump pay. The night skies filled with the black shapes of Paratroopers floating to the ground, deathly silent except for the occasional whoop of exhilaration.
I jumped into the darkness with these Little Groups of Paratroopers, cameras safely bubble wrapped and stowed away in the center of my rucksack. After hitting the ground with a thud, I’d quickly attach night vision goggles to my helmet, put my weapon into operation, pack up my chute, and retrieve a camera and night vision lens from my bag.
Being the new female photojournalist in a brigade combat team made it difficult to earn the trust of battle-hardened paratroopers, especially when the first time we meet is on the drop zone at night with a three-day mission ahead of us. My camera is often referred to as my primary weapon, and I quickly became accustomed to answering to variations of “camera girl” (although I earned the title “camera sergeant” after my most recent promotion). I endured some razzing as the outsider, but after a few days in the woods and a lot of walking, I usually earned kudos for keeping up and holding my own.
My work really starts after the mission is complete. As everyone else returns their rifles to the arms room and prepares to go home, I head back to the office to upload and edit photos and begin writing my story to send out for publication in a timely manner. It’s my job to tell the Brigade’s story; to ensure the public knows what we do and to gain and maintain their support.
When the GRF was alerted in January 2010, the Falcons got their chance to do what the 82nd does best and executed a no-notice deployment to Haiti. But instead of jumping into a combat zone, the paratroopers were sent to provide humanitarian aid to the people of Port-au-Prince who survived the devastating earthquake that shook the island nation.
Boots were on the ground within three days of the quake, but there were little to no facilities available to sustain such an influx of personnel. For weeks we slept on cots with no protection from the elements or the wildlife, taking showers from a hose behind a crumbling building. We made the best of our situation by playing spades in our spare time and going on recon missions for mangoes.
Within a few days, facilities were up and running and the troopers got to work. I spent time with each of the Brigade’s six battalions, covering missions in their respective areas of operation.
Veterans with multiple combat tours under their belts handed out rice and water to women and children. They worked with non-governmental organizations and soldiers from around the world to help the Haitian people rebuild and get back on their feet. In addition to covering food distribution and rubble removal missions, I saw paratroopers pitch tents for homeless orphans then spend hours playing with the displaced children. Maybe they won’t admit it, but they seemed to enjoy the interaction just as much as the kids.
I posted stories and photos to online marketing sites and continually emailed newspapers and websites to run my products to reach a larger audience. Using social media was a relatively new concept for the Army at the time, but the Brigade’s Facebook page became an invaluable source of information for the families and friends of our Troopers. Our fan base skyrocketed as the audience’s appetite for photos and status updates increased. I was assigned the additional duty of social media coordinator and lording over the site was now my responsibility. Regularly I responded to posts about mail and care packages, but mostly fans of the page wanted to see photos of their troopers, to know what they were doing and voice their support.
I feel for the people of Haiti who lost their homes and loved ones, but it was an amazing opportunity to cover something real. I was able to tell the world of the good these paratroopers were doing and prove that they were ready for any mission.
Although the paratroopers provided vital services for the Haitian people, the unit’s primary mission was combat. The unit hadn’t been deployed since 2008, and there was a fresh new crop of paratroopers who had yet to see a battlefield. They felt that their skills could be better utilized in the Middle East.
Now, the 2/82 is deployed to Iraq for the tail end of Operation New Dawn. In support of U.S. Forces’ advise, train and assist mission, the last seven months have consisted mainly of training Iraqi Security Forces and ensuring the Government of Iraq and ISF are able to provide security for the people here as U.S. military forces withdraw through the end of the year.
The soldiers here have earned combat patches for their right shoulders and convoy across the desert in armored vehicles, but the mission is different than most expected. Nevertheless, our paratroopers understand the historic significance of the 2nd Brigade closing out U.S. military operations in Iraq. Falcon paratroopers have contributed greatly to U.S. forces’ missions here from the beginning; they were the first troopers from the 82nd to deploy during the initial invasion, they supported the first Iraqi national elections, and were the first to respond during the Surge. It is only fitting that this experienced unit would see it through to the end.
Being here covering the drawdown of American troops and the transfer of responsibility to the Iraqi government and security forces, I feel like I’m not only witnessing history but contributing to it as well. I’ll be there as the last Falcon Brigade paratrooper crosses the border into Kuwait, and yes, I’ll be taking pictures.
This work, The whole picture: The adventures of an Army photojournalist, by SSG Kissta DiGregorio, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.