I filled out an application to Columbia University’s School of Journalism yesterday. I declined to actually apply, preferring to continue my year of White Boy Walkabout, but they asked a very pointed question: Tell us about yourself and why you want to go to journalism school? This was my answer:
I joined the Marines at 17, still a child. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, nor did I have any idea what it meant to be in war, to feel pain, or to feel alone. I was just a stupid kid trying to impress a girl and deluded in my understanding of what I’d signed up for. This was before 9-11, of course. Peacetime America. I joined the Marines because, of all the services, they had the sexiest uniforms.
And you get a sword.
After the start of the forever-wars, I spent the next four years overseas. First, spending a year country-hopping in the infantry, then joining a special unit that gave you suits and ties and a diplomatic passport to go guard embassies and government secrets. Perhaps the best advice I ever received was to ignore the posts in shiny tourist destinations where Marines were known to live like kings. Go to the places you’ll never go with your wife and kids, because you’ll never get another chance.
When everyone else was putting Paris, Rome, or Tokyo into their dream sheet, I just wrote, Send me to the biggest shit-hole on the planet. The next day, Secretary of State Colin Powell gave me my diploma and cracked a joke about me heading to Liberia.
In three years of embassy work, including time with the President of the United States and time spent in Baghdad, nothing compared to the things I saw in Liberia. From guarding diplomats as they marched into the jungle with body armor to treat with warlords, to paying off prostitutes to prevent congressional inquiries into what went on at U.S. embassies after dark, no task was refused. When one of our diplomats was murdered with a screwdriver in his hotel room, I was tasked with the initial crime scene documentation. Not because I had any training in such things, but because no one did, and all things being equal, I had the nicest camera. That child who joined at 17? Picture him tripping over a riggored corpse and landing palms down on soggy carpet, and you can see how it might impact his view of the world.
After the Marines, after a Political Science degree from Columbia and interning at the State Department, I’ve always been drawn back to the hidden parts of the world, wanting to shine a light in a way that makes people understand: Embed reporting. Long narratives that make people feel, not like they’re watching it on a screen, but like they are there and a part of it. To feel empathy and experience something incredible by proxy.
I had desk jobs. I worked for non-profits, I worked for a tech startup, but left in search of something more interesting. I have side-projects that run themselves and afford me the ability to travel at length, and it’s in these travels that I keep finding hidden stories.
Only yesterday, I made it home from Mexico, happy to still have my head attached to my body. I’d been chasing a story of a mock execution held years ago by the town elders, perpetrated against four addicts causing trouble in the town. An intervention of sorts. Two had fled, but the other two stayed and got clean, now living normal lives with jobs and families, so I went looking for them. It wasn’t until a stranger came up and started to give me unsolicited cartel information, that I closed my notebook and realized just how deep I had stepped into it. The line between a writer looking for a story and a narc is a thin one, and the Lina drug cartel had started asking too many questions about me asking too many questions.
Today, the day after coming home, after feedback from friends in the media, I started my application. I want to tell these stories, and my tolerance for risk is high enough to find them, but here I had put myself in unnecessary danger, remaining perilously unaware until it was too late to do anything but flee. Without a journalist’s tool-kit, without proper training, I’m just a guy trying to brute-force his way to a story. I want to write, but to uncover truth with more finesse, and to learn to tell it so that no one gets slandered, or worse: killed.