December 5, 2016
By Michael A. Calvert
Every morning, I rolled out of bed and padded to the computer. I lit up the screen with the Baltimore Sun’s web site and typed in Scott Calvert, barely breathing until his byline appeared above a story. Then I exhaled and the tension in my shoulders drained away. My son filed a story late the previous evening, assuring me he had survived another day. Scott was a Baltimore Sun reporter embedded with the 101st Airborne as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
In one of our regular weekend phone conversations late in 2002, I inquired about his stories on real estate deals and business trends in Baltimore where I was Chief Planner for the city’s redevelopment agency in the 1970s. Scott hurried through some updates on a new hotel at the harbor and expansion of a Johns Hopkins lab, paused, and said gravely, “I’ve been offered a new assignment. The editors asked if I wanted to cover the invasion of Iraq. The Sun has been offered a slot for a reporter. I would be embedded with an airborne infantry unit for about a year.”
My boy going into battle with soldiers? He could be killed. Jesus Christ. No God damned way! — these thoughts tumbled through my mind as I struggled to respond. The silence continued on the phone line.
“What do you think?” Scott finally said.
“Sounds dangerous. Would you be in combat? On the front lines?” I asked, knowing the answer I wanted to hear from my son.
“That’s what it means to be embedded. I’d wear a Kevlar helmet, body armor, chemical warfare suits, and all the protective gear. I wouldn’t take any unnecessary risks, but it would be quite an experience,” said Scott evenly.
“Have you had time to think about this? Is it something you really want to do?” I asked even though I knew how he would respond.
“Everything’s a risk. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. Hell, I live in Baltimore, the murder capital,” Scott replied.
“If you’re sure want to get yourself in the middle of a shooting war in Iraq,” I hesitated and said firmly, “ I think you should do it. But for God’s sake be careful.”
“Thanks, Dad. I’ll be joining the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell in February. I’m getting anti-malaria shots and other stuff next month at Hopkins. The army has scheduled an orientation on field communications gear for me and a reporter from the L. A. Times. I’ll be able to email my stories to my editor at the Sun from the field and talk to her about revisions before the midnight deadline in Baltimore.”
“Will you be able to communicate with me by phone and email?” I asked.
“I think so. Definitely while we’re in Kuwait before moving out for the invasion. It may be difficult to connect when we’re in the desert, but I plan to file a story every day,” he said.
“I can’t believe it. You’ll be a war correspondent!” I said.
* * * * *
On March 2nd, Scott’s 29th birthday, I read his first story with a dateline of Camp Pennsylvania, Kuwait. For a few weeks, he wrote about training exercises, logistics, sandstorms, and life in a tent city in the desert. A long story for the Sunday paper featured the extreme boredom of night guard duty for a soldier from Kentucky who said he enlisted because he was bored. Scott and I spoke on the phone several times. The unit was anxiously awaiting orders to advance across the desert to Baghdad.
On a Saturday afternoon in April, my wife Susan called to me from the den. “You need to see this story on CNN from Kuwait.” The subtitle read “One dead, eleven injured at army base in Kuwait.” The afternoon anchor said, “An Army sergeant has been detained after a grenade attack on the command tent at Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait near the Iraq border. One was killed and four were seriously injured. No names have been released by the army briefer.”
I sank into a chair and told Susan, “Scott hangs out with the brass to get the latest information for his reporting. He could have been in the command tent. He could be…” I said, unable to say the obvious. Susan flipped channels and I turned on NPR. No one had more information. I called my daughter who had spoken with Scott’s girlfriend, also a reporter at the Sun. Reporters and editors with contacts at the Pentagon had been unable to learn if Scott was OK. It was a Saturday, they explained. Incredibly, no further information would be available until Sunday morning or maybe even Monday.
I ached for a call from Scott. I just wanted to hear his voice. Surely he would call soon. Maybe he was frantically writing a story on deadline for the Sunday paper that would be put on the wire by AP for newspapers across the country. I checked emails and plugged in my Blackberry. CNN kept repeating their announcement with slightly different wording and the same stock footage of a staging camp in Kuwait. We stared glumly at the TV as the sun set and darkness gathered.
“I guess we won’t see Aida tonight,” Susan said. Elton John’s musical based on Verdi’s opera was playing at the Concert Hall and we had tickets. “Maybe we’ll hear something about Scott tonight.”
“Probably not going to hear anything tonight. Tomorrow at the earliest. What the hell! Let’s go to the show. I’ll take my Blackberry in case he calls. Better than sitting here worrying. We need to get Scott off our mind — if we can.”
We entered the brightly lit lobby of the Concert Hall, spoke to some old friends, found the entrance to our section, and took our seats as the orchestra tuned their instruments. An image of Scott in a large tent with a grenade exploding at his feet flooded into my mind. I shuddered. The lights dimmed, the red velvet curtain rose and dampened my panic for a while only to return sporadically during the show.
Lotus columns flanked the set of a garden in ancient Egypt with unconvincing palm trees. A uniformed general swooned before an elegant Nubian princess in disguise in the first scene. The Pharaoh’s daughter proclaimed her love for the same general in the next scene. He vanquished the Nubian army in an off-stage battle and a story of love and jealousy ensued. This drama seemed so petty. I barely followed the plot. My thoughts were in a desert in Kuwait, a real war, and possible casualties. After the actors bowed and cries of “Bravo” mingled with applause, Susan and I drove home making perfunctory comments on Elton John’s interpretation of Verdi’s masterpiece. We didn’t mention Scott.
Just before I flipped on the overhead light in the den, I saw a tiny flashing red light on the phone. Susan followed me while we stood motionless listening to the message from my daughter.
“Just wanted to let you know that Scott is not on the casualty list released by the army tonight. We just got word. Good news, but I’ll feel better when we get a call from him. This scared me to death. Call me tomorrow.”
I hugged Susan long and hard. Relief came quickly, but fear and dread ebbed slowly. “Thank God,” Susan said with a sigh.
“He could easily have been in that command tent. He spent a lot of time there. It would not have been random,” I said. “What a relief!”
* * * *
At precisely 8 am Sunday morning, the phone rang. I snatched it and barked “Hello.”
“Hope I’m not calling too early,” Scott said. “We’ve had some excitement here. Yesterday …”
“We know, it’s been all over TV. Are you OK? Not wounded?” I asked.
“I’m fine. The blasts woke me up at 1 am, and a couple of soldiers sent by the commanding officer hustled me to his tent. They didn’t let me grab my phone or laptop. The initial suspects were two Kuwaiti translators in civilian clothes, and the commander was concerned that I could be shot as someone not in uniform. The command post was scorched and blood-stained, but I was in the right place to get the story. I made notes on the response to the attack and additional threats. At about 3 am, a loud explosion occurred overhead. A Patriot missile had intercepted an incoming surface-to-surface missile. We all threw off our helmets and donned gas masks. Scary stuff.”
“What a night!” I said. “Thank God the commander remembered you in the middle of all the chaos.”
“I was glad to be with him, but sorry I didn’t have my phone and laptop. Guards were positioned at the helicopter pad where the wounded awaited transport to the base hospital. The translators were brought in. As interrogation began, a Muslim sergeant with access to grenades was reported missing along with four grenades. The entire camp was searched, and he was arrested not long after the Patriot exploded. When I finally retrieved my phone and laptop, I rushed to file a story before deadline and my editors wanted photos and updates for the web site. This is my first chance to call. I didn’t realize the story was out. Sorry.”
“We’re just glad you’re safe,” said Susan.
“Talk to you later. My editor’s calling.”
On Monday morning, I logged onto the Sun and read Scott’s story with some additional details, clarifications and corrections. The overhead explosion was a Patriot missile, but it took out an a British Tornado fighter, a victim of friendly fire in the famous fog of war.
On subsequent mornings, Scott related his dispatches about the capture of villages and towns on the route to Baghdad, sniper fire that pinned him down with a patrol in the open desert, soldiers pulling down a 30-foot statue of Saddam Hussein in Najaf, disgust with the army’s meals-ready-to-eat, water rationing, and sand in everything.
He spent a few weeks in a Baghdad hotel with other correspondents. His room had a small balcony, but it was too dangerous to step outside. I worried that the hotel would tempt a suicide bomber.
In emails to me, Scott cited the number of days before he returned to the states. I flinched because I remembered ironic and tragic stories of those who died days before they left for home.
I waited at the computer every morning until a story with Scott’s byline said, “Dateline Fort Campbell, Kentucky.” I exhaled. Relief from a year of worry.