For Richard Engel, NBC News’ award-winning chief foreign correspondent, reporting from the war fronts of Iraq and Afghanistan means staying focused, with emotions in check, and working the phones.
“It’s frightening to think that I’ve become part of the war landscape,” said Engel, speaking from Kabul, Afghanistan, who recounts the story of an Island son killed in the Afghanistan war’s deadliest battles on July 13, 2008 and the soldier’s father’s quest to find who was responsible for the debacle. It's on “Dateline: A Father’s Mission,” airing at 7 p.m. Sunday (June 27) on NBC (KHNL8).
1st Lt. Jonathan P. Brostrom, 24, of 'Aiea, was one of nine soldiers killed on a bloody Sunday in Afghanistan, in the Battle of Wanat. His father, retired Army colonel David Brostrom, launched an inquiry, bouyed with support from other grieving parents, to discover what went terribly wrong and who was to blame for placing soldiers of the Second Platoon, Chosen Company of the 173rd airborne infantry, in a vulnerable situation open to Taliban attack. (Engel had to tweak his Sunday special when the Army this week rebuked earlier findings that three officers were responsible for the Wanat deaths).
“Of course, I’m fearful,” said Engel about his regular battlefront regimen. “I worry that things can go badly, but I can’t focus on that too much. I take precautions, and there are four different levels of stress that you go through when you’re in a war zone a long time, sometimes all four in one day.
“The first is you think you’re superman, that nothing can happen. That doesn’t last long; you realize you’re not invincible. The second is that this is a dangerous situation, I could get hurt out here, but that lasts a little while. The third is deeper, darker territory — the mental acceptance that math will catch up with you. And the fourth is, I’m going to die out here.”
Knock on wood; so far, he's not been injured. But his survival weapon of mass communication is the phone. A satellite phone.
“You just gotta work the phone,” he said. “It’s easy to talk about stuff if you have the information. But cellphones don’t work — a major problem. I carry a satellite phone, which works everywhere. I build a community of sources, but it takes hours to send footage out. Sometimes I carry car batteries (for power), one of the logistics of communications. I often check with old sources, since some stories are ongoing, and build new ones.”
All in a day’s job, he said, as rockets flare and bombs fall.
Engel has been the go-to guy on NBC on events in the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan; his filings are widely seen on “Today,” “NBC Nightly News,” MSNBC and msnbc.com. You know he's on the battlefront when he dons protection gear.
His latest documentary, recapping the deadly impact of the Battle of Wanat, includes war front chats with soldiers and in-home reflection of parents and loved ones of the fallen soldiers, and profound suggestions that validate retired Army officer Brostrom's belief that nine souls, including his son, died needlessly with undeniable valour and sacrifice under unmitigated circumstances that included sheer lack of resources to fight the enemy.
The soldiers died of wounds suffered when their outpost, an easy target located in the midst of a bowl of mountains, was attacked by small arms fire and rocket propelled grenades from Taliban forces in Wanat, Afghanistan. There were 27 others wounded.
The soldiers, from Second Platoon, Chosen Company, of the 173rd airborne infantry, are seen in revealing battlefield footage, trying to build defense posts without proper resources, even complaining of a shortage of drinking water in intense Afghan heat. And they feared the worst and dreaded their fate.
“It is upsetting, talking to soldiers, and it’s an act when it looks like I feel I'm in control,” said Engel. “I’ve gotten emotional myself; I break down with the soldiers or their families. But I’m not feeling the same thing as a family losing a son; you see the mother look at a photo of a child who died in combat; you have to be focused.”
His Hawaii visit, to interview the Brostrom parents, was not without uneasy moments. “But the father was very methodical, very focused, almost like (in) a military motion,” said Engel. “He wants to find out who was responsible (for the Wanat encounter) and he’s checked all of the footnotes in the pages of inquiry, and is dedicating (his life) to finding answers. So it’s a story still in development.”
Engel was a freelance journalist at a time when network reporters were few during the early stags of the Iraq war. “I reported for ABC from Iraq, and NBC made an offer, so I took it. I’ve since reported from Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan, though technically based in New York, which is just a paper address since I’m home only a couple of months at a time,” he said.
Engel’s dispatches are straightforward, conversational and chock full with morsels of details, a result of his seasoned tenure playing the phones and monitoring soldier movement. And despite the daily cloud of danger, he wouldn’t trade his job anytime soon.
“I like the fact that it’s different every day so I don’t feel like I’m stuck in this job. I could do something else, I guess, but I love this job. It’s a great job,” he said. “It does make other stories seem less important.”
While he's managed to dodge bullets and bombs, but his marriage took a hit, largely because of his time spent on the war front. But, he said, his working trip to Hawaii recently was a rare perk that enabled him to add on a weekend of r&r. "That was a first," he said.
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‘DATELINE: A FATHER’S MISSION’
7 p.m. Sunday (June 27)