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It took a couple weeks, but the postcard from Paktia Province, Afghanistan eventually arrived in my mailbox. It’s from Ryan Spencer Reed, a Calvin College classmate of mine. In the picture on the front, some soldiers respond to explosions and small arms fire during what is probably a routine evening at their outpost. I’ve propped it up on my desk; as I sit and read book after book for my graduate school seminars, it reminds me of how many of my fellow Americans are spending any given starry night in uniform, on patrol in a foreign land. It calls to mind what I usually have the luxury of putting out of mind.
I got the postcard because I pitched into Ryan’s Kickstarter fundraiser last spring, as he attempted to cover some of the expenses that he would incur during this latest project. Ryan’s not a soldier, he’s a photographer, and his aim has been to spend an entire deployment with the modern-day “Band of Brothers,” the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division, 1-506th Infantry Regiment. After many months of joining them in their preparations, he deployed with them to Afghanistan three months ago. Ryan’s cousin is an officer in the unit, and Ryan hoped to stay on as an embedded independent journalist for the entire year of their deployment—a rare opportunity, considering that most journalists are only permitted to embed with a unit for a short time. On his website he describes his hope that his reporting will “serve to close the gap of understanding between those who serve and civilian populations,” especially given that the major news media no longer can or does support long-form storytelling in this kind of environment.
I live an hour from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, the home base of the 4th Brigade Combat Team. Military culture is big down here, and I feel like I know very little of how it all works—or feels—on the inside. So I’ve been glad to see Ryan’s photos on Facebook and elsewhere; I’ve been prompted to learn a little more about the daily realities of the military and to consider all the striking and subtle ways that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have affected the lives of so many of my citizen-peers.
I was disappointed and dismayed, then, to learn last week that Ryan was asked to leave by the Public Affairs Office that had previously been supportive of his presence with the unit. Without explanation or justification, they sent him back to the States after he’d spent three months in Afghanistan. Next steps are unclear—maybe he’ll get to return for a bit, or perhaps he’ll cover stories of the wounded soldiers from the unit who are recovering back here in the US. Here’s a story in the Ludington, MI (Ryan’s hometown) news about the recent turn of events.
Today I’m grateful for artists and storytellers like Ryan who invest so much time and care, often at great personal expense, in order to share their compelling perspectives with wider audiences. Their work fosters awareness and understanding, crucial ingredients for any of us as we act on our convictions about war and peace. And thus, today, I’m also struggling to understand how Public Affairs decides to keep someone like Ryan from sharing his perspective on these publicly-funded affairs. In 2012, the average taxpayer spent $2,982.86 on the military—way more than on healthcare, education, or any other national budget item. Hundreds of billions of our tax dollars have funded these wars, and yet our access is limited when it comes to seeing what our dollars are up to on the ground, both with our citizens and with those who dwell in the places where our military is present. It doesn’t sit well with me.