Sebastian Junger, done with war reporting, convenes journalists in the Bronx to learn to save each other’s lives
Sebastian Junger, the famous author-reporter, emerged from the 5-train station at the corner of Third Avenue and 149th Street in the Bronx at around 7:45 a.m. Wednesday morning, and bumped into three other journalists who were headed to the same place he was.
They walked west from The Hub for half a block, then crossed the street and hung a right on Courtlandt Avenue. When they arrived at their destination, an educational arts space called the Bronx Documentary Center, a few blocks down, about two dozen fellow freelance correspondents from all over the world were already milling around, chatting and sipping coffee.
At 8 o'clock, everyone took seats. Junger, who's 50 but has the type of camera-ready looks that age well, is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. His real fame probably still dates to writing the book The Perfect Storm, but perhaps the largest part of his contribution to journalism has been his dispatches from conflict areas around the world.
Today, however, Junger stood at the front of the room and told the crowd he'd given that up.
"I've been reporting on wars for almost 20 years," he said. "Since Tim Hetherington died, I've stopped."
A year almost to the day earlier, Hetherington, a veteran British-American conflict photographer and Brooklyn resident who made the Academy Award-nominated 2010 Afghanistan war documentary Restrepo with Junger, had been killed in a blast while covering the uprising in Libya, along with another New York-based photojournalist, Chris Hondros.
"Basically, his death was my first sort of wake-up call," said Junger. "He was the first person I was really close to who was killed. That's a very particular experience. I think if it had happened to me at 30, I would have reacted differently. But at this point in my life, it made me try to think about other ways I could contribute to the world of journalism."
As a sort of tribute to his late friend, Junger recently founded RISC, short for "Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues." This was its inaugural training session, a three-day, 24-hour crash course in how to survive, and help others survive, life-threatening injuries while covering war. Journalists from Colorado to Cape Cod to Cairo had come for the tutelage.
"Tim, what I understood about his wounds, was that he had an artery bleed from a shrapnel wound," said Junger. "I talked to a medic and described the wound, somehow hoping that the person would say there was nothing anyone could have done. ... But this medic said, 'No, that's a really dangerous wound, but there are things you could do.' Really all that had to be done was to slow down the bleeding until you got to the hospital. He was 10 minutes from the hospital. So I heard that and thought, my God, most of the press corps I know barely knows how to put on a Band-Aid.
"Whether Tim was savable or not," Junger continued, "someone else in the future will be saved, and the grief that I went through, and his family went through, and his friends went through almost a year ago today, that grief was really shocking in how painful it was, and I thought, if we could somehow prevent another family or another set of friends from feeling what we're feeling, even once, it would be worth it."
A few minutes later, they got down to work.
RISC commissioned the training through a Maine-based organization called Wilderness Medical Associates International, which spent six months developing a special curriculum for journalists in war zones, the first of its kind. Four instructors from the group were on-hand, uniformed in black polos and khakis.
They began by asking what people wanted to know. A barefoot gray-haired instructor named David Johnson, who is a doctor as well as Medical Associates' president and medical director, scribbled the replies onto a dry-erase board.
"How to make a tourniquet," said a woman sitting in the front.
"Being able to self-diagnose a concussion, and how to treat that."
"Spinal injuries, and when to move a person or not."
"Prioritizing who needs medical attention first."
After a 10-minute Power Point presentation (Sample slides: "Oxygen and perfusion"; "Ischemia and Infarction"; "The Risk/Benefit Ratio"), a National Guard combat medic named Sawyer Alberi took over. Alberi is a short but sturdy woman with blunt, chin-length blond hair and a small tattoo near her right thumb; she was jocular and bursting with energy, and her tongue-in-cheek humor helped ease the mood when the conversation turned grisly.
"How do you stop bleeding?" she asked at one point. "You have to have well-aimed direct pressure. And you have to make sure you know where the bleed is, because if you don't, you can't stop it very well. I've seen people come into the E.R., and they've got all sorts of contraptions and stuff on their lower legs, and they're like,"—shouting now—"WE JUST CAN'T STOP THE BLEEDING! WE DON'T KNOW HOW TO STOP THE BLEEDING! And we roll this guy over? He was bleeding from his back!"
Alberi gave a thorough lecture in the techniques of "care under fire," "tactical field care," and how to make a "primary assessment" of one's injuries. Are they awake? Are they bleeding? Do they have a pulse?
Then it was time for drills. The journalists broke into smaller groups and assembled in different sections of the gallery space. One group learned about clearing a person's airways on a dummy with two exposed lungs. Another practiced how to safely roll and drag the wounded. A third, out on the back patio, did CPR.
"You don't wanna be too low on the sternum, because you could push that little bone into something," an instructor warned.
More exercises like this were to follow throughout the rest of the day. The next day's training would address general medical issues and how to deal with being sick in a war zone. Friday will be the grand finale—an outdoor simulation of a conflict-reporting scenario with all manner of loud warzone noises: screams, helicopters, explosions, gunfire. Amid this cacophony, the students will have to drag and treat a 185-pound dummy with fake blood oozing from a puncture wound, for which a raw turkey will provide the simulacrum.
"They're actually going to have some stress," said Judi Gauvreau, U.S. Operations Coordinator of Medical Associates International. "We want the students to feel that adrenaline and anxiety, so when they're in a battlefied, they can address it."
If the RISC training itself was a memorial to Hetherington, so was the venue where it was taking place. There was a large collage of pictures of Hetherington hanging on the right-hand wall near the front of the gallery. Another photo of him and one of Hondros were laid out on a nearby shelf, flanking four candles and a bouquet of flowers.
The Bronx Documentary Center was founded last fall by photojournalist Michael Kamber, a close friend of Hetherington's who's documented numerous wars for The New York Times and other outlets. The Center's maiden exhibition was a photo series from the last rolls of film Hetherington shot while in Libya.
On Wednesday, before the group broke for lunch, Kamber stepped outside to talk about the late photographer.
"Tim's gone, and we're not gonna bring him back, but we feel like this is the best tribute we can make to Tim on the anniversary of his death," said Kamber. "To train 24 other journalists who are out there on the front lines, and give them the ability to save a life."
Like Junger, Kamber said he's considering whether to put his war-reporting days behind him.
"It makes you rethink your life," he said. "The main thing is just seeing what his family goes through. His mother was here just yesterday, tears running down her face. It's not going away for her."
See what a few moments of RISC training looked like by playing the video below: