Just before the US-led Iraq war began 10 years ago, an internet friend began forwarding emails from a CNN correspondent; emails this war reporter was sending home to friends and family as he tried to get from Jordan into Iraq.
His personal stories were more raw and candid than any of the big-media coverage we were seeing and reading back home in the US. The stories felt real, and the voice behind them felt human, not "newsman." This was back when there was no Twitter or Facebook, blogs were "weblogs," and even when you said "weblogs," no one knew what the hell you were talking about.
This war correspondent was Kevin Sites, now also the author of The Things They Cannot Say: Stories Soldiers Won't Tell You About What They've Seen, Done or Failed to Do in War.
In 2003, I was a newbie contributor to Boing Boing, and we were a newbie blog; not even a business yet. Just friends having fun with the internet. I reached out to Kevin and asked if he'd like me to help him convert these emails into a blog he could share with the world.
"What's a blog?," he asked.
I showed him, and we worked together with the help of other geek friends to produce one of the world's first warblogs, which he filled with stories, photographs, odd anecdotes, and videos from Iraq and Afghanistan as the conflict expanded.
I will never forget one day in April, 2003, when I received a message he'd been captured captured by Saddam Hussein's Fedayeen militia, along with news colleagues. Their Kurdish translator negotiated their release one day later. What do you do with your warblog when your warblogger is abducted? These were new questions. We found new answers. Sometimes, they clashed with what the TV networks thought their correspondents should be doing.
Kevin is returning to Afghanistan this week, to reconnect with some of the troops, fixers, and people in those blog posts. He's doing this with the support of Vice.
"It makes me feel like I'm closing the loop on my war zone career blogging since it started with you," Kevin emailed recently.
Below, his gear bag.
"It's a shot of what is likely my last war zone kit," Kevin tells us.
"I think it's minimalism at it's best, author Robert Young Pelton (Dangerous Places) is making fun of me for taking three sets of pant (one to wear, one to wash, one in reserve). Say's if he's sees hand sanitizer here, he's going to take away my man card."
"I'm off today for Dubai, then to Tajikistan and then will cross the Amu Darya River into Afghanistan just like I did 12 years ago."
More from Kevin below.
I've been covering conflict for half of my 25 year career and every time I've gone, my kit get smaller. The first time I went into Afghanistan in 2001, shortly after the 9/11 terror attach, I was working for NBC News as a producer and had to manage a crew of six and so much gear that we had to bribe a Tajik pilot to let us load it all on the plane (in retrospect, not the brightest move.)
I've been working on my own for a long time now and this is what I'm taking now, on my fifth and likely final trip into Afghanistan as a reporter:
For news gathering, Canon Vixia, Nikon D90, GoPro 2, Macbook Air, HyperDrive, collapsible, fold-flat tripod and assorted cables and other odds and ends (nothing top of the line, just reliable and functional.)
Personal maintenance, filter water bottle, some instant coffee packets and some anti-bacterial wipes, three-sets of quick-dry, insect repellant treated clothing (Robert Young Pelton, author of the World's Most Dangerous Place says he's going to take away my man-card for that.)
Kevlar helmet and Type IIIA body armor –required for military embeds but not particularly helpful or recommended when reporting in Afghan communities, unilaterally.
To carry, a small, weatherproof North Face Duffle and High Sierra backpack. Think most independent war zone journalists have to be a little OCD because you only have yourself to rely on for everything you need.
I pack and repack dozens of times, sometimes adding things, but since I have to carry and manage it all, mostly trying to subtract weight–opting for only the absolute essentials.
I used to have redundant everything, but my gear weighed 60-70 pounds.
Now instead of carrying two of everyting, I carry duct tape to fix things and have descending redundancy–if my Canon goes down I can shoot video on the Nikon DSLR, if the DSLR goes down–I can shoot pix and video on my iPhone–when all else fails there's my the GoPro (but then the whole world is wide angle.)
My goal on this last trip? is to really explore what's changed in Afghanistan since my first trip there 12 years ago.
How do Afghans feel about the U.S./NATO intervention?
What do they think will happend when they leave in 2014?
I'm going to try and find some of the people I reported on back then–including the story of the child bride, Gulsoma, a girl married off as a child–and beaten terribly until she escaped.
I hope this trip ends up being about the people in a country–not just the weapons in a war zone.
It can be a challenge to keep people's attention when it's about something deeper than bombs and bullets.
Related: I spoke to one of Kevin's classes at Hong Kong University recently about my experience with breast cancer and its transformation of my identity when I shared it publicly. You can watch the video here.