I first met Mike in an eastern province of Afghanistan bordering Pakistan in the fall of 2008. I was stationed at a small outpost as a member of a maneuvers team, responsible for patrolling an inordinate amount of not-so-friendly territory. At this time in the conflict, there were only about 30-40,000 troops in Afghanistan, resources were stretched pretty thin. Several journalists came and went during my time at that outpost, but two individuals left a firm impression: Michael Hastings and Lucian Reed. Both of them arrived at our site under the auspices of writing a story for GQ and providing video footage for an episode of Dan Rather Reports. Mike was one of the most congenial people to come through our small operation, I guess it was an attribute to his prior years spent covering the war in Iraq that combat conditions didn't seem to faze him one bit. At times around him I felt like he was more battle seasoned than myself. Unlike other journalists who had embedded with us, Mike and Lucian insisted on participating in every single mission, if we left the wire, they wanted to be there to document. Their tenacity was quite impressive in retrospect.
Up until my deployment to Afghanistan, I had always felt that that was where the focus needed to be. I never had any doubts about my role in the Global War on Terrorism, I knew I was going to fight the real enemy, and not the imagined one in Iraq. Once on the ground, my paradigm began to shift. It was difficult to see any real progress being made. As a member of my maneuvers team, we were responsible for an area with the square footage equivalent to Manhattan, times ten. And I forgot to mention the team itself was barely 30 individuals. Once during a routine vehicle patrol to a local bazaar, Michael turned to me and asked:
MH: What exactly are you guys doing?
Me: Ummm, we're gonna drive down to that bazaar, check it out, probably get out walk around, hope we don't get shot, umm and then I guess come back..?
MH: How often do you guys go to that bazaar?
Me: Ummm, like a lot.
MH: I mean, like what are you going to accomplish by going there? What's the mission?
Me: Well...it's like a "presence patrol" we just want to show them we're here, you should probably ask the XO, I'm not privy to big picture stuff.
These were the types of exchanges regularly expected of Mike. He couldn't just go with the flow, he had to know the reason why we were risking life and limb for these missions, and at the end of the day I began to realize I myself couldn't justify many of the things we were doing. Somedays it felt as if we were having a staring contest with the enemy, first one to pack up and go home loses (or wins depending on your perspective). I think this is really the crux of why I value spending such a defining time period in my life with someone like Michael Hastings. Talking with him helped me to define many of the beliefs I have today on issues related to the politics of war.
One of my goals after I left the Army was to meet up with Mike at some point and see how his life has changed. Today I feel a great amount of grief knowing that I will never see him again, and be able to tell him what an impact he had on me over such a short period of time. Like him or not, I think Michael Hastings represents something that is dearly needed in the fourth estate today, someone with an uncompromising pursuit of the truth in a world that is constantly shaded by partisan ideology.