Cali Bagby plunged into two war zones after graduating from the University of Oregon in 2008, armed with a journalism degree, camera and sense of reporting duty. The 27-year-old Eugene native spent one year as an embedded journalist in Iraq with the Oregon National Guard Medevac Unit based out of Salem and three months in Afghanistan with Marines in the 2nd Platoon, 6th Engineer Support Battalion.
Bagby’s stories, and those of fellow journalist Dan Morrison, are shared on KVAL.com. WW spoke with Bagby recently via Skype about life at base camp, U.S. war sentiments, "skimboarding" and why she is currently celebrating her grandfather’s 88th birthday in Bangladesh. You can also view Cali Bagby's photos and stories here.
WW: What made you want to go to Marjah, Afghanistan, one of the most dangerous combat spots at the time?
Bagby: Dan Morrison, the other journalist who I worked with, called me when I was in Iraq and told me he was planning to go to Afghanistan. At the time, I thought ‘no way.’ Then a month after I got back from Iraq, I decided I did want to go. I have a love-hate relationship with the desert.
What would surprise us about the routine and quirks of base camp?
The monotony of war can be pretty difficult. It’s not like here in the U.S. where you have 30 things you could be doing. Even with distractions or momentary lapses of reality…soldiers have to go back to their lives here. A water-drinking competition happened in Afghanistan when soldiers couldn’t go out on missions for two days. In Iraq, soldiers made a rope swing inside one of the old bunkers that wasn’t being used. They made pancakes. They watched the Civil War football game [in December between the Ducks and Beavers] until 3am gathered around their computers. They skimboarded in the puddles in front of the compound.
You cut out a board from leftover wood and skim across shallow water.
Describe the memorials that you attended in Afghanistan.
I went to two memorial services for three different guys from the same unit in one week. They were 18-years-olds, soldiers who had just started their families. Seeing the faces of men that young…it’s pretty hard to erase that. The memorials lasted for hours, which I think was probably therapeutic and helped troops process the loss. Someone who knows the marine stands up and talks about the loss. They play the trumpet and do a roll call, and they call the fallen marine. And he won’t answer. I found that really sad. You go to a memorial and you realize, ‘this is the horror of war.’
Your Afghanistan travel companion Dan Morrison describes the sounds of warfare—“a pop means someone has fired in your general direction…a snap means the bullet itself has come close enough to your head that you heard the bullet break the sound barrier”—and the smells—“a burn pit that’s burning trash and human waste.” Tell us about the sounds and smells you encountered.
The sounds you hear start making you feel jumpy. At first, a slamming of a door or dropping of a big box would sound like they could be Hellfire missiles. There were people constantly making noises that would bother me. As for smells, the first time you walk into the irrigation ditches your shoes permanently smell from sewage water for three months; it gets embedded in the leather. And there’s only so much showering that can be done in really remote places. They have a burn pit going 24 hours a day at base camp where they burn plastic and WAG (waste) bags. The desert has this smell too—very hot and dry.
In one of your KVAL stories you write, “I think that we’ve been in Afghanistan for so long now that the American people have lost touch.” How can Americans reconnect to our soldiers?
I do think it’s really hard to stay connected to the troops. At the same time, I feel like, as citizens of a country that’s at war in two places, it’s our duty to connect and try to understand what’s going on. Even if you don’t support the wars, be involved. Be informed. Be active [politically]. Keep reading different news stories, and don’t read just one news source. If you’re really supportive of the troops, send them a care package.
So what are you doing in Bangladesh?My grandfather built a hospital in Nalta, Bangladesh a long time ago. He decided to celebrate his 88th birthday in Nalta, so I’m here with him. I’m helping to launch a new website for the hospital, which also works as an NGO, and serves about 30,000 local people.