She recognized his hands. In the dark. In less than ten seconds. The way only a mother could.
That's why I met Vanessa Adelson, mother of Specialist Stephan Mace who died on Oct. 3, 2009. She had seen a soldier in a clip of video I had shot in almost complete darkness on the back of a Blackhawk helicopter. She was convinced it was her son.
A colleague in New York emailed me several months ago, asking about my story on the attack on Combat Outpost Keating, a small American base in eastern Afghanistan. I hadn't reported that specific story, but I had shot the medevac flight video used in it.
Vanessa had seen the piece and somehow, in watching just a few seconds of video, glimpsed one of the medevaced soldier's hands and knew it was Stephan. She connected with someone at ABC News who connected her with me.
Vanessa wanted to know if that was Stephan on the flight, and if so was there more video of him that she could watch? She needed to watch it. It was a way for a mother to connect with her son, a way for her to understand his death as much as she knew his life.
Yes, that was your son, I confirmed. And yes, I will get you the video, I said.
We've been in touch on the phone and through email ever since. I told her I was working on a story about soldiers' memorial tattoos and wondered if her sons had received any in Stephan's honor. She said they had and I could interview them. And then she invited me to meet her family and visit Stephan's grave at Arlington National Cemetery.
So I flew back to the United States from my base in New Delhi, India, earlier this month to meet Vanessa's family. After traveling 8,000 miles to meet her, I was suddenly nervous about which car to rent. I was worried about what sort of impression my car would make, but really, I was worried what the family would think of me, an outsider amidst their inner circle of grieving.
Last fall, I was embedded with a medevac team, Charlie Company 2/3, in Afghanistan. On the morning of Oct. 3 I heard reports that there was an attack on Keating and neighboring Observation Post Fritsche. I didn't know the extent of the attack, but I knew I needed to reach the base. I asked to fly with the medevac team out of Bagram Air Field which is where I was at the time.
The pilot denied me permission to fly with his team, saying it was too dangerous. But another medevac team was going, so I grabbed a small bag with my camera equipment and hopped a flight to meet them in Jalalabad. Eventually, we flew to another base, FOB Bostick, where we waited. And waited.
It was hours before the military cleared the medevac flight to Keating where Vanessa's son Stephan and several injured soldiers waited, receiving blood transfusions from their teammates because no other medical help was available.
The medevac flight circled above the base for, I think, an hour before finally being cleared to land. We rapidly descended, corkscrewing to the small landing zone below.
My camera doesn't have night vision, so I often wear a headlamp to illuminate the shots. But the threat level was so high that we couldn't use any lights. Lights would have made the helicopter more of a target for the insurgents. As a result, my video of the medevac rescue was limited.