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.
In the Medevac Chopper
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 Smell of Death and Hell at Attack Site
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.
As soon as the helicopter landed at Keating, I jumped out. I wanted to clear the doors so I didn't block the soldiers carrying the wounded. It was then that I realized I was standing by myself, on a landing zone, in complete darkness, without a weapon, on a base that was under attack.
The landing zone was at the bottom of a steep incline and the high moon was bright enough for me to see plumes of smoke from the burning buildings and spent artillery. I pointed the camera towards the moon, hoping to capture something, anything. The smell of smoldering pine trees and spent ammunition assaulted my nose. The burning pine reminded me of Christmas -- a confusing contradiction to my senses, a thought I later shared with the team.
"It smelled like death and hell," the crew chief screamed at me.
As I stood outside the helicopter, hands slightly shaking, I felt movement to my right and saw soldiers carrying the wounded and placing them on the bird. I jumped in the side window, sat on a pile of medical equipment and filmed the doctor and medic working on Stephan and two other soldiers.
As soon as we landed back at Bostick, we jogged along a path made with glow sticks. The wooden door of the field hospital swung open and light burst through the night. I filmed the medic as he relayed stats to the waiting medical team. And then, just as we were being pushed out of the hospital, I turned my camera to the left. It was there that I captured Stephan laying on the operating table, his shirt off, revealing his large "Mace" tattoo.
Stephan had been shot early that morning, and after more than 12 hours, he had finally reached the operating table at Bostick. He died soon after.
Stephan Mace's Family at Arlington
I couldn't find Vanessa when I first arrived at the Arlington National Cemetery's visitors center. I finally called her on her mobile until we walked towards each other.
We hugged and I handed her a bouquet of lilies I'd brought. She introduced me to her family and Stephan's teammates who were visiting his grave for the first time. I was worried about them being angry at me for being there.
"I thought you'd be tan, coming from India," she said, observing my pale face and white legs.
She's disarmingly good at flinging insults as ice breakers. I loved her immediately. With the large bouquet of flowers in her arms, her blonde hair and huge smile, Vanessa looked like a beauty queen accepting an award. Except this was no award. She was a Gold Star Mother leading a reporter and soldiers and friends to her son's grave in Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery.
A Fellow Soldier Buried Nearby at Arlington
I rode with Vanessa and her husband Richard to the gravesite. Vanessa walked towards his gravestone. We formed a scattered horseshoe around Stephan and then one of the soldiers started searching to the right.
"What are you looking for?" I asked.
"Major Bostick is buried near here," he said.
FOB Bostick, the base from where the medevac team launched its rescue mission, was named after Major Thomas Bostick, the former commander who was killed near COP Keating in 2007. FOB Bostick was also the new base for soldiers after Keating and Fritsche were closed shortly after the attack.
We walked down the rows of white tombstones, a sea of sorrow in every direction, until I spotted him.
"He's there," I said.
The two men, killed two years apart, only miles from each other in a remote part of Afghanistan, were laid to rest just two rows from each other. There was something comforting in the random placement.
We walked back to Stephan's grave where Vanessa read aloud recollections of Stephan by his grandfather. I was crying before she finished, as were his friends and teammates who had just returned from their deployment. I walked away at that point, wanting to give them their space to grieve.
Anger Following Deaths in Afghanistan
After we landed from the medevac mission, someone showed me to an empty bed in the barracks. All of my gear was on a different base, so I curled into a fetal position to stay warm from the absurdly cold air conditioning. I was shivering and finally went to the headquarters to see if anyone had a blanket. No one did. I went back to the bunk.
Shortly afterwards, a tall, angry man, threw me a green wool blanket circa World War II.
"Here!" he yelled and walked away.
His name was Rob Congdon and he was one of the best guys I've met in Afghanistan. He was just grouchy.
I awoke the next morning to learn that eight American soldiers had been killed in the attack. It was one of the deadliest days for U.S. troops in the history of the war in Afghanistan.
Girl Talk and War Talk on Two Hour Drive
I was invited to their home in West Virginia for dinner and to meet family, friends and Stephan's fellow soldiers whom Vanessa had mothered from afar, sending them care packages and helping them to recover.
I drove Vanessa the two hours from Arlington. It was a time for both girl talk and war talk. I explained that I was pale because India is more of an "inside" society where people retreat from the sun instead of tanning in spots like Delhi's beautiful Lodhi Gardens.
"Stephan was really pale when he was home last summer on break," Vanessa said, explaining that his base was so dangerous it wasn't safe for the soldiers to be outside or they risked being shot. She said that the entire time he was home, he kept saying he needed to get back because he was worried about his friends there.
Along the way, we stopped for gas and as I was pumping, Vanessa bought sodas. When she walked back to the car I could see a sarcastic line forming in her head.
"ABC really went all-out for your transportation," she noted, raising her eyebrows at my Toyota Corolla.
"They're not really funding this trip," I replied, wanting her to know that this journey was less about a story and more about my need to meet her. For her, I was an important connection to her son. For me, she was an opportunity to learn about the young man whom I had never met, but had filmed his last moments alive.
When we arrived at the home, in a quiet neighborhood slowly converting from farmland to suburbia, Stephan's grandparents hugged me. Then I was greeted by the family's four dogs, including Sophie the enormous English Mastiff, plus a misogynistic bird named Lola. Vanessa's huge heart extends to animals. She works in a veterinarian clinic and she rescued animals with regularity.
I sat at the dinner table, talking with Stephan's friends and family. I learned about his summer trips to Africa to hunt game with a family friend. I learned about how much he disliked Lola, but how much she loved him, screaming in her shockingly shrill bird voice until he'd visit her. I learned the family was still waiting for the military to give them Stephan's computer hard drive and camera, and how much they wanted to see the last photographs he'd shot with his new camera. I learned how much he loved life, and how much he was loved.
It was early afternoon and I was offered a beer. I don't really like beer, but I was nervous and accepted. I drank more than one, and late that night as I sat with one of the soldiers, Stephan's younger brother Chris asked how long it took for air support to arrive on the base.
"Forty minutes," I said.
"One hour and twenty minutes," the soldier corrected me. "The media got it wrong."
"I am the media," I said, feeling responsible for the inaccuracy, but clearly recalling my interview with the Apache pilots.
"An hour into the fight, I asked how long until we received support. I was told 20 minutes. I didn't think we had 20 minutes," the soldier explained.
I slept at Vanessa's house that night. A picture of Stephan was on the headboard of my bed. He's a handsome 21-year-old with bright blue eyes and an infectious smile.
I awoke around 5 a.m. to find Sophie the Mastiff thumping her tail against the bedroom wall. I sat with her in the hallway for about 20 minutes, petting her to sleep.
A few hours later, I interviewed Stephan's younger brothers Chris and Brad about their memorial tattoos. Chris, 18, is in the Army. He deploys for Afghanistan in a couple of weeks. He said he knows his family is worried about his deployment.