Thursday, June 13, 2013

Lessons learned from a CNN correspondent's "war" stories

Anderson Cooper
Dispatches from the Edge
Harper Collins, 2006
Book Review by Thomas Riddle
Before I became a first responder, I was stuck on a career treadmill of sales quotas, spreadsheets and paperwork. I labored and sweat for many years in one place as the track underneath my feet kept churning and spinning. I couldn't outrun my career stagnation. I found activities outside the office that were not associated with a paycheck to feed my desire to be challenged and spark my dormant adrenal gland.
I became a “boot”, a new firefighter, at age 43 and my life transformed. Everyday I am challenged and feel a bit out of my comfort zone, the place I believe real learning and personal growth takes place. I’m back in school for the first time in many years; the last school paper I wrote was before I stepped onto the treadmill. I love the rush and satisfaction that my new career in the emergency services field gives me.
The author of “Dispatches From The Edge” Anderson Cooper starts his book by describing the rush of reporting, as a CNN field correspondent, on tragedies and upheavals around the world and describes the personal toll those disasters have taken on him. From the tsunami in Sri Lanka, to the war in Iraq, to the starvation in Niger, and ultimately to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Mississippi, the author gives us a firsthand glimpse of the devastation that takes place. He talks about memories of his childhood and career as a correspondent.
I identified with the author, which motivated me to continue to read in spite of the assigned book report. “There’s nothing like that feeling. Your truck screeches to a halt you leap out, the camera resting on the space between your shoulder and neck. You run toward what everyone else is running from. All you want to do is get it, feel it, be in it.” (Cooper)
Lessons Learned:  
1.  The impact of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome on those who respond to and those involved in tragedy.
“When I had what I needed, I’d pull out. I thought I could get away unscathed, unchanged. The truth was I hadn't gotten out at all. It’s impossible to block out what your see, what you hear. Even if you stop listening, the pain gets inside, seeps through the cracks you can’t close up”(Cooper)
“I set up barriers in my head, my heart, but the blood flows right through them. A corpse I see in Baghdad will remind me of a body back in Bosnia. Sometimes I can’t even remember where I was or why. I just remember the moment, the look, a sudden snap of a synapse, a blink of an eye, and I’m in another conflict, another year. Every war is different, every war the same.”(Cooper)
“Here, In New Orleans, the compartmentalization I've always maintained has fallen apart, been worn down by the weight of emotion, the power of memory”. (Cooper)
In addition to being a Heavy Rescue Technician for the Fire Department, I am also the Firefighter Director for our local union. One of my many responsibilities as a Union Board member is to represent our members through the disciplinary process and insure that their procedural rights are met. I believe that some of the lapses in judgment and poor decisions that firefighters make in their personal lives are symptoms of the effects of prolonged and constant exposure to tragedy.
I never witnessed death before I became a firefighter. I had never held a toddler who clung to me after being found in a drug house alone for days, severely malnourished and terrified. I was unaware of those less fortunate living on the streets in the shadows of the city without love or support. I never witnessed large amounts of blood, brains, broken bones or broken lives before. I learned about the randomness of tragedy while trying to save a victim of a car accident who won’t ever make it home for family dinner again. When the adrenaline wears off after each response you are left with your own thoughts.
We need to do all we can to help and heal those who serve. I have learned a great deal from this course, reading this book and from my attendance at the conference. I have met people who are involved in peer counseling and the state of Utah’s Post Traumatic Stress Debriefing Program. I have a renewed vigor to help those who serve, my partner and crew at Station 5, and my brothers and sisters on the department.
 2.    The resilience of the human spirit.
“Our country was divided politically and along ethnic lines, and now we don’t think about divisions. When I do burials, when I visit the mortuaries, and I see all the bodies together, just the same, without any clothes, it shows whatever faith, whatever culture, the color, we are all human in the end.”(Cooper)
“In disasters, in war, it isn't governments that help people, at least not early on. It’s individuals: policemen, doctors, strangers, people who stand up when others sit down. There were so many heroes in this storm, men and women who grabbed a bandage, an ax, a gun, and did what needed to be done.”(Cooper)
“In the six days after Katrina, Coast Guard pilots out of Air Station New Orleans saved 6,471 lives, nearly twice as many as they’d saved here in the past fifty years combined.”(Cooper)
Those of us who are involved in emergency services have a responsibility to help prevent the devastating effects of disasters in our communities. I believe there is no greater calling than to help our fellow man. America is indestructible, not because of our infrastructure, our vast resources or our form government. We are resilient and will survive future catastrophes because of the people who reside in this country. Our humanness is our greatest strength and defense.
3.    The warning of not being prepared for disasters and not learning from our past mistakes.
“Some twenty thousand people took refuge in the Superdome, told to come by the city’s mayor, who called it a shelter of last resort. He’d hoped that help would have arrived from state or federal government within two days. It didn't. Hope is not a plan.”(Cooper)
“This is the only chance we get for a test run if something even more horrible happens or something as horrible happens with a nuclear device in this country. And we botched this one. We won’t get another chance to botch it again.”(Cooper)
“ I notice a change. I see the number of TV stories about Katrina start to lessen. I can feel the viewers’ interest ebbing. As the floodwaters drop, the tide is slowly turning. I talk to friends on the phone but don’t have much to say. I want to yell at them, Don’t move on! Don’t go back to normal life, get caught up in the petty falseness you see on TV!”(Cooper)
When recent tragedies become events of the recent past and fade from memory, we as first responders and emergency services personnel must do everything we can to remember the lessons learned from those incidents.
In the book Dispatches From The Edge, Anderson Cooper offers an up-close view of the most harrowing crises of our time, and the profound impact they have had on his life and those affected by disasters. Few people have viewed more scenes of chaos and conflict around the world. Anderson Cooper’s groundbreaking coverage has changed the way we view world disasters.
America was reminded again about the threat of homegrown terrorists when pressure cooker bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon and our collective awareness was heightened because of what was printed on the front page of the newspaper. We must stay vigilant and prepare for natural and man-made disasters in our communities, especially when things are quiet and tranquil. As history has shown us, it is not if it will happen, but when.
Cooper, Anderson. (2006) Dispatches From The Edge: A memoir of war, disasters, and survival. New York: HarperCollins. 222 Pages.

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