Fishbowl 5: CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr

Barbara Starr and Brian Vitagliano

Beginning today through Wednesday the Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer will air “The Journey Home,” a special series by CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr and producer Brian Vitagliano who undertook an extraordinary week-long assignment from the front lines of Afghanistan to cover the journey home of wounded US troops. The CNN team was granted exclusive access to ride on military transport aircraft that had been turned into flying hospitals by Air Force medical teams and travel with them as they evacuated critically wounded troops from Afghanistan to a military hospital in Germany and then on another military flight from Germany back to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington DC. Starr, who says the best part of her job is “seeing the ultimate impact of Washington ‘politics and policy’ on the lives of American troops and civilians in places like Afghanistan and Iraq,” took some time to chat with Fishbowl about the series:

What prompted you to pursue this particular journey and story?

The military generally restricts our access to wounded troops. At hospitals like Walter Reed and Bethesda we are only allowed to interview troops already, thankfully, well on their way to recovery. This journey was about something very different. We rode on the evacuation flight with “just wounded” troops, some just a couple of days after being hit. Most were still on morphine, in pain, and worried about what was ahead for them. And on this assignment we also were able to interview the Air Force in flight medical teams who run this flying “ICU” at 40,000 feet. Some of them have been flying these evacuation flights for years now. This was a remarkable way to see firsthand that journey home.

What was the most difficult part of this assignment for you?

I think everyone will tell you the same thing. No matter how many trips to the front line, it is still staggering to see how young the troops are. When troops are first wounded they are handed a cell phone as soon as possible so they can call home. Many of these young troops make that first call back…to the mothers. The absolute toughest moment came after the camera was turned off and one of the young soldiers lying on a stretcher, asked me if Americans had “forgotten” the troops were “out there fighting.”

How did the wounded troops respond to your presence?

Because of patient privacy issues we only interviewed those who felt comfortable talking. They were overwhelmingly positive. Troops like to talk about what they are doing, what they’ve seen and how they feel. Young soldiers are some of the smartest people in this country and they have an acute sense of public and political opinion about the war. They absolutely know what people are saying – pro and con about the war. They will tell you though that they are in Afghanistan to do a job.

What was the most shocking or surprising thing you learned?

Not shocked or surprised….just reality. Right now, about 300 to 400 troops a month are wounded in the war as the fighting has picked up significantly this summer. On our 41-hour journey from Germany to Afghanistan, back to Germany and back to Washington, we saw exhaustingly meticulous critical medical care for the nearly 40 wounded on our flight. I could get off the plane and go home to sleep. The troops don’t have that luxury. Flights now run almost every day. The wounded keep coming.

What do hope viewers take away from this series?

A little CNN-inside baseball. My CNN team was me and the very wonderful Brian Vitagliano, a New York based CNN producer. He brought a single hand-held camera to shoot everything the entire trip. The chat out there is endless about what is happening in the news business. I am a big believer in “its easy.” You just pick up your notebook and camera and start working.

What Brian and I want is for viewers to know the heart we put into telling these stories, but we want them to also see the remarkable heart of young troops who serve the country and the medical teams that stay up for days on end taking care of them.