The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Politics

Sebastian Junger Talks About RISC and Tim Hetherington


One year ago today, photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros died after a mortar shell exploded near them on Tripoli Street in the city of Misrata, Libya. They were embedded with rebels fighting the army of Colonel Qaddafi. Hondros died of severe brain injuries. Hetherington bled out in the back of a truck through a cut in his femoral artery. It's possible that if someone with
the proper training had attended to Hetherington, he could have been saved. Upon learning this, his friend and Restrepo filmmaking partner Sebastian Junger started up a program call Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC). The organization provides free emergency medical training to freelance journalists so that they may be able to save lives in the field. The first three-day class concludes today in New York City (watch a video here). Additional classes are scheduled for London and Beirut. We called Junger to talk to him about RISC and to ask him what advice he had for young freelance journalists headed into conflict zones.  

When did the idea for RISC hit you?
At Tim’s memorial in London, afterwards I was talking to a former combat medic in the British SAS, I think. I was describing Tim’s wound, and I said, “I assume that’s a fatal wound, that he bled out from the groin?” And the medic said, “You know, not necessarily. There are things you can do to slow down the blood loss, and if you’re near a hospital, all you have to do is slow down the blood loss enough so that they’re alive when you get them to the front door.” That just got me thinking, and so I decided to start a medical training program for freelancers, only freelancers. They’re the ones who are doing most of the combat reporting. They’re taking most of the risks. They’re absorbing most of the casualties. And they’re the most underserved and under-resourced of everyone in the entire news business. The big corporate news organizations, their insurers insist that everyone in the field takes a hazardous environment course, which is extremely expensive, and often those people aren’t running the same level of risk as 25-year-old freelancers. So I just thought we should change that and make it free, and we managed to do it.

What sort of responsibility do those news organizations have, because a lot of them do rely on freelancers to report stories?
I don’t know. Legally? None? Ethically? That’s an open question. I mean, they can’t just start immediately taking care of the entire freelance community. I don’t think that they, I don’t think the numbers would work. I’m not in the news business in that way, so I don’t know.

The fact that freelancers can work cheaply means that the door’s open to almost any ambitious young journalist who is willing to take some risks. It’s also a great, great opportunity, and once you start imposing large costs, even on freelance work, I think that will hurt the freelance market. So ultimately, it is a balance, but I think at the very least, news organizations should encourage and facilitate people to take out insurance policies, get medical training, and things like that. I was never, as a freelancer, no one’s ever suggested to me that I take a medical training course. I mean, no one I know has. So that sort of thing should at least be encouraged by news organizations, even if they are relying on freelancers.

I know that you reported in the former Yugoslavia, and some stories for Outside that were dangerous and involved travel in foreign countries. What sort of training did you have?
Zero. Nothing. I just went.

I was freelance, so no one would train me because it cost money. And I didn’t train myself because it cost money. You have to understand, for a young freelancer, that’s a huge luxury—to spend several thousand dollars on a medical training class. You’re lucky if they’ll spend $1,000 on a bulletproof vest. I mean, in the early 90s, that was the case. A vest was a luxury. A helmet? Forget about it. I was just glad I had a good sleeping bag.

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5 Ways to Take Back Earth Day

Jason Mecier artwork, on auction for Keep America Beautiful. Brought to you by Glad Bags.

"If I get one more email on the subject, I'm going to celebrate Earth Day by kicking Gaia in the nuts," declared journalist Christopher Mims on Twitter yesterday. He expressed a sentiment shared by myself and many other journalists on environment-related beats. The onslaught of press releases begins around mid-March. Marketers reach deep into their creativity banks to commercialize the day that, in 1970, helped kick off the modern environmental movement.

Matthew Wheeland summarized his Earth Day angst in a story for

"Like a plague of cicadas (only more frequent and more devastating) this time of year brings us once again an inundation of marginally relevant, cynicism-inducing announcements tied to the one day of the year when, theoretically, a slightly larger slice of the American populace thinks about the state of the planet."

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Eric Volz Takes on a New Fight in Nicaragua

Jason Puracal with his sisters

More than five years ago, in the small town of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, a 28-year-old American expat from Tennessee named Eric Volz was charged with the murder of his beautiful ex-girlfriend. The 25-year-old woman, named Doris Ivania Alvarado Jiménez, had been raped and killed in a quiet town that was changing as Americans looking for cheap living near the ocean moved onto beachfront property. The locals didn't exactly enjoy the boom, and resentment toward outsiders grew. It seemed that Volz had found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and eventually he was sentenced to life in prison, though the case against him was murky. Reporter Tony D'Souza covered the trial for Outside in 2006 and 2007. D'Souza's story, and others, drummed up media attenton that put a spotlight on Volz's imprisonment. Volz's family also fought to keep the story in the news, and in December of 2007, he was released from a Nicaraguan prison and returned to the United States.

Now, Volz has begun a fight to try and free an American from the same prison where he was kept. Jason Puracal, who moved to Central America as a Peace Corps volunteer in 2002, was arrested in his San Juan del Sur home in November 2011, and was later given a sentence of 22 years for drug trafficking and money laundering. The real estate agent with a Nicaraguan wife and a 4-year-old son went to prison.

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Goldman Awards Roundup: Wild Rivers, Old Growth Forest, Arctic Health

2012Africa_Ikal_AngeleiIkal Angelei on the shores of Lake Turkana. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize

Running Ethiopia's Omo River can be a serious adventure, as we described here in 2008, but more importantly, the river is a lifeline for those who rely on the water and fish of Lake Turkana, at Omo's terminus. Plans to build a massive hydroelectric dam on the Omo, however, would have changed all that -- were it not for the tenacity of 31-year-old Ethiopian Ikal Angelei. A public policy expert and political scientist, Angelei founded Friends of Lake Turkana and rallied many communities around the lake to rise up and fight the Gibe 3 Dam, which would have been the largest in Africa.

They appealed to the various funding sources, including the World Bank, the European Investment Bank and the African Development Bank, and demanded that they defund the $60 billion project. While it would serve as a significant power source for Ethiopia and Kenya, it also would cut off local food sources and harm the lake, a crocodile-rich World Heritage Site and an anthropological hot spot.

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Hikers Vs. Horses in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

Photo: Flikr/tkd540

With their commercial use permits on hold, horse pack operators in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks aren't taking trip reservations and are nervously awaiting a May 23 hearing at which U.S. District Court Judge Richard Seeborg will outline the next steps in a federal lawsuit filed by the High Sierra Hikers Association and dating back to 2009.

The suit accuses the National Park Service of violating the Wilderness Act of 1964 when it approved a General Management Plan and adopted permits for commercial pack and saddle stock enterprises that operate within Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. It says the NPS does not designate an upper limit on horse and mule use in the parks, in which most land falls under Wilderness Act protection, and this leads to "soil erosion, degradation of wildlife habitat, bacterial contamination of water, introduction of invasive weeds, and other harm to park resources."

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