Postmortem: Abuse in Tennessee Walking Horse community

Within minutes, Gino and I had pulled out onto the highway, leading the large trailer towards the point of exchange —McNutt Farm in Maryville— as a cruiser from the County Sheriff’s department cruiser pulled off the highway’s grass median to serve as escort. I looked down at my phone, the digital clock reading 6:43, and typed: “I can’t believe the hassle over a couple of horses.”

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I nearly missed Gino Bachman’s phone call as I pulled off the highway and into an IHOP parking lot. My cellphone, which I thought I’d stashed somewhere on the passenger seat, was lost amongst a scarf, camera bag, and an escaped notebook. As I searched the interior of the car, everything was cast in the dull blue glow of the IHOP sign.

“Don’t go in the restaurant,” Gino said, as I answered my phone on the last ring. “John just got off the 75 and should be there in 25 minutes. I’ll meet you there in 15.”

“There” was the parking lot of a neighboring Home Depot. After I inched my rental car into one of the many open spaces, I looked at the clock —5:56 am.

A little after 6:12 am, Gino pulled in beside me—the engine of his Chevy Silverado vibrating the Blount County SPCA decals that adorned both the driver and passenger side doors. He nodded a quiet welcome as I climbed into the cabin of the truck.

By 6:20, Gino and I arrived at Weigal gas station just outside of Maryville. There, under garish industrial floodlights, sat a 44-foot long white trailer towed by a heavy-duty black pick-up. Inside, ‘John’ and his assistant, ‘Audrey’, greeted Gino with tired smiles (The couple refused to provide their real names).

Two officers from the Blount County Sheriff's office stand with McNutt Farm owner, William McNutt, in front of the transport truck and trailer on November 8, 2013. Due to concerns over security, the transport vehicle removed its license plates and any identifying markings, and received a police escorted to McNutt Farm. (Photo: Adam McCauley)
Two officers from the Blount County Sheriff’s office stand with McNutt Farm owner, William McNutt, in front of the transport truck and trailer on November 8, 2013. Due to concerns over security, the transport vehicle removed its license plates and any identifying markings, and received a police escorted to McNutt Farm. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

Their trailer held the five remaining Tennessee Walking Horses, which had been seized from Larry Wheelon’s barn the previous April. During the first return —of seven horses the previous weekend— John was confronted by some of the horses’ owners at the IHOP in town. This morning, he’d stopped to remove the vehicle’s license plates and identifying stickers — an attempt to preserve the anonymity required to safeguard the animals they often transported for the Human Society of the United States (HSUS).

Within minutes, Gino and I had pulled in lead of the large trailer on the highway, joined moments later by a county sheriff’s department cruiser, which would serve as escort. I looked down at my phone, our small convoy creeping closer to the point of exchange, I noticed the digital clock read 6:43. I then typed: “I can’t believe the hassle over a couple of horses.”

***

I’d written that sentence before, more than three months earlier, after receiving an email from a good friend, fellow Columbia alumnus and astounding writer, Addie Berard. She asked if I was interested in an animal cruelty investigation. I told her: “It depends,” but mentioned I’d be happy to make the connection and discuss details with her contact.

The story focused on a case brought against a celebrated horse trainer and subsequently dismissed in Maryville, Tennessee. Since then, government officials, lawyers, community supporters, and industry critics have been locked in battle: over culture, law, and how we should treat the animals caught in the middle.

Two weeks later, around midnight, I was looking out a dark, fogged plane window as it taxied into the McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, Tennessee. I was destined for a small town I’d never visited, in a state I’d never travelled to, in a region I knew little about.

***

Less than 20 miles from Knoxville, the small town of Maryville lies on the foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains, surrounded by vast tracts of pasture and farmland. Here, in a town of 27,000, Tennessee walking horses have a rich history: School teachers provide inexpensive riding lessons on their own farms, show horses take the field during half-time celebrations at high school football games and children often visit Walking Horse stables on class field trips. Visitors don’t have to look hard to find license plates plastered with the rearing silhouette of a horse, the Walking Horse icon, or overhear residents who eagerly divide the town into two types of people: “horse people” and the others. It was here that Larry Wheelon’s case came before a county judge.

The now-vacant barn Larry Wheelon used to train 27 horses, in Maryville, Tennessee. Wheelon was evicted from the premises in June, less than a month after USDA officials seized 19 of the 27 horses after receiving allegations of animal cruelty. (Photo: Adam McCauley)
The now-vacant barn Larry Wheelon used to train 27 horses, in Maryville, Tennessee. Wheelon was evicted from the premises in June, less than a month after USDA officials seized 19 of the 27 horses after receiving allegations of animal cruelty. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

Larry Wheelon is a 68-year-old horse trainer who operated a stable (above) in Maryville. One morning last April, a federal agent, posing undercover, entered the premises looking for evidence that would corroborate a series of tips she’d collected over the previous year. The agent, a 23-year veteran of the service named Julie McMillan, found enough information that morning to file an affidavit with the county judge, gaining approval for a subsequent search of the premise, and then —a week after that— a seizure of 19 horses from the location.

The seizure set off alarms throughout the industry. Wheelon, who has had between eight and 15 previous citations for alleged abuse, was well connected throughout the walking horse community. At the time of the seizure, he was serving as a director of the Tennessee Walking Horse Trainer’s Association and —perhaps most worryingly— on the association’s ethics committee.

But the history of the Tennessee walking horse is suffuse with instances of abuse dealt to the celebrated animals. Specifically, Larry Wheelon was alleged to have “sored” some of the horses under his care —an act in violation of a federal statute. Soring involves the application of chemicals or action devices to the legs and feet of the animal. The chemicals, which are often caustic, are used to burn and sensitize the horses’ legs. A trainer can then use this associated pain to modify the way the horse walks. When trained in this fashion, the walking horses’ smooth gait is morphed into a high-stepping stride, known in the industry as “The Big Lick.”

At competitions this hectic-looking prance is associated with higher scores and, throughout the competition’s history, greater likelihood of victory. For more than 30 years starting in 1939, the incentives for trainers were clear: if you could sore an animal effectively, you could win both money and prestige. According to some, it was always in trainer’s interest to abuse the animals he was charged to care for.

In 1970, regulations in the industry began to change. In a bill, authored by Maryland’s Senator Joseph Tydings, “soring” was classified a federal offense under the Horse Protection Act. The bill empowered the USDA to investigate instances of abuse within the Tennessee walking horse, and other gaited horse, communities throughout the country.

But enforcement was always the challenge for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which lacked the resources to properly investigate all allegations of abuse. In response, the USDA outsourced some of the regulation to individuals denoted as Qualified Designated Persons, or QDPs, that could be hired directly by SHOW organizations to police the entrants at their events. Outsourcing responsibility to these regulators quickly led to conflicts of interest.

These SHOW organizations were private companies contracted by organizers of horse competitions. In an internal USDA audit in 2010, SHOW-sponsored regulators were found to have recorded lower rates of violations when compared to USDA investigators working the same events. The USDA’s internal investigators noted that the “conflicts of interest” between these QDPs and show organizers led to institutionalized willful blindness.

As described to me, the following situation could easily occur: Trainer A brings their horse in for final inspection before taking the field at a competition. Fellow trainer B, who is also horse breeder, is charged with conducting the examination. Trainer B knows that Trainer A has purchased Trainer B’s colts each season, and will likely continue to do so, provided there aren’t any untoward developments over the remaining shows. Perhaps Trainer B notices something strange about the look or feel of one of Trainer A’s horses —perhaps the legs are a little tender. What are the chances Trainer B will void an upcoming sale by reporting the details of this discovery?

These steady drips of corruption slowly wore away the legitimacy of the SHOW system, and led the USDA auditors to recommend the program be suspended. It wasn’t.

Over time, the low rumbling of continuing abuses became louder. But allegations could only get investigators so far. With the number of people involved and the amount of money at stake, there were few witnesses or participants willing to talk publicly about the industry. Unless, of course, they got caught first.

Gino Bachman, right, compare examination notes with fellow SPCA investigator Crystal Wallace (foreground) and SPCA volunteer, Patti Patterson (background), at McNutt Farm on November 8, 2013. That morning, the SPCA oversaw the return of the final five seized horses, originally seized from Larry Wheelon's stable in April 2013. (Photo: Adam McCauley)
Gino Bachman, right, compares examination notes with fellow SPCA investigator Crystal Wallace (foreground) and SPCA volunteer, Patti Patterson (background), at McNutt Farm on November 8, 2013. That morning, the SPCA oversaw the return of the final five seized horses, originally seized from Larry Wheelon’s stable in April 2013. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

That’s why the stories of Barney Davis and Jackie McConnell were so critical. Davis, who ended up serving jail time for violating the terms of his parole, has since spoken publicly about the practice of “soring” among trainers today. Jackie McConnell, who was secretly videotaped by The Humane Society of the United States abusing his horses in 2012, pled guilty to 22 counts of animal cruelty—and avoiding prison time as a result. Their message: the abuse continues.

***

When I arrived in Maryville, my goal was to understand the case against Wheelon. Among the many I spoke to, attempted to speak to, cornered at road-side restaurants, or interrupted outside the local court house, most individuals seemed divided: The case against Wheelon was either a conspiracy brought by the USDA, HSUS and the SPCA in order to set a precedent, or it was the just desserts for a man who had made his career abusing animals for personal benefit. There seemed to be no middle ground.

What I learned, however, was how a story can so quickly be lost to the so-called “talking heads” and that the reporter, often, can do little to avoid it. For instance, my strategy in Maryville was to speak with everyone who might have a comment on the case —from the county’s district attorney to the server at the local Huddle House, a road-side diner. What became clear, however, was a fundamental miscommunication between those involved in the case, and the reporter (me).

On one side, Wheelon’s supporters presumed that my presence in Maryville was, in fact, a product of my bias. They believed that I had shown up at the behest of the HSUS and USDA to try and proverbially hang Wheelon before a jury could. I was, to them, an outsider who had already taken sides. For Wheelon’s critics —which included the USDA, HSUS, SPCA and a number of other organizations and individuals— my interest in the case was a mixed blessing: publicity might be valuable in the fight to bring Wheelon to justice, but there was a hesitation about being open and honest with a member of the press. Recognizing that both sides were so polarized —and acting in line with their own interests— my role was defined for me, and not by me.

My attempt to offset the imbalance often bore little fruit: calls, messages, notes, and impromptu arrivals among Wheelon supporters were not often welcome. Most of my attempts at contact were rebuffed, or met with “no comment” —and in some cases a clear charge that I was in some way “working for the enemy.” It was that charge that angered me most.

And throughout the reporting process, I was —with few alternatives— forced to rely on many sources who had a clear interest in seeing Wheelon found guilty. I recognized the challenges for both parties battling in the press, but the experience only affirmed my belief in the strength of openness and disclosure: a reporter can provide a clearer evocation of a situation only if both parties are willing to share what they know, how they know it, and why others (outsiders who might read such an article) should come to understand it.

For that reason, if the article for Al Jazeera America seems weighted in favor of the prosecution, of the critics of Wheelon and what he allegedly represents (i.e. abuse towards horses in the industry), it is due to the countless unanswered questions I asked of others.

***

In the trips I made to Tennessee, I consulted the court record, interviewed a wide range of sources, and tried to corroborate testimony from sources I knew had lied to me in the past. I worked to tease out the small details —whether the gate to Wheelon’s barn was open or latched the day Julie McMillan, posing undercover, entered— from the more polarized testimonies of “He’s a guilty man” or “They’ve got the wrong man.” These comments were offered in knee-jerk fashion by most people I spoke with.

I even tracked down Wheelon personally, asking for his own thoughts or feelings on the conduct and practice of the USDA. The response: I don’t want to be quoted. I don’t want to talk. But I’m being persecuted by over-reaching federal organizations.

Shades of Cash, one of the 19 horses seized from Larry Wheelon's stables last spring, looks out of the only window in his pen at McNutt Farm on November 8, 2013.  (Photo: Adam McCauley)
Shades of Cash, one of the 19 horses seized from Larry Wheelon’s stables last spring, looks out of the only window in his pen at McNutt Farm on November 8, 2013. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

What I failed to include in the article, and this is largely the result of editorial taste and space, were the challenges in cooperation between members of the prosecution. Wheelon’s case was originally handled by Assistant D.A. Ellen Berez and, since the dismissal in August, is now being handled by another assistant —a young and, according to some, more “aggressive” lawyer.

My reporting also unearthed differences in opinion, and outright tension, between the USDA special investigator Julie McMillan and D.A. Berez. Some of these issues seemed to typify the challenges between federal and local authorities: territory, leadership, latitude and the willingness to take risks are all a function of an individual’s position. These two women appeared to have different theories as to how this case should have been handled.

In fairness, some of the blame for continued confusion or unrest in the case, also lies with the USDA. Their policy, to abstain from commenting on in-progress cases, was a liability for anyone trying to carefully account for the charges against Wheelon. Because the initial hearing had been dismissed, it was —in theory— a closed case, and some of the vague claims and allegations required evidence that the USDA was simply unwilling to provide.

Without disclosing some of the most basic facts, the USDA missed an opportunity to disarm critics who used this absence of information as signs of a conspiracy. Amid silence, it was possible to suggest the USDA was out on a witch-hunt, that they were creating evidence instead of compiling it, and that their case had no merit.

Personally, it was only in the last three days before publication that I, having finally gained access to details omitted from the public record, felt comfortable committing my accounting of the events to the page.

—–

On November 7, at the Hooters restaurant in Maryville, I met with a source who, for their own safety and interest, I will not name. We spoke at length about a wide range of subjects —life, work, and, in so far as we could, the Wheelon case.

This individual asked me about my own job: what it was like to arrive at a place as a relative stranger, trying to piece together puzzles like this. I told him, quite confidently, that reporters in the field (wherever that field may be) have to rely on the edifying role of truth (or the sum of all people’s version of truth, perhaps) to make headway on the most complex issues.

I told them that the persistent lie is one of the most stubborn things to control —that the decision to remain party to a fallacious account is what usually undoes a source or a subject.

As the conversation continued, this individual shared seemingly new information —information that surprised me in its freshness. In the moment, I felt something akin to joy, having turned the latest page in a book of untold length.

But after leaving the restaurant that evening, I sat in my car with the heat cranked, trying hard to stay warm in the bitter fall evening. The more I thought about it, the less sure I was about the latest round of admissions. I wrote a few notes, adding additional question marks, and then headed back to my hotel. I was struggling with what might be the reporter’s true responsibility: to find consistency amid myriad allegations; to find some acceptable “truth” in the maelstrom of suggestion. (*I did not include this information in the final piece.)

***

For those who read the piece, and more importantly the comments, it is obvious that a single feature story (even at 2,500 words) cannot capture the extent of an issue.

You’ll also notice that, in Wheelon’s case, no verdict —judicial, that is— has been cast. For the few who took issue with some particulars of the piece, I appreciate your interest, attention and candor. For the Tennessee Walking Horse trainers who have eschewed the practice of soring, who have decided to raise their animals with the respect and care outlined by the statues of this country and by the moral compass of any responsible animal owner, I apologize for lumping you in with anyone alleged to be practicing otherwise. But for the vast majority of readers —either casual or committed— I do beg patience.

Today, Congress will hear arguments on the Whitfield Amendment (noted in the piece) in Washington, D.C. For the first time in more than 40 years, individuals on both sides of the aisle will take the stand to describe, in detail, their stance on stricter regulation within the industry. I feel confident stating that petty banter has stood in for reasoned debate for too long, and I can only hope that this hearing provides a venue for sound arguments based on facts —and facts alone.

For a writer who knew little about this world before taking it on last August, I have learned much from my experiences in Tennessee and even more from those who stand against the mistreatment of animals. Regardless of one’s view on the Wheelon case, however, we should be able to agree on one thing: We owe it to those 19 horses to figure out what really happened in Maryville.

Coach Colt looks out the window of his pen at McNutt Farm on November 8, 2013. TKNAME was originally seized when USDA and SPCA officials executed a search and seizure warrant on Larry Wheelon's stable this April. (Photo: Adam McCauley)
Coach Colt looks out the window of his pen at McNutt Farm on November 8, 2013. Coach Colt was originally seized when USDA and SPCA officials executed a search and seizure warrant on Larry Wheelon’s stable this April. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

Our Lesser Evil

Reviled by some for supporting the Iraq War, Michael Ignatieff (who now teaches at the University of Toronto) wrote an often overlooked book during the mid-oughts, called The Lesser Evil. Tackling an ambitious question –how can a state address the threat of terrorism– the book outlines the weakness of democratic institutions in the face of asymmetric (and illegal) wars.

Ignatieff argues that democracies are liable to tear themselves apart by destroying their own systems of justice, curtailing their prized liberties, eroding their support for transparency, and morphing questions of criminality into forever wars against ideology –all in an effort to fight the ghostly others. Long story short, in responding to terrorists eager to harm their country, democratic leaders begin to do the terrorist’s work themselves.

This week, The Atlantic published the latest “recap” on some of the liberties the United States has lost in the fight against Al Qaeda (or other enemies unknown). While few will be shocked by the claims made, or the nefarious future that appears ever-closer, Ignatieff’s initial book is notable for its prescience, even if the man wasn’t with respect to Iraq. Today, The Lesser Evil might be worth a second (or first) look.

In the field: Mefou National Park, Cameroon

While the organization has pledged to rehabilitate and release the more than 300 animals currently under their care, operators say they have delayed because of the security conditions in Cameroonian parks.

A female gorilla stands her ground in an inclosure at a sanctuary operated by an NGO, Ape Action Africa. While the organization has pledged to rehabilitate and release the more than 300 animals currently under their care, operators say they have delayed because of the security conditions in Cameroonian parks.

“The government claims that the national parks are protected,” one operator said, while leading us between the chimpanzee and the young gorilla cages. “But there isn’t a single one we’d be comfortable re-introducing one of our animals into.”

Most of the animals saved by the sanctuary were orphaned after their parents were killed by poachers for sale and/or consumption. Their flesh, or bushmeat, is still considered a delicacy by many.

Is “branding” the answer?

Today, I’ll be speaking on a media panel discussing tourism in Africa. While broad in scope, the intention of the event is to understand not only how journalists cover the continent and shape the stereotypes/conceptions of the region (I.e. Dramatic headlines citing death and disaster, how the media’s appetite for stories from the continent often starts and stops with crisis)  but also to suggest ways to showcase some of these regions as a valuable destination for international visitors.

While compiling a short-list of topics I might discuss, I found it difficult –read: impossible– to distance myself from the crowd I like to criticize. I argue, likely too often for those around me, that the editorial appetite for stories with an Africa theme is small. That there is a cyclical and self-defeating argument made in editor’s offices: the stories aren’t popular enough to warrant the higher costs of their reporting, but failure invest in them confirms the audience will remain small.

That might be true, but it isn’t a sufficient response to the charges of editorial selectivity.

On this platform, and others like it, I tackle “under-reported” Africa in the same manner major networks do: the first sign of a storm creates an opportunity to capture that “illusive reader”. But if I feed that reader conflict and collapse, is that truly appropriate?

Admittedly, there are more questions on this topic than there are answers; with a continent of 54 countries I would hope that’s the case. But I’m eager to follow through with this experiment; to force myself to reflect in the same way I have (and continue to demand) that editors re-think their own positions.

But if the practice of “covering Africa” has to be updated, how do we do it? Thoughts?

In the field: Kribi, Cameroon

I had rented a car to complete reporting in and around the town of Kribi, Cameroon. As I jumped out of the car for what I believed to be the final interview of the day, a four-hour drive from where we started that morning, I could hear an unsettling high-pitched hissing.

Having driven quickly over uncertain dirt, gravel and well-worn cement roads, we (myself and my priceless driver/assistant) shouldn’t have been surprised by the punctured front tire.

But as we worked on the car (thankfully there was a spare) men from a nearby village came out to help. Without any prompting, they had the old tire off, new one on, and were insisting we stay for something to eat and drink.

They didn’t have to help.
But I know we’re both grateful they did.

In the field: Douala, Cameroon

Along a snaking, pot-holed, mud road that leads away from Douala’s international airport, motorists pass road-side food carts, motor repair stores and —more recently— Chinese-operated boutiques selling everything from food stuffs to beauty products. As a young boy struggles with the rusty chain on his bicycle, the afternoon’s traffic hurries past.

Broken CAR: The slow erosion of a state

Things are getting worse. That’s the message on CAR in a piece deftly reported by Tristan McConnell for GlobalPost.

Refugees in CAR. Photo credit: Nicolas Rost
Refugees in CAR. Photo credit: Nicolas Rost

Things are getting worse. That’s the message on CAR in a piece reported by Tristan McConnell for GlobalPost. Presaging the story for War is Boringback in August, I wrote:

In a state where political leadership has been subject to cyclical coups, where power is expressed primarily through the financial means to arm, train and sustain violence, stability will only be found through tortured battle.

That battle, however, was quick to impact nearly all of the country’s 4.4 million people. When I asked the local U.N. representative, Babacar Gaye, about the current state of affairs, his response was dire:

We are in a situation of lawlessness. You have the appearance of power, you have the appearance of a country, but the government has no authority.

Soon, some international actors were calling for action. France, specifically, noted that the CAR was on the brink of “Somalization”, an ode to same condition of lawlessness McConnell alludes to with the title of his new piece. And yet, after the Syrian chemical weapons crisis of August and September, Hollande seemed to walk-back a previous claim that French troops were at the ready. McConnell writes today (my emphasis):

France, which has about 400 soldiers in CAR, is pushing most strongly for moves to stabilize its former colony. But France says it has no intention of deploying thousands of its own troops there, as it did in Mali at the start of the year when it was feared Al Qaeda aligned militant groups were poised to overrun the country.

Finally, McConnell’s notes that CAR’s disintegration has led to further instability, and perhaps a new safe haven, for extremist forces from Chad and Sudan to the east and Mali and northern Nigeria to the west.

Long-term, however, the fractured nature of the rebels should be a warning. In the closing moments of my interview with Mr. Gaye last month, I asked his opinion of Séléka, the coalition group now working to dethrone the CAR’s new government.

“There is always risk of implosion of a coalition,” Mr. Gaye said.  “A revolution always eats its own babies like that.”

The question now is how many lives will be eaten in the process.

Transitions: Where I’ve been and where I’m going.

For those who follow this blog, though, I thought a short update was overdue.

Silence can be a confusing thing. For the past couple of months, I’ve been working on a series of projects —both short and long term— that have divided (i.e. devoured) my time. For those who follow this blog, though, I thought a short update was long overdue.

In July, I began work on a stand-alone Tumblr page (sacrilege, I know —vis a vis WordPress) featuring the latest and most interesting material on PTSD. As a theme, topic, condition, and quiet threat to the American medical system, PTSD  continues to interest me. I can only hope that through the incredible work and reporting being done on this topic it will soon interest a far greater audience, too. While the site is still in its infancy (and not yet public), I hope it will serve as a repository for interesting revelations, stories and —over time— commentary.

In August, I started writing about foreign affairs / international politics for a group called “War is Boring.” The project, originally a standalone site covering all manner of war and peace, is now an experimental collection on Medium, a new publishing platform brought to you by the brains that created Twitter. My posts —ranging from the UN’s responsibility in Syria to the brewing crisis in the Central African Republic— are very much in keeping with previous work posted on this blog.

In September, I traveled to the American south to begin a long-form investigation for Al Jazeera America. While the details of this project are best kept vague (I expect publication soon) an interesting series of events may make this story worthy of continued focus. While I’m not sure what form that will take, there are many more rocks to overturn. Just how and when, however, is still unknown.

This month, I signed on as a contributor for Offiziere, a Switzerland-based foreign affairs website. Over the next couple of months, I’ll be contributing English-language reporting on the situation in Afghanistan as well the so-called “Shadow Wars” currently underway across the globe. Those familiar with my background can expect a particular focus on the African continent —given the events in recent weeks, I believe this will be fertile ground for critical news and analysis.

Later this month, however, this blog will be on the move —with me— overseas. I’ll be (temporarily) relocating to West Africa to report on a number of stories from the littoral states. While many of the specifics are yet to be finalized, the trip will allow significant access to material chronically under-covered in traditional media circles. As these stories emerge, I’ll share them here.

Finally, for those who have subscribed (or those that simply stumbled across this page) I want to thank you for reading. The Internet is a busy place and the fact that you’re here makes what I do worthwhile. So please, check back, follow, and —please— leave questions and comments. After all, if we don’t talk about what matters, who will?

Resisting Resistance: Why Syria isn’t Rwanda…. Or Iraq.

Either way, the distinction in approach should prod a reader towards the ultimate question: On what grounds should the international community (or even The United States) risk the lives of their own for others?

In an op-ed penned last week, Prof. Anne-Marie Slaughter took square aim at President Obama regarding his administration’s reaction (or lack thereof) to new evidence that the Syrian government is using chemical weapons against it’s own people.

Invoking memories of Former President Clinton’s ill-handled response to reports of genocide in Rwanda, Slaughter is quick to warn readers about the cost of inaction:

The reason the Obama administration does not want to recognize that chemical weapons are being used in Syria is because Obama warned the Syrian regime clearly and sharply in August against using such weapons. “There would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical-weapons front or the use of chemical weapons,” he said. “That would change my calculations significantly.”

But while I would like to (and often do) agree that action is not only necessary, but also required in situations of human suffering, the 10-year anniversary of George Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech —and a reflection written by James Wright, yesterday— suggests that the situation presents something more akin to a ‘do and die’ situation

Unabashedly, Wright is quick to note that when a country chooses to fight in war, that country must also accept that they will die in that war. Wright’s suggestion, then, is that the true cost of conflict is not only greater that anticipated, but it is also exacerbated when the mission or outcome (these “goalposts” as Wright calls them) morph over time:

President Bush is correct that it will take time for history to judge the consequences for Iraq of the American military involvement. It is not too soon to acknowledge the costs of that involvement. Nor is it premature to recognize that wars with shifting objectives, wars that pursue values rather than tangible targets, are far harder to reconcile against the costs.

But that is why dualities (to intervene or not) posed by Slaughter should strike the reader as too simplified, too… hell… Hawkish.

In a country like Syria, we’re only just beginning to understand the ways the impact of conflict has deformed our measures of right and wrong, how long-term hostilities, and the people who suffer them, only complicate our understanding of enemy and ally, and how instability that threatens one actor is liable to compel responses from another (i.e. Iran).

To avoid repeated (error-ridden) forays internationally, Wright calls for cooler heads, rational and tested analysis, and clear objectives when intervention is necessary. In this light, it is difficult to adopt (blindly) the clarion call of Slaughter.

In fact, in Slaughter’s own words, intervention should take place regardless of challenges that could create even further complexity and suffering in the long term:

The world does not see the complex calculations inside the White House — the difficulty of achieving any positive outcomes in Syria even with intervention, the possible harm to Obama’s domestic agenda if he plunges into the morass of another conflict in the Middle East.

Opting to challenge Obama’s administration on the basis of populism:

The world would see Syrian civilians rolling on the ground, foaming at the mouth, dying by the thousands while the United States stands by.

With there respective pedigrees, both academics surely understand the immense cost and consequence of the issues they tackle. But behind their arguments, are two radically different assumptions; assumptions that —if correct, and by this I mean in-keeping with the personal philosophies of each academic— follow logically from their worldviews.

For Wright, acts of war or intervention must be informed, or perhaps even derived from, accounting of costs and benefits: providing force for the purpose of principle may well jeopardize any positive “end game.”

For Slaughter, the act of intervention appears as American duty, owed to others given the values espoused by the United States. While Slaughter is not agnostic about the cost of intervention, “the decision to do nothing” violates a far more essential moral code.  [It may also have to do with Slaughter’s privileging of US “soft power,” but that is a story for another post].

Thus, the challenge is overcoming a “level of analysis” problem: the granularities of why war is ‘bad’ are tough to reconcile with an ideological argument that asserts  wars of justice, or on principle, as necessary for their own sake.  Either way, the distinction in approach should prod a reader towards the ultimate question: On what grounds should the international community (or even The United States) risk the lives of their own for others?

If the answer to that question is limited, our expectations for success should be too.

Postmortem: PTSD and Conflict Photographers

Reflecting on Overexposed: A Photographer’s War with PTSD.

Publishing an article is a little like pushing send on a really important email —to millions of people. You hope the spelling is correct and the grammar passable, and that each and every carefully crafted anecdote or event is factually sound. Like an email, the material included is turned over to others for scrutiny, from all corners of the globe.

Last Thursday at 7:17 in the morning, my 16-month project came to an end with the publication (and that dreaded sent-email feeling) of Overexposed: A Photographer’s War with PTSD. For nearly a year an a half, I’d been harassing photographers, editors, leaders in the field, and families of those affected, about the realities of mental illness in the world of conflict photography.

Overexposed: A Photographer’s War Against PTSD from Adam McCauley on Vimeo.

This spring, Gilbertson will release his latest book, Bedrooms of the Fallen, published by Chicago University Press. Information about this project can be found at his website, here.

Throughout this period, I often felt like the proverbial ghost of forgotten (or long-to-be-forgotten) pasts: I would present myself as a professional, curious and fascinated by one’s experience of trauma, only to force the subject to recount some of the most traumatic and haunting moments of their life.

This is exactly how I met the man, Ashley Gilbertson, who would play a most important role in this story.

The first time I saw Ash, he was sipping an espresso in Third Rail Coffee in Manhattan’s West Village. With wild hair, untamed, sporting his customary white shirt with black pants, Ashley kept one eye on me and the other on his young son, playing with a pair of toy cars in the small, busy coffee shop.

I was hesitant to ask the first question —the first of thousands that, at that time, neither of use knew would follow— but found his answers intelligent, considered… almost too perfect —Like a man who’d prided himself on knowing what to say, and to whom to say it.

His aptitude didn’t strike me as fake. In fact, it felt exceedingly honest. However clean the answers had become, the edges had been softened through repetition. The routine response illustrated the problem: mental illness wasn’t just a topic of interest or curiosity for Ashley, it was his way of life.

One of my favorite quotes from this encounter never made it into the article. When I asked about the long-term consequences of covering conflict, he said: “While conflict has a clear start and end point, war lives with families for generation.”

It would take months to recognize just how apt that comment was.

By mid-fall 2011, I had offered to help Ashley as an unofficial photography intern. There wasn’t any money in the post (and whatever remains of modern journalistic ethics would certainly not permit any payment for these purposes), but the position allowed me to learn more about Ashley, his work, and his family.

In the weeks and months that followed, I asked about everything, from the harsh “What did L. Cpl. Miller look like when he was carried down the stairs? to the intimate: “When does Ashley feel safe?” (asked of Joanna, in the final interview for the article).

There was no telling if the questions asked would yield an important (or includable) response, but as I grew to understand both Joanna and Ashley better (a privilege for which I have only the article as return payment) I grew more confident that the story I would eventually tell would be more representative of their own specific struggle than any trend piece on the subject, the ones often written from 50,000 feet with conclusions too neat and tidy.

Heeding advice of a former instructor —something I loath to admit given her penchant, also, to condemn cliché— the the specifics of this story made the piece more universal. Buried in these small details, wider lessons are hidden, and in a world where PTSD is still stigmatized, the most personal anecdotes might inspire others to share their experiences: personal, embarrassing, or otherwise alienating.

This isn’t to say there weren’t hiccups. Crises on both sides (issues too sensitive to speak about, concerns over the veracity of some facts and how they were remembered, the consideration of professional integrity) did give me pause a number of times, but it was the Gilbertson’s unrelenting acceptance, of me and this project, that kept this project alive. The result, at least as far as I could have hoped and have humbly been told, was a story both readable and engaging, that forces the reader to reflect on the facts of the world of mental illness.

Last Thursday, hours after the piece was live, I sent Gilbertson an email to thank him and Joanna (again) for being so patient and supportive during the writing and editing process. I told them that the story was online, and I’d love to hear if they get any response.  That afternoon, I received an email from Ash, who was out of the country on vacation but monitoring the story on Facebook and Twitter. After a brief introduction, and a kind thank you for the piece, he added the following line:

“I always joke about hating being the PTSD guy but today it seems as though I was the hash tag for the condition. How embarrassing!” (*He would later tweet: “I’m so embarrassed” in response to The Atlantic’s tweet about the story)

But this response, alone, says more about who Ashley is than anything else. While few people would choose to be the poster child, or “hash tag,” for a condition, Ash’s willingness to share the story belays an important personal grand incentive: to raise awareness.

“PTSD is still not a recognized wound of war,” Ashley often told me throughout the reporting process.

As proof, he often cited a particular example: While working on Bedrooms of the FallenAsh met the mother of an American military veteran. Distraught by her own family experience with the condition, she talked about the realities of PTSD: If a soldier comes back without an arm or leg, he is praised for his sacrifice and treated like a hero, she told him. “But when her son returned home suffering with mental illness, “people would cross the street to avoid him.”

For those asked to make the ultimate sacrifice, ignorance of, or uncaring silence regarding, the costs and consequences of PTSD is no longer an option. While it affects soldiers predominantly, trauma exerts a toll across a wide array of actors, and the sooner we understand this breadth of impact, the better (or more likely) we’ll be —as a community, country, society— at addressing it.

For being a small part this story, I’m eternally thankful. For everyone that took the time to comment, share, Tweet, or email me about the piece, I am honored you shared those moments with me.

For those who missed the short documentary, published with the article on The Atlantic, I’ve embedded the clip below.