IN THE END, I HAD VISIONS OF HENRY BLAKE. Surely at least a few of you remember the character played by McLean Stevenson on the TV version of M*A*S*H: the lovable goofball of a lieutenant colonel who commanded the 4077th, a ragtag surgical unit doing its best to save lives and maintain its sanity in the midst of the Korean War. During the show’s third season, Stevenson decided to toddle off to greener pastures—big mistake—and so Henry was written out of the narrative in memorable fashion: Finally given his discharge papers, he boards a plane bound for the States that is, in short order, shot down over the Sea of Japan. No survivors. Yeesh.
The last thing I wanted to contemplate was John Spong’s untimely passing, but the extraordinary risks of spending an extended period of time in Iraq—and not just anywhere, but in the famously and exceedingly dangerous city of Ramadi—were very much on my mind when our lovable goofball of a senior editor traveled halfway around the world to report “Carlos Brown Is a Hero (No Matter What He Says)”. The idea for the assignment was his. One of his best friends from high school in Austin, a Navy doctor named Carlos Brown had been called up for a seven-month stint commanding a surgical team in the thick of the action. John decided that he wanted to be embedded with Carlos’s guys and see firsthand the toll the war was taking, and the military gave its blessing—so I gave mine. What else could I do, other than thank him for his sacrifice in the name of great journalism, outfit him with thousands of dollars’ worth of body armor, and send him on his way?
Well, for one thing, worry. A lot. I worried when he flew from Texas to Kuwait. I worried when he flew from Kuwait to Baghdad. I definitely worried when he flew from Baghdad to Ramadi. Even though he got in the habit of pinging me most days, I worried about John every second he was at Charlie Med, as the medical support unit where Carlos worked is known, and especially when he ventured off the base and into the city. He sent pictures, truly horrific ones, of the conditions on the ground and of the wounded soldiers and civilians brought in several times a day (a slide show of his best images is on our Web site. He sent anecdotes, equally horrific, about what he had seen and would never forget. There were lighter moments too, when he and his old pal played computer games and goofed around for the camera.
The casual use of technology to stay in touch a million miles away was more of a revelation for me than it should have been. Carlos’s brother, Glenn, a former Texas Monthly intern who can now buy and sell us as a lawyer with Google, set up a blog that allowed Carlos to trade video messages back and forth with his family and keep the rest of us in war-is-hell overload. John’s cell phone, I discovered, could be reached in Baghdad by dialing his Austin number—no area code—and e-mail worked as though he were around the corner. This was crucial on his last night in the Middle East, when his means of transportation back to the West got all squirrelly on him and he had to enlist the folks here at home to help. “What if,” I thought, “after two weeks in the scariest place on earth, his worst experience is with an American airline?” And then: “What if something happens to him on the way back? What if he pulls a Henry Blake?”
Happily, he made it to Texas safely, uneventfully, and, shockingly, in full beard, carrying with him all the amazing tales we’re lucky to be able to share with you in this issue.
Beaches, sex, tattoos, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bill Paxton, and the story that San Antonio stuffed shirts have been waiting for us to publish.