What A Week For News

This was quite the week to begin a new job in the news business but, as they say, timing is everything.

As I write this, the fugitive suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing has just been taken into custody, the search for more victims of the Waco fertilizer plant explosion goes on and the man whose visionary creation for a national general interest newspaper, Al Neuharth, has died.

Although I began my career working for a series of small newspapers in New York, Florida and Illinois, it was USA TODAY — where I worked for nearly 24 years — that made my career. Thanks to the newspaper, I traveled the country and the world covering the biggest news of the day. I wouldn’t trade those years for anything.

But the news business, as we know, eventually changed. A few years ago, I left to join the online world with AOL News and then The Huffington Post. And now, in this most momentous week for news, I begin the latest — and arguably the most exciting — phase of my journalism career as senior executive producer for digital news for the new Al Jazeera America.

We are just getting started and won’t launch until later this year. There is much work to do until then but I hope you will follow our progress and check us out when we make our debut.

In the meantime, read the release about myself and my colleague Tony Karon here.

History Has Been Made

The news just broke: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is lifting the military’s ban on women in combat. The move will open hundreds of thousands of front-line positions to women, clearing away the daunting career barriers that have been in place since a 1994 rule that prohibited women from being assigned to small ground combat units (of course, thousands of women have been “attached” to such units and the world did not end).

I have covered this issue for more than two decades and wrote about military women’s long slog toward acceptance, most recently here.

No doubt, social conservatives will decry the move as the end of civilization and at least one gadfly will use the announcement to raise funds for her questionable organization. But women are already on the front line and this nation could not go to war without them.

It was true back in 1999, when I shared a leaky, muddy tent in Albania with women warriors during the Kosovo War:

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And it remains true to this day in Afghanistan.

Bravo to the Pentagon for lifting the already irrelevant ban on women in combat.

Nancy Pelosi Is Staying

The news this morning that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California will stay on to head the Democratic caucus for another two years ends speculation on Capitol Hill on who will be in charge of the minority party during the upcoming 113th Congress.

Pelosi has already secured her place in history as the first woman to serve as speaker of the House. I was covering Congress in 2006 when it became clear that Democrats would take over the House in a wave election. USA TODAY sent me to Albuquerque, N.M., to interview the future leader, whose schedule was so tight that the way I could get a few minutes was to meet her on the campaign trail. It was worth it though as my profile of the highest ranking woman in U.S. history would later show.

Though Pelosi went on to win the votes of her caucus, her tenure as leader was hardly without bumps or controversy — none more divisive than her pivotal role in pushing through health care reform. Still, as I wrote for AOL News, by the time Republicans took back the House and ousted her as speaker, historians and nonpartisan political observers ranked her among the most effective legislators in history.

The Last World War I Veteran

The nation will observe Veterans Day this weekend without a single American survivor of the First World War alive to mark the occasion. Yet as we approach the 100th anniversary in 2014 of the “war to end all wars,” you will doubtless hear much about Frank Buckles, America’s last doughboy.

I interviewed Buckles on his West Virginia farm in 2007 when is was 106 years old. At the time I featured him in a USA TODAY cover story, he was one of four known surviving veterans of World War I.

Photo by H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY

Soon after, I was offered a book contract to write about his Zelig-like life, which the publisher wanted in a hurry given Buckles’ advanced age. While the deal fell through, the book proposal eventually fell through, an outline I prepared of his Zelig-like life came in handy when I wrote his obituary for AOL News four years later when he was 110.

One of the first stories I covered for The Huffington Post was Buckles’ military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. In a nod to the new multimedia world we all now live in, I used my iPhone to shoot a clip of the honor guard removing the coffin from the caisson.

Before the funeral, though, I led the reporting on Buckles’ daughter’s insistence that he lay in honor in the U.S. Capitol rotunda. Having covered President Ronald Reagan’s state funeral, I knew that would be highly unusual given that only 32 national figures had been similarly honored. One of my articles, an exclusive interview with the family of one of the most highly decorated soldiers of WWI, contributed to the decision by congressional leaders to deny the request.

Buckles lives on in the fight over dedicating a national memorial to World War I veterans in Washington. Before he died, his daughter and a Michigan filmmaker wheeled him into a U.S. Senate hearing room to speak in favor of¬†nationalizing a modest monument to District of Columbia residents who fought in the war. But as I reported, local officials — whose constituents died and still die for their country without a vote in Congress — revolted and the monuments backers are now looking to establish their memorial elsewhere on the National Mall.

Recalling Another Vice Presidential Campaign

Last week’s debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan got me thinking of another national campaign I covered a dozen years ago that also saw two running mates square off in Danville, Ky. I’m talking about the historic 2000 election that not only ended in the Florida recount but pitted incumbent Vice President Dick Cheney against the first Jewish candidate on a major ticket, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. The Democrat-turned-Independent is retiring this year but in the fall of 2000, he was a hot political commodity and I was the reporter USA TODAY assigned to travel on his plane during the fall campaign.

With the candidate on his 2000 vice presidential campaign plane

From Bangor, Maine, to Seattle and every swing state in between, I was with Lieberman 24/6 (the Democratic veep press corps was the only one that got off for the Jewish sabbath). I reported on the highs — watching in the studio as he did his schtick on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart¬† and Late Night With Conan O’Brien — and the lows — charges “the moral conscience of the Senate” turned partisan and fickle on the campaign trail. And I was at Gore-Lieberman headquarters in Nashville on Election Night, reporting¬† on the team that covered the fallout that ended more than a month later at the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark decision Bush v. Gore.

A few years later, I traveled to Manchester, N.H. to cover Lieberman’s lackluster campaign for the top job in the 2004 presidential election and, a few weeks later, wrote about his decision to call it quits and stay on Capitol Hill.

Over the years, I’ve weighed in on Lieberman’s ability to infuriate his once-fellow Democrats, his neoconservatism , the political view of his fellow Orthodox Jews and his chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Whatever you think of Joe, after 24 years in the Senate, all I can say is gey gezunterheyt, which is Yiddish for “go in good health.”

PTSDrone

Who doesn’t know that post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a growing problem among troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan? I’ve written about the toll combat stress has taken on women warriors back from the post-9/11 wars and how what was once known as “shell shock” still haunts World War II veterans.

But today I went on HuffPost Live with host Ahmed Shihab-Eldin to talk about a new kind of combat stress: the toll on U.S.-based crews who remotely control drones thousands of miles away from the physical battlefield. They may get to go home to their families at night but the stress on these airmen is just as serious.

Read about the segment here and see what others are saying here.

And be sure to check out my perspective as a reporter who went to Utah to interview the surviving crew of the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, and more recently to Colorado to talk to the next generation of drone pilots at the Air Force Academy.