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Life's Surprises

September 10, 2006

My major disappointment in high school was not getting into West Point. I was awarded a state academic scholarship, so I enrolled at the New York State College of Forestry with the aim of boosting my science credits and then reapplying for the highly competitive military academy.

I had no interest in being a forest ranger. But I found lots of other fascinating things to do at the woodsman school, part of Syracuse University—drinking, partying, late night bull sessions, cheering the football team, marching with the ROTC drill team, traveling on the cross country squad. Having so much fun living the rah-rah college life, I cultivated an antsy aversion to attending classes. After a restless semester and a half, I dropped out and joined the Army, happy to be continually on the go as an active duty soldier.

I could never have imagined how life’s surprises would toss me into a war in Vietnam, propel me in and out of West Point, and eventually land me in a journalism career.

Sometimes I wished I’d taken those forestry college classes more seriously. As a child, the woods, fields, lakes and seashores where I played were taken for granted as natural elements. In Vietnam, the jungle-covered mountains were deadly natural features that hid elusive enemy soldiers and crash sites of aircraft that ran out of luck. At West Point, every sort of terrain on Earth harbored a historic battlefield or a potential battleground.

I began to appreciate ecology by living in New Jersey—with its clash of vibrant gardens and god-awful chemical fumes. I began to wonder about public environmental awareness in doing news reports on towns hell bent on paving over the source of their neighbors’ water supply, or ignoring the toxic goo oozing from the town dump or brushing aside the hazardous waste at the old factory where so many folks once worked.

I still remember my skeptical amazement when a local environmentalist rose from the audience at a town council meeting one night in 1978 and said that the toxic chemical herbicides used in the Vietnam War were being sprayed on brush along the electrical transmission lines that crossed the Rockaway River, a regional water supply stream. A phone call to the electrical company the next day confirmed that startling statement. Indeed, the nonchalant spokesman said, the same herbicides used in Vietnam, combined in a military mix called Agent Orange, had been used along power line corridors in New Jersey for decades.

My coverage of small town council meetings, school board budgets and other staples of local news quickly expanded to examine the environment these communities were nestled in. My curiosity led to covering local environmental commissions, regional watershed planning meetings aimed at public education on the federal Clean Water Act and flood control meetings hosted by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The tip about the utility company's use of herbicides led me to an extensive investigation into Vietnam veterans’ health concerns about the toxic brew of Agent Orange and other herbicides and pesticides used to kill off forests, rice fields, mosquitoes and ticks in Vietnam. My reports in the Morristown (NJ) Daily Record, which included interviews locally and nationally with Vietnam veterans diagnosed with cancer within years of returning home, were widely distributed by The Associated Press.

That was the beginning of what became an ongoing, hands-on education in reporting on environmental issues that grew from examining local community concerns. Along the way, I wrote a book on what I was learning, titled A Citizen’s Guide to Grassroots Campaigns (Rutgers University Press, 2000). In doing real life research, at some point I transformed from being an impatient, indifferent student to being a well-disciplined writer. That discipline enabled me to finally complete a college degree.

The latest surprise life has thrown my way is that the kind of community-based environmental coverage I learned as a municipal reporter won a number of awards this year, honoring the “Toxic Legacy” special report I worked on last year as a member of an investigative project team at The Record of Bergen County, NJ.

Due to the “Toxic Legacy” team winning the 2005 IRE Medal, the Investigative Reporters and Editors top award, I was invited to be a speaker on environmental reporting at a national conference of journalists. I’ve also been giving presentations on environmental investigations to college classes, a development I’d never have imagined when I was an antsy forestry college student.

The latest award is particularly ironic for a former college dropout—the 2006 Grantham Prize for Excellence in Reporting on the Environment, sponsored by the University of Rhode Island’s Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting and the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment.

To quote from the award announcement: “Grantham Prize jurors described The Record's 2005 series as ‘environmental watchdog reporting of the highest order, marked by exhaustive reporting, stellar writing, and an innovative multimedia presentation that sets a new standard.’ The award is to be shared by nine Record journalists who spent eight months investigating how actions of the [manufacturing] company, government officials, and organized crime exposed northern New Jersey residents to numerous environmental risks.”

You never know where life will take you, but I’ve learned a lot along the way.

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