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It is 1:00 a.m. on Thursday, 8 June. At the CNN international news desk in Atlanta, the phone rings. A voice says that the U.S. pilot downed over Bosnia has just been rescued. Admiral Leighton Smith, commander of NATO forces Southern Europe, is on the line ready to make a statement and answer any questions. There is a very long pause.
“At first the CNN staffer didn’t seem to understand what I was saying,” says Captain Tim Taylor, the Navy’s public affairs officer (PAO) in London who made the call. “It took a little explaining, but then I got connected to the right person. I told him the rescue operation had been completed successfully. Within minutes, Admiral Smith was on [CNN] live answering questions.” This was at the same time that the helicopter carrying Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady was landing on board the USS Kearsarge (LHD-3). Admiral Smith’s first call had been to the O’Grady family, the second to CNN.
“People ask me why CNN,” explains Admiral Smith, who is based in Naples, “Well—that’s the channel I get!”
“As soon as I knew the interview on CNN was in progress,” says Captain Jim Mitchell, NATO spokesman in Italy, “I buckshotted releases to all the wire services, newspapers, and networks, then helped Tim Taylor set up a press conference in London.” Together the two PAOs set in motion the fastest possible dissemination of the good news. Two things made this possible—personal relationships and the cellular phone. Captain Taylor, Captain Mitchell, and Commander Mike John, PAO at Sixth Fleet headquarters, know the reporters they work with, they know the producers, their editors, deadlines and satellite times, and cellular phone numbers. In fact, the confusion at CNN came because international desk editor Jim Figner, who these men deal with regularly, was not working that night.
Not so long ago the military seemed to regard the media as their enemies. Now Admiral Smith is dialing the world and answering questions with no preconditions or worked-out scenario.
“I knew who had the information that was absolutely factual. It was me,” Admiral Smith explains. “So instead of letting some pundit speculate, I thought why don’t I pick up the phone and say ‘This is Smith, and this is what happened.’” “This was nothing new,” notes Captain Taylor. “Admiral Smith’s philosophy is to deal directly, promptly, and personally with the media.”
The story of the rescue of Captain O’Grady rested on such direct, prompt, and personal connections. “Early on,” says Jim Mitchell, “it was a reporter who tipped me that a cameraman on Bosnian Serb TV had a tape of the F-16 wreckage, including pictures of the parachute and G-suit. He was peddling it for 10,000 deutsch marks—about $14,000. So that was hopeful. It meant O’Grady could have survived. But then the tape actually aired and all it showed was the back end of the plane with no indication of survival. That was bad. Then I realized the tape being shown was a minute shorter than what I had been told. Plus, I started hearing from reporters I knew in Pale, the
Admiral Smith's first call had been to the O'Grady family, the second to CNN.
Bosnian Serbs’ capital, telling me that they were getting phone calls from people who would say ‘Don’t worry, he’s safe’ and hang up. Then, I got calls from U.S. reporters saying that the name of the pilot, his family, and their location were known. I just told them that if that information were put out and the pilot had been captured, his captors would use facts about his family to break him. No one reported it.”
If the media were helping NATO and the Navy, the military was trying to reciprocate. During the week O’Grady was on the ground in Bosnia, the Sixth Fleet continually helicoptered journalists to the Kearsarge—just in case.
“But there was nothing going on!” Commander John remembers. “They were getting restless. We were putting on canine and equestrian drills [dog & pony shows] to keep them interested. But on that last day, only a photographer from Newsweek and our own Navy and Marine Corps news cameraman Petty Officer Josh Hudson were on board.”
Hudson took the video of Scott O’Grady arriving on board that told the world the pilot had made it home. That was 7:30 a.m. in Italy. By 2:30 P.M., a full complement of reporters and television crews were on their way by helicopter to the Kearsarge. The ABC producer, representing the pool, put the Hudson videotape up on a satellite for worldwide broadcast.
Cooperation marked the whole effort. After Admiral Smith went live on the “Today” show at 12:09 p.m. London time, he did “Good Morning, America” and the “CBS Morning News” from the same NBC studio. He appeared on “Nightline from the RIA studio in Naples, where Captain Mitchell’s Italian associate translated New York’s instructions to the Ital' ian technicians.
“It worked because of Admiral Smith- He’d had no sleep and no special preparation, but he knew the operation in every detail, and he just told it,” Captain Mitchell says.
He told it, all right—in a down-to-earth style, with no military jargon. The phot was Scott, a “gutsy kid” who “kept his cool.” Admiral Smith described O’Grady’s rescuer, Marine Colonel Martin Berndt, as “a strapping Marine who reached out and hauled him into the cockpit.” But Admiral Smith had a harder time when he talked about the Marines who jumped out of the helicopters to face the unknown. “We didn’t know if they’d find Scott or a shepherd or a bunch of very angry Bosnian Serbs.”
The possibility of a trap was foremost. Admiral Smith describes his decisionmaking process: “I had sent a message to the Bosnian Serb commanders—‘I m coming in to get him. Stay out of my way.’ But then they’d said they’d captured him. We didn’t believe it. A lot of the so-called experts on TV were saying he couldn’t be alive. But I was in Vietnam. I remembered pilots who survived worse crashes. I called Marine Commandant General Carl Mundy before I sent his guys in. He said, ‘Do it.’ When I met the Marines on the Kearsarge, they thanked me for letting them go in. These were boys—but what guts, what training-
Admiral Smith seemed puzzled that his openness with the media or his easy manner is worthy of comment. People have a right to know. What did he say when he heard that Captain O’Grady was safe? “Hot damn.” What did he say to O’Grady? “How many ants does it take?” “I also said, ‘Son, I’m not the hero. I haven’t the foggiest idea what it is to be a hero, but I can tell you to get ready. The next six days may be just as hard as the last six!”’
Then Admiral Smith had to go. He was delivering the commencement address at the American High School in Naples. He had had a speech all prepared, but when he practiced it for his wife and daughter, Mrs. Smith had a suggestion: “That sounds fine. But don’t you think those kids would rather hear about the rescue? Just tell them about it in your own words.” So he did.