Thanksgiving Eve, 2002, Mojave Desert, Calif. - While families across America roast turkeys, bake pies and begin pulling out their holiday decorations, the U.S. Army's First Cavalry Division from Fort Hood is training for war. The division's battleground is the Army's National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., in the Mojave Desert. There, the soldiers work on battle maneuvers, heavy combat and tank training - the types of high-tech tactics credited with swift, accurate attacks in the Gulf War. And although this exercise was scheduled as routine training, the 30-day mission is designed specifically to simulate military conditions American troops would face if sent to Iraq.
"First Cav is nicknamed 'America's 9-1-1,'" says Sarah Dodd, reporter for CBS11-KTVT in Dallas. "They are always the first in. They were first deployed to Kuwait last year as the U.S. began the war on terrorism, and they will be the first soldiers in if the U.S. invades Iraq."
There's probably no reporter in America more familiar with "America's 9-1-1" than Dodd, BA '96, but it's a relationship that did not develop overnight. In the days following Sept. 11, 2001, most journalists flocked to Ground Zero in New York City, but Dodd's instincts led her to Waco.
"After the initial shock of Sept. 11, I immediately thought of Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer. As a Baylor alum, I had a special interest in their detainment. After the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and talk of a U.S. attack on Afghanistan, their positioning became more relevant," she says.
From Waco, she and her crew went to Killeen, Texas, where the largest military installation in the country is based at Fort Hood. "Once we were there, we didn't want to leave. The soldiers were on 24-hour alert," Dodd says.
For more than a month, Dodd filed daily reports as Fort Hood soldiers began organizing. "We were a constant there. We went on training exercises with the soldiers and watched them prepare," she says. "We had a sense that something was going to happen in the Middle East and that the soldiers at Fort Hood would play a key role."
That intuition paid off. In early November 2001 as Fort Hood soldiers moved out to Kuwait as part of a mission that would later be named "Enduring Freedom," Dodd and CBS11 cameraman Rex Teter went with them. They were the only television journalists in the world who were allowed to travel with the U.S. soldiers to Kuwait and as such, they became the eyes and ears of a nation.
For seven days, Dodd and Teter filed stories on everything from the living conditions of the soldiers to Iraqi border surveillance to the "The Boneyard," 10 miles of desert filled with leftover artillery and burned-out tanks - remnants of the Gulf War more than 10 years ago.
As American soldiers prepared to launch the war on terrorism, Dodd says reporting news on the Kuwaiti installation was a battle of its own. "The Kuwaiti government was monitoring our feeds and watching our stories on the CNN International broadcast," she says. "They were concerned about our reports of the U.S. increasing the number of troops at Camp Doha, and they didn't want the Iraqis to know how many soldiers were there."
The two journalists were given a military escort, and each morning the news team trekked out hours from base camp to the kabals, or desert camps, being set up by American soldiers. Dodd and Teter spent long days chronicling what was going on in the field and evenings editing stories and feeding them by satellite back to the United States. Dodd's stories were aired on local and national CBS broadcasts, then released as pool footage for general network use, airing on stations across the nation.
"At Fort Hood, we were just reacting and reporting," Dodd says. "The reporter instinct had kicked in and we were just trying to get information. Once we were invited to go to Kuwait with the soldiers, everything changed, and all of a sudden there was this tremendous responsibility of not just getting the information, but communicating it back to the rest of the world in a way that captured its significance."
It was a responsibility Dodd had been preparing for since her undergraduate years at Baylor, where she was a communications specialist major. She got her first reporting job while at Baylor and interned at KXXV-TV in Waco her senior year. She tackled the internship by shadowing reporters and helping gather information. She then wrote and edited her own version of each day's story, asking the news director to critique her work. Impressed by her initiative and talent, the news director soon promoted her to weekend reporter and Sunday anchor.
After graduation, Dodd took a position in sales, but when a television news director in East Texas contacted her a year later about a reporting job, she decided to return to television journalism. "I just needed to give it a shot, otherwise I would have always wondered 'what if,'" she says.
She accepted a job at KETK in Longview, Texas, and worked as a "one-woman band," covering everything from small-town murders to hometown heroes. "I clicked around in 3-inch heels with a 30-pound camera in one hand and a 25-pound tripod in the other in the 100-degree Texas heat," she says.
From Longview, she moved to Tyler's KETK anchor desk and in 1999 was hired as morning and noon anchor at KWTV in Oklahoma City, a CBS affiliate. In 2001, she returned to Dallas and began at CBS11, eager to work with Dallas television journalist Tracy Rowlett. "The chance to come home to Dallas and learn from a veteran like Tracy was an incredible opportunity," Dodd says.
During 2002, Dodd covered Dallas City Hall, which included daily reports on a contentious mayor's race in January and runoff in February. "If I ever deserved hazard pay, it would be when I was covering the Dallas mayor's race," she jokes, referring to the contest between former journalist Laura Miller and businessman Tom Dunning, which drew national attention.
"Dallas City Hall has kept me busy, but the relationship that I've built with Fort Hood has kept the soldiers on my mind," she says. In March and September, she traveled to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to follow up with Fort Hood soldiers at Camp X-Ray, the holding center for suspected terrorists being detained by the U.S. military. While there, her news crew saw firsthand the detainees' situation; they also interviewed a U.S. soldier who was attacked and bitten by a suspected terrorist.
"It was an interesting news angle because it was the first incidence of violence between a suspected terrorist and a soldier," she says.
Her interest in following the First Cav's activities led her to Fort Irwin for the division's Thanksgiving training mission. She spent several days with the soldiers, accompanying them on tracking maneuvers, conducting interviews and even dodging clouds of tear gas that were dropped periodically. The imminence of a war with Iraq made the maneuvers all the more compelling, she says.
"If there was ever any doubt, it was put to rest with the Republican sweep of the November elections," Dodd says. "President Bush has the political and moral support he needed. It's just a matter of time before these soldiers are applying the skills they honed in the Mojave in the Iraqi desert."
At the end of Dodd's stay at Fort Irwin, Col. Michael Ryan, Brigade Commander for First Cav, gave her the division's "Iron Horse Award." The simple, framed certificate recognizes her "willingness to endure hardship in order to present a fair and balanced story" ? a small token of gratitude from a group of soldiers likely to have a big impact in the coming months.
"Someone once told me that if you find a career you love, you'll never work a day in your life," Dodd says. "I feel fortunate to have found that kind of career and to be able to tell the story of the First Cav soldiers."
Editor's Note: In mid-January, the First Cav was deployed to the Middle East.