Behind the Story: Covering Afghanistan and American Vets

NBCU Academy Presents “Behind the Story”

As NBC News Correspondent Courtney Kube left Kabul, Afghanistan, only a few weeks before the city would fall to the Taliban, she had a moment of realization. 

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“I thought, wow, after all these years and dozens of times I’ve traveled there, I may never set foot in this country again,” Kube said. “And that it wouldn’t be a place where us journalists would be welcome anymore.” 

For Veterans Day, Courtney Kube and Pentagon Producer Mosheh Gains go Behind the Story with NBCU Academy to explain what it was like covering the fall of Afghanistan and other stories about American veterans.   

The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.  

What was it like to cover the withdrawal from Afghanistan? 

Mosheh Gains: What was interesting was just how quickly everything fell. We heard various timelines from the [Pentagon], but those timelines were really different than we were expecting. The “hindsight is 20/20” conversation — the little nuggets that we got along the way, that really became a kind of preview of what was to come. Courtney was just telling me not too long ago that when we were going through some emails to just kind of see the actual timeline, through the tidbits that we were getting was really the cautionary tale. 

Courtney Kube: We were leaving Kabul in July, about three or four weeks before the Taliban took over. I said to a military official, “I wonder if I’m the last person who will ever sleep in this room on base.” And he said, “The Taliban will have taken over this area by September 11, so you may be the last one.” I was really struck by that, because everyone thought, you know, within six months, maybe the Taliban would take Kabul, and but for someone to tell me “Oh, no, by September 11.…” And sure enough, it was almost four weeks earlier that they did have Kabul. 

How does social media play a role in your reporting? 

Gains: We have a social desk here at NBC News. When the [Taliban] attack on Abbey Gate [at Hamid Karzai International Airport in August] happened, our social team reached out to us and sent videos that people had uploaded to social media. We were talking to our sources to verify the validity, but the social desk and the use of social media really does help our coverage — not just with big events, but even with the day-to-day.  

Kube: We wouldn’t have known what’s going on there without local people tweeting about it. And then we can go to the military and say, “Hey, what’s going on, there’s reports of an explosion, there’s reports of artillery, fire, whatever it is.” 

Gains: Any given day, I might get an email saying, “There is a situation, a lockdown on a base, can you make calls, see if there’s anything to it?” We know going into it that a lot of them are not true, but you always have to do the due diligence and call. Nine times out of 10, it’s not something. But then there’s that one or two times when you call, and get someone on the phone from the Public Affairs Office, or another source, and they say, “Most likely this is this is actually true and here’s what I’m hearing.” Then we start taking notes and start to paint a picture of what’s going on.

How does the team cover veterans and help tell their stories?  

Gains: In addition to covering the Department of Defense, also in our portfolio of Veterans Affairs (VA). We check in with them to get a pulse of what’s happening. And, and so from there, we’ve been open to a lot of Veterans Affairs groups, and different associations. From there we’ve been able to get to know some really compelling people and hear their stories, hear their struggles, but more so than just hearing them bring them to light. 

Kube: One that meant a lot to me was a story that we did about the Vet Centers. These are community-based care facilities that are sponsored by the VA, but they’re actually run by veterans. They’re literally the storefront facilities where veterans can walk in, and another vet will meet them with a cup of coffee, and they can sit down and they can talk and it’s someone who understands what they’ve been going through. There was a situation where the VA changed the processes for how these Vet Centers were operating. It was putting a real toll on the people who were running them, we did a story and the VA pulled back some of these measures.   

Gains: One of our first stories that we actually did together was when we went down to Camp Lejeune. Funding for hurricane relief down at Camp Lejeune had not been appropriated. You had all these legacy buildings that go back to World War II which just had mold everywhere. We were able to see the damage that was from the past hurricane season, the next hurricane season coming up. But you talk about impact. From the perch that we’re sitting on, we really do have that opportunity to shed light where light needs to be exposed and put truth to where things are being covered up. It is really such an honor and privilege to be able to do that from the perch that we have here.  

Kube: As journalists we have a unique role, a responsibility to do stories like that. I feel fortunate that we’re able to do that. I’ve been really blessed at the Pentagon to watch some big stories that our colleagues [outside NBC News] have broken. Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center] was a big one over the years, when the Washington Post published an expose showing how both active duty and veterans were not getting the care they deserved.  

Another one was the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, the MRAPS. Service members were being injured, being killed, because of the vehicles they were driving around in Iraq and Afghanistan. And there was this [MRAP] vehicle that was really expensive, but the Pentagon was resistant to buying it. When [then-Defense Secretary Robert] Gates read about it in the media, he started buying them hand over fist — billions and billions of dollars — and they save [soldiers’] lives. Those are the kinds of things that we hear at the Pentagon. As reporters we are able to change lives and to help people. That’s one thing we’re really lucky to do.