I've worked for lots of great writing outlets -- and each of them seem to have their own way of caching material. If you'd like to see more samples, or see in them in a different format, please let me know.
WRITING SAMPLES: Content Creation
WRITING SAMPLES: Press Releases
WRITING SAMPLES: Books
Western North Carolina's 25 Best Hikes
This book, which I wrote and which was published by Mountaineer Publishing, covers 25 hikes in the Appalachians generally west of Asheville. It is in a second printing.
Western North Carolina's 25 Best Easy Waterfall Hikes
This book, which I wrote and which was published by Mountaineer Publishing, covers 25 waterfall hikes in the Appalachians generally west of Asheville. It is also in a second printing.
WRITING SAMPLES: Reporting
The high price of war leaves one man broken
(The Mountaineer, Waynesville, NC)
by JEFF SCHMERKER
When Staff Sgt. Jimmy Massey joined the Marines, he thought he had found his niche. Trained as a sharpshooter, Massey admits he became “the ultimate war machine — all blood and guts.”
One day, that came to an abrupt halt. Stationed in Kuwait several months before the attack in Iraq occurred, Massey saw events unfold in Operation Iraqi Freedom from day one.
Massey did his part to secure the country and faced the minimal opposition he said U.S. forces encountered during the early days.
But, after just a few weeks in combat, Massey said he came to the realization he could no longer be an effective Marine. He was haunted by the knowledge that U.S. forces, himself included, were killing civilians, not terrorists.
On the border
Massey flew from California to Kuwait the day before President George Bush gave his 2002 State of the Union address. Massey landed in Kuwait City and was shipped to LSA-7, a Marine base set in Kuwait’s stark brown desert 50 miles shy of the Iraqi border.
The night of the address, Massey stayed up late, his ears tuned to the BBC channel as Bush made the case for war.
A few days later, on patrol, Massey and his company drove up to the border itself, a 50-foot high berm of dirt running as far as the eye could see.
Massey scrambled up the hill and looked into Iraq. Staring into a country he was set to invade, Massey saw nothing — not a car, not a palm tree, not a person, not even an errant donkey. Just flat, brown desert.
When orders came to invade in the third week in March, Massey stayed up all night packing his gear and readying the troops. When the sun came up and reveille was called, Massey said he remembered thinking: “Today would be a good day to die.”
Massey spent the first night of the ground war sleeping soundly in a foxhole near the border with his company’s Humvees drawn around the soldiers like wagons rallied on the prairie and heavy artillery humming toward Iraq overhead.
Early the next morning, Massey and his 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Weapons Company, drove over that berm and into war. A 50-mile long convoy of soldiers drove though the first border town, Safwan, that morning and were met by friendly though cautious locals. A nearby hill reputed to be a stronghold of Saddam Hussein’s troops was easily overcome.
Massey’s company leapfrogged across Iraq, always headed north. Occasionally they encountered light small-arms fire and mortar attacks, but little to pause over.
From enlistment to recruiting
Seated on a plush orange couch in a Waynesville coffee house, Massey relaxes a bit telling his story of war. He sips his coffee and pulls out a Nicorette gum square. After 12 years of dipping, Massey wants to loose himself of his bad habits. As he drew farther into Iraq, he says, the scene became less rosy.
“My whole mental thought,” he says, “is it’s just a good day to die. I did not want to die, but it’s an honor amongst Marines if they die in combat.”
Massey, 30, was born in Pearland, Texas, a suburb of Houston. He spent his summers with his grandfather, who owned a dairy farm in Hendersonville.
When he was 6, his father picked him up in Hendersonville and drove him to Florida. Police were on the lookout for him and caught up with him in Florida, pulling his 18-wheeler over.
Jimmy lay in the sleeping cab of the truck, unaware of what was going on and unaware of what was about to happen. As a police officer would later tell him, as his dad jumped down from the truck, he reached for a weapon. Police shot him dead.
Out of high school, Massey spent a few months in community college but dropped out. He joined the Marines, he said, because they were the toughest soldiers in the world.
He was on his way to a career in the armed forces. After nine years, he became a recruiter and was stationed in Waynesville. His job was to sign up three young men and women a month; sometimes that meant he had to court 500.
On April 15, 2002, Massey was handed orders saying when his duty as a recruiter ended in October he was to report to Twentynine Palms, Calif. He knew he’d be going to war — either Afghanistan or Iraq.
Iraq it was. Massey was given a month personal leave and then reported back to Twentynine Palms. He was in charge of a combined anti-armor team comprising machine gunners, missile men and scout snipers.
He learned basic infantry skills, rifle skills, hand-to-hand combat and land navigation. Massey remained fatalistic about this. Dying in combat, he emphasized, was an honor. But today, unexpectedly retired from service, Massey says he did not know just how much his deployment to Iraq would change his life.
‘Why did you kill my brother?’
Massey is a sniper platoon sergeant, and his job in Iraq, he said, was to erect roadblocks and search locals for guns and munitions. It was a difficult task, he said: Go into a town, guns blazing one day, then turn around and play policeman, handing out candy to kids the next. The transition, he said, that’s what was tough.
There were some close calls, especially as the convoy made its way toward Baghdad. In one skirmish, Massey heard a bullet fly by just a few feet from his head. In another, he could see bullets scuff up dirt right in front of his feet, just like in the movies. One day, he found bullet holes in his truck.
Incorrect intelligence once led Massey to a river island called Enuminea, supposedly home to a terrorist training camp. The camp was abandoned, but Massey spent the night in a jasmine-scented children’s park.
“We were led to believe they were going to put up a tremendous fight,” said Massey, “but we basically walked into the country and took over. It was like lambs to the slaughter.”
The march to Baghdad took just two weeks. One day, on the outskirts of town, Massey was ordered to set up a roadblock. His company’s six Humvees were staggered in parallel lines along each side of the road, splayed out slightly to face oncoming traffic. Soldiers aimed at oncoming cars, but also toward civilian buildings alongside the road.
Sharpshooters hid back a ways. Vehicles approached the roadblock and were searched. Too often, vehicles approached the roadblock but didn’t stop. Soldiers fired warning shots toward the vehicles. If that didn’t work, said Massey, “then we lit it up.” Some vehicles didn’t stop, said Massey, because the drivers might have fashioned themselves kamikazes, though none of the vehicles Massey searched were ever found to have explosives in them the way suicide bombers will often pack their cars. Other vehicles were stolen, their drivers running from the law. Other no-stops were pure mystery.
In one suburban roadblock, Massey and company were set up when a red Kia Spectra sped toward them at about 45 mph. Soldiers sighted the car and fired a warning volley above it, but still the car came. Soldiers aimed at the car and fired with their full force, said Massey.
The car made it past the first two Humvees. Massey was in the second row. For just an instant, he said, he made eye contact with the driver. The Kia had four men in it. Massey fired and Marines around him joined in. The Kia came to a rest right in front of him, three of the four men shot dead.
It’s that sight of the driver which has haunted Massey all these months.
Marines pulled the three bodies out of the car and threw them alongside the road for Iraqi medical crews to retrieve. The survivor, the front seat passenger, was wailing and screaming. His brother had been the driver. He was injured but taken to the curb to await medical attention.
“He looked up at me and said, ‘Why did you kill my brother? We didn’t do anything.’”
In war, who dies?
Massey came to believe that most of the time when he shot to kill, he was killing civilians. What he saw disturbed him. On April 15, in Karbala, Massey went to his commanding officer. He was depressed, he told the officer. He was not an effective leader anymore, he said.
“I’m having issues,” he told his commanding officer. “I’m having a hard time.” The commanding officer sent him to a Navy psychiatrist. The drive to the doctor took him three hours. The session, 30 minutes. Massey was feeling normal feelings, the doctor said.
“You have every right to feel the way you feel,” the doctor told him.
But did he, Massey wondered? Civilians might be sickened by the killing, but a Marine is not supposed to be. “I was the ultimate war machine, all blood and guts. I was embarrassed. I was supposed to be able to handle it.”
The psychiatrist asked Massey if he wanted to kill himself. He didn’t.
The psychiatrist asked Massey if he wanted to hurt himself or other individuals. He didn’t. The psychiatrist diagnosed Massey as depressed and suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. He recommended Massey leave the battlefield immediately. He wrote his report and sealed it in a manila envelope.
Massey returned to his base and handed the envelope to his commanding officer, then went to bed.
In the morning Massey was called into the commanding officer’s room. He was not cut out to be an officer in the Marines, the superior told him.
“He told me, ‘You’re a poor leader,’ ‘You’re faking it,’ ‘You’re a conscientious objector,’ ‘You’re a wimp,’” said Massey. “You don’t respond to that. You just stand there and take it. But my sanity was not worth the U.S. Marine Corps.”
Massey went back to his bunk and packed up. He handed in his documents and his papers. All weapons were taken from him even though the psychiatrists said he was not a threat to himself or other Marines.
He was sent to an abandoned school in Karbala and told to wait there. Two days later, a car came and picked him up.
The trip south, back to LSA-7, took three days and routed him through every town the Americans had destroyed on their way north. Massey spent two weeks at LSA-7, “sleeping the whole time,” he said, before he was taken to Kuwait and later to California.
“I can’t blame the military for sending me home,” he said.
What he does blame them for is taking his weapons even though he was being sent on a dangerous trip across southern Iraq. Before he left, an officer told him there was a 90-percent chance his convoy would be attacked.
“It’s like,” he said, “they were trying to punish me.”
A soldier discharged
In California, Massey’s medical history was put before a review board. Two camps argued over his future. One group thought Massey should be given a medical retirement. Another thought he could continue to serve in a limited capacity. Massey told a doctor he was sick and the only way to cure his sickness was to be released from duty.
Massey drove to Palm Springs and paid $200 for a half-hour session with a private psychiatrist, who reconfirmed what the original doctor had said.
He then went to see a respected civilian pastor who was a World War II veteran and a former clinical psychologist and told him what happened.
“Am I a conscientious objector?” asked Massey. No, said the pastor.
Had Massey been termed an objector, he could have gone to jail, he said. There arose questions about disability and retirement payments, so Massey hired a lawyer, the same one who defended American soldiers after the Mai Lai attack in Vietnam. On Nov. 14, orders came that he was discharged on a medical retirement. Within 24 hours, Massey was on the road home.
Back when he was waiting to leave Kuwait, Massey phoned a friend in Waynesville, Jackie Grooms. A few days later, waylaid at an airport in Germany, he called her again to say he was on his way home.
Upon his release from the armed forces, he drove straight from California to Haywood County. He asked Grooms to marry him, rented an apartment at Lake Junaluska and was hired as a sales manager at Rent-A-Center in Clyde.
He quit dipping tobacco — in fact he quit almost every habit he picked up after 12 years in the military. He’s started a new life now — one without the Marines.
“With the events that happened over in Iraq,” says Massey now, “it is a constant struggle, day by day, just remembering the events. It never leaves you. You never forget about it.” The image of that driver, and his brother wailing alongside the road, he said, is burned into his mind.
“Some of the civilians that were killed,” he said, “you just never forget about it.”
While Massey does not question the duty of the Marine Corps, he does question the very foundation of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“Marines are trained to do one thing, and that is to meet the enemy on the battlefield,” he said. “When you don’t know who the enemy is, you don’t know whether that person you just shot was actually the enemy. All of them.”
Massey thinks his platoon could have been responsible for as many as 30 civilian deaths. “What you can ask is, were they combatants or non-combatants,” he said. “That is a way to phrase it so people don’t get a squeamish feeling. I would say 75 percent of all the individuals we came in contact with were non-combatants.”
In California, before he even left for Kuwait, Massey’s company was trained to shut down oil fields. Why, he wonders. What kind of premeditated war would train soldiers to secure oil fields?
“The people in Iraq were definitely suffering,” he said. “And there is no question in my mind Saddam was a dictator. But the way we did it, just going in there and invading, it raises questions. Was it for oil? Or was it for humanitarian reasons?”
The British spent decades trying to rule the country and failed, said Massey. Why do Americans think they can do in two years what the Brits could never do?
“It just leaves a question in my mind: Were we there to help them or were we there to take over a country for our own personal gain? i.e., oil.”
Jeff Schmerker can be reached 452-0661, ext. 131, or at email@example.com.
Missoula's Best Event
Missoula's best event started out in 1993 as a melding of art and honoring the dead. The event, held on Nov. 2 each year, is a downtown-long parade of those honoring the dead -- be they actual people or imagined personas (take the Dead Debutantes from this year). While death is the purpose, art is the theme, and the event is as much a visual spectacle as it is a tribute. Lots of cities now have Day of the Dead parades, but Missoula has one-upped them with a post-parade dance and performance art spectacle at Caras Park that includes, drums, tribal dancing, and fire.
East St. Mary is a staggering peak which calls to everyone ve traverses the Mission Valley. As beautiful as it is, this is not the place for amateur hikers or mountaineers. The trail to the summit faint, crawling with grizzly bears, and ascends a lung-pounding 5,000 vertical feet in a few short miles. However, hikers and skiers make this trek regularly because the peak is such a challenge and because the views from the summit are so spectacular – Gray Wolf lies across a sloping alpine plane, and the heart of the Missions pierce the sky to the north. The trailhead for the peak is not marked and the road is not maintained in the winter – drive from St. Ignatius up St. Mary’s Lake Road to the lake, drive across the impoundment dam, and park in a scattered clearing. The faint path dips into a ravine then goes straight up through forest before breaking into the alpine; follow the ridge to the exposed summit and be careful! A tribal permit, available from sports stores and some stores in the Mission Valley, is needed for all recreational activities.
The little other?
My French is barely passable, but does the name of this cafe mean ... 'the little other'? Oh, no -- thanks Google Translate. It's 'small addition' -- which, honestly, barely makes more sense. Le Petit, as locals call it, is the spot for coffee, breads, and treats of all kinds. The store is in what appears to be an old mechanic's shop, but don't let that food you. What's made here is great, and Le Petit bread is sold all over town. I came in for a meeting on a snowy December day and settled in with a steaming mocha and a local paper before my friend showed up. After he'd left I got another latte -- and a loaf to go.
"A Whopper of a Slide"
The Mountaineer, Waynesville NC
by Jeff Schmerker
staff writer, The Mountaineer
That's the word Marc Pruett, the county's erosion control supervisor, is using to describe a landslide which occurred late last Thursday on a steep mountainside high above Maggie Valley.
Several orders of magnitude larger than anything in recent memory, the slide, in an under-construction 700 acre subdivision tentatively called The Cascades, might be one of the largest slides ever to occur in the county as a result of development activity.
The slide measures 125 across and runs for about 1,300 linear feet, or about 650 vertical feet.
The development is owned by Maurice Wilder of Clearwater, Fla. Wilder, who flew over the site on Friday, may have been the first to actually find it, said James Guy, the project manager. Though the slide was not witnessed, workers at the site say it occurred after very heavy rain on Thursday which dumped more than 6 inches in about 12 hours. The slide occurred at the temporary end of Summit Road and took out soil, rocks, tons of mud, leaving a massive debris pile far down the mountain where the slope lessens a bit.
"If people could come around with me for a week they'd be surprised to see what's going on in these mountains," Pruett said on a tour of the slide. "This one is a stunner."
Though unusual for its size, the slide is also unusual for another reason, Pruett said: the crews blasting the rock and digging into the hillsides here, led by contractor Dennis Franklin, followed all the rules when it comes to slope development. Franklin holds a license for doing excavation work.
"Dennis is the finest grading contractor I've run across," Pruett said.
Despite that, the slide sheds light on the issues behind the county's ongoing effort to enact a landslide development ordinance.
Though it might not have prevented the slide, measures in the ordinance would have offered an extra level of protection on the mountainside. An on-site engineer or soil tester might have alerted workers that the slope was susceptible to failure, Pruett said.
"It might not have prevented it," Pruett said. "The slope development ordinance is not a fix-all, but it does offer a higher level of standards."
Normally, said Franklin, the development's roads are resting on bedrock, but this particular piece of road was constructed wider than normal to serve as a temporary parking spot for equipment. It was this area that began tumbling down the hillside, gathering momentum and ended up taking out hundreds of trees plus tons of dirt. Franklin, who brought the matter to the attention of county officials, have already seeded the slope with grass seed and erected silt barrier fences. Pruett said he might not have found out about the slide otherwise since there were no houses in its path and no residents in the area being developed.
An engineer who analyzed the slide for one of the development's property owners said the construction of the road bed at the starting zone was the cause of the disaster.
Maggie Valley engineer Kevin Alford said the road bed in that areas was made from crushed rock which was formed from blasting.
"The upper road was built out of shot material (from) where they had to blast the roadway in there," he said. "It got too much water in it and got too heavy." The sliding material acted like a bulldozer, said Alford, scouring the slope of almost all vegetation. "It wiped out a path down to the bedrock," he said. "It was like an elliptical-shaped bulldozer. It's an amazing thing when you see that kind of material go down the mountain."
The material that came to a rest at the foot of the slope was a "molten mess glob of liquefied soil, rock, trees, brush, everything."
Alford said better planning when it came to building roads might have prevented the problem.
"When you get up in the mountains and start building roads, there are good ways to build roads and bad ways to build roads," he said. "In a situation like that I think it would have been reasonable to do subterranean work to find out what was there. When you have a large amount of uncompacted rock fill that gets a lot of water in it, you have the potential for slope failures. There is still more material up there, so it could happen again."
"The Eight Deadliest Civil Wars You Have Never Heard Of"
Many of the best known civil wars in world history fill the pages of history textbooks but had relatively light casualties – and many of the bloodiest civil wars, some of which claimed millions of lives, are practically unknown today. In the United States, we hear the words "civil war" and think about the American Civil War, which remains the deadliest in our nation's history. But that four-year, 750,000-casualty conflict seems downright mild compared to the 20,000,000 lives lost during the Taiping Rebellion.
Many lesser-known civil wars resolve quickly and with relatively few casualties, so it makes sense why they aren't commonly studied. But these massive, bloody feuds should, by all accounts, be familiar to the average person. Here are some of the deadliest civil wars in history which have somehow flown under the radar.
North Yemen Civil War
The North Yemen Civil War began with a coup in 1962 carried out by revolutionaries who dethroned Imam Muhammad al-Badr, leader of the Kingdom of Yemen. The revolutionaries, led by Abdullah al-Sallal, got rid of the monarchy and established the Yemen Arab Republic. Al-Badr fled to Saudi Arabia and rallied support among Shia tribes. The civil war became a battle between the Kingdon of Yemen (with support from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Britain) and the Yemen Arab Republic (with help from Egypt and the Soviet Union). The revolutionaries claimed victory in 1970, and the war drew to a close when Egypt agreed to withdraw its troops. North Yemen and South Yemen merged in 1990.
Racial antagonism and class warfare – with some religious strife thrown in for good measure – was the cause of the Dungan Revolt (1862-77), a chaotic confrontation in China which often involved leaders pursuing unclear goals and diverse warring parties. The Hui people wanted to create a separate Muslim country on the banks of the Yellow River and rose up against the non-Muslim Hans. The Hui laid siege to Xi’an, refugees fled and formed battalions, and modern arsenals (i.e., primitive guns and cannons) were established. The war ended – sort of – when a Qing dynasty general was able to calm tensions, but the region sees unrest even today. An estimated 20 million people were killed during the conflict. Why did so many die? The Qing military systematically destroyed Muslim communities, whether they were rebels or not.
Chinese Civil War
In 1927, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek launched an effort to unify China and end local warlord dominance of corners of the dynasty. This effort kicked off the Chinese Civil War, which raged until the start of World War II – and then resumed after the war for another five years. Viewed positively in China today, both sides – eventually called the Nationalists and the Communists – carried out mass atrocities and the deliberate killing of civilians. The war resulted in eight million casualties Why was it forgotten? According to historian Rana Mitter, “China’s wartime experience … fell into a hole created by the Cold War. Neither side had an interest in recalling what China did.”
Second Congo War
The deadliest civil war since World War II was part civil war, part ethnic war, and part commodities war, and at one time involved as many as nine nations. The Second Congo War began in 1998 just after the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s president, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, forcefully took office. Kabila’s crumbling hold on the sprawling, poorly-connected nation created a void filled by warlords and natural resource plunderers. A peace agreement was signed in 2002, but Congo remains volatile and at times dangerous. As many as 5.4 million people are estimated to have died during the war. Besides forced displacement, abductions, child soldier recruitment, and a massive number of sexual assaults, Congolese perished due to famine, destroyed hospitals, and a collapse of the nation’s infrastructure.
Biafran Civil War
In 1967, the small Nigerian region of Biafra declared its independence, and the national government waged a war to keep it in place. Although helped by a host of European nations, the Biafrans were both slain on the battlefield and starved with a Nigerian government blockade of supplies and assistance. Severe hunger and malnutrition affected not just soldiers but also children, and the international humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders formed in response to the tragedy. The Biafrans lost the Biafra War (and up to 3,000,000 people lost their lives), but a secession movement remains alive today.
First Congo War
Although the Second Congo War was deadlier, it was the First Congo War which really set the stage for instability in central Africa. In 1996, Rwandan troops invaded Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) to replace dictator Mobutu Sese Seko with rebel leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila. Violence was especially brutal, with much of it directed at women and children. There were an estimated 1,000,000 casualties and over 200,000 refugees are still missing.
Somali Civil War
Americans may be familiar with the Somali Civil War due to short-lived US involvement, the downing of a military helicopter, and a book and movie about the gritty incident, Black Hawk Down. What Americans may not know is that this war, which began in 1992, is ongoing and has produced what might be considered new de facto nations – Somaliland and Puntland. In 1986, opposition in Somalia against the government grew when the country’s Supreme Revolutionary Council became increasingly arbitrary and authoritarian. Historic clan animosities were stoked, breakaway movement stronghold cities were bombed, the United Nations stepped in, and Islamist groups filled some of the power vacuum. Today, the central government controls much, though not all, of what has traditionally been called Somalia. An estimated 500,000 people have perished due to the war.
One of the bloodiest wars in history was a 14-year conflict which began in China in 1850 and pitted the established Qing dynasty against a Christian movement known as the Heavenly Kingdom of Peace. Nanjing, the center of the Heavenly Kingdom rebellion, fell in 1864. Though the fall of Nanjing effectively destroyed the Taiping regime (thereby ending the war), fighting continued until the last loyalist was killed in 1866. It is believed there were 20-30 million casualties, though some estimates claim up to 100,000,000 perished. Starvation, disease, and pillaging ran up the death toll, which was exacerbated by a plague and famine.