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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2002-08-31

BE ALL YOU CAN BE: Covering the Micronesian Games
By Matt Hevezi, USMC

Photo by Matt Hevezi/USMC

Photo by Matt Hevezi/USMC

At the prestigious coconut climp during the 2002 Micronesia Games in Pohnpei, a Palau climber runs out of gas halfway up on of the five 70-foot palms. A trash-talking climber from an opposing team paces below trying to get into the Palauan's head.
I'm slumped into the red nylon jump seat of a Marine Corps KC-130 cargo plane working on a grade-A neck strain. The big gray buzzard is chugging along at 20,000 feet above the North Pacific heading south from Okinawa to Pohnpei, Micronesia. And I'm drooling on my camera bag which is doubling as a pillow.

The hum coming from the plane's four turbo-prop engines combined with the warm cargo hold interior is like a hefty dose of sleep medicine. I was up until some crazy hour the night prior celebrating my temporary release from desk duty at the headquarters building at Camp Butler, so it took only a few seconds for the sleep monster to jaw-sock me for a clean KO.

As a gunnery sergeant in the Marines, I usually don't get sprung from the office very often. But our staff was squeezed. Most of our correspondents -- corporals and sergeants, were already tasked out. One, in Vladivostok, Russia, on a good-will tour with a bunch of grunts; another was getting ready to go to Kyushu in Southern Japan to cover an artillery unit for a month. The others were either locked into routine garrison training courses, on leave, shooting on the rifle range, or otherwise unavailable for deployment.

So I managed to wiggle my way onto this deal to Pohnpei - a remote Pacific island tropical paradise sort of near Guam. I was covering Marines and Navy corpsmen, the docs. They were deploying to Pohnpei on an exercise to help augment island doctors with medical aid stations at a huge sports festival called the Micronesian Games.

In the middle of one of my better streams of drool, one of the buzz-cutted crew guys kicks my boot waking me. He says, "Hey gunny, the captain wanted me to come back here and tell you about this cool rock coming up. You might wanna grab your camera and get a shot of this."

Right.

But really, these KC-130 guys were pretty cool just hours before. The ride from Okinawa to Pohnpei is about seven hours. Two hours into the flight, I asked to come up to the cockpit to check it all out. They let me shoot in the cockpit for about an hour and were pretty generous with good caption info. So I figure, why not? I'll go up there and take pictures of a rock to make them feel good.

Photo by Matt Hevezi/USMC

Photo by Matt Hevezi/USMC

Palau spearfisherman Aldrin Tellei waits for teammates Henni Rall and Keo Sakuma to surface from a free dive during the 2002 Micronesia Games spearfishing competition outside the reef at Pohnpei.
So I'm back in the cockpit. It's 5:30 p.m. Pohnpei is just becoming visible on the horizon. As we approach, the light is really getting good and the rock -- locals call it Sokehs, Diamond Head of Micronesia - is looking pretty sweet for a rock. It looks postcard cool. Clickity, click. Totally worth the wake-up call. I'm stoked.

That was how my three-week assignment to Pohnpei began. My mission: take photos and write a couple articles about the deployment for the base newspaper and any other civilian media pubs who may have interest. I'm figuring sexy sports shots in an exotic locale can go far. Only thing is, I came onto this deployment at the last minute and had no time to really prep: make contacts in Pohnpei, talk with editors, get to know the Marines and sailors I'd be covering, lock on key logistics items.

But jumping on late is par for the course most of the time for Marine combat correspondents. We are the Corps's orphans; usually afterthoughts and last minute add-ons to deployments and exercises. In fact, the older combat correspondents coined a motto for us, "Last to know - first to go." True most of the time. We just grab our gear and go.

I'm happy though, because this is a good deal. Not only does Pohnpei relieve me from stinky, nasty, desk duty back at the puzzle palace (headquarters), but it is very similar to a job I did last year on the island of Yap. Yap is another tropical paradise near Pohnpei. So I know the opportunities to nail good sports photos are going to be plentiful.

There's a butt-load of events to cover. I'm solo, so I figure on covering just a few key sports, and a wild art feature or two. I don't want to try to get to every venue and spread myself too thin. I'm thinking Greco Roman wrestling, women's softball and the island sports: spear fishing, long-distance outrigger canoeing and coconut climb, etc.

I need solid shots that combine the Navy docs and athletes together. That's what the Navy/Marine team was there to do - help the Pohnpei folks treat injured athletes. And if nobody gets busted up, at least I'll have some good opportunities to pad the sports portfolio.

My boss launches me with a Kodak DCS 720x kit. The acquisition guys in D.C. just contracted DCS 720 kits for the entire Marine Corps. Ours came in just a few weeks before the Pohnpei job popped up. My captain signed our only kit to me to load-test at Pohnpei. The kit included a pair of 720 bodies and three lenses: 18-35 f/3.5, 80-200 f/2.8 and 35-70 f/2.8. I also brought along a 300mm f/2.8, generously loaned from my buddy Mark Oliva at Stars & Stripes, Okinawa bureau, a couple FM2 bodies, and a Nikonos kit.

The biggest challenge was logistics. Making the photos … no problems. I just did not have the communication and transportation assets needed to be where the photos were when they happened. We had about eight two-doc teams spread between eight venues.

Photo by Matt Hevezi/USMC

Photo by Matt Hevezi/USMC

Spearthrowing at the 2002 Micronesia Games. Throwers got three chances to nail a cantaloupe-sized coconut floating at a distance of 20 feet.
I told the commanding officer that I needed cell phone access to all the venues and wheels. If something went down, I needed an immediate call so I could boogie over to the venue and capture the docs doing their deal. Our team was supposed to get eight rental cars, but those fell through and I was basically on my own to hustle transportation.

Luckily, I ran into a former Marine, Tony Mix, who was the security boss at the U.S. Embassy in Pohnpei. He saved my ass. He or one of his guys took me wherever I needed to go at any hour of the day or night. He even gave me a two-way radio and a call sign: "Echo-7 Hotel." I could talk to him or any of his security guys at anytime. I released photos daily at midnight from the telecommunications center in the capitol town of Kolonia.

They only had two computers available, so going late ensured no waiting. The TelCom center is like an Internet café and the only place offering reliable service. It was also open 24 hours. Tony and his guys were great about ferrying me around town and between venues and the TelCom.

Wrestling was good. I got some decent stuff, but nothing really strong with the Navy docs in action. I shot spearfishing the next day with the team from Palau. Very cool experience because I got to do some underwater stuff with the Nikonos rig loaned to me from another buddy in Okinawa.

The Palau guys were really cool, but Pope-serious about winning a gold medal. One guy on their team, a South African named Henni Rall, was known to dive past 120-foot mark in competition. His teammate Keo Sakuma was also a deep guy. Palau and Guam were heavy favorites for gold. I hooked up with Palau boat. I was in the water with Keo for about 45 minutes.

The team boat, a 25-foot skiff, had dropped me off and left to check on Henni about 500 yards away. We are outside the reef just 100 yards from the break. Although I can swim, I'm kinda sweatin' because some guys were talking about currents and I guess the boat crew thought I knew what the hell I was doing.

The Palau coach told me to stay 50 feet from Keo and don't splash. When he dives, don't move. That kinda sucked because I knew the shot was at 7-10 feet. I had two lenses, a 35mm and a 16mm. The guy who loaned me the gear, Navy photog Braxton Plunkett, gave me a formula of noon light, f/11-8 @ 125th or 60th, depending on cloud cover and water clarity. I shot one roll of color neg.

It was a bust. Did not get a single usable frame underwater. But it was fun and I learned. After I got back on the boat, about 10 minutes passed. Then we heard Keo shouting. He was waving his arms and yoo-hooing.

The crew instantly knew something good happened. He nailed a 36-pound Nepolean Wrasse at 60-feet. It was a medal fish for sure. But these guys were not at all comfortable to sit on it. They went right back into the water and kept at it.

Turned out that my guys from Palau took the gold medal by nearly double the weight of the silver and bronze teams from Pohnpei and Guam.

The shot of the day though had nothing to do with spear fishing. One of the Navy corpsmen on the safety boats, a young guy named Byron Garcia, didn't exactly have his sea legs. He cranked up the human chum factory.

Tony Mix, myself, another Navy doc and an Air Force safety diver were all right there to give him the business. We gave it to him good. You see, it's damn near a felony for a sailor to get seasick. Soon as he started heaving, I busted out my FM2 and quickly started to load a roll. Since I outranked him, I half-jokingly ordered him to hold his groceries until the camera was loaded. Poor loyal bastard. He tired, but … well you know. The photo is pretty funny. If nothing else, it'll give him a great shot for his deployment scrapbook.

Photo by Matt Hevezi/USMC

Photo by Matt Hevezi/USMC

Matt Hevezi hangin' loose onboard with the Palau spearfishing team.
Two routine days pass and I'm back editing at the Seventh Day Adventist compound where we were staying. Call comes in with word of a possible athlete drowning at ladies outrigger race. The girl was being transported to the hospital. I grabbed my gear and me and the chaplain hauled ass to the hospital about three miles away.

The girl was stable in the ER and looked to be okay. I asked her sister if I could document the Navy docs working on her. She agreed. Inside the ER, the girl was still strapped down on the table with tubes and stuff. She was semi-conscious. The Navy doc, Lt Moore, told me she thought the girl had a seizure in the canoe and that she had passed out, flipping the boat. She still had a lot of seawater still inside her lungs, but the was more exhausted than anything else.

The remainder of the trip was fairly uneventful. Just a lot of shooting. There are plenty of little sidebar stories I could pile on, but I know I've already run long on this contribution. I'll be at the Luau seminar, so ask me there if you want to know the rest of the story. I love to share sea stories over a cold refreshment or two.

I have to give one shout out to Jeff Howard, the town's only media guru who cranks out the weekly paper Kasalehlie Press. He provided me his office, equipment and local knowledge on many occasions. Thanks bro.

If I can, let me wrap up this mutha by saying a few good words about my employer. Although the BS is extremely plentiful within the Corps (but I think that is true anywhere in our world), serving our country as a combat correspondent photojournalist is totally the cat's meow.

I have not yet had any hairy assignments in combat or anything like that, but I've had some incredible opportunities and access to make photos in places few photographers will ever get close to.

I've been a card-carrying green-machine member for 15 years and am very thankful for the great times and the good folk I've met and served with. Any young PJ who is not established with a phat staff position and/or seeks challenge and adventure should speak to a guy like me about military PJ work.

Don't talk to the recruiter, talk to someone who is a former or current military PJ. If not the Corps, the Navy and Air Force both have very respectable PJ traditions too.

In SoCal, there is former Marine Earnie Grafton at the San Diego Union Tribune. In Indiana, I think Chip Maurey, a former sailor, is still Director of Photography at the Indy Star. There are plenty of current and former military guys and gals out there to talk to. I just don't know where they all are.

But ask around if you wanna give it a shot. Just like anybody else in the business, I want good people on my team too; people who wanna serve their country and wanna be serious about photojournalism. We're always hiring. If you're just out of school, not diggin your civilian position or you're looking for some higher calling, give it a shot. Not for everybody, but if you've got the belly, come on down. Semper Fidelis, Matt Hevezi, aka "Gunny"

(Matt Hevezi is a Gunnery Sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps. He is stationed in Okinawa, Japan and a member of SportsShooter.com.)


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