Reporter in War Zone: A Long Way From Little League

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By: Greg Mitchell

If anyone had told me eight years ago when I was managing against Mike Witte in Little League that I would one day edit E&P and publish in the magazine a profile of his son Griff, then barely in college, I might have collapsed in laughter right in the dugout. Mike would have joined me, no doubt. Griff, too. Especially the war correspondent part, and Afghanistan.

As Mike told me recently, “Griff was never even that much of a traveler. A war correspondent was about the last thing we expected.” I had called Mike to find out how he and his wife Sally, who live about a mile from me in Nyack, N.Y., responded to having a son, age 27, in a war zone in recent months.

Back in our Little League days, I found Mike to be one of the more sane opposing managers, competitive but not to a fault. The youngest of his three kids, Drew, was my son’s age, but I don’t think I met Griff more than once in my life.

Mike was a real baseball man, having grown up in St. Louis with an inside connection to some of the Cardinals’ current ownership. Last October, The New Yorker wrote a little piece about Mike’s expertise in sports “mechanics,” from throwing a baseball to swinging a golf club. He’s also a well-known illustrator, whose work has appeared in Time, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and dozens of other publications. Sally Witte is a psychologist and family therapist.

Griff appears very briefly in my memoir, “Joy in Mudville,” published six years ago, in the small section about Mike. I wrote then, “His oldest son, Griff, switched to tennis after Little League. ‘He’d had it with me teaching mechanics,’ Mike said, laughing.” Then I made a joke about the old rock group, Mike & The Mechanics.

Now, years later, here we were talking about how he and his wife felt when their son was in Afghanistan. “We never expected this when he showed an early interest in journalism,” Mike said, dryly.

It began four years ago when Griff (as related on p. 10 of this issue), then 23, accepted Steve Coll’s request to do some research in Afghanistan for his high-profile book “Ghost Wars.” Consider this context: Reporter Daniel Pearl had just been executed. His murder delayed Griff’s departure for only one month.

Although Griff had worked at newspapers, he was studying at Columbia at the time, so this new life came out of nowhere. “He had not traveled widely,” Mike said, “but on the other hand, he was always mature for his years.” Griff did not seek permission to go; he simply asked for their trust and support. At least Steve Coll told him: No story is worth your life.

“It was very anxiety-producing,” Mike said. “Journalists are as much a target as anyone in war zones today. I think reporters there are as brave as most of the soldiers.” He and Sally consoled themselves with the mantra “No place is safe.” When Griff was gone, the ceiling in his bedroom at home collapsed, so there you are.

Three years later, last autumn, Griff headed back to Kabul, this time as a reporter for The Washington Post. “It was time to give up our protective role and go into a supportive role,” Mike said. “We just admire so greatly what he is doing.”

Helping to bridge the gap: the new technology of the satellite phone. “It’s good and bad,” Mike said. “It sounds like he is in the next room, but of course he is across the world. It’s disconcerting for a parent when you can do nothing to help him. We would always say, ‘Be careful,’ and that’s about all we could do.” This was compounded when several days would pass without hearing from him. Before ‘sat’ phones and e-mail, they would have thought nothing of it.

The Wittes were most concerned whenever their son made one of his trips to the troubled south, accompanied only by a driver and interpreter — and no extra security. During one trip he interviewed a former warlord, an Islamist who’d just been elected to parliament, and gave him a ride back to Kabul. Another time he wrote about a jailed journalist who had been threatened with death by clerics; the Wittes feared Griff might also suffer.

Then there was the two-day trip with a top general in an Apache helicopter all over southern Afghanistan, often flying just a couple hundred yards off the ground, which meant they might have drawn fire. The Apaches are called “lawn darts” over there, Mike explained, “because when they go down they go straight into the ground.”

Then he added: “Griff doesn’t tell us everything that went on, I’m sure.”

Now Griff is back in Washington with his wife, safe. How did the Wittes deal with all the anxiety? “We are not very religious,” Mike said, “so we knocked on wood a lot…very loudly.”

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