Patriot Profiles: ‘Nothing else feels right after Combat Camera’


By Jeanne McKinney

This column presents “Patriot Profiles” to provide readers insight into the lives of our country’s heroes.

There’s no crew to light the scene, no quiet on the set, no director yelling cut while shooting this film. Night vision goggles might be the only light source, the noise nerve-shattering and there’s no time for retakes. Embedded with ground troops and armed with a digital camera, is a sailor clicking away and recording the ongoing fight for freedom. At the end of a long and often grueling assignment, she’s captured crucial information she must guard with her life.

Mass Communications Specialist 1st Class Cassandra Thompson said, “The Navy has just as vibrant a Combat Camera division as other branches of the Armed Forces. People think they’re the ones on the ground doing all the ‘cool guy’ stuff and the Navy stays on a ship. I’ve been in the Navy 10 years and on a ship two months.”

Out on patrol, MC1 Thompson is frightened, but not by what’s going on around her. “My greatest concern is to do my job well because there’s a commander sitting in his office waiting on my footage to try and figure out what his next decision’s going to be.” She flashes a catchy smile, “Plus, I’ve got SEALS on my team.”

She tells herself, “I have to get these photos because they’re going to be really upset if I come back empty-handed.” She knows the success of current or future missions could depend on her imagery. COMCAM1 is recognized by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) as an essential battlefield information resource that supports strategic, operational and tactical mission objectives, according to the Fleet Combat Camera Group Pacific mission statement.

Thompson came to America from Trinidad to go to college, earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She was halfway through grad school, studying mass communications at the University of Florida, when she joined the Navy. “Although I had a job at the Florida Park Service which I loved, I couldn’t see myself going very far in that position. I had all these dreams to travel the world and be a writer for Time magazine and all this other stuff.”

The Navy sent her to Bahrain in 2005, where she did a stint at Naval Central Command (NAVCENT) 5th Fleet Public Affairs. Her job was news writing (her strength) about anything going on in the Middle East.

“Public Affairs pride themselves on getting news to the world fast and accurately. We’re instructed to have the story out within an hour of the event breaking, even if it’s sensitive or tragic.” If all they know is there’s a fire on an oil platform, they have to report that while they continue to gather the facts.

Thompson heard about Combat Camera in Bahrain and didn’t know anything about it when she joined. “I don’t believe any telephone conversation can adequately prepare you for what a Combat Camera assignment will entail.” She would soon find out. “When you go in the field, if you don’t know what your job is, someone will quickly educate you.”

Nobody gets into Combat Camera without passing Search, Survival, Evasion, and Resistance (SERE) school. Thompson explains, “Military personnel learn how to survive under austere conditions, avoid capture and, if all else fails, return with honor from a POW situation. Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, captured in 2009 by the Taliban in Afghanistan, is reportedly America’s last living POW. He’s a constant reminder that SERE training may have real-life application.”

Before each deployment they complete a Basic Operations firearms training course. “It’s a lot of weapons,” says Thompson, who’d never touched small arms before. They must also know how to operate the camera equipment and put together a video or contact sheet. When out on patrol, you’re expected to bring back a minimum of five photos a day.

“There’s going to be every branch of the military on the ground in one Forward Operating Base (FOB) with one mission spelled out in detail,” Thompson said. “Maybe in this area they need more reconnaissance or that area more community action, or intelligence over there because something’s going on and they want to expand their knowledge.”

The imagery of a COMCAM professional not only serves the mission, but can offer unforgettable emotional impact. MC1 Thompson remembers when the Navy teamed up with Medical Civilian Action Program (MEDCAP) in the Philippines.

“I had no idea cleft palate could be so prevalent. Little children were lined up out the door waiting to see the volunteer surgeons of ‘Operation Smile.’ In these rural areas, if you have that deformity you’ll be locked away and no one will ever see you. It’s really cool these kids get a second chance at life.”

From heart-wrenching to heart-pounding, Cassandra can’t really predict what will end up in her viewfinder. A rare photo she snapped while documenting counter-piracy won her a “2010 Military Photographer of the Year” award. Somali pirates had taken over the seas and were holding ships hostage — and killing people. A group of nations came together as a combined task force to patrol the oceans.

The original plan was to apprehend them and send them to a chosen African country to be held at trial, but money to feed, clothe and shelter all these pirates became everyone’s problem. “In the end,” reports Thompson, “we [left] them out in the middle of the ocean with just enough gas to get back to Somalia and we [blew] up the Mother ship that had the rest of the barrels of oil.”

MC1 Thompson knows why people who leave Combat Camera fight tooth and nail to get back, because nothing else feels right after that. “I have no idea what other job I could do that would be as amazing as this one. I’m happy people will know what our part was in America’s history in the war and for being able to see the way world events took place.”