First-person pieces are rare at the AP. But as the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks approached, two AP journalists inextricably tied to the war in Afghanistan turned in stunning introspective accounts of wounds both seen and unseen.
AP investigative reporter James LaPorta wanted to tell a story that haunts him from his military service in Afghanistan. And staff photographer Emilio Morenatti, making photographs for a story about Tokyo-bound Paralympians, was motivated to look for answers to his own story, adapting to life after losing a leg in an explosion in Afghanistan.
LaPorta, a U.S. Marine veteran with two tours of Afghanistan, was hoping to contribute to the 9/11 anniversary package AP’s Ted Anthony was coordinating. But rather than writing about his original idea — soldiers killed in action in Afghanistan — it was decided LaPorta would write about an indelible experience he had in-country, one of many difficult memories of that time still having a negative effect on his life.
He relates the experience of watching on video as a young Afghan boy unwittingly jumped on a mine until it exploded. The boy was killed instantly. The images have stuck with LaPorta since that day in 2013 and resurfaced as he watched his own young son jumping up and down to “Ho Hey,” a Lumineers song with poignant lyrics.
As LaPorta wrote in his recollection, “I look around me. What do my people know of this war, of its blood spilled and treasure lost, of me?” His riveting account gives a glimpse of the burden LaPorta lives with every day — and his story resonated around the world as seen in the thousands of retweets it received. The piece tracked at or near the top of AP’s stories for three days.
Morenatti, a 2021 Pulitzer Prize winner, wanted to share his feelings about being an amputee among other amputees trying to excel despite their injuries. Morenatti saw an opportunity to talk to five Paralympians, all victims of combat injuries in Iraq or Afghanistan, as the chance to explore the question: “Can disability actually give us more than it has taken?”
With reporter Tim Sullivan, he first made a cross country trip to talk to the five athletes, then met up again with them in Tokyo, where he was covering the Paralympics. He and Sullivan produced a compelling package on the five competitors, and Morenatti related his own experience in his deeply moving first-person piece. In covering the athletes’ individual stories and in listening to the Paralympians, Morenatti was better able to understand his own journey and come to terms with life as an amputee, appreciating what he has: “Each of us must come to our own conclusions. But I look at my life, and I am happy.”
For sharing their intimate, heart-wrenching experiences tied to the war in Afghanistan, and giving readers personal insight into a major news story, Emilio Morenatti and James LaPorta are AP’s Best of the Week — Second Winners.