Reporter’s Notebook: No one wanted me to tell their story, but I did

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Three months ago, I was put in the path of an incredible woman. Her name is Summer Simmons. She had reached out via Facebook to tell us how the government shutdown of October 2013 would affect her. See, she’s a paid around-the-clock caretaker for her husband Lt JG Steve Simmons, who is incapacitated and unable to work, and without a paycheck, things in their house would be extremely tight.

Steve’s story is he served in the Navy and was on the USS Ronald Reagan in March 2011 in the waters off Fukushima, Japan, when the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl happened. After an earthquake and powerful tsunami, the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear reactor blew a toxic plume into the air and over the ship. Months later, the Navy administrative officer who used to hike mountains and do P90X workouts like it was his job is now relegated to a wheelchair and cannot walk. His progressive muscle weakness has transformed him from a healthy, active man in his 30s to needing around-the-clock care to get around.

That night, we did a quick interview about the effect the shutdown would have on them. But there was a much bigger story there. How could this have happened to Steve? I was also struck on another level. During our interview, Summer’s strength and the couple’s love was like a blinding light. The two were also raising three kids, two of whom are on the autism spectrum. I felt that when I left their home, I was a better person than when I walked in. Despite all that they faced, their love was so strong, and unwavering, that I saw them as extremely fortunate.

Summer and Steve told their love story. They had met online through a website that hooks people up of their religion. Summer had no interest in meeting anyone, and was essentially “done” with love. She didn’t even make up her own profile. Her pastor did. He also picked Steve for her. At first, Summer resisted, but then Steve’s patience and calm way broke her down and eventually she opened up. They fell in love. Soon, she and her three kids were moving across country to be with Steve.

Summer and Steve were engaged and the family was living together when Steve got sick. Soon, it became clear that they’d need to move up their wedding, Steve was getting progressively worse.

I’ve been reporting and telling stories for 10 years. Some are fun, some are thankless. Some are necessary. Some are unremarkable. Some are, quite frankly, boring, and some just stay with you. This stayed with me.

I vowed I would tell their story.

For all those people out there that take potshots at local news, I say to you it’s a business like anything else. We have to go out and report the news we can and get it on the air in the timeframe we have. We are professionals. We are journalists. We do the best we can. But, the honest truth is most times I can’t tell a story if the interview is located 5 hours away, or a story where no one will comment or call me back, or one that’s uplifting if we don’t have a lead story and I’m the only reporter working that shift. We are all doing more with less, in every business. And that’s especially so in local news. So, often there’s not an extra reporter to fill my news slot so I can go and tell the important story, the one that’s going to take days to research and report. It’s a fact.

It took me 3 months to tell the story of Lt JG Steve Simmons.

First, I met with the Simmons’ on my off time. We talked for hours. Steve told me that months after coming back home from Operation Tomodachi he was driving, and he just blacked out. That’s how it all started. He told me how doctor after doctor couldn’t tell why he was losing weight, and losing strength. We also talked on the phone several times about how no one could pin his illness on radiation poisoning, although he was sure it had something to do with it. Steve said because of the lack of a diagnosis, he wasn’t able to qualify for aid, and that his retirement pension also would suffer. I learned that Steve loved golf. Summer showed me a video of Steve using this special paragolfer chair in order to play. The chair essentially held him up, so he could swing. I got the feeling that video was very special to them both.

By now it was November, and it was beginning to get cold. There was one nice 50 degree day left, and we scheduled that day to videotape Steve playing golf. Photographer Joe Martin and I visited with Steve and Summer to do an interview and capture some video at the golf course. We got some great video of golf, but then were called off the story to report on the arrest of a man for peeping on students in a school.

Weeks later, I was able to reschedule our interview. Steve and Summer sat down at the dining room table and talked to me as photographer Chris “Stewie” Mullen rolled video for over an hour. We didn’t have time to get any 2-shots or cutaways because again, we were called to help out another crew who were having trouble with a live shot.

Then weeks after that, I negotiated a day to log the interview and write the story. I still had research to do, had to reach out to the Department of Defense, talk to Steve’s lawyer and of course, had to find an independent expert to present the other side.

Then, we needed to find time to edit. All in all, more than 3 months passed before this very important story could air. We just don’t have enough staff to take a daily turn reporter off the schedule. Believe me, there were many times when I got frustrated. After all, isn’t it the role of journalist to tell stories that need to be uncovered? But, TV news is a business, and we all need to be patient.

I feel blessed that Summer and Steve trusted their story to me. On January 13, 2014, it aired. Shortly after, CNN, and Al Jazeera came calling the Simmons, along with dozens of other media outlets. I feel proud to have had the opportunity to be selected by the Simmons’ to tell their story first and to be able to tell it accurately and passionately.

The Simmons’ have become friends. They thank me every chance they get. I see it this way. I could have told 10 stories about holiday shopping, snowfall, District politics, etc. but I got to tell their story. What an honor. And, like I said earlier, these two made me a better person for meeting them. Seeing their enduring love in the face of such hardship showed me what kind of love is possible, even when you don’t think it’s out there. They taught me grace under pressure, and to enjoy your health to it’s fullest when you have it. I’m signed up to run a half-marathon in March – and I’m dedicating it to them.

So, even when it’s like swimming upstream, don’t give up. The Simmons’ aren’t. And I won’t either.

Watch Steve’s story here:

http://www.wusa9.com/story/news/nation/military/2014/01/13/4465023/

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