Monday, February 12, 2024

Cincinnati's Storytelling of Journalism is Back for the Second Year!

Back for the 2nd Year - Cincinnati's Storytelling of Journalism Project. This collaborative effort between Cincy SPJ and NKU journalism students highlights some of the amazing journalists and award-winning stories from Greater Cincinnati. Find out more:

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Keith BieryGolick’s Years-Long Journey to Detail the Experience of Two Kidnapped Americans

 By Aedom Worku

This story is a part of the Cincinnati’s Storytelling of Journalism project, which represents a collaboration between Northern Kentucky University (NKU) journalism students, the NKU Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Greater Cincinnati Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists

Students interviewed professional journalist winners and finalists from the Greater Cincinnati SPJ Chapter’s 2023 Excellence in Journalism Awards to create these Nieman Storyboard Annotations-inspired Q&As and story annotations that analyze and celebrate our region’s award-winning works of journalism.

2023 Excellence in Journalism Award: Feature Story

Winning Journalist: Keith BieryGolick, The Cincinnati Enquirer

Winning Story: Taken: The harrowing tale of two Americans kidnapped overseas

Student interviewers: Isabella Huecker, Kylie McCulloch, Taj Ross and Aedom Worku

In 2015, the trajectory of an ordinary day for Keith BieryGolick, breaking news reporter at the Cincinnati Enquirer, took an unforeseen turn. At the center of a captivating narrative was a report circulating through national media channels: an American contractor, John Hamen, was kidnapped and tragically killed in Yemen.


As the news unfolded, BieryGolick worked to confirm the story and unravel the identity of the individual behind the headlines. This marked the beginning of a compelling, several years-long storytelling journey.


The resulting piece, ‘Taken: The Harrowing Tale of Two Americans Kidnapped Overseas’, was a profound exploration of the disappearance of John Hamen and his associate, Mark McAlister, and the intricate details surrounding it.


This piece not only took more than five years to write and publish, but it was also BieryGolick’s first long-form story, “This was about 10,000 words,” BieryGolick said, “the longest story I've done before.”


Reflecting on the challenges faced during the writing process, BieryGolick openly shares the difficulties of transitioning to a longer format, experimenting with structural changes, and wrestling with internal doubts—a universal struggle among writers.


“It was way out of my comfort zone,” BieryGolick said.


Yet despite this, BieryGolick’s professional pursuit found him delving into the intricacies of Hamen’s and McAlister’s lives, an investigative endeavor that led to him reaching out to friends, family, and acquaintances. He painted a narrative that surpassed the confines of the Yemeni incident and delved into the lives of both families post-captivity. And he did it all with sensitivity and respect.


As he put it, “The idea was to tell the complete story, the real story which had not been told before.”


Now, eight years after this journey began, BieryGolick is sharing the process behind his work. 

NKU students Taj Ross, Aedom Worku, Isabella Huecker and Kylie McCulloch interview BieryGolick about the ethical dilemmas of working on such stories and the process behind them.

How did you decide on the time sequencing structure, such as going from 2015 to 2021, for this story?

That was a big part of figuring out how to best tell this specific story. Initially, when talking to my editor about it, her vision was to tell it chronologically. Mark and John get kidnapped, go through the story, and then cover the aftermath and what they're still going through. I was very interested in this story from the beginning. But as soon as I found out some of the information about what Mark was still going through after he was released, I was more interested in exploring that and the aftermath, and what it's like to have something like this happen to you. Then go back to your hometown and work two jobs because you don't have that much money, and that's just what you always did. I was always very interested in that aspect of the story versus like, 'I really wanna tell this hostage story.' 

Keith BieryGolick

The idea with the structure was to kind of do both, to have my cake and eat it too. I do go chronologically, but I break it up with some of my visits with Mark and different things that break up the narrative of going straight through it. I was like, I need to try this and get this draft done and then show it to her, and then we can decide if it works or not. Because I really felt like some of my visits with Mark are some of the most revealing things in the story. If you just pack them all at the end, I wasn't sure if they would have the same impact. But the idea is that you feel more when you find out that John is dead. And you feel more when you find out Mark is released. The idea is that you're more invested in these characters. It was definitely an intentional decision to try to get you more invested in the characters but do it in a way that didn't bore you. So, putting them all together even if you had to kind of mix up the chronology a little bit was my solution to that. That was a very intentional decision to withhold that information until that point in the story. I mean, that was something I talked with my editor about. No matter how we're structuring it, we can't have the headline say, “One person killed”, and we can't have the lead paragraph say, “you know, they were kidnapped, and then one of them was killed, and then the other one survived.” That was a very intentional decision to put that where it was in the narrative so that it had the kind of maximum impact, and you felt the weight of that. If you put it somewhere else or if the reader knew that going in, it would have less of an impact.


You said that you and Mark had a deep connection. How did you juggle your friendship with him while maintaining your role as a journalist?

My opinion is that it's okay to develop relationships with these people because you're never going to get the real story if you don't do that. At the same time, that makes it very difficult when you have to put something in a story that you know they're not going to like—or something that makes them look unflattering.

And so, the thing that I just always run into in almost all my favorite stories is, at some point, there's kind of that dilemma where it's like, I like this person, I enjoy spending time with them. You know you don't want to hurt anybody; you don't want to make things worse for people… But then I always remind myself like, I'm not writing the story for them. I'm writing the story for random reader X. And it's my job to tell as close to the truth as I can the whole story. It's my duty to them to deliver as close to the whole picture as I can. And I try to tell people that, too, while I'm talking to them and developing relationships. Because at a certain point, you talk to somebody 50 times, right? Like, they kind of forget that you're a journalist, that's the whole point of talking to them that many times. So, yeah, developing that relationship is a benefit to me. But then it's also a responsibility at some point to remind the people that I'm talking to that I’m a journalist.

How did you collect information about Mark's time while captive? Was it simply interviewing him or did you use other methods?

The biggest thing was trying to get as many different people, as many different sources of information, as possible. That’s definitely always a tricky thing when you’re trying to recreate things that you were not there for. You know, I could go to Tennessee and visit Mark and, you know, spend time with him and be there for that. But obviously, you know, I couldn’t go to Yemen; I wasn’t there in the airport with them. I mean, I talked to Mark probably 40 to 50 times, maybe more, I didn’t keep track. But that was just an ongoing thing for a long time. One of the big sources of information was the lawsuit that his and John’s families filed. There was a lot of information there.

So, you were kind of able to double check what the lawsuit said to what Mark said. If there’s a specific detail I want to use, I’m going to ask Mark multiple times about it. One, to double check it, and two, to maybe pull out another detail from him. He’s not going to tell me the first time, but he might tell me the second time. And then, also, I was able to talk to someone who was in the prison cell with Mark. So, that was helpful—being able to describe the prison and have another source of information for that. I was able to talk to Mark’s boss who was in Yemen at the headquarters, at the state department, at the embassy. So that was another source to balance exactly what things looked like. And, yeah, just always trying to get as many sources as possible and going back and forth with people to say, ‘Hey, we talked last week. This is what I heard, this is how I’m describing it, does that sound right?’ And then kind of going from there.

Taken: The harrowing tale of two Americans kidnapped overseas

By Keith BieryGolick, Cincinnati Enquirer

The Hotel: Sanaa, Yemen – 2014

“Death to America. Death to Israel.”

The chants reverberate around a 13-acre hotel compound in Sanaa. There is no electricity, but power generators from the U.S. State Department keep everything running. Shell casings litter the ground, and Marines are stationed on the roof.

Mark McAlister walks around a track at the Sheraton hotel, and he hears explosions. This is his first time in Yemen, and he often hears gunfire. Mark is a construction manager from Tennessee, but he now finds himself in the middle of a civil war.

To save an embassy, the State Department pays a private company in Florida up to $250 million to maintain and upgrade this compound. Working for Advanced C4 Solutions, Mark oversees the installation of blast walls. His team places 4-by-8 sheets of clear PVC in front of hotel windows. It won’t stop a rocket, but it will stop shrapnel and keep glass from shattering into rooms.

When a violent militia called the Houthis invade the country’s capital, Mark and his colleagues are forced to evacuate. Six weeks later, they return.

Yemen, or at least this part of it, is in turmoil. But they have a contract.

In February of 2015, Mark is evacuated for the second time. An embassy vehicle is pummeled with gunfire outside the compound, and the contract is suspended. The U.S. government withdraws all military and diplomatic personnel from this Middle Eastern country.

The embassy closes, and the Marines never return.

America is not at war with the Houthis, but after a political uprising, leaders in Iran spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to arm this rebel group from the mountains of northern Yemen. To oust the country’s U.S.-backed government and aid a bloody conflict with Saudi Arabia, Iran officials train the Houthis to kidnap. They train them to torture.

They train them to kill.

And once the Houthis overthrow the Yemeni government, that’s exactly what they do. In 2015, they detain hundreds of innocent people. Six of them are American. These people are not soldiers. They are journalists, construction managers and teachers.

This is a story about two of them, and it starts when Mark returns to Yemen for the third time.

The Airport: Sanaa, Yemen – October 20, 2015

Question: How did you decide on this format?
Answer: I knew very early on in my reporting I wanted to start this story at the airport. When you read the court documents and testimony from the eventual lawsuit, it reads like a movie. So, I wanted to try to grab the reader with this intense action and leave them wanting to read the rest. I ended up putting the airport section second, because as much as I wanted to throw the reader into the kidnapping part of the story, I thought they needed some context so it would make sense. I also didn’t want to interrupt the flow of the story too much later on, so using the hotel scene as an introduction of sorts made sense to me. Same thing at the end, where I viewed the very last section almost like the ending to a movie when there is text on the screen about what happens after the final frame.   

Mark McAlister steps off the plane at an airport with only one runway. He walks across its tarmac and sees a familiar face. His hotel manager from the Sheraton is shouting his name.

​​Mark waves, even though he is sick from water he drank the night before. A few minutes later, Mark gives his passport to an airport official and is told to sit down. United Nations personnel from his flight continue past him.

More than 30 minutes pass while the man with Mark’s passport talks on the phone. Mark watches a white van pull up outside. He looks around and doesn't see his hotel manager anymore. He doesn’t see the U.N. security team he thought would escort him to the hotel.

By the time the Houthis climb out of that van wearing masks and carrying assault rifles, the airport is empty. Mark can only see their eyes. Green and red patches on their sleeves say “Death to America” in Arabic.

It’s sometime after 4 p.m., and it will get dark soon.

“Turn around,” a man shouts in English. Mark asks why, and the Houthis raise their guns.

Mark is blindfolded, hands bound with a scarf. His colleague resists. John Hamen III is a former Bronze Star sergeant with too many awards to fit into one box on his discharge papers. His job here is security, and his first instinct is to escape.

A father to seven children, he eventually relents.

The Houthis shove the Americans into their van. Inside, the doors are lined with barbed wire. Mark hears his partner whisper. John has wriggled his hands free, but Mark can barely hold his head up.

The Houthis drive for 20 minutes, and Mark counts each second. One of the men talks to him, but Mark is no longer listening. His world is spinning. When the van stops, the Houthis throw Mark and John onto the ground.

They lead them into a dark room, and the interrogation begins.

Question: How did you go about accurately creating a scene like this when you weren’t personally there? What ethical issues did you consider?

Answer: I interviewed Mark dozens and dozens of times—I’d guess something like 50 times in total. I first reached out to him, through his lawyer, in 2018 or 2019. We began speaking on the phone once a week, and it was rare that we didn’t talk for at least an hour. I eventually visited him in Tennessee on multiple occasions. So over time, I asked Mark very specific questions about details multiple times in multiple different ways. The key to recreating something like this is gathering information from as many sources as possible. So I gained access to hundreds and hundreds of pages of court documents, I had testimony from Mark and others, I had emails and other FOIA request documents from the State Department. I interviewed Mark’s boss on the project, and I interviewed one of his cellmates in Yemen. I read through lawsuits about other Americans who had been kidnapped in Yemen. I watched PBS documentaries about the Houthis and read as much as I could about the ongoing issues in Yemen. The opening line in this section comes from watching YouTube footage and looking through AP photographs to give you a sense of size and place: Mark McAlister steps off the plane at an airport with only one runway

The Struggle: Greenfield, Tennessee – August 13, 2021

Pictures from Mark’s failed marriage hang on the walls, and Fox News plays in the background. Coverage of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan fills his television. Mark is looking for his cellphone when he turns to the TV. The capital of Afghanistan is in disarray.

As a project manager, Mark helped construct buildings like the ones now turned to rubble on the news. He started working overseas in 2005. His son was in middle school, and one of his daughters had just started college. His wife was a hair stylist, and their family largely lived paycheck to paycheck.

Mark almost always had two jobs – including digging graves. It’s why he took a dangerous position and left Tennessee for Iraq, a day before his son’s 11th birthday. In Mark’s small hometown – population 2,078 – everyone seems to know him. And most go to his church.

When no one knew whether he was dead or alive, there were prayer vigils. At church and at the school’s gymnasium. There were stories on the local news.

Tonight, Mark brings up Yemen without being asked. Because no one asks anymore. In his living room, almost six years after his capture, he cries. He tries to collect himself, but he can’t stop.

“People don’t realize how good they have it,” he says.

Mark can barely speak now.

“Life is a struggle.”

Question: What impact were you trying to make by jumping from the past and future?
Answer: I initially had discussions with my editor about telling this story in a strictly chronological way. It’s very complex, so that made sense. She was concerned that revealing too much too soon would spoil the story, making readers check out. She was right. But what drew me to this story in the first place was wondering what life was like for Mark after his release from prison. I wanted to know what an event like this did to his family, as well as John’s. I decided on this structure (of jumping around in time) because I didn’t want to lose the emotional aftermath part and hide it until the end. I wanted to give the reader a little more information about the characters so they might care more deeply about Mark and John as the kidnapping narrative unfolds. 

The Prison: Yemen – October 20, 2015

Mark leans into John’s back, hands and wrists turning purple from the handcuffs. He might throw up.

The Houthis remove their blindfolds, ordering the Americans to squat against the wall. They leave to retrieve confiscated computers and phones. Mark sees two windows covered by curtains. He doesn’t see the metal bars behind them. He talks to John about escaping, and the guards return. The Houthis ask Mark and John for passwords. They ask for names. They ask who they work for.

They threaten them with Tasers. They call them spies.

The Houthis take necklaces, shoes and watches. Looking for anything sharp, they take Mark’s glasses because they don’t want him to kill himself. They take John’s wedding ring.

Mark is thrown into a chair and John is carried to another room. Again, they ask Mark his name. They ask what he is doing in this country. He tells them he’s a quality control manager. He tells them he works at the Sheraton hotel on a contract to oversee renovations for the U.S. embassy.

"You're CIA,” they say.

Mark can’t hear much from John’s room, except yelling. This continues until at least 3 a.m.

In the hallway, Mark holds up a piece of paper with writing on it he doesn’t understand. The guards take his picture. The Houthis open a large door, laughing while pointing a rifle at Mark. They lock him into a 12-foot by 9.5-foot cell.

Mark is alone.

It is cold and damp, and there are no windows. A dim bulb in the hallway shines through a slit in the door. It only lights up the top half of the cell. When the Houthis turn off the light, Mark can no longer see the hand in front of his face.

He prays for God to stop his heart.

Question: You convey the emotional and physical toll in this scene with great detail. Especially with this last line. Can you elaborate on the process of navigating this sensitive scene with Mark, ensuring his comfort while still capturing the essence of his experience? How did you establish trust to delve into such a traumatic experience without causing distress?
Answer: Time is probably the biggest answer to the trust piece. I did not get all these details from Mark in one conversation. My goal at the beginning was just to make him feel comfortable and develop a genuine relationship. At a certain point, I had spoken to him so often, I was just trying to learn one new bit of information every time we talked. But Mark was always very open, and I never forced anything. I let him talk about what he wanted to talk about when he was ready. Even from the first time I talked to him, I knew he could carry a narrative story like this. Because everyone in Mark’s small town knew what happened to him, but after a while people stopped asking him about it. They stopped asking how he was doing. Even his family didn’t know the true extent of what he went through and what he was still going through. I sensed early on that he wanted to talk about what happened. Maybe he even needed to talk about what happened. I just gave him an opportunity to do that.   

The Bible: Greenfield, Tennessee – August 15, 2021

Mark answers the door fully dressed: brown pants, pink Polo shirt and boots. It’s Sunday morning, and he wakes up at 4 a.m. He tries to go back to sleep but gets out of bed an hour later.

Mark often thinks about his time in Yemen as a movie. Maybe it’s easier that way. After the flashbangs of violence depicting his kidnapping, Mark’s Hollywood film would probably start here in Tennessee.

He is sitting by the pool in his backyard, and no one else is awake.

Mark looks down the rolling hills of his property. The sky is foggy, and he reads his Bible. The very same Bible he slept with in prison. Without glasses, he couldn’t read it. But he held the book close to his heart and placed it near his head when he slept.

Today, the 63-year-old sits under a patio awning he imagined in prison. He looks at the same picture of his ex-wife an interrogator once gave him. His grass is brown and his tree limbs are overgrown. Flowers wilt by the pool. Mark’s home never looked like this before Yemen. But Mark has changed, in some ways he acknowledges and some he doesn’t. As the sun rises, he closes his Bible.

It’s time for church.

Question: How much time did you spend on this story? And how did it impact your mental wellbeing?
Answer: I always try to write along the way, but this story probably took about a month or more of focused work to finish the actual writing. I began reporting it in 2015, when Mark and John were kidnapped. I was a breaking news reporter at the time, and this was a very important story for The Enquirer. Since John was from Cincinnati, I began trying to learn more about him and his family. I made a FOIA request to the State Department for emails about the situation and requested John’s old military records. I remember driving to his elementary school to look at yearbooks. Even as I changed positions at The Enquirer, I kept chipping away on this story. I have to thank my editor, Amy Wilson, for seeing the potential in this story and encouraging me to take whatever time I needed to tell it right. It wasn’t until 2019 or so that I first spoke with Mark. And it wasn’t until 2021 that I had a sit-down interview with John’s parents. The pandemic slowed the process down. My colleague Meg Vogel (who produced a wonderful documentary film about the story) and I planned to visit Mark in 2020. In total, I spent seven years working on this project (obviously not every day). And to answer the question about my mental wellbeing, I would say this story had an overwhelmingly positive impact on me. Yes, it was difficult and there were challenging moments, but pursuing a story I cared about this much made all the other annoying parts about my job worth dealing with. 

The Cell: Yemen – October 2015

The cell smells like urine.

Mark’s toilet is a hole in the floor, rattling from bombs outside. There is PVC pipe in the wall, near the ceiling above the hole in the floor. At times, the pipe allows a small circle of light into this dark hell. Mark watches it grow throughout the day. He imagines the light forming a cross, and he prays.

A small slat in the door swings open three times a day for food, mostly bread and beans. Mark refuses to eat until he sees John. In cell No. 5, Mark hears water pouring into a bucket across the hall. He wonders if the guards plan to waterboard him.

He doesn’t want to be a YouTube video.

Mark sits on an orange Igloo cooler, pressing his face into a half-inch gap in the door. He tries to breathe fresh air from the hallway, and he sits there for hours. Then, he paces from one corner of the cell to the other. Every eight-and-a-half steps, he touches a cross carved into the wall.

He sings “Amazing Grace.”

The Houthis give him a 2-inch mattress and a thin quilt, but he doesn’t sleep much. When he hears the screech of unlocking doors and sees weapons aimed at him, he knows it’s time for another interrogation. The Houthis handcuff him, drape a towel over his face and shove him into another room.

They interrogate him every day, sometimes three times a day. They call him a spy and ask the same questions over and over. They ask why America is destroying their country.

Mark coughs up blood, and he asks to see John.

Back in his cell, he uses his belt buckle to carve a single line into the wall. He starts near the floor. The next day, he scratches another line. This is how he keeps track of the days. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen. Fifteen. Sixteen. Seventeen. Eighteen. Nineteen. Twenty. Twenty one.

On the 22nd day, he gets a cellmate.

Question: As I’m reading this, I can’t comprehend that any of this really happened to a person. Was this something you considered as you were writing this story? How did you write this in a way that makes it real to the reader?
Answer: I tried to keep the language simple, especially in the prison sections. This was an amazing story, and there was no need to dress it up in flowery language. But that’s also why I think the scenes in Tennessee were so important to me, and to this story. Right after you read about Mark scratching lines into the prison wall, you go to his church. I rode on that church bus with him, and it is a reminder that this isn’t a movie. This isn’t just based on a true story; this is a true story. And this is something Mark and John’s family have to deal with every day—even once the rest of the world moves on. 

The Church: Greenfield, Tennessee – August 15, 2021

On 95.1 FM, radio hosts talk about depression and suicide.

Mark is driving the church bus today. First, he picks up a man in a wheelchair who tells him about a car crash near his home. Then, he picks up a woman who is angry she cannot drive herself. Finally, Mark stops to pick up a woman whose dead husband was once the only doctor in Greenfield.

She helped deliver Mark.

Growing up, Mark rode the church bus with his dad, who also took turns driving. Today, Mark drives past a sign for Greenfield, Tennessee, where the slogan is: “You don’t get lost in the shuffle.”

At church, Mark rarely sits. He collects donations and changes attendance numbers on a board outside the chapel. He used to be a deacon. Now, he is the Sunday School director. At one time, his ex-wife taught classes here.

She doesn’t attend anymore.

During the service, Mark sits in a pew toward the back. He wants to see everything. And he doesn’t want to be taken by surprise. Next to him are his son, his son’s fiancé and his own girlfriend, who takes notes and wears a pink polka-dot dress to match Mark’s shirt. Afterward, his son visits his fiancé’s family. Mark hasn’t met them yet. They invite him to dinner, but he declines.

He doesn’t want to miss evening service.

The Doctor: Yemen – 2015

Guards jostle the doctor awake at 2 a.m.

“Do you speak English?”

It’s been three months since the Houthis abducted Abdulkader Al-Guneid from his home, just days after his 66th birthday. The fact that he was a doctor and the mayor of Yemen’s third-largest city did not matter. It’s November now, and the guards lead him to a new cell. 

Inside, Mark is confused. The doctor speaks slowly.

“I’m Abdulkader, from Taiz,” he says. “I’m your new companion.”

“I’m Mark from Tennessee.”

Abdulkader encourages his cellmate to eat, and he gives Mark fruit he’s hidden from guards. Mark takes three pieces.

Abdulkader is an activist in a city six-and-a-half hours away. He’s being jailed for tweets he sent about the Houthis, a group he explains to Mark like this: In America, he says, it would be like the Ku Klux Klan ruling the country because of support from a foreign nation.

In Yemen, he tells Mark, the Houthis’ rise to power has led to years of war and years of death. His people feel hopeless.

The doctor tells Mark his city doesn’t have access to vegetables, and the Houthis urinate in their water tanks. He tells Mark it’s dark in here because a prisoner tried to hang himself by electrical wiring from the lights.

The guards took the lights out.

Mark tells the doctor about attending church three times a week and about teaching Bible study. He tells him he likes honey in his coffee. He tells him about his wife and grandchildren, the youngest born a day after he left for Yemen.

Later, the Houthis handcuff Mark and Abdulkader together, barefoot with towels over their heads. In the hallway, they're instructed not to speak. For the first time in three weeks, Mark steps outside. He can barely see. It takes almost 30 minutes for his eyes to adjust. When they do, he looks down. His arms are wrinkled, his muscle gone. He pulls his skin down in flaps.

He’s lost 30 pounds.

Mark sees his prison, built on the side of a mountain. He sees blue sky, the bluest he’s ever seen. He doesn’t see John.

After an hour, Mark returns to his cell. He and the doctor work out together, and Mark gets stronger. His beard grows long and ragged, but he begins to eat. The guards give Mark fish, and he shares it with Abdulkader.

Before they eat, they pray.

Mark learns to tell time by the prisoners’ prayers. And he often drums on the wall with his hands. He drums a beat he believes John will recognize. When he hears a response, he knows John is alive.

But Mark grows depressed. Prison is breaking him. His family doesn’t know if he’s alive, and he worries he’ll miss his son’s college graduation at home. He worries he’ll die in here. He is walking back and forth across the cell when the shouting begins.

I gotta get out of here. I gotta get out of here. I gotta get out of here.

Mark is angry, and his shouts turn to screams. He spits. He threatens the guards and screams at the doctor. He shouts for fresh air, for sun.

I gotta get out of here. I gotta get out of here. I gotta get out of here.

Mark climbs up the cell door, grabbing the bars and shaking them. Mark is rage. Mark is fury. He can’t breathe, and he doesn’t feel anything. He pounds his fists into the door and yells until his hands are cut and his arms are bloodied.

After a few minutes, it’s over. The guards threaten him with batons, and he asks the doctor for forgiveness. Then, it happens again. And again. Mark climbs the walls three or four times a week.

The doctor is scared.

Question: Were there things that you learned that you chose to omit? Can you elaborate or give some information about what it was you left out?
Answer: You might think with a story this long, I put everything in. But I wanted the narrative to read shorter than its length, so I was constantly cutting and editing the story to make it as tight as possible. I wanted to take out any parts where the reader might get bored. I spoke to one of Mark’s Yemeni cellmates for multiple hours. This person was an activist and former politician, a super interesting person who had his own compelling story. He eventually wrote a book about it. I read the book, and used it as another source of information. He was very valuable in helping describe the prison and what went on there. But there was no way I could include everything I Iearned from him, because ultimately this was not his story. 

The Flight: Memphis, Tennessee - October 2015

When Crystal McAlister drops her husband off at the airport, she doesn’t say much. It’s the third time she’s taken him here for his job in Yemen. Mark says now if Crystal would’ve asked him to stay, he would have.

But she doesn’t. She doesn’t have any words left.

She’s already told him it’s not safe. She told him Advanced C4 Solutions, the company hired by the State Department for work in Yemen, would not send him back. When they do, Mark asks his employer if it’s safe. They tell him U.N. personnel will escort him from the airport to the hotel.

And he signs a form acknowledging there will be no military protection.

Mark and Crystal had been arguing about money. Even after a decade of working overseas, Crystal doesn’t think Mark leaves her enough to live comfortably. The day before Mark’s last flight, they talk about divorce.

At the airport in Memphis, Crystal says goodbye and little else. She usually watches Mark walk through security. Today, she doesn’t get out of the car.

When Mark lands in northern Africa, his last stop before Yemen, Crystal ignores his calls. A few days later, she receives a phone call from Mark's company. They ask for documentation of her husband's work history, school and training. They don’t explain why.

The next day, the call is more urgent.

"Ms. McAlister,” an employee says, "it is extremely important that you get me these things now.”

When Crystal asks where her husband is, there is a pause.

No one knows.

Obsessed with finding Mark, Crystal stays up late searching for information about Yemen prisons. She forgets to pay bills, and she closes her beauty salon. She forces herself to adjust to a Middle Eastern time zone, eight hours ahead of Tennessee. She sends messages to people in Yemen through Facebook. She speaks to another American captured and released before Mark. She writes a letter for her husband, giving it to a worker traveling to Yemen for the Red Cross.

Mark never gets it.

Crystal stays awake as many as three days at a time. To sleep, she drinks wine. She stops leaving her home, and her daughter stops trusting her to watch her grandchild. Nothing seems important, except finding Mark. That’s why she always keeps her phone with her.

Even if it never seems to ring.

The Call: Yemen – March 2016

Crystal is in bed when her phone rings.

It’s 7:30 a.m. The State Department tells her Mark will call, but they’ve told her this before. She falls asleep. When another call wakes her up, Crystal doesn’t recognize the number: 00000.

“Hello,” she says.

“Crystal,” Mark says. “I’m fine and I’m doing well.”

She sobs, but Mark remains calm. He tells her to gather herself. He tells her he misses her, and he asks how everyone is doing. She tells him about their new granddaughter, and she tells him about all the people praying for him.

Mark doesn’t tell her his shirt has holes in it. He doesn’t tell her he hears screams every day. He doesn’t tell her it’s so cold he shakes when he tries to sleep. He tells her his captors are listening, and he tells her she sounds good. After 15 minutes, the call ends.

Back in his cell, Mark carves another line on the wall to signify the passing of another day. It’s been five months and 10 days. The notches almost reach his shoulders now.

A few weeks later, the guards blindfold Mark and lead him down a hallway in the middle of the night. It’s the same way he’s been taken countless times before. This time, the guards turn another direction.

Mark steps outside, and it’s raining. He doesn’t know if he’s being led to his execution, but he knows the rain feels good. In another building, he’s taken to a new cell. This one is smaller. There’s carpet on the floor, fresh paint on the walls and sunlight shining through a missing brick. The interrogations stop.

Eventually, the guards tell him to shave. They bring his suitcase, along with a new shirt and underwear. He changes clothes for the first time in 182 days.

“Mr. Mark,” a guard says. “You’re going home.”

The words don’t seem to sink in. Mark looks up, graying hair in his eyes.

“What about John?”

The Scrapbook: Greenfield, Tennessee – August 2021

On their patio table by the pool, Crystal moves an ashtray full of cigarettes to make room for a scrapbook. Inside are pictures from Iraq, Mark’s first job overseas. He would later work in Afghanistan, where he remembers talking to a man who spent more than seven years there. 

Mark asked how he could miss so much time with family. Then, Mark told the man he could never do that.

Mark worked overseas for 10 years.

In many ways, he was addicted. The work was exciting. Dangerous. Foreign. Fun. And it paid well: $166,731 a year for his Yemen contract.

While looking through the scrapbook, Crystal flinches at a photo on Mark’s phone. It’s a picture of his prison, the one she spent months of sleepless nights searching for. She asks him to send it to her, and Mark leaves to feed his cows.

Crystal was 17 when she started dating Mark. She kept it secret because her mom forbade it. But Mark was persistent. They married in 1988 and had three kids together.

Crystal agrees to answer questions, even if she doesn’t always say much. She moved out shortly after Mark was released from prison. She returned, but their marriage was already over. They just didn’t know it yet.

For years, Mark kissed her every morning before leaving for work. Today, he doesn’t even say goodbye. She lives upstairs, and he lives downstairs. Both have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I think I tore the family apart,” Crystal says.

She looks off into the distance, puffing a cigarette while “Dust in the Wind” plays on the radio.

“That’s what life is,” she says.

She turns the radio off.

The Border: Yemen – April 29, 2016

Mark has never seen so many guns in his life. In a Houthi stronghold, everyone from 7 years old to 70 holds an assault rifle. They all stare at him. He’s made it out of prison, but he doesn’t think he’s going home.

The Houthis show Mark a bombed mosque. They show him a school and a home. Another mosque, another school. All bombed. Mark counts 21 bridges destroyed to keep the Houthis from advancing.

One of the soldiers, through an interpreter, tells Mark they will never give up.

“We will die fighting,” he says.

Mark sits in the middle seat of a Toyota 4Runner, knees tucked underneath him. They drive for at least nine hours. When they reach the yellow barricades of Saudi Arabia, a chain-link fence divides the countries. Soldiers stand on each side.

After 20 minutes, a window rolls down. Outside, a man holds up an iPhone and pushes a button.

“Mr. McAlister, I work for the diplomatic security embassy here in Saudi Arabia. I want you to listen to this man and follow this man across the border. You do everything he says.”

Mark nods, and the rest is a blur. The man grabs his hand. They walk about 40 yards. In what seems like an instant, Mark looks back and the Houthis are gone.

Saudi Arabian officials run a metal detector across his arms, legs and chest. They drive to the hospital, escorted by dozens of vehicles, where Mark undergoes a full-body scan and two examinations.

At a restaurant near the border two hours later, Mark is greeted by FBI agents. They’re the first Americans he’s seen in six months and 11 days. He finally feels free.

“Welcome back,” they say. Then, they tell him:

"John has been murdered."

The Tattoos: Chesapeake, Virginia – November 6, 2015

When Jennifer Hamen pulls into the driveway on her twin daughters’ 12th birthday, five government officials are waiting.

They ask to speak privately, and she sends her kids upstairs. Yesterday, the State Department told her they didn’t know where her husband was. Today, they tell her an American body has been dropped off at a hospital in Sanaa.

Then, they ask about John’s tattoos.

Upstairs, Jen’s oldest son turns on “The Flash,” a superhero show he used to watch with his dad. The younger kids ask questions, but 16-year-old Johann doesn’t have the answers. He knows his dad was kidnapped overseas, and he knows something bad is happening downstairs.

Jen tells the State Department that John has a wolf tattoo on his shoulder and a dagger somewhere else. A few moments later, Johann hears his mother scream like he’s never heard her scream before. He turns up the TV.

It’s an hour before Jen tells her kids. When Johann leads them downstairs, he sees tissues on the couch. His mom’s eyes are red.

“I have some really bad news,” Jen says. “Dad passed away.”

Her children start crying, and they ask how he died. They ask if they will have enough money to survive. Johann walks to the bathroom, because he doesn’t want to cry in front of his siblings. He is the man of the house now.

The State Department leaves after another hour, and the house is quiet. No one says anything. The twins, who had just returned home from their first school dance, lock themselves in their bedrooms. The only sounds Johann hears are crying and sniffling.

He screams into his pillow.

Question: I love how you have conveyed the feelings of Jennifer Hamen and the children. I can feel their loss through the words. How did you approach narrating such a sensitive and personal moment, balancing the need for detail with respect for the family’s grief? I’m also curious if you interviewed the oldest son Johann? If so, what was that process like?
Answer: I tried to interview Johann, but was not able to. He was one of the children who testified at length during a court hearing, so I was able to draw from that. Jen also testified. I exchanged emails with her, but she ultimately decided against participating in the story. As part of the family’s lawsuit, the younger children submitted their own hand-written statements about the night they found out and what their experience has been like since. Those statements are hard to read. In general, I tried to keep John’s family in my head as I edited. I also asked other people to read certain sections from their perspective to help me understand what might go too far or what might be too much detail. The autopsy section is particularly brutal, but it was longer in an initial draft. For this story to be successful, I needed to show this family’s pain and their loss in a real way. I do them no favors by sugar-coating what they experienced. 

The Autopsy: Dover, Delaware – November 10, 2015

Jen often pretends to wash clothes, shutting the laundry room door to cry by herself.

For a few weeks, she rarely comes out of the bedroom. Johann takes over laundry and dishes. He buys his younger brothers an Xbox game. At some point, Jen asks him to open the gun safe and lock her alcohol away. She is diagnosed with PTSD.

When John’s body is flown back to the United States, it arrives at the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. It’s been four days since he was found dead. Jen isn’t allowed to see him.

Inside a black body bag, John is wrapped in a blanket with black, red and gray polka dots. Attached to the bag is a paper tag that says: “Unidentified.” There is still sand on the bottom of his feet.

During the autopsy, FBI officials take DNA swabs and photographs. The deputy medical examiner finds two vertical lacerations on the center of John’s forehead, likely from the butt of a small rifle. The doctor notices a similar wound on the back of his head. There is a bruise the size of a bottle cap near John’s left eye. The hemorrhaging in his eyes – small purple spots caused by broken blood vessels – indicates a struggle. Contusions cover his arms, legs and chest.

Four ribs are broken.

The doctor photographs a mark around John’s neck. There are no scratches, which means someone probably held him down. The injuries suggest he was strangled.

When John’s body is brought to a funeral home in Portsmouth, Virginia, Jen asks to see him. She’d been told he died of a heart attack. At the funeral home, she sees bruises. She sees cuts and what looks like a broken nose and a black mark circling his neck. She sees images she’ll see for the rest of her life.

John’s death is ruled a homicide.

The Briefcase: Yemen – Fall 2015

Before Mark and John, Dave McComas is the first American to return to Yemen. His flight is routine – safe even. A military veteran of 26 years and three wars, Dave oversees the embassy project for AC4S. When he arrives, he is happy to see local workers at the hotel again. But when Mark and John don’t arrive a few weeks later, Dave calls the U.N.

Officials assure him there is nothing to worry about, and they dispatch a security team to the airport. Mark and John have already been taken.

A few weeks later, the co-owner of AC4S calls.

“We believe John has been killed.”

Later that day, three people arrive at the Sheraton compound. They do not introduce themselves, and they say they have a warrant for Dave’s arrest.

Dave walks the property, looking for places to hide if the Houthis break in. He stashes bolt cutters in trees along the perimeter. The men with warrants leave, but Dave grows more scared every day. Government officials tell him to keep eating and drink as much water as possible. If he’s captured, they coach him: Don’t fight. Don’t struggle. Don’t have a weapon.

For more than a week, U.S. officials debate how to get him and two other American employees out of the country. Dave comes to believe the only way he will survive is if the Houthis escort them to the airport. Otherwise, the Houthis could interfere and then deny responsibility.

On Nov. 17, Dave prepares to be detained. He puts on two T-shirts and two pairs of socks. He wears his warmest jacket. He removes the military ID from his wallet, and he takes off his wedding ring.

A Houthi arrives at the compound. He doesn’t speak English, and he doesn’t say anything to Dave. He and the other employees are escorted to the airport. Their car is followed by an armored truck with 15 soldiers aboard. Another gun truck leads the way.

At the airport, Dave is told he’s under arrest.

The employees are separated, and they’re interrogated for an hour. The man questioning Dave has a gun on his hip. He touches it often. Eventually, the Americans are driven to a secluded section of the airport. Behind a gate off in the distance, Dave sees representatives from the country of Oman, their third-party mediator. He and his coworkers eventually board an airplane.

On the plane, Dave watches an Oman official open a briefcase from the overhead bin. He watches the man pull out three stacks of what looks like $10,000 each. Dave watches the man put stacks of money in his pocket and walk off the airplane. He watches the man give the money to a Houthi, kiss him on the cheek and get back on the plane.

They’re allowed to leave.

The Parade: Greenfield, Tennessee – May 5, 2016

Back in America, Dave reads Yemen news twice a day. He speaks to a Houthi lawyer every week, hoping to facilitate Mark’s release. Dave is responsible for a dozen other projects, but he struggles to think about anything but Yemen. He struggles to think about anything but Mark and John.

He hired them both, and he served in the military with John.

It’s a Thursday afternoon when he hears about Mark’s release. Dave leaves work to pack a bag. He buys a plane ticket to Germany, because he knows Mark will end up at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.

After his release, Mark spends two days in Riyadh. He showers for the first time, turning the water up as hot as it goes. An FBI agent spends the night with him because they don't want him to be alone.

At the hospital in Germany, Mark calls his daughter. He turns 57, and he gets a haircut. All he wants to do is go home, but officials need to evaluate him. After 192 days in captivity, Mark lost 40 pounds.

He has yet to regain the weight.

Before flying to America, Dave stays in a hotel with Mark at the airport. Dave worries Mark will wake up in the middle of the night and forget where he is. He writes Post-it notes and sticks them to Mark’s TV and door.

“This is David McComas,” he writes. “I’m next door.”

When Mark gets off the plane in Memphis, Tennessee, his family is waiting for him. His mom is there. His granddaughter. His wife. His kids.

When he sees his family, he sees tears in their eyes. Mark is quiet. Deep down, he knows their tears are about more than joy. His wife can’t believe how old he looks. His daughter can’t believe how small he is. His son describes him as a skeleton with skin.

He looks breakable.

After the airport, their family wants to stop at Outback Steakhouse. They almost always do. But Mark doesn’t want to. He wants to go home. It is dark in Greenfield now, and there is a parade for Mark. A celebration. Police cars and fire trucks and large crowds. It feels like the entire town is here.

It feels like a happy ending. Except everything bothers Mark. The sirens. The shouting. The applause. He just wants to go home.

In his front yard, Mark bends down and kisses the grass.

The Courtroom: Washington, D.C. - July 25, 2018

Court begins at 9:45 a.m., and although the case bears her name, Jennifer Hamen is not there. A week earlier, Jen visits her attorney to prepare to testify. It’s been more than two years since her husband’s death. Her attorney asks if she has any good memories of John.

“Every time I think of John,” she says, “I just think of him being tortured.”

Mark and John’s families sue the Islamic Republic of Iran. For years, the lawsuit alleges, Iranian terrorists trained and supported the Houthis. Iran's leaders saw the group as a way to destabilize Yemen and gain an ally in their fight against Saudi Arabia. In the year prior to Mark and John's capture, the Houthis detained more than 5,000 people.

“The Houthis were a hostage-taking organization,” says Jen’s attorney, Randy Singer. “That's what they did.”

In the courtroom, Mark doesn’t get to speak to Jen. It bothers him, because he wants to tell her John always talked about her. He wants to tell her what John said about his wedding ring before it was taken. He wants to tell her he thinks about John every day, about how he wished he could have gotten his hands untied. He wants to tell her he knows how lucky he is. And he wants to tell her he’s sorry.

For a lot of things, but mostly for not bringing John back home.

Jen isn’t ready for that conversation. Instead, Mark tells the judge about guilt that might never go away. He testifies for two hours. He says the CEO of Advanced C4 Solutions told him he was exchanged for 40 Houthis and “a large amount of money.” He testifies his back still bothers him, and his right ear rings throughout the day. His headaches are constant. He’s been diagnosed with PTSD, depression and anxiety.

Mark has worked all his life, but there are days when he doesn’t want to get up. He just doesn’t care.

After Mark's testimony, court officials turn off public video monitors. A medical examiner who reviewed John’s autopsy talks through postmortem pictures and how the evidence shows John suffered greatly before his death. He uses his hands to demonstrate how someone might strangle a hostage.

Jen isn’t in the courtroom yet. When she sits down in the witness box, there is a notebook of exhibits next to her. The notebook includes affidavits, U.N. reports, wage charts, depositions and pictures of weapons Iran shipped to the Houthis.

Jen apologizes for being nervous. She was 19 when she met John. She says it was an honor to be a military wife, but after 22 years John’s supervisors thought it was best for him to retire. He moved to a company selling communication equipment to the military. He did well, but it didn’t last. When he was laid off, he called his former Army boss, Dave McComas. Dave offered him a job paying $160,461 a year.

His first assignment was Yemen.

Jen says he left the day after his 45th birthday, and she fell asleep while helping him pack. She woke up when his taxi arrived around 3 a.m. She hugged him and told him she loved him. Before John boarded his plane to Yemen, he told his wife was to make sure the kids did their homework.

When Mark left for Yemen, he visited his daughter Raquel the night before. He told her he didn't want to go back. In the courtroom, she testifies after her brother's video-recorded deposition ends in tears. Raquel says her father retreats inside now during July Fourth fireworks, and he repeats the same things over and over. Instead of going to her father for advice, her father now comes to her.

Crystal McAlister testifies Mark often wakes up in the middle of the night. He yells and grabs her arm. He is distant and quick to anger. He wants to be left alone and often forgets what day it is.

Her attorney asks if Crystal loves Mark.

“I do,” she says. But "not like I’m supposed to.”

The families’ lawsuit seeks monetary damages, most of which they might never receive because of the country they are suing. But today is about more than money. Today is about more than terrorism. It’s about terror. It’s about scars left from invisible wars. It’s about what happens when the media moves on. It’s about what happens when your friends stop asking how you're doing.

It’s about anyone who thought this story had a happy ending.

Two days after his 19th birthday, Johann Hamen tells the federal judge about his college major. He picked mechanical engineering because of all the time he and his dad spent working on his Jeep Wrangler, a vehicle passed down from his grandmother.

When his dad died, Johann took on more than any teenager should. And it broke him, even if he pretended to be fine. His grades dropped, he quit cross country and gained weight. He bought expensive Jeep parts because it was the only way he could feel close to his dad. He bottled up his feelings, because he thought that was the best thing to do.

After his testimony, the judge stops Johann. He tells him his dad would have been proud.

The Memories: Greenfield, Tennessee - March 2022

He calls it a black hole.

Christian McAlister only remembers a few things from the year surrounding his dad’s abduction. He remembers looking up at the stars in his driveway at night. He remembers asking God to send his dad home. He remembers the hysterical phone call from his mom when she found out John was dead.

Christian was in college, and he had to step outside to talk to her. In his truck, he listened to his mom cry. When she hung up, it was his turn.

Near the front door of his father’s home now, there is a picture of Christian as a rookie police officer. He is clean-shaven and looks like a teenager. Now an officer in Jackson, Tennessee, Christian works nights. His dad was supposed to be here at 11:30 a.m.

At noon, Mark is driving to lunch. He forgot about his son.

When Mark gets home, he asks Christian where his jacket is. It’s cold outside, and Christian is wearing a red polo. He tells his dad he left it in his truck. A few minutes later, his dad asks him again.

Then, they talk about house projects. They talk about someone Christian needs to call. They don’t talk about much, really. Mark doesn’t ask about his son’s fiancée, or his upcoming wedding. Christian says he’s never had a conversation with his dad about what exactly happened in Yemen, and what his dad might still be going through at home. It's not that he doesn’t want to know. He does. But it might be easier not to.

Before Mark leaves, he asks his son if he needs a jacket.

The Card: Harrison, Ohio – October 1, 2021

John’s dad cries in short, terrible bursts.

He is holding a Father’s Day card his son gave him. On the front, a little boy is shaving. Ever since John saw his dad’s Army uniform neatly pressed and hung in the closet, he wanted to be like him. It’s why the young boy dug foxholes in the backyard.

In the card, John writes about how he used to watch his dad shave. He writes about how he couldn’t wait to do it himself. He hates shaving now, and he tells his dad he was right.

He shouldn’t have been in such a hurry to grow up.

John’s dad is sitting at the dining room table surrounded by pictures of his son, John Hamen III. His wife asks if he wants a tissue. He declines.

John III joined the Army at 18 and married his wife after two weeks of dating. He showed signs of PTSD after his first tour of duty in Iraq. He lost two children and fathered seven more, several of whom have special needs.

His dad’s favorite picture, one he kept even though he didn’t keep many, shows John's seven children sitting together on a blanket. His dad kept other mementos, including a picture of his son’s Eagle Scout ceremony and a story he illustrated in grade school.

The story was about the military.

John’s sister used to call him Rambo, because he always wore a headband while he played soldier and she played nurse. Ever since Sarah Mitchell was old enough to understand what the Army was, she knew her brother would end up there. At his funeral, friends left notes about reading military history with John at the library and fighting Commies in their backyard.

More than one mentioned digging foxholes.

On this day, Sarah opens a shoebox of pictures to show her dad. Disney photos. Military photos. School photos. She tells stories about people visiting her as an excuse to see John. Then, she holds up a picture of her brother in pink, white and sunglasses. Those were the "Miami Vice" years.

John’s dad lives on the second floor of a small apartment. In January 2016, a few months after his son’s death, he is leaning on the hallway railing and looking down.

“I don’t know anything,” he says.

A representative from the State Department attends his son’s funeral, a ceremony with full military honors. The representative offers condolences and a handshake, but little else. Six years later, the elder Hamen still doesn’t have answers.

He probably never will.

As John’s dad gets older, his memories fade. He doesn’t remember much from his son’s childhood, even when his daughter shows him a picture. More often than not, the specifics are gone. And more often than not, it’s the memories surrounding his son’s death that linger. He remembers singing happy birthday to his son over the phone, the day before he left for Yemen. He remembers Jen calling to tell him his son was dead. He remembers calling Sarah next.

John Hamen Jr. pulls out a handkerchief, hands shaking and lips quivering. He reads the Father’s Day card one more time.

The Rebuild: Martin, Tennessee – March 2022

Mark is standing on torn-up floor in a home damaged by an unchecked leak. A space heater quietly runs in the corner, and a carpenter’s pencil sticks out of his pocket. Wearing a toolbelt with duct tape on the back loop, Mark drills down flooring. His glasses are covered in sawdust.

At his job site in a college town 14 miles from home, he crouches. He thinks, but only about the next measurement. Only about the next cut. When he’s working, he doesn’t think about Yemen.

He hums “Amazing Grace.”

Mark doesn’t need money. After the lawsuit, a federal judge awarded him $20.7 million. Iran will never pay that. But when the U.S. government seizes property and other assets that can be traced to Iran, that money goes into a fund for terrorism victims. Still, Mark will likely never receive everything he’s owed.

For Mark, work is about finding peace. Or at least trying to.

On Dec. 29, 2017, Mark’s Yemen contract ends. He leaves AC4S. Today, he works more than 40 hours a week fixing houses. He does side jobs most days after work, and he is remodeling his own home, too. Done for the day, he drives home to even more of a mess.

It’s been a year since his divorce, and the framed family photos are gone. One is in Mark’s bedroom closet. Another is face down on a dusty piano. Crystal has moved out.

Inside his home, Mark searches for a light switch.

“I don’t like the dark,” he says.

Once he finds it, he begins sweeping. Mark blows off the dining room table and a cloud of dust rises into the air. He opens the windows.

A wall separating the kitchen and living room has been removed. The house is a mess, but his girlfriend doesn’t mind. It shows her Mark is moving on. It shows her he is ready for a new chapter in his life.

Mark isn’t so sure.

He is scared of getting married again. He occasionally still calls his ex-wife his wife, and he helps her buy a house 2 miles from his. It’s one they looked at when they were still together.

In many ways, including some he doesn’t say out loud, Mark wants his old life back.

Sitting in what’s left of his living room, what’s left of his old life, he wonders if he made the right decision. Because for Mark, home is a myth. Home is a fantasy. Home doesn’t exist anymore.

In an empty living room, Mark is reminded his kids don’t visit anymore. Last year, he didn’t put up a Christmas tree. The wind is whistling outside, and Mark is alone. He is thinking about how he survived and about how John didn’t. Sitting on a dusty maroon couch, he is thinking about Christmas. About his son jumping off the roof into their pool. About the Bloomin’ Onion at Outback Steakhouse. He is thinking about his life.

The one he lost, and the one he will never get back.

Question: In the concluding paragraphs, you paint a vivid picture of Mark’s solitude and reflections, emphasizing his loss and yearning for his past life. How did you decide on this specific imagery? And was this scene a deliberate journalistic choice to evoke a specific emotional response and provide a sense of closure to the story, or did it organically become the conclusion of the story?
Answer: This was one of the moments that stuck with me most when I visited Mark. Not so much because of what he said, but just the feeling I got from sitting with him in an empty house. It was powerful, and it helped me see that even though Mark was doing OK, he was still struggling. As I began to put the story together, I knew I wanted to start at the airport in Yemen. And I knew, or at least I hoped, that I could end with Mark in Tennessee. Because while Mark has a lot of people who love him, there are times when he still feels all alone. In my head, this moment with him in his home seemed to be a visual representation of that. In many ways, it is what the whole story is about.

The Epilogue

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, at least 8,000 American contractors have died in the Middle East. That’s 1,000 more civilians than U.S. troops who died in the Middle East during that same period.

In Yemen, more than 10,000 children have been killed or injured since the war began. Every three days there, someone is injured by landmines or unexploded devices.

Between May 2016 and April 2020, the Houthis were responsible for 904 incidents of arbitrary detention, 353 incidents of enforced disappearance and 138 incidents of torture – including 27 deaths in detention centers.

Today, there is no operating U.S. embassy in Yemen.

In 2019, Advanced C4 Solutions was acquired by another company, Hui Huliau. In its announcement, the company praised AC4S’s work with the State Department. Hui Huliau did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story. The State Department declined to comment.

Mark’s cellmate lives in Canada now. In 2016, Dr. Abdulkader Al-Guneid was released after 300 days in captivity. His home in Yemen was destroyed. His youngest sister still lives in the country, and she often asks him about gunfire she hears from inside her home.

Dave McComas still does the same kind of work, often traveling outside the U.S. for it. Some of the court proceedings in this case upset him. Especially the suggestion his company should not have returned to the Middle East.

“It’s never safe,” he said. “It’s Yemen.”

Dave visited Mark in Tennessee after his release, and he still stays in touch with him. The 53-year-old has not spoken to John’s family, but he sometimes reads old emails from him. He says he doesn’t feel guilt, just sadness.

Jen Hamen still has nightmares. At her son’s graduation, she could only think about how John should have been there. Her kids still ask if they’re safe. They ask if terrorists will come to kill them, too.

John was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. If he were alive today, he’d be 52 years old. He’d be a grandfather, like he always wanted. John’s dad is 80 years old, and he thinks about his son often. He thinks about the grandchildren he doesn’t see anymore. He thinks about his family, the one that will never be the same.

He wishes he had more answers.

Mark still lives in Tennessee, where he got engaged earlier this year. He still works more than one job, and he’s been offered multiple positions overseas.

He has declined them all.