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Meet Retired Lieutenant Colonel and Aspiring Journalist Mitch Utterback

As a former college student and fraternity star at Michigan Technological University, retired Lieutenant Colonel Mitch Utterback never planned to serve in the United States Army for over 30 years. During his junior year, Utterback enlisted in the Special Forces branch before ending his three-year college career. Previously fighting in combat in Afghanistan as well as Iraq for over three decades, Utterback is able to understand and define certain gaps in the reporting of war zones as well as covering natural disasters.

For a number of different reasons, Utterback is passionate about pursuing a career in journalism. Utterback is fully prepared to evolve as a brave and accurate journalist. He is well prepared through his extensive experience as a soldier and commissioned officer, his recent responsibility as Colorado’s disaster response representative of the Army, and finally, with the help of his master’s degree he will be receiving this year from the University of Colorado Boulder.

                                                                                                                Photo courtesy of CMCI/Utterback.

How old were you when you joined the military? And did you know that this is what you were gonna do, or you kind of just thought about it?


“I went to college after high school for three years, and I mostly majored in fraternity lifestyle. I just partied and watched my GPA drop a little bit every quarter.”


Did you have a particular motivation in starting that journey?


“I did. I wanted to be more successful than I would have been with just a college degree. I hated college, and I wanted to quit… and go on to something even better, that was more honorable and made more of a contribution.”


How did you achieve your high ranking and get to that position of being a commissioned officer?


“I started at a really low rank, private first class which is just the third step up. I was able to start at that because I had three years of college. I rose to the rank of staff sargent when I was on active duty, but then I wanted to try something new. I got out and did ROTC at San Diego State. I did that to become an officer, and then I got to the rank I was by just staying in.”


Being an eyewitness to all of this violence and injustice in combat, did those moments make it easier for you to continue on in your position or harder?


“It was my duty, so I told myself, ‘Hey you signed up for this, this is your job.’ You don’t really get a choice to decide whether you can handle it or not; you have to handle it. You connect what you’re seeing with, ‘Hey this is just part of my job. People need me to do this job, but not everybody can. I have been trained to do it, and then I’m being asked to do it. That’s how we keep ourselves motivated and resilient when we see bad stuff.”


What was the worst moment in your career?


“Soldiers dying, and funerals are the worst moments. Telling somebody that their soldier has been killed, handing the family the flag that was folded up on their casket. Reciting this script that the government has, and doing the eulogy at a funeral full of people that love this guy, while he’s in the casket right next to me with the flag on it—those are the hard ones.”


Describe to me a defining moment (if any) in your career? (A moment of clarity, or sense of purpose you had).


“I was in Mosul, Iraq last month, doing graduate research for my master’s degree. I was only responsible for myself and taking pictures and videos for my thesis. I was the only American, totally out there with the Iraqis by myself. For some people that would sound scary because they don’t have my background. Every morning before we went into battle, I stood there and had a coffee before we left the little place we were at, and thought, ‘God I love this. I love this, this is so fun.’ I actually told myself, you’re definitely in the right line of work because you’re scared of nothing here. You have so much awareness of the military component of this, you’re really going to be able to fit in warzones in the future, and be able to tell the story and not put the guys you are with at risk.”


What prompted you to go back to school and become a journalist?


“A friend of mine in the media who was a retired military officer was doing this. He encouraged me to consider doing it. Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North. He was such a big name, and I respected him so much because he was with me in Iraq in 2007. I thought, ‘Wow if Oliver North says I should maybe get into this, I think I’ll look into it.’ I decided to follow his advice. The GI Bill that pays for our education is really a good deal.”


What field of journalism are you interested in pursuing and why?


“I’m interested in conflict, crisis, and natural disasters. I’m interested because I had experience in all of those things. I know how to survive and maneuver and get around. I know what I’m looking at when I am in a war. I know just little things, like the sound of certain things blowing up. I know that those are the good guys shooting and those are the bad guys shooting. I know how disasters are responded to, and I know what governments do to try and help people. There’s just so much more to stories that I think I can tell because I’ve been involved in them on the other side. I think my knowledge and expertise will allow me to establish rapport with people in combat zones, and with disaster response. I’ll be a more credible journalist to them and get better access than other journalists would get.”


Can you explain the thesis you are writing upon your graduation?


“I knew I wanted to go to Iraq a long time ago, before I even started here. It was mostly an investment in my future resume to go do this trip. In part, I missed the guys I used to serve with. They were still alive, actually leading the fight against ISIS in Iraq. I just asked the department here, ‘hey I’m going to Iraq anyway, to do my personal reporting. Can I make it my master’s thesis?’ They said ‘Yeah, we have a thing called professional projects.’ Certainly no one goes to a combat zone to do a professional project. I wanted to demonstrate professionally, all the things I learned in journalism school, and also help the CMCI. The project will include building my website (MitchUtterback.com). I want to do some of the coding, write a really long article something like you would see in The New Yorker, have a slideshow of pictures that I’ve taken, and do some kind of data or graphic visualization to show some statistics and also show something else that I’ve learned. For me to be able to say look what I’ve learned to do on my GI Bill. I learned to do all of this stuff.”


How different is the reality of war in Iraq and Afghanistan compared to what is reported?

How would one get real knowledge without the spin or partisanship or narratives?


“It’s very difficult. American news values are very surface driven and most media organizations don’t want to risk sending their people to these dangerous places. The reality is very narrow. I was involved in situations in Iraq that the next day made the international news. I looked at it, and I read it and thought, that’s not right. That’s not what happened. I realized that nobody telling the story was there. Their reporter in Baghdad calls their reporter in this other town and said, ‘Hey what’s going on?’ That reporter said, ‘Let me call the cops that I know,’—that cop really wasn’t there, but he only has a radio. He tells the guy on the phone, then the guy on the phone tells the guy back in Baghdad, and the Baghdad guy plays this telephone game of 3 layers of information, with no eyewitnesses. I made this maxim that says, the first report of any news story overseas are 50 percent wrong 100 percent of the time. It’s almost impossible for Americans to get a really broad view.”


What was the most fulfilling moment during your thirty plus years in this career field?


“One of my proudest moments in my military service actually happened right here in Boulder, about three and a half years ago. I had a job in the Colorado National Guard—fulltime, and I was the disaster response guy for the military. When Colorado had natural disasters, and the police and civil authorities needed help, they asked the military. In September of 2013, they had a really bad flood here. I was in charge of the military rescue. I wasn’t the commander, but I was in charge of all of it—telling all of the military commanders what to do. We rescued over 3,000 people, and over 1,000 pets. I knew the laws about taking pets during rescues, because I had a master’s degree in homeland security. Part of my master’s degree was studying animal rescue policies after Hurricane Katrina. I gave the orders to rescue all of the pets. It became, and still is, the largest pet rescue in U.S. history—that I was directly responsible for.”


Where do you see yourself in five years?


“New York, Washington D.C., Baghdad, Berlin, or Aspen, Colorado. I will be happy to take a network job if I can do exactly what I want. Go overseas, report from the worst places in the world, stay there for a while to get a lot of good context, and then come back.”  


                                                                        Photo courtesy of News Team Boulder 


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Ryley Fabber

CU Boulder '19

Ryley Fabber is currently a senior studying Journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The native New Yorker lives for good music, food and people. If she's not in the library, you can most likely find her hiking the flatirons, playing her guitar, snowboarding, or watching The Office.
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