Tom Bowman

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.

In his current role, Bowman has traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan often for month-long visits and embedded with U.S. Marines and soldiers.

Before coming to NPR in April 2006, Bowman spent nine years as a Pentagon reporter at The Baltimore Sun. Altogether he was at The Sun for nearly two decades, covering the Maryland Statehouse, the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Naval Academy, and the National Security Agency (NSA). His coverage of racial and gender discrimination at NSA led to a Pentagon investigation in 1994.

Initially Bowman imagined his career path would take him into academia as a history, government, or journalism professor. During college Bowman worked as a stringer at The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Mass. He also worked for the Daily Transcript in Dedham, Mass., and then as a reporter at States News Service, writing for the Miami Herald and the Anniston (Ala.) Star.

Bowman is a co-winner of a 2006 National Headliners' Award for stories on the lack of advanced tourniquets for U.S. troops in Iraq. In 2010, he received an Edward R. Murrow Award for his coverage of a Taliban roadside bomb attack on an Army unit.

Bowman earned a Bachelor of Arts in history from St. Michael's College in Winooski, Vermont, and a master's degree in American Studies from Boston College.

More than a dozen Marines from Alpha Company fan out across California's Mojave Desert, far into the distance. Machine-gun fire gives them cover. The small forms dash ahead. Some drop to one knee, others fall on their stomachs, firing at pop-up targets.

Only one woman is part of this group. Until last fall, Sgt. Kelly Brown was fueling helicopters and trucks. Now she's running with an assault rifle.

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And we're going to talk more now about the decision to keep about 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through the end of this year. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is here in the studio.

Welcome, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

It's a recent morning out in California's Mojave Desert, and Marine Lance Cpls. Paula Pineda and Julia Carroll are struggling to pick up and maneuver Carl. He's a 220-pound dummy, and a stand-in for a wounded Marine.

Carroll's knees buckle for a moment, but as a dusty wind picks up, the two women pull Carl off their light armored vehicle. They carry him to safety, careful not to let his head drag on the rocky ground.

Both women are out of breath.

Pineda is 5 foot 2. On the back of her helmet is a piece of masking tape with the words "Mad Max."

In the dry and craggy hills of California's Mojave Desert, Capt. Ray Kaster tries to shout over the din of a machine gun to be heard by Alpha Company, the unit of Marines he's working with during a month of rigorous instruction at Twentynine Palms training center.

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The American command in Afghanistan has for the first time in six years classified detailed statistics about the Afghan security forces — everything from equipment and training to attrition.

Gen. John Campbell, who is leading the NATO coalition's non-combat mission in Afghanistan, said he now considers all that sensitive operational information that could help the Taliban.

Campbell said he decided to classify details about the Afghan forces because they could be used by insurgent fighters to threaten both Afghan and U.S. forces.

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On this last day of 2014, America's troops in Afghanistan are still a combat force.

On Thursday, their mission changes.

"We will be ending our combat mission in Afghanistan, obviously because of the extraordinary service of the men and women in the American armed forces," President Obama said during a recent visit with Marines and their families in Hawaii.

But there will still be more than 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

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NPR — along with seven public radio stations around the country — is chronicling the lives of America's troops where they live. We're calling the project "Back at Base."

Lance Cpl. Jasmine Abrego is an office clerk who dreams of becoming a warrior.

She's flat on her stomach in the dirt, in full combat gear. Suddenly she pops up, slings a 44-pound metal tripod on her back and lurches forward in a crablike run. Finally, she slams the tripod to the ground. A male Marine slaps a .50-caliber machine gun into place.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been on the defensive recently about the strategy to take on the Islamic State. American warplanes have been bombing targets in Iraq and Syria, but militant fighters are still on the move.

"We have made it very clear, I have and President Obama has, that this is a long, difficult effort," Hagel said.

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Pentagon officials announced still another U.S. airstrike in Iraq on Friday. Fighter and attack aircraft hit Islamic State armored vehicles and machine guns.

That makes nearly 100 U.S. bombing runs in the past few weeks, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said that enabled Iraqi and Kurdish forces to fight the group — also known as ISIL — around two northern Iraqi cities.

"American airstrikes and American arms and assistance helped Iraqi and Kurdish forces blunt ISIL's advances around Irbil and helped the Iraqis retake and hold Mosul Dam," Hagel said.

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Warning: This report contains descriptions and an image that could disturb some readers.

The savage and protracted conflict in Syria has left more than 170,000 dead. Now, there are allegations of torture and killing of political prisoners opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Those allegations appear to be supported by evidence: tens of thousands of photographs.

The man who says he took the pictures worked as a military police photographer for the Assad regime and defected last year.

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Senior U.S. intelligence officials say they have proof that a surface-to-air missile was launched when the airliner went down and have ID'd people in a recorded conversation implicating the culprits.

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At the White House today, President Obama awarded the nation's highest award for combat bravery. He presented the Medal of Honor to former Sergeant Ryan Pitts. In 2008, Pitts fought off a large Taliban force at an Afghan outpost. He did this for a time alone and wounded until the Americans could turn the tide of the battle.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As one of his teammates said, had it not been for Ryan Pitts, that post almost certainly would've been overrun.

The challenge for the Marines, and for the Army, is how to open up ground combat jobs to women in January 2016, without lowering standards.

And here's where things stand in the Marines.

Eighty-five female Marines already made it through an infantry training course last fall at Camp Lejeune, N.C., which included drills such as attacking a mock enemy force, hidden in a pine forest. That course lasted eight weeks, and the men and women all completed the same training.

Rick Brennan remembers sitting around Baghdad back in 2011 with some fellow U.S. military planners. Talk turned to the Iraqi army of the future. In one scenario, they pictured the Iraqi army falling apart, splintering along ethnic lines.

"We painted a worst-case scenario, a nightmare scenario, that was exactly what we're seeing take place right now," Brennan says.

Remember last week when President Obama said he planned to send up to 300 military advisers to Iraq?

Well, the U.S. couldn't do it until the Iraqi government gave U.S. soldiers immunity from prosecution, through what's called a "diplomatic note." If those U.S. soldiers committed any crimes or had any legal troubles while advising Iraqis, the U.S. wanted to handle any prosecutions.

President Obama says that up to 300 U.S. military personnel will be heading to Iraq to advise Iraqi forces, not to serve in combat. But the proposal raises more questions: Will those U.S. forces heading out with Iraqi troops be armed? What are the rules of engagement? And how long will they stay?

President Obama said that he will help the Iraqi military break the momentum of the militants on the march to Baghdad. The Pentagon said that one possible option could include airstrikes. But the president said that any military help must include political solutions from the Iraqi government, which has helped fuel the unrest by failing to reach out to its Sunni minority.

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