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Coffee or Die Magazine’s Top Stories of 2022

December 31, 2022Coffee or Die
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Composite by Kenna Lee/Coffee or Die Magazine.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

While Coffee or Die Magazine has seen many changes this year — including the exit of our founding editor — we've also stayed true to our mission to be out in front of the stories that mean the most to our readers. In 2022, that meant having reporters on the ground in Ukraine and Syria, embedding with the US Border Patrol and Coast Guard, and telling the stories of those who fought — or are still fighting — to make the world a better place.

Notably, Coffee or Die senior editor Nolan Peterson was in the unique position of covering the Russian invasion of Ukraine from his literal living room. Having lived in the country since 2014, Peterson provided some of the most important reporting from the front lines with an understanding of the Ukrainian people and culture that few other reporters can match.

It’s never an easy task to narrow down our favorites from the year, but here are 15 top stories and five videos — in no particular order — that form a solid representation of who we are, what we’re passionate about, and, most importantly, what matters to you, the readers.

Starting tonight, you can cast your vote for which of these stories you think is best over in our Instagram stories.


The Best Coffee or Die Stories of 2022

Embedded With US Air Force Nuclear Missile and Bomber Units by Nolan Peterson


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An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test on April 26, 2019, from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. US Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ian Dudley via DVIDS.

"The two-lane road stretches straight across the empty Wyoming plains. There’s not a tree in sight to interrupt the rolling, grass-covered expanse. We’re smack in the middle of America’s vast interior and heading toward the front lines of a new era in global, great-power competition.

"We continue on, and up ahead off the road I observe what looks like a single-story, ranch-style home. This is Missile Alert Facility Alfa-01, which commands 10 nuclear-armed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles located at separate launch sites scattered across the countryside. Apart from some unusual antennas and a barbed-wire-topped metal fence, there’s nothing about this building’s appearance that outwardly betrays its true identity."

READ THE FULL STORY HERE.


Stayin’ Frosty: A Commando’s Unlikely Journey From SEAL Team to Ice Cream by Matt Fratus

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Chris Fettes, a former Navy SEAL, created his own dessert business called Be Free Craft Ice Cream. The mascot of one of his ice cream flavors, Cookie Commandough, wears night vision goggles, adding a cool flair often absent from other ice cream brands. Image courtesy of Josh Malbon of Malbon Creative.

"When Navy SEAL Chris Fettes first deployed to Iraq in 2006, he brought along his most prized possession from home: a high-end, Italian-made ice-cream machine.

"For other deployed service members, more common recreational items, such as guitars, weights, and baseball gloves, were sufficient to provide a mental escape from the daily grind of combat. But Fettes was different. Sure, he enjoyed music and pumping iron just as much as the next guy, but nothing brought him more joy — and peace of mind — than making delicious frozen desserts with his beloved Lello Musso 5030."

READ THE FULL STORY HERE.


Secret Mission to Kabul: The C-17 Crew That Helped Launch the Afghan Airlift by Matt White

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The crew of Reach 824 received valor awards on June 4, 2022. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

"As Reach 824 flew through Afghan mountains toward Kabul, the crew of the hulking New York Air National Guard C-17 counted six other C-17s headed the other way, each aborting their missions after being unable to land on the dark, chaotic runway of Hamid Karzai International Airport.

“'The situation was rapidly changing so we were going into this not knowing what was going on,' said Capt. Matthew McChesney, the aircraft commander on Reach 824.

"It was Aug. 16, 2021, the day the airlift from Kabul began in earnest. Civilians were chasing airplanes on the runway, and the Kabul airport still had no working control tower."

READ THE FULL STORY HERE.


Embedded With US Border Patrol by Carl Prine

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Coffee or Die Magazine embedded with US Border Patrol agents in the waning days of February 2022, from the wildlands of West Texas to the urban sprawl of Sunland Park, New Mexico. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

"The 49-year-old lawman squinted at the top of what everyone here calls Marijuana Mountain, then glanced down at the furrows dragged across a dust trail by a US Border Patrol truck hours earlier just north of the ghost town of Lobo.

"It was 3:28 p.m. on Feb. 23, 2022, in Culberson County, and to Station Patrol Agent in Charge Jose Aleman, something just wasn’t right about the canyon. A steer wouldn’t make that crimp in the tarbush. No whitetail would mat the tobosa like that.

"For the past 17 hours he’d been hunting a group of Guatemalan stragglers that left Mexico, crossed the trickle of the Rio Grande about 20 miles southeast of here, and scaled the Sierra Vieja range, which includes Marijuana Mountain."

READ THE FULL STORY HERE.


Walking Point: How Patrol Base Abbate Helps Veterans Find Their Tribe by Hannah Ray Lambert

Cody Morris spars with Garreth Hoernel at Patrol Base Abbate's "Fight Club" in July 2021, near Thompson Falls, Montana. Photo courtesy of Mark Cornellison.

"Sweat shone on Cody Morris’ backplastered strands of hair to his neck, and soaked the red bandana tied around his head as he held his boxing gloves in a defensive position. It was about 95 degrees in Thompson Falls, Montana, and the late afternoon sun had effectively transformed the black wrestling mats into a skillet.

"With controlled swiftness, the 28-year-old Marine Corps veteran raised his left knee and smacked his sparring partner with his padded shin.

"A moment later Simron Biant, a combat engineer in the US Army, got his revenge, landing a kick against Morris’ arm with a satisfying thud."

READ THE FULL STORY HERE.


Finding Freedom: Syria in the Wake of ISIS by Michael R. Shea

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Women at a funeral in Kobani mourn an SDF soldier who died in June after an ISIS sleeper cell attack in Deir ez-Zor. Photo courtesy of Clandestine Media Group.

"Three heavy circle bolts hang from the ceiling in a dark basement, at the end of a long hallway, under the municipal soccer stadium here. The rope bindings cut short and frayed have turned brown with blood and age. This execution room used by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria during its three-year reign of this ancient city saw untold horrors. Tortures. Rapes. Beheadings. Now it is an empty shell, a memory of violence with broken and blown-out walls, stained ropes, rusted chains; there’s a lone plastic sandal caked in dust in one corner and a faint smell of bleach.

"By one account, 2,000 prisoners were executed here. Locals called it 'The Black Stadium' because of its dark stone construction. Under ISIS, the name felt all the more fitting. Yazidi women were sold as sex slaves to ISIS emirs on the stadium field above. At Na’eem Square, not far away, wrought-iron fence posts were used as pikes to display decapitated heads. The stadium track is cut with the heavy scars of tank treads and the cometlike marks of trailing small-arms fire. There is no stone wall or surface anywhere untouched by gunfire. Three days into our two-week-long road trip across this war-torn country, we entered this city of 300,000, the sixth-largest in Syria, and the self-proclaimed capital of the ISIS caliphate during its reign from 2014 to 2017, before Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the ground and US air power in the sky took it back."

READ THE FULL STORY HERE.


Operation Just Cause: Untold Stories From the Army Rangers Who Invaded Panama by Joshua Skovlund

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Rangers from 3rd Platoon, C Company, 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, prepare to assault the Comandancia (Panama Defense Forces headquarters) in downtown Panama City on the morning of Dec. 20, 1989. Photo courtesy of David Reeves.

"Flying nonstop from the United States, a swarm of C-130 Hercules and C-141 Starlifter transport planes rumbled through the night. They dipped low over the Caribbean Sea, and the Ranger jumpmasters standing in the doorways felt spray from the surf against their faces.

"The pilots were trying to get underneath Cuban radar systems to keep the invasion of Panama secret for as long as possible.

"As the lumbering planes nosed toward Panama, their pilots pulled up, climbing sharply. Below came the thuds of laser-guided bombs dropped by F-117 Nighthawk stealth attack fighters out of Nevada’s Tonopah Test Range, missing their targets but sparking a wildfire that blazed across the black sky."

READ THE FULL STORY HERE.


Army Chinooks, Air Force PJs, Park Rangers Rescue Stranded Hikers on Mount Rainier by Noelle Wiehe

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Tech. Sgt. Dean Criswell, from the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron, is hoisted into a CH-47 Chinook from the 1-214th Aviation Regiment, May 15, 2015, on Mount Rainier, Washington. Criswell was part of a mountain rescue team made up of the National Parks Service, Army Reserve and the 22 STS. US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Tim Chacon.

"He was trapped in an ice crevasse knifed into the side of Mount Rainier, his arm and leg busted, his buddy nearly eight stories above him getting whipped by winds blasting the snowy ridge at 50 knots.

"But he had excellent cell phone service. And so, at roughly 10:30 a.m. on May 12, he rang Mount Rainier National Park dispatch and asked for help.

"National Park Service officials knew their own rescue choppers were grounded. But someone had to reach the two mountain climbers stuck above 12,000 feet on a Washington ridgeline swept by gusts racing faster than pronghorn antelopes.

"So they called in the US Army."

READ THE FULL STORY HERE.


DISPATCH: Interview With a Ukrainian MiG-29 Pilot by Nolan Peterson

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Juice, pictured in the cockpit of a Ukrainian MiG-29 fighter jet, gave an exclusive interview to Coffee or Die Magazine. Photo courtesy of Juice/Ukrainian Air Force.

"Emotional compartmentalization is among the fighter pilot’s most essential skills. Especially in wartime, when there is little time to reflect on one’s mortality, or to honor the dead. Apart from their fears and sorrows, however, there is another emotion, unique to war, which Ukrainian fighter pilots must now also control each time they fly.

"It is their rage, provoked by the Russian pilots who continue to bomb and murder Ukrainian civilians.

“'Sometimes you respect your opponent, but not in this case,' a 29-year-old Ukrainian air force MiG-29 pilot, who goes by the call sign 'Juice,' said about his enemies. 'They’re crazy. They’re not human. It’s a sin for all your life to kill people like this. It’s absolutely stupid and immoral, and I can’t imagine how they will live with this through the years … and their families, too.'

"After a pause, Juice added: 'But as professionals, we should keep calm and keep our minds cold.'”

READ THE FULL STORY HERE.


‘We Slaughtered Them All’: Inside the Bloody Battle for Shewan by Ethan E. Rocke

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During a mission to eliminate an enemy IED cell in September 2008, then Cpl. Frank Simmons, a sniper and Force Reconnaissance Marine with Jaeger platoon, conducts a recon and surveillance mission in the mountains of north Helmand province. Photo courtesy of Frank Simmons.

"On July 21, 2008, Lance Cpl. Brady Gustafson was manning an M240 machine gun in the turret of a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle in the Afghan village of Shewan when a rocket-propelled grenade pierced the MRAP’s hull and blew Gustafson’s right leg off below his knee. His vehicle was leading a mounted patrol from 2nd Platoon, Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, when Taliban insurgents ambushed the Marines, unleashing a barrage of RPGs and small-arms fire from multiple positions.

"With his mangled leg bleeding profusely, Gustafson leaned into his gun and sprayed hate at the enemy positions. Engaging with accurate fire, he emptied an entire can of ammunition in the early moments of the ambush. As Marines in the vehicle rushed to put a tourniquet on his leg, Gustafson reloaded his gun."

READ THE FULL STORY HERE.


Holding the Line: America’s Best Technical Rescue Team Is in Small-Town Idaho by Matt White

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Paramedic Chad Smith at the Perrine Bridge in Twin Falls, Idaho. Easy public access to the Snake River Canyon below makes for lots of rescues. Photo by Marty Skovlund Jr./Coffee or Die Magazine.

"A base jumper climbs onto a handrail and looks around. Almost 500 feet below is the Snake River, met on both sides by massive sheer cliffs that are stained dark brown by volcanic basalt rock. Behind the man, four lanes of highway traffic roar past, a rushing mix of 18-wheelers, oversize campers, and tourists in rental cars. The jumper is halfway across the Perrine Bridge in Twin Falls, Idaho, probably America’s most wide open and unregulated BASE jumping mecca. The jumper has no permit, hasn’t paid a fee, hasn’t asked for permission, and isn’t worried that a park ranger or cop is about to drive up and stop him.

"At the Perrine Bridge, unlike nearly every other well-known BASE jumping spot in the US, you can just show up and ... jump.

"But this is Idaho. Things are like that here."

READ THE FULL STORY HERE.


‘Grey Wolf Team’: How a USAF Task Force Works To Keep Ukraine’s Pilots Fighting by Nolan Peterson

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A Ukrainian pilot gives a thumbs-up. A US Air Force group, dubbed "Grey Wolf Team," has been established in Germany to determine what technology, weapons, and tactics the US can send to Ukraine to aid its air force. Picture from wingmenforukraine.com.

"An ad hoc US Air Force task force known as the 'Grey Wolf Team' is advising Ukraine’s air force in its defensive air campaign against Russia’s invasion.

“'We exist because there’s a bunch of motivated people who want to help out. There’s not another team like this in the Air Force that’s doing the same thing,' said an Air Force fighter pilot who has worked extensively on the Grey Wolf Team.

"Named in honor of Col. Oleksandr 'Grey Wolf' Oksanchenko, a legendary Ukrainian pilot killed in the war’s opening days, and based at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, the Grey Wolf Team focuses on understanding the limited technological tools available to the Ukrainians, whose air force comprises mostly Soviet-era hardware. With input from Ukrainian counterparts, the team passes recommendations up the Department of Defense’s chain of command for 'low-cost, game-changing' solutions to Ukraine’s air combat challenges, one team member told Coffee or Die Magazine."

READ THE FULL STORY HERE.


The Scars of Moral Injury by Matt White

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Master Sgt. Justin Tyler has been an Air Force pararescueman for more than a decade. “Nobody can say that, hey, that’s the reason why the guys died. The reason they died is because the building blew up, right? So, yeah, it’s kind of about learning how to be at peace with that.” Photo by Nick Roush for Coffee or Die Magazine.

"For more than a decade, Lt. Col. Paul Andrews’ job was to rain down destruction on battlefields. As a combat weapons officer on fearsome AC-130 gunships, Andrews would spot enemy positions with the plane’s sensors and cameras, train the cannons and Gatling guns onto far-off figures and — knowing full well he was about to end the lives of his targets — pull the trigger.

"But the missions that haunt him are the ones where he wasn’t there to pull it.

“'Our mantra is to always protect,' Andrews told Coffee or Die Magazine. 'When I think of my personal experiences, the ones that stay with me are honestly the people I couldn’t protect. The times I couldn’t get there overhead, whether that was a time problem, a geographic problem, or just missing it.'”

READ THE FULL STORY HERE.


How a Family Tradition of Service Shaped Three Generations of Fathers by Mac Caltrider

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Travis Denman, right, during a 2007 deployment to Iraq. Photo courtesy of Travis Denman.

"Sitting in his family’s modest living room, 10-year-old Travis Denman watched as footage of US Army Rangers suspended from parachutes drifted across the television screen. America’s lightning invasion of Grenada was being broadcast on every news channel by the time Denman realized that his dad’s most recent work trip was not the usual field training exercise in the backwoods of Fort Lewis.

"Travis’ father, Jesse Denman, was a medic with the 75th Ranger Regiment and among the men tasked with seizing Point Salines International Airport, just outside the Grenadian capital of St. George’s. The Rangers steamrolled the airport’s defenders, commandeered some bulldozers to use as mobile cover, and then secured the airport at the cost of eight Rangers who were killed in action. In just four days, American forces controlled the entire island nation."

READ THE FULL STORY HERE.


Infantryman Discharged After Divulging Healthy Relationship With Father by Eric Miller

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After the Marine’s leaders learned the extent of his healthy relationship with his father, they moved forward with administrative separation. US Marine Corps photo illustration by Sgt. Matthew Callahan.

"Ben McCallister, an infantryman stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, was immediately discharged from the US Marine Corps after an investigation found he has a healthy relationship with his father. McCallister’s leadership began to suspect a fair and present guiding paternal influence in McCallister’s life after noticing his generally balanced psychological disposition and lifestyle."

READ THE FULL SATIRE HERE. 

The Best Coffee or Die Videos of 2022


Inside the Special Forces Combat Diver Qualification Course

The six-week US Army Special Forces Combat Diver Qualification Course is notoriously difficult. “Combat divers are a different breed, man,” said Sgt. 1st Class Scott Brown, one of the instructors assigned to CDQC. Brown is a seasoned Special Forces combat diver, with trips to Afghanistan and Central America under his belt. “Nobody makes you go to dive school — you have to want to be here. This place just attracts a different kind of soldier. It’s a brotherhood within a brotherhood.”

Robin Sage: Inside the Final Test of Special Forces Training

The 14 soldiers of ODA 9114 are two weeks away from joining the elite ranks of Special Forces and earning their Green Berets. But between them and the finish line is a two-week field test known as Robin Sage — a full-scale, all-in unconventional warfare exercise inside the notional nation of Pineland. They’ve trained to join Special Forces for over a year, but with Coffee or Die Magazine along for the mission, they’ll have 14 days to plan and infiltrate Pineland, link up with local resistance, equip and train their fighters, and attack a series of targets.

Leaving Afghanistan: America’s Final Days in Our Longest War

For the one-year anniversary of the withdrawal, Coffee or Die Magazine sat down with two Marines and a retired Army Ranger-turned-journalist who were there until the end. This documentary is their eyewitness account of how it all went down, from the compassion they witnessed, the chaos they experienced, and the friends they lost.

Inside the Nuclear Triad (Part One): ICBMs

The threat of nuclear war is the highest it’s been since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Coffee or Die Magazine’s Nolan Peterson visited a US Air Force nuclear missile silo and underground launch facility. He observed how America’s nuclear missile arsenal remains on alert 24 hours a day, every day, ready to defend the homeland should the unthinkable ever come to pass.

Inside the Coast Guard's Air Station on Kodiak Island: Living Life on the Edge

Coffee or Die Magazine spent a week with Kodiak's Coasties because this is their busy season. Between May 1 and Aug. 31, 2021, air station crews responded to 72 maydays. That meant crews spent 157 hours in the air to save 42 lives and aid 20 other people in distress.

Year in Review

Coffee or Die
Coffee or Die

Coffee or Die is Black Rifle Coffee Company’s online lifestyle magazine. Launched in June 2018, the magazine covers a variety of topics that generally focus on the people, places, or things that are interesting, entertaining, or informative to America’s coffee drinkers — often going to dangerous or austere locations to report those stories.

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