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Matthew Schrier, a photographer and author, speaks about his ordeal after seven months of captivity by Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, at the first Anti-Terrorism Awareness Month in Howell Auditorium, Aug. 1.

In observation of Anti-Terrorism Awareness Month, the Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization, and Security is hosting events that highlight topics of interest to the Fort Belvoir community. The first event, Aug. 1 at Howell Auditorium, featured Matthew Schrier, a photographer who’d been kidnapped by al-Qaida in Syria.

For Schrier, he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. He was a photographer having just finished up an assignment, when he got into a cab to get to the border of Turkey. He said he’d gotten into the wrong car as they were intercepted within miles of the border.

At the time, he was one of many American journalists captured by Syrian jihadis and was transferred to various prisons within Aleppo, Syria.

“The whole kidnapping took a minute, tops,” he said. “It was very professionally done.”

After he arrived at a destination he hadn’t known at the time, he asked his captors for a cigarette. When he was told cigarettes weren’t allowed, Schrier knew he was with al-Qaida.

His ordeal lasted seven months before he could escape. Schrier explained to the audience what happened to him during those harrowing months, starting with breaking the ice with his captors by making jokes. Although he thought he would be tortured, his joking seemed to give him an upper hand with them. But, he could still hear the sounds of others being tortured, he said.

He’d received special privileges, which eventually ended when he got placed with another American prisoner, Peter Theo Curtis. After planning an escape attempt, the pair was caught and sent to be tortured. They were also starved and had been infected by bed bugs.

Schrier was eventually able to escape from his prison cell, but had to leave his cell mate behind after he’d given up. Schrier said he let others know where Curtis was, so they could get him out, too.

After recounting his story, an audience member asked Schrier what kept him motivated to survive. “I just didn’t want to be like the other guy,” Schrier said, describing his American cell mate as broken.

Gene Kippins, a Vietnam veteran, asked Schrier how the experience changed him. Schrier admitted he trusted people far less, but overall, felt he was still the same person.

“It makes you cynical. I don’t know how much it’s changed my character,” he said.

Kippins said, having grown up in Brooklyn, N.Y., he’s known the meaning and importance of needing to be vigilant, since he was young. “I’m still this way,” he said. “It’s become innate.”

For him, his worries extend beyond just terrorists, but to others who might try to harm him.

“It’s not a comfortable way to be, but, from my own perspective, it saves lives,” he said referring to his caution around others.

After hearing Schrier’s story and speaking with him, Kippins said he had been surprised by Schrier’s response.

“When you go through something as traumatic as that, I don’t care where you’re from, it’s going to change your life. I spent some time in Vietnam and that changed my life,” he said. “It was pretty brutal on my sensibilities.”

However, not knowing Schrier personally, Kippins said Schrier didn’t lose his calm when it mattered most and that resilience was something he took away from the event.

“It was nice to hear a real-world account of what it means to be a prisoner in the context of (his situation) and that he survived it intact,” he said. “I think that underscores a degree of intestinal fortitude.”

As part of the presentation, David Ralston, deputy chief of plans at DPTMS, talked about the importance of being aware of your surroundings, in an era where terror attacks might happen close to home.

“It’s paramount that you are self-aware and you know where you are,” Ralston said, adding you should be able to communicate to first responders what building you are in and where you are moving to. “That’s just a personal practice that I advise everyone to start practicing.”

Lt. Col. Andrew Wilbraham, Belvoir Headquarters Battalion commander, talked about the importance of remaining vigilant in your environment, no matter where you are. He recalled the Belgium attacks and where he’d been at the time.

Terrorists are using the internet to enable and inspire others to commit terrorist attacks, he said.

“Terrorist attacks continue to evolve and adversaries seek to bypass the Army’s strengths, while exploiting identified weaknesses,” Wilbraham said. “Their attack methods are increasingly being focused on low-cost, low-tech tactics.”

It’s important to report out-of-the-ordinary things, when possible. “It’s better to be wrong than to not report,” Wilbraham said.

Upcoming Anti-Terrorism Awareness Month events

Michael Chang - As director of operations, Chang is responsible for all training programs and deployment teams at TRAPWIRE, which is a cloud-based incident reporting and analysis system. He also was a CIA counterterrorism officer, counterterrorism operations officer, special operations officer, DCI protection detail agent, and weapons instructor. Chang speaks at 11 a.m. Wednesday in Howell Auditorium.

Lt. Cdr. Youssef H. Aboul-Enein - Aboul-Enein works for the Navy Medical Service Corps and is a designated Middle East Foreign Area Officer. He has published articles on Islamic militancy, Arab affairs, and Middle East military tactics for Military Review, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Foreign Area Officer Journal. Aboul-Enein has served in Liberia, Bosnia and the Persian Gulf. He speaks at 1 p.m. Aug. 22 in the Nolan Building.

Howell Auditorium is in Bldg. 226 on Belvoir, on the DAU Campus. Attending any of the sessions meets the annual anti-terrorism training requirement for military and civilians.