His first alert came via e-mail. The Russians had invaded Georgia.
When Thomas Goltz heard the news, he beelined from Turkey, where he'd been spending the summer of 2008, to the heart of the conflict in Georgia. Two days after Russia made its move, Goltz crossed the border into Georgia to witness the action and the aftermath.
"If you've written a book about the country, this is the big one," he said. "This was the Russian military inside Georgia under the command of the Russian political authorities."
Goltz, a writer, "crisis correspondent" and professor at Montana State University, was the featured speaker for Wednesday's meeting of the Billings Committee on Foreign Relations.
A resident of Montana since 1978, Goltz splits his time between the Big Sky state and his travels. For the past 15 years, his work has frequently taken him to Turkey and the Caucasus region of the former Soviet Union.
Two years ago, Goltz published his "Georgia Diary" (the most recent of three published diaries, including "Azerbaijan Diary" and "Chechnya Diary"). His experience in Georgia during last summer's "Olympic War" - so-called because it erupted during the opening days of the Olympics in China - comprises an epilogue for the paperback version of "Georgia Diary," which will be released early next month.
Describing the events leading up to the war, Goltz explains Georgia's move toward the West under Georgia's president, "the young, brash Mikheil Saakashvili, who many have incorrectly blamed for igniting the conflict in the first place."
Writing in his unofficial blog at the time, Goltz said there was no evidence to support Russia's claim of ethnic cleansing by the Georgians.
"It soon became clear that this was nothing more than a well-constructed pretext for Russia to project strength and seize territory, and possibly topple the obsessively pro-Western Saakashvili government and forever dash Georgian hopes of become a member of NATO," he wrote.
But what would possess the tiny country of Georgia to stand up to its powerful neighbor?
Goltz had an opportunity to pose that question to Saakashvili last summer. Goltz had met the Georgian president a few years earlier, when he presented him with a copy of his book "Chechnya Diary." In August of 2008, Goltz carried with him a hardcover copy of his "Georgia Diary," figuring he'd present it to Saakashvili in the unlikely event the two had a chance to meet.
Last August, as the immediate conflict eased, Goltz prepared to leave Georgia on the midnight train. But only hours before his departure, he received a phone call from the president's office, telling him to meet Saakashvili at 3 a.m. When Goltz presented Saakashvili with the book, he asked the president why he'd confronted the Russians.
"He looked me in the eye and said 'We had to, we are Georgians,' " Goltz said.
Goltz recounts a fascinating tale of crossing both Russian and Georgian lines as he "threaded the needle" on his journey to the Georgian capital of Tblisi. Yet he is haunted by the scenario that set the stage for the carnage. The United States, under President George W. Bush, had promised enduring support for Georgia, he said. But when push came to shove, the pledge didn't stand.
"Was the United States going to go to war over this? No, but up until Aug. 8, that was our rhetoric," he said, and then paused. "It's deeply disturbing when you run into the real-world incident that underlines the vacuousness of U.S. rhetoric."