By: Barbara Bedway
When Army Times medical reporter Kelly Kennedy embedded with U.S. forces in Iraq last June, a mutiny was probably the last thing she expected to cover. But the catastrophic losses of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment that preceded the revolt — including 14 soldiers killed, more than any other Army company sent to Iraq — convinced Kennedy and her editors at the Gannett-owned, independent weekly to greatly expand the scope of her original assignment.
Instead of focusing on the near-miraculous efforts of the on-site medics, the 37-year-old Kennedy would instead chronicle the company’s entire 15-month deployment. “Blood Brothers,” the resulting four-part series that appeared in December, became “one of the single best examinations of an Iraq war deployment so far,” in the words of Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Kennedy, herself an Army veteran, “took readers deep inside a combat unit in a way nobody else has,” he observes. “She knows when an Army public affairs officer is pushing a line of b.s. and can sense when a soldier is afraid to be candid in front of a superior. Her military experience clearly gives her subjects a level of trust that they would not have with someone who had not personally served.”
But it wasn’t easy. “I cried a lot writing this story,” admits Kennedy, who had just started following Charlie Company a few days before the June 21st IED blast that killed five of its soldiers. “They’d been great to us, hanging out the night before, doing karaoke,” she recalls.
She and photographer Rick Kozak had gone out on a patrol earlier that morning in Adhamiyah, one of Baghdad’s worst neighborhoods before the troop “surge,” and were supposed to go on that second one during which the IED detonated — but at the last moment decided to stay and do some interviews on base. In the aftermath of the deaths that day, Kennedy and Kozak were asked to stand away, to give the soldiers privacy to deal with their anger and grief.
One soldier she interviewed months later confessed that he’d “locked and loaded on me, had me in his sights,” she says. “He was bawling as he told me this. He’s a kid, and thought we’d sensationalize the story. That he’d considered hurting me really upset him, and he wanted to apologize about it.” In a story she posted the day after the bombing, Kennedy wrote that “this day showed why soldiers come back home with mental health issues, and why there should be no stigma attached to seeking help for those issues.”
The soldiers thanked her for her reporting. “After that story ran, they trusted us,” she says. A month later, the soldiers of 2nd Platoon determined they could no longer function professionally in Adhamiyah, fearing that their anger following the suicide of a well-regarded sergeant from Alpha Company and the killing of four more soldiers from a 500-pound IED would unleash a massacre. They immediately e-mailed Kennedy about what the military had labeled an act of mutiny. They wanted their story told. (Battalion commanders broke up the platoon; the remaining soldiers eventually returned to the United States.)
It’s not hard to see why they would trust Kennedy, the daughter of a Vietnam veteran whose bona fides include joining the Army National Guard while still in high school, then the regular Army, to help pay for college. She served in Iraq and Kuwait during Desert Storm, and in Mogadishu in 1992 and 1993. (“You tell any soldiers you’ve been in Mogadishu, they feel like you’re on common ground,” she says.) A dozen years later, after reporting stints at two dailies in Utah and The Oregonian in Portland, a few years as a freelance writer and an internship at the Chicago Tribune, she flew out for an interview at Army Times and was offered a job the same day.
Her master’s degree project as a University of Colorado journalism student led to last February’s in-depth story, “Wounded and Waiting,” about the inadequate treatment of soldiers hospitalized at Walter Reed (published online one day before the celebrated Washington Post story about the medical center’s horrible conditions). That story and her follow-ups got wide attention, if not credit: “It seems every time I’d write about it, the next day someone would have a piece of that story in theirs, without any attribution,” she observes ruefully. “We have such a specific audience; others can crib from us and get away without anyone catching it.”
After the Walter Reed story, she was assigned to concentrate on medical issues for all of Gannett’s Military Times publications, which also include Air Force Times, Marine Corps Times, and Navy Times (the combined weekly circulation of the four papers is about 250,000).
The many decisions on how graphically to portray the soldiers’ experiences in “Blood Brothers” was a fraught one; when a medic’s work involves not only battlefield tracheotomies but also helping to fill body bags with the liquefied remains of fellow soldiers, the image is an indelible one. Though she hasn’t heard from Army brass about the series, she has received a range of e-mails, some accusing her of being “anti-war,” and making it all up; some taking issue with the platoon’s actions; many others more appreciative, like the one from a soldier’s mother, who wrote that “he won’t talk about what he saw, but your story helped me understand.”
The mother of the sergeant who committed suicide, whom the reporter had been unable to reach, e-mailed that she was upset Kennedy had written about his death, which the parents felt was private and still under investigation. “Usually with suicides, papers have tended to consider them as a private matter,” she notes. “If McKinney had been off somewhere by himself, I might not have written about him. But that he did it in front of three of his guys … then it’s no longer private.”
Kennedy admits that during her time in the military she “wasn’t the best soldier; it’s not my thing,” but she believes in the mission of all of Gannett’s Military Times papers: “Everyone here is very passionate about the troops, and the goal is to look out for everyone, make sure they’re getting what they need.” Along with articles about benefits and promotions, the papers cover everything that affects a soldier in war and in society — from defective body armor to the impact government policy decisions will have on their readers’ lives.
“I don’t know if people have that sense of what war’s like,” she observes. “We get so caught up in the specific story we’re writing, we lose track of the everyday difference of what being in a war means. I’m guilty too: you see gory things, typical in war, and you just sort of glance over them because it’s everyday stuff over there.
“So we get deep in the policy stuff, talk to generals and commanders. But if we’re voting to put people into a war situation, we should know what it looks like, and what it feels like, to be 20 years old, and on the ground in Iraq.”
The series can be read here.