Pressing Issues: dying to help media get that war story

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By: Greg Mitchell

As this is written, a few days before Christmas, President Bush has called a time-out on deciding what to try next in an attempt to salvage something ? or, as he might put it, “victory” ? from the catastrophe in Iraq. The suspicion is that he has already decided to order a large troop buildup, but didn’t want to announce it and ruin the holidays for another 20,000 or so families. Editorial pages that have long refused to call, instead, for pulling out (even though most of their readers favor it), are once again on the spot, perhaps still unwilling to oppose yet another six-month strategy that

will surely, this time, turn things around ? for real, as Ali G might say.

One thing’s for sure: Marine Maj. Megan McClung won’t be around to return safely home or witness that turning point.

On Dec. 6, she became the top-ranking female Marine officer to be killed in the conflict. More to the point for journalists: She was in charge of working with embedded reporters, championed that process ? and died while escorting a Newsweek staffer and Oliver North from Fox News.

McClung, 34, was a public affairs officer assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters. With two other military officers riding in a Humvee in Ramadi, she got blown up by a roadside IED ? just a typical day in Iraq, but her death hit home for journalists, who quickly hailed her on the Web.

Lawrence F. Kaplan, for example, wrote at The New Republic online: “Major Megan McClung is my guardian angel today. McClung, a Marine officer, Naval Academy graduate … choreographed my present journey through Iraq. As every journalist who has spent time in the American military universe here knows, public affairs officers in Iraq can make your life a mess or they can make it bearable. Whether securing me a seat on a flight that no one else knew existed, scoring an interview for me with a Sunni sheikh in Ramadi, or responding quickly and indulgently to the most inane questions a writer could think to ask, McClung did a difficult job cheerfully and she did it well. … It is why reporters admired her. And it is why this sharp and talented young woman … can never be replaced.”

An Orange County (Calif.) Register story ? McClung hailed from Mission Viejo ? noted that her mother said she always ended her press briefings with “Be bold, be brief, and be gone.” Her mother added: “Megan lived by her own words.” She was buried at Arlington Cemetery on Dec. 19.

Michael Fumento, a freelance correspondent, wrote on his Web site that he had only heard her yell once, “but it was righteous anger. If this were fiction, it might be considered foreshadowing. It was at Camp Ramadi headquarters outside of the city proper and away from the hostilities. McClung … was barking at a public affairs sergeant. ‘Ramadi is the most dangerous city in Iraq and you’re going to get your men out there to cover it!'” He then observed, “For my last embed, I was in Ramadi the whole time. But again McClung guided me so I saw what I needed to see, rather than what I thought I needed to see.”

A Marines public affairs team quickly put together a moving film tribute to her that circulated widely on the Web, with a soundtrack featuring Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and John Lennon ?no, not “Give Peace a Chance” but “In My Life.”

Gordon Dillow, a three-time embed in Iraq and columnist for the Orange County Register, noted that McClung “was widely known and widely liked, not only in the Marine Corps but also among the many journalists she assisted in Iraq ? me included ? in her job as a Marine public affairs officer. The news that this vital young woman had been killed by a roadside bomb in Ramadi was hard to accept.”

Dana Parsons, writing in the Los Angeles Times, admitted he had come to believe that with the situation now hopeless in Iraq, any death of an American from here on out could be seen as a waste. But, he explained, “I am in serious reassessment mode” after talking with her parents. “Please don’t portray this as a tragedy,” her mother had said. “It is for us, but Megan died doing what she believed in, and that’s a great gift.”

But John Van Doorn, a staff writer at the North County Times in Escondido, Calif., near where she was based, at Camp Pendleton, observed that rather than sending more young men (and women) to die, even if they are willing, the president should begin a pullout.

In that case, he wrote, “McClung and 2,930 comrades will not have died in vain. They will have died courageously for a nation that in crisis was strong enough to admit a monstrous mistake, to apologize, and to walk away. A country like that might just be worth dying for.”

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