AP Chronicles Soldiers’ Iraq Odyssey in New Series

By: Samuel Chamberlain

On Oct. 1, 2007, the House of Representatives had a rare moment of bi-partisan agreement: It passed a concurrent resolution commending the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 34th Infantry Division of the Minnesota National Guard, ?upon its completion of the longest continuous deployment of any United States ground combat military unit in Operation Iraqi Freedom.?

The division, known collectively as the ?Red Bull? Division, was mobilized in September 2005. But it wasn?t until July 2007, a whopping 22 months later, that its members began to come home. Their story caught the attention of Associated Press national writer Sharon Cohen, who has written a seven-part serial narrative about the unit and the people it left behind. Called ?The Long Haul,? it will run in newspapers across the nation beginning Sunday.

?[The AP has] done a number of serial narratives in the past,? says AP NewsFeatures Editor Jerry Schwartz. ?Some of those have been fairly sweeping. However, we?ve done nothing of this length before, and nothing this comprehensive before.?

The story relies on Cohen?s interviews with soldiers and family members, as well as official documents (including after-action reports); correspondence provided by the families (including e-mails and letters); TV coverage of the unit’s return; personal journals and blog postings, and as photographs by the AP?s Jae C. Hong.

?At first, I wasn?t quite sure what I wanted to do with this story,? Cohen told E&P this week from Chicago, where she is based. ?I realized it would have to be a more in-depth examination, not just a story of the battlefield.? After several months of back-and-forth with the unit, based in Bloomington, Minn., Cohen began interviewing in December 2007: ?We made a very long list of different types of people we wanted to talk to?people with kids, for example. So, we wound up with a broad scope and a broad array of people to talk to.?

One of the most striking themes of the series is the bond among members of the unit. ?These were National Guard units, so they weren?t full-time soldiers,? says Cohen. ?These were people who knew each other. One of the soldiers was a National Guard recruiter who was serving with his brother. There were real ties there, to their families, their neighbors and their community.?

In the course of reporting the story, Cohen also had to face the casualties of war. She spoke to men who had lost limbs, and families who had lost a member. ?What helped me in the reporting was the candor of the soldiers and their families,? she says. ?They were very open and honest in discussing traumatic moments in their lives and the adjustments they made when they came home. They didn’t sugarcoat anything. They answered every question, and were patient in describing in detail everything from their memories of getting wounded to the struggles in starting over. These people were amazingly courageous, resilient, and very positive. They went through rehab and hospitalization and showed a lot of grit and determination.?

?I?ve read this story many times over, and there are still parts of the story that make me tear up,? said NewsFeatures Editor Schwartz. ?I mean, that?s just being human. These people have lived really interesting lives, before, during and after the war, and seeing them makes you even more certain that you have to do your job.

?Myself and my deputy Chris Sullivan functioned as cheerleaders, as a sounding booth for Sharon, while I was asking myself, ?How can I put all this together?? Schwartz adds. ?It was just a matter of getting her to do it in such large terms. It wasn?t as if we gave her instructions. This was very much her story.?

Cohen?s series is considered by Schwartz to be a landmark in the AP?s NewsFeatures department, not only for its length, but for the universal relevance of the subject matter. Cohen herself says, ?The war is not just a story that?s being played out in Iraq. It?s played out every day here on the home front.?

Schwartz elaborates: ?We try to do stories that would make people sit up and take notice. A story like tihs gives Americans the opportunity to step into lives that have been turned upside down, and we can?t forget that.?

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