Covering The War at Home: Six Deaths, Six Newspapers

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By: Erin Olson

When reporters at The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer got the news that Army Staff Sgt. Mike A. Dennie, 31, had been killed in Iraq last month, they scrambled to find information about him. The Department of Defense had listed Fayetteville as his hometown, and the paper wanted to pay tribute by writing an article about his life and death.

But for all of Observer reporter Justin Willett’s efforts, no trace of Dennie could be found. His name wasn’t listed in the phone book, Army officials were slow returning calls, and, for days, no neighbors or former classmates came forward to say they remembered him — until his widow showed up to place an obituary in the paper.

As it turned out, Dennie hailed from Jamaica, later moving to Fayetteville to be with his wife and becoming a U.S. citizen in 2000. The Observer went ahead and put together a lengthy story about Dennie and his death, though he was not, in fact, a Fayetteville native. “We do make efforts,” said Henry Cunningham, the Observer’s military editor. “If there’s a clear-cut local tie, we do our best to follow up on it.”

Dennie is one of more than 1,100 fallen U.S. military personnel in Iraq, and like him, those soldiers have stories waiting to be told, unfortunately, after their deaths.

They are more than just names on a list of the dead. That’s why E&P decided to find out how the hometown newspapers of six men who were reported killed in Iraq in the Oct. 5 edition of The New York Times covered the story locally.

On the national stage, they were simply a list of names published in a small box on page A10 of the Times. But all six men, as it happens, were honored by their hometown newspapers, humanized by the photographs and anecdotes provided by family and friends. Four of the soldiers made the front pages of their local dailies.

Russell L. Collier, a husband and father from Harrison, Ark., was one of them. The Harrison Daily Times, which reported that Collier, 48, a sergeant with the Army National Guard, died trying to help save another soldier, printed several articles about him on Page One. It ran different pictures — including one of Collier with his wife and nine-year-old son — with each story.

Kevan Mathis, the Daily Times reporter who wrote the articles about Collier, said the National Guardsman was well known in Harrison, population 13,000. “It’s a pretty big thing for a small town when somebody gets killed like that,” said Mathis, who spent most of his time writing about Collier in the days after learning of his death.

In Marietta, Ohio, home of Allen Nolan, 38, a specialist in the Army Reserve, The Marietta Times published four articles about him: one when he was injured and three when he died. The story covering Nolan’s injury — serious burns he sustained when his convoy was ambushed — reported that the community was rallying around his wife and five children. Nolan’s death the next day was the paper’s top story, and subsequent articles covered community reaction and the public memorial service.

The Marietta Times ran the same picture of Nolan in Iraq with each story, an image provided by his family. Connie Cartmell, the Times reporter who wrote the articles about Nolan, said the picture was overused because the paper didn’t have access to other shots.

Cartmell told E&P that Nolan’s death was big news in the community, largely because he was the first soldier from Marietta — or the entire county — to die in Iraq. He was awarded five medals posthumously, including the Bronze Star.

Sgt. Jack Hennessy, a 21-year-old from Naperville, Ill., was the second soldier from his hometown to be killed in the war, though he was the first who still listed Naperville as his hometown. (The first Naperville native to be killed in the war was Army Staff Sgt. Andrew Pokorny, 30, who had attended high school there and moved away.)

Hennessy was hit by gunfire at a traffic checkpoint near Baghdad. The Naperville Sun ran Hennessy’s old yearbook photo with its articles about him, three staff-written and one from the Associated Press. In an article by Meg Dedolph, the soldier’s friend Liz Ruiz described him as “one of the kindest, most compassionate people I’d ever met in my life.” Though that story ran on page 3, another article, written by the Sun’s Kathy Cichon, had received front-page placement the day before.

The death of Michael Uvanni, 27, a sergeant in the National Guard, was a running story in his hometown of Rome, N.Y. Uvanni’s death was a big deal locally, explained Steve Jones, a Daily Sentinel reporter who co-wrote the first article, which appeared on the front page. Several stories covered the reactions and memories of Uvanni’s family and the return of his remains.

One of the follow-up articles about Uvanni, who was shot by a sniper in Iraq, also appeared on the front page. It began with the lone comment his parents would make about their only child: “We are hanging in there. It’s very, very bad.” In addition to his parents, Sentinel reporters contacted Uvanni’s grandfather, great-uncle, cousin, friends, and Army officials.

In a much bigger city, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News, hometown dailies of Rodney A. Jones, 21, an Army specialist, did not afford him front-page coverage — but they did run lengthy stories about the aspiring politician who had graduated from high school at age 16.

The Inquirer put its article on page 7 of its City section, coverage the writer, Jennifer Moroz, called “typical” for a story straddling the local and national news. Similarly, the Daily News piece, written by Gloria Campisi, appeared on page 4 of its City section. It reported that Jones had been killed in a car bomb explosion in Baghdad.

All of these local stories reveal affecting details that can’t even be hinted at in a mere listing of the dead. We learn, for example, that when Rodney Jones found out he was being sent to Iraq, he searched the Internet to pick up some of the language. While home on break, he started a conversation in Arabic in a fast-food restaurant.

Jones had planned to take his girlfriend on a cruise to propose marriage when he returned from Iraq. Now she says: “I’ll get married to him in heaven. It’ll probably be better there anyway.”

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