Iraq Stories Are Personal for Small-Town Papers

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By: Sonya Moore

While national publications and Web sites continue to report the rising death toll of U.S. soldiers in Iraq as mere numbers (now well over 500), it’s a different story for small-town newspapers when the bodies come home for the funerals and memorials that follow. Here, the task of reporting details that go well beyond name, rank, and cause of death becomes a crucial responsibility.

“We know each other here, they’re our kids too,” says Terry Hackett, editor for the Macon (Mo.) Chronicle-Herald (Click for QuikCap). Hackett is a friend of the family of Chief Warrant Officer (CW2) Michael T. Blaise, 29, who was killed Jan. 23 when his helicopter crashed near Mosul. Hackett gained access to many comments about Blaise from friends and family, while choosing to keep herself out of the stories.

In some cases, the local papers become the only source that raises questions about the cause of death. “If there’s a [local] fatality in Iraq for any reason, it’s usually front-page news,” says Clarence Fanto, managing editor for The Berkshire (Mass.) Eagle. One of the area’s most recent casualties, Sgt. Glenn R. Allison, 24, from Pittsfield, Mass., died of a heart attack during physical training and left family members wondering how Allison’s life could have ended so abruptly.

The Eagle allowed them to express their frustration over what they believed was an inexplicable reason for Allison’s death. In a Dec. 30 story, the newspaper reported that Defense Department officials said Allison died while running, but weeks later an autopsy report is still unavailable and an investigation ongoing. In the article, Allison’s sister questioned, “If he was cleared to go, then why did this happen?”

Fanto says there is no question that the Eagle will continue to follow the case: “People want to know what happened to him.”

When Spc. Luke P. Frist, 20, from Brookston, Ind., died in January from burns he received when his convoy came under attack, the Lafayette, Ind.-based Journal and Courier attempted to find out the status of other members of the fuel convoy who hailed from Indiana. The topic was highly relevant to people living in the Greater Lafayette area, which is home to Frist’s 209th Quartermaster Company.

When the paper sought information, family and friends proved to be more helpful sources than the military, according to Phillip Fiorini, its local editor.

The Journal and Courier pieces described in detail the attack and injuries sustained by the soldiers in the convoy, along with in-depth profiles of Frist’s life compiled from quotes from relatives and excerpts from his e-mails. “I think that’s our job,” Fiorini added, describing the stories as a way to bring the war home to readers, especially “when it hits home to one of your own.”

In Carlisle, Pa., local newspaper The Sentinel has had to cover two deaths, “which is an unusual number for the size of our town,” according to Managing Editor Fred Burgess. “It’s big news when a small town loses one of its folks.”

For the Sentinel, the Nov. 15, 2003 death of Sgt. Timothy L. Hayslett, 26, a native of Newville (a rural area located west of Carlisle), was the area’s first combat casualty since 1993 when Sgt. 1st Class Randall D. Shughart was killed in Somalia attempting to rescue a downed helicopter pilot in the famous “Black Hawk Down” episode.

The second soldier killed was Army Staff Sgt. Kimberley A. Voelz, 27, of the 2nd Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team. She died Dec. 14 from wounds sustained after a “suspicious device” exploded as she approached. Voelz was the 10th female casualty of the Iraq war, and the first and only female EOD specialist killed in combat. Her father, Floyd Fahnestock, said in a Dec. 24 article that he knew the Haysletts, the family of the other area Iraq-war fatality, from preparing their income taxes for the past 15 years.

Local papers can also raise awareness in the community about those stationed in Iraq. The Auburn (Calif.) Journal has been running profiles of local soldiers since the beginning of the war. “We wanted to know who the faces on the front were? nobody could say they didn’t know someone,” City Editor Rick Tuttle says.

When news of the death of 24-year-old Pfc. Jesse D. Mizener was reported in the Journal in January ? he was killed in a mortar attack near Baghdad ? phone calls came in from local readers who recognized the soldier from his profile. Many remembered Mizener from the last time he was home, just in time to witness his son’s birth. Tuttle says as word spread, cards, donations, even an offer to build a house for the family came in to the paper.

Tuttle believes the Journal played an “extremely pivotal” role in encouraging community support that went beyond its traditional role of news source: “In this particular case, we created a bond with the family.” He notes that the profiles will serve as a lasting record and keepsakes for Mizener’s children.

“We take pride in that,” Tuttle says.

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