By: Lesley Messer
Darrin Mortenson, a staff military reporter for the North County Times in Escondido, Calif., is all too familiar with war. In the past three years he’s been to Iraq three times as an embed, covering everything from the invasion to battles in Fallujah and the January elections.
He maintains that as important as it is to report from the field, it’s equally vital back home to write about the soldiers who fall in the line of duty. When unnamed casualties are first reported, Mortenson says former embedded reporters fear they will “recognize the name or a unit over there. It’s something that affects everyone involved in the project, even when we’re not deployed. It’s personal.”
But Mortenson’s newspaper has an additional responsibility: It covers the Camp Pendleton community. Camp Pendleton is among the bases in the United States that have suffered the most casualties in Iraq, with at least 222 dead as of Aug. 11.
The newspaper receives word of military deaths the same way other papers do — from the Pentagon’s Web site. Generally, the information is limited. It’s then up to Mortenson and his newspaper to fill in the blanks and paint a fuller picture.
“Sometimes we do extensive features,” he says. “Before Father’s Day, I spent three days with a family [in Austin, Texas] who lost their son. We have a whole team of reporters who have gone into the community and followed widows.”
In his story about 25-year-old Sgt. Byron Norwood of Pflugerville, Texas, Mortenson included details that helped readers to appreciate the kind of person he was and the relationship he had with his parents. “In the end, I could not save him,” Norwood’s father, Bill, wrote to a friend as he contemplated his first Father’s Day without his son. “Every day I prayed to trade this 53-year-old body with his strong 25-year-old one, should someone need to depart this life. I should have known that is not how it works.”
By telling stories such as this, Mortenson is able to make readers understand that troops from Camp Pendleton are more than numbers on the casualty list. And even though they might not hail from the area, their tie to Camp Pendleton makes them just as important to readers.
“You’re just trying to do them a little justice in the half hour you have on the phone with somebody. You ask them to tell a story. Just bring out the person,” he reveals.
“By the end of it, I always feel lucky. I always feel good that they opened up to me the way they did, and it seems I always leave them feeling better than they did when I called. That’s the only thing that makes it easier.”
Across the country, Chris Mazzolini, military reporter for The Daily News in Jacksonville, N.C. (near Camp Lejeune), performs much the same function. After learning the name and hometown of a fatality from the base, he usually calls the dead soldier’s local paper to get whatever details he can. The only time he really writes an in-depth profile is if the casualty has roots in the area.
“You try to find a new way to do it, but it’s hard,” he explains. “It’s something you have to do, but you don’t enjoy doing it. You feel like they deserve a little more than a brief in the paper.” It’s critically important for the community because so many people are involved with the military, he says. But so far, most of his reader response comes from Marines overseas, thanking him for recognizing their friends.
Jay Price, a military affairs reporter for The News & Observer in Raleigh, which also covers Camp Lejeune, speaks with great emotion about his job of reporting on war casualties. Like Mortenson, he’s had experience as an embed in Iraq. Now he writes a profile about every casualty from Camp Lejeune and Fort Bragg, based on whatever information he can gather from loved ones and other sources.
In May, when he wrote a profile on Lance Cpl. Taylor B. Prazynski of Fairfield, Ohio, the soldier’s father learned Price had been stationed very close to the place where his son had been killed. “He wanted to know every little detail. How the place looked. How the Iraqis behave there. He just wanted to visualize his son’s last few days,” the reporter recalls.
When speaking to families and friends of the deceased, comments supporting the war often come up — but Price rarely probes those views. Most families come out in favor of President Bush. “That’s much more common than for someone to get upset and say, ‘I don’t know what they’re doing there’ or ‘They should bring them all home,'” he says. Instead, Price adds, “They’ll say, ‘By the way, we still support this administration. We still support this war.'”
Out in California, Mortenson says making that first phone call to a grieving family is the hardest part. And on some occasions, the family isn’t reachable at all or just doesn’t want to talk. “It’s sad. I know that they had a story to be told just like the other guys,” he says. “But a lot of times that’s what happens, and that’s all we get.”
The feeling of obligation to fallen troops stems not only from the wish to help their families, but also out of personal responsibility to the casualties themselves. In several cases, Mortenson discovered he knew the soldiers who were killed. “I feel like I owe it to them especially after being out there with them,” he says.