By: Joe Strupp
As U.S. military casualties in Iraq continue to mount, newspapers find themselves thrust into a new area of coverage: the growing discontent among soldiers who have to remain in the war-torn country, and the angry protests of some of their families back home. Newspapers have used everything from a column by an angry spouse to the publication of an anonymous e-mail dispatch purported to be from a soldier in Iraq.
Meanwhile, questions about how the Pentagon is reporting the deaths of soldiers — and the exact cause of those fatalities — have placed new scrutiny on how much information the military is willing to reveal to the press and how long they are taking to report their findings, especially in cases that may involve “friendly fire,” suicides, or mysterious accidents.
All of this has placed a new burden on reporters and editors who thought postwar coverage would be simply reporting on a new Iraqi government and the swift return of U.S. troops. “We are having to spend more time on it than we planned, more coverage on the families,” said Dennis Sodomka, executive editor of The Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle, which is located near Fort Gordon, home to the 319th Transportation Company now in Iraq.
Fort Gordon is one of several bases where family members of those in Iraq are angry about how long they have had to stay in the combat zone. Editors say reporting on this has sparked both sympathetic and opposing comments from readers, in some cases creating factions within the military base communities.
A protest by about 100 family members in Hinesville, Ga. on July 16 drew heavy coverage by the Savannah Morning News. The Third Infantry Division at nearby Fort Stewart remains in Iraq. The Morning News is also considering sending reporter Noelle Phillips back to the front. “It will be expensive and it is a lot more dangerous in many ways,” Managing Editor Don Suwyn said. “We are struggling with that decision.”
In the war zone, meanwhile, military personnel are being more vocal. An Augusta Chronicle story quoted several fed-up G.I.’s, on the record, including one sergeant who said, “We’ve been here long enough, we did our mission.” Another soldier told the paper, via cell phone, “I don’t know if it’s fair.”
Such frustrations make for good stories, but also raise questions about violating military policy. Editors say they want to report on the feelings of those in the service, but not subject them (or their reporters) to retribution. “We cover the disappointment and frustration as best we can,” said Executive Editor Patrick Donahue of the thrice-weekly Coastal Courier in Hinesville, which published excerpts of an e-mail allegedly from a soldier in Iraq who said he felt “forgotten and betrayed.”
Pentagon officials told E&P the policy regarding soldiers speaking to reporters only limits them from revealing information that could damage military security or making comments that “question senior military or civilian officers,” according to U.S. Army Capt. Jeff Fitzgibbons of the Coalition Press Information Center. “Soldiers complaining is not a problem. But everything a soldier says to the media is on the record,” he explained, so soldiers cannot hide behind anonymity. He also said individual unit commanders may order soldiers not to speak to the press at all if they deem it necessary.
Another area of concern is the reporting of military deaths and their classification as combat or non-combat. Determining the cause of death is taking a long time, leaving reporters — and some families — without knowing how a local soldier died.
“We have had a difficult time getting any specifics,” said Dennis Hetzel, editor and publisher of the York (Pa.) Daily Record, which reported the July 3 death of U.S. Army Cpl. Corey Lee Small, a York native killed in Iraq under circumstances that have yet to be revealed by the Pentagon. “We’ve tried everything we can think of.”
Small’s death is one of many that the military has classified only as non-combat. But a report in another paper, the Ukiah (Calif.) Daily Journal — nearly 3,000 miles away — raised speculation that Small may have committed suicide. In a Daily Journal article published July 13, the paper quoted a local woman as saying her daughter, stationed in Iraq, had witnessed a fellow soldier shoot himself in the mouth on July 4, but did not know his name. A review of the official list of military deaths in Iraq reveals Small as the only non-combat death on July 3 or 4, indicating his may have been a suicide. Hetzel did not know about this until informed by an E&P reporter.
Another questionable death is U.S. Army Sgt. Melissa Valles, 26, of Eagle Pass, Texas, who died July 9 after a non-combat gunshot wound to the abdomen. “You can’t list the cause if you don’t have all of the facts,” said Col. Jay DeFrank, director of press operations for the Department of Defense.
Newspapers located near the hometowns of those killed in such non-combat situations said they were pressing for specifics, but having trouble getting information. “We’d like more details and we are asking for them,” said Robert Rivard, editor of the San Antonio (Texas) Express-News, which is covering the Valles death. “All they have said is they have not ruled out a self-inflicted gunshot wound but that is all.”
E&P welcomes letters to the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org.