Soldiers’ Stories

What fires up the journalists at Military Times is the vulnerability of the community they cover

Gina Cavallaro had drifted away from the soldier escorting her, wanting to take a picture of the Iraqi children trailing them as they patrolled Ramadi. She heard a lone gunshot and turned around, disoriented, trying to see where the shot had come from and where it had landed, when she saw him–Specialist Francisco Martinez–lying on the ground, his limbs spread as if he were making an angel in the sand. Cavallaro screamed. Martinez had been her escort on patrol a few days earlier and again that day. They had become fast friends, trading stories about the neighborhoods of San Juan and the never-ending Christmas celebrations of his native Puerto Rico, where Cavallaro, too, had grown up and begun her career in journalism.

She helped drag Martinez into the Humvee that had brought her and soldiers from Alpha Company, First Battalion, Ninth Infantry Regiment, to Ramadi. While a mate tended to his wound, Cavallaro told Martinez in Spanish to not fall asleep, to look at me, and to breathe, holding his hand and stroking his arm.

Back at the base, she followed behind his stretcher, watching drops of blood fall through the mesh that cradled his body, leaving a long trail of dark clumps in the sand. Though the bullet had found its way into the gap between the body armor that protected his front and back, Cavallaro was told that Martinez would survive. As she walked back across the base to where she had been staying, she mentally made plans to see Martinez back at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

That was the last day of her fourth embed in Iraq, and she needed to prepare for the departure for home. Soon she became aware of the eyes of other soldiers on her. They had heard over the radio that a soldier had been shot, close to Cavallaro. Martinez’s blood, in fact, was all over her bare arms and her face.

“We have stuff to clean that off,”a soldier told her.

Then, while one soldier held her outstretched arms, another wiped her off with biohazard clean-up wipes and rinsed her with a bottle of water.
Remembering that she was a journalist, Cavallaro snapped a picture of the
spent foil packaging, fascinated that the need to cleanse skin of blood was so common that these packets were as readily available as a Kleenex pack would be in civilian life.

Not an hour later, while Cavallaro
was sitting in a makeshift coffee lounge, Martinez’s commander sought her out. He squeezed his six-foot, four-inch frame into the chair across from her and told her the news: Martinez had died. Cavallaro cried uncontrollably, then forced herself to stop, shamed by the weight of another soldier’s presence in the room.

Before leaving Iraq, she wrote a personal essay on Martinez’s death for her newspaper, noting the grief and helplessness she felt:

I’ve known people who have been killed here. But I had not had the misfortune of having to witness a mortally wounded soldier try to hang on to life. I grieve for this fallen soldier as I know his buddies do.

The column generated hundreds of e-mails and letters. Soldiers wrote to thank her, to commend her, and to comfort her, telling her that God had put her there for Martinez, that there was nothing like a woman’s touch to comfort a man in his hour of death.

Cavallaro is a staff writer for Army Times, an independent, Gannett-owned weekly, published by the Army Times Publishing Company, which also publishes the other Military Times papers: Air Force Times, Marine Corps Times, and Navy Times. While other journalists embedded in Iraq were covering the war–as breaking news, as current event, as the story of our time–Cavallaro was just covering her beat, the shared beat of everyone in her newsroom: the world of the U.S. armed forces. “Because they’re at war is why we go there,” says Cavallaro. “We’re not covering the war, we’re covering them.”

The Military Times papers, in essence, are community papers. Their journalists are writing primarily for soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, and for their family members and others connected to that world. Though their work often goes unrecognized outside the community, the papers do some of the best and most thorough military affairs reporting around. That flows in part from a powerful sense of mission: Military Times editors, writers, and photographers see their community, ironically, as a particularly vulnerable one, on whose behalf they are working.

In the case of the death of Specialist Martinez, a member of that community–not just another soldier–had died, too young and too far from home.

The most immediately striking difference between the military community and others large and small that are the focus of community papers across the U.S. is that the military community is not geographically defined. Its members live and work in 440 bases across the country and thirty-six bases abroad. Approximately 1.5 million people currently serve on active duty in all branches of the military. Of those, 139,180 are based in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with 31,820 National Guard and Reserves. As of mid-April, 3,315 of them had died and 26,188 had been wounded. The glue that binds this community is not a municipal government, the home sports team, or neighborhood schools, but the choice to serve in the nation’s armed forces and the willingness to accept the possibility of death.

While its members’ lives intersect with those of all Americans in whose defense the military stands and in whose name they are sent abroad, in many ways they live apart from us. In the U.S., a third of them live on base, with many of the rest living nearby in privatized former military housing; eighty-seven thousand children of military families are educated in Department of Defense schools; and a separate health care system attends to their medical needs. “They’re the ultimate gated community,” says Tobias Naegele, editor-in-chief of the Military Times weeklies.

In addition to physical separation, the top-down military culture means its members are likely to be tight-lipped, less willing to talk, complain, or whistle-blow–qualities journalists often depend on. That can make nuanced coverage challenging. Reporters at the Military Times papers often have to rely on off-the-record sources and clandestine interviews about anything remotely sensitive. “I can’t remember the last time I interviewed somebody in their office,” says Sean Naylor, who, as senior investigations writer, does pieces for all four weeklies, and who began his career at Army Times seventeen years ago this June. Naylor claims to have developed an extensive knowledge of Washington’s darkest bars.

Apart from the journalistic impediments that the military culture can pose, it also renders its members–especially the enlisted ones–in some ways powerless and voiceless, unable to advocate for their needs and rights. It is that vulnerability that strikes a nerve with many of the editors, writers, and photographers at Military Times and is what informs their journalism, whether or not they have served in the military. At Military Times, the journalists see themselves as the voice of the troops.

“Here we can jab a stick in the eye of the admirals,”says Chris Lawson, a former marine and a veteran of Men’s Health, who is now the managing editor of Navy Times. “We’re the advocates of those who can’t question. We can be insubordinate.” It’s no surprise, then, that many at Military Times talk of their work as a calling.

That includes Naegele, who was named editor-in-chief in 1997, after Gannett bought the papers. Back in 1983, Naegele was a college senior at the University of Delaware and editor-in-chief of the school paper when the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut killed 241 American marines and fifty-eight French paratroopers. The American dead were being received at Dover Air Force base, sixty miles away from his dorm. Naegele went and saw the coffins arriving, out of sight of the public and, according to Naegele, always after the 11 o’clock news.

He was struck by how, in contrast, the coffins of the French dead were honored in a public ceremony in France, and how President François Mitterrand personally laid a medal on each coffin. President Ronald Reagan never visited Delaware. Naegele felt compelled to write his first military-related editorial after that visit, arguing that it was a duty to honor the lives and deaths of those Americans who serve. It’s a mission he has sought to carry out in the pages of the Military Times papers as well.

Yet he and others at the papers hardly have a romanticized view of the military enterprise, and though they tend to be experts on and close to military folk, they are often the harshest critics of the military, willing to air its dirtiest laundry, believing that that is the only way to make the troops’ lives better. The fact that they retain their access suggests that many servicemen and women feel the same way.

That journalistic mission–being a voice for vulnerable troops–is not obvious on first glance around the Military Times’s Springfield, Virginia newsroom. The papers share the same 10,000-square-foot space with Army Times Publishing’s other publications, Defense News, Federal Times, Armed Forces Journal, Training & Simulation Journal, and C4ISR-The Journal of Net-Centric Warfare (a trade publication on high-tech warfare). The dominant color in the sunny space is pink, primarily in the cubicle dividers, arranged like the spokes of a wheel to create mini-clusters of desks.

While more than a third of those who work for the papers are former members of the military, there is no saluting, no uniforms, and no bugle calls. Even the 8:45 a.m. daily meetings, at which everyone must stand throughout and with which the papers are currently experimenting, feel more the product of a management seminar than a military handbook. Tales do abound of being shot, hit by shrapnel, or seeing ieds explode–but such tales refer to their journalistic work. And a job description for a staff position includes a section called “physical requirements” that details a breakdown of hours per day that would require lifting, climbing, kneeling, and digit dexterity.

The weeklies have a circulation of nearly 250,000. Subscriptions account for 195,000 of that number, while newsstand sales (at $2.75) average roughly 56,000 a week (12,000 of which are international). The papers are on sale in every retail location on every military base. “We outsell every other publication, even People,” says Dick Howlett, the company’s vice president of circulation.

The oldest of the group, Army Times, was founded in 1940 by Melvin Ryder, a World War I veteran. The company started Air Force Times in 1947, Navy Times in 1951, and the paper that would become Marine Corps Times in 1992. While some content in the papers is the same, each has its own staff (five reporters each), its own editors, and its own feel, reflecting the differences in the services.

Under the Ryder family, the papers earned a steady 12 to 13 percent profit, according to Elaine Howard, president, ceo, and publisher of Army Times Publishing. In 1997, Ryder’s heirs sold the papers to Gannett. (The two companies had a relationship that preceded the sale: when USA Today launched in 1982, it rolled off the Army Times Publishing Company’s printing presses.) Under Gannett, the papers have done even better financially, producing a profit margin, as measured in net income before taxes, of 17 percent. Being part of Gannett has meant further reach for Military Times papers, too; their stories go out on the Gannett News Service, which serves all ninety Gannett newspapers (including USA Today), twenty-three Gannett television stations, and forty-four non-Gannett newspapers that subscribe to the service.

According to Robert Hodierne, the senior managing editor of all the papers, and a Vietnam veteran who enlisted after covering that war as a photographer for fourteen months, the primary readers are the rank and file. Average subscribers are in their mid-thirties and have been in the service for more than a dozen years; they tend to be at mid- to upper-grade levels in enlisted or officer ranks. “They’re intending to make a career in the military,” says Hodierne.

The readers seem uppermost in the minds of the Military Times journalists. The papers offer indispensable information for managing those careers and navigating the fog of military bureaucracy, in addition to explaining how policy decisions within the military and on Capitol Hill will affect service people’s everyday lives. There are plenty of articles about benefits and promotions. But with the country at war, articles about deployments, gear, Washington, and the front lines have taken on particular urgency. Military Times reporters have been a constant embed presence in Afghanistan and Iraq–148 months in country so far. Every week, the papers prominently run the names and photographs, if available, of every fallen American.

The Military Times papers also scrutinize decisions made at every level of the military in solid investigative pieces. Perhaps the best known of such articles was a spring 2005 Marine Corps Times piece on defective body armor being issued to marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. The article caused the Marine Corps and Army to recall 20,000 units and reissue nondefective ones. In February, a similar article ran on the deficiencies of the current standard-issue carbine, the M-4, which has been known to jam when conditions are dusty; the prevalence of sand and dust in both Afghanistan and Iraq has meant there have been several such problems in combat. The article promoted an arguably superior weapon, the H&K 416, which the military has chosen not to issue.

Plenty of stories also tell of the intersections between pop culture and soldiers’ lives, from the heavy-hearted (such as a piece about memorials on to the light (such as several features about the sailor who was an American Idol finalist). While there are editorial pages, the papers stay away from “politics.”

They do not take a position on the war. “We’re going, the president decided,” says Naegele. “Our audience doesn’t want to hear it’s a bad idea.” Yet the Military Times papers do take positions on military decisions or policies that are likely to affect the lives of service people, most notably in November 2006, when all four papers called for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to resign. Several subscriptions were canceled after that editorial but, says publisher Howard, those were more than offset by new orders.

Despite the boost from Gannett’s wire service, little of even the best work by the Military Times papers gets read beyond the military community. It’s not a secret that the big newspapers, magazines, and TV news operations often mine local media for story ideas and use them as reporting road maps, and as with community papers everywhere, it rankles the Military Times reporters and editors when their scoops turn up in the mainstream press (without credit) and become national, and even international, stories.

“I’ve seen work I’ve done get pilfered on more than one occasion, or a story I’ve written has been picked up and done by the Post or the Times with zero attribution,” says Naylor.

It’s also no secret that small papers–including those of the Military Times–are using the Web’s reach to try to change that equation. At the Military Times, the strategy is to marry the staff’s unparalleled expertise with the ability to stream video reports online (and sell those reports to other outlets), and to tap into the growing appetite for deep reporting on the military in a time of war–from stories of soldiers returning to home and society to coverage of the war itself. Footage shot as part of a story on Marine basic training, for example, grew into a full-length documentary, The Making of a Marine Officer, which aired on nineteen Gannett television stations across the country. A second documentary, which follows the marines featured in the first film to Iraq and back, is in the works.

Hodierne is confident that when it comes to reporting on the military in any medium, Military Times can outperform any other news outlet.

But when the scandalous story of conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center broke in February, the Military Times newspapers were still playing second fiddle, at least in terms of influence and attention, to the civilian press.

On February 28, four days after the story first appeared in The Washington Post, Keith Olbermann of msnbc interviewed Kelly Kennedy, a Military Times reporter, on his program. That morning Kennedy had broken the story that the Army was retaliating against service members at Walter Reed collectively, after individuals had spoken to the press about shoddy conditions at the hospital.

Olbermann introduced Kennedy as being from a news outlet that had not covered the problems at Walter Reed. In fact, Kennedy’s story on the administrative breakdown that left soldiers lingering at Walter Reed ran on the same day as the first of the much more widely read series in the Post, which focused more on physical conditions at the hospital. The second part of her story, proving that the Army knew about the problems at Walter Reed because they were detailed in reports from the Government Accountability Office, was already written and scheduled to come out the following week, in the March 5 edition. (She had also written a story in the summer about inconsistencies in the Army’s disability retirement rating system.) The soft-spoken Kennedy, an Army veteran with combat tours in the first gulf war and Somalia and a seasoned civilian media journalist, tried to correct Olbermann by inserting into one of her answers, “the day that the Army Times and Washington Post articles came out.”

In conversation, the editors and writers at Military Times are quick to congratulate The Washington Post for doing an excellent job. The Walter Reed stories that ran in both papers had compelling prose and personal narratives of American soldiers wounded in Iraq. But the different target audiences translated into a noticeable difference in the articles. The Post focused on physical conditions at one place–such as cockroaches, mouse droppings, and mold–to shock the conscience of Americans. Kennedy’s piece sought to alert soldiers to the systemwide administrative breakdowns that were leaving so many of them in a bureaucratic limbo, awaiting hearings and decisions as to whether they would be discharged from both the hospital and the service, and, if so, what benefits they could expect. Kennedy’s article included the stunning fact that while in 2001, about 10 percent of the soldiers going through the medical retirement process were rated “permanently disabled,” in 2005, with two active wars, that figure had dropped to 3 percent. Apparently the Defense Department was raising the bar–benefits associated with permanent disability are much more generous and come directly out of the department’s budget.

“I thought in the initial Post article that they captured a piece of the situation,” says Kennedy, whose dissertation for her master’s in journalism was on medical care of wounded soldiers, and who is the medical writer for all four Military Times papers. “To me, how the soldiers will be taken care of for the rest of their lives is most important.”

Some of the Military Times stories, polling data, scoops, or editorials have made the civilian news and been consumed by a greater audience. Notable examples include the body-armor piece and the papers’ November 2006 editorial that called for Rumsfeld’s resignation. Though people at the Military Times realize they’re writing for a different audience than the civilian media, they admit that they see the civilian media as their competitors, and they feel a little neglected. The staff sometimes grumbles that its work serves as a tip sheet to civilian journalists. “The Post did a nice job,” says Hodierne referring to the Walter Reed stories. “But gosh, I feel like we get ignored.”

The day after her appearance on msnbc, Kennedy got some phone calls, including a few heavy breathers and one who wanted to know where she cuts her hair, but also one from Senator John Kerry, who was interested and wanted a briefing on her work.

Still, Kennedy credits the Post series with producing the immediate reaction by the Army and official Washington to the problems at Walter Reed, which culminated with the resignation of the Secretary of the Army. “It’s great the Post did it, because the issue got the attention it deserves,” she says. “It’s important that people know. Soldiers don’t get to decide their fate.”

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Alia Malek is an assistant editor at CJR.