Peterson: Covering Iraq, Afghanistan wars a challenge for newspaper

EXECUTIVE EDITORAugust 25, 2013 

What an odd juxtaposition: the recitation last week of the horrific actions of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales and the joyful parade Saturday welcoming home the troops.

As the so-called War on Terror appears to wind down, I thought back over our coverage of the military during my time at The News Tribune. Unbelievably, for almost 12 of my 13 years at the paper, we’ve been a nation and a community at war.

In fact, the first casualty of the War on Terror was Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Chapman from Puyallup. Still reeling from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, our hearts sank when we learned on Jan. 4, 2002, that Chapman was killed in Afghanistan. We’ve lost another 313 local service members since then, the last one in June.

We had no idea how lasting a decision it would be when we committed to writing about every local casualty on the front page of the paper and to covering their memorials at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Sometimes there were multiple deaths in a day. Sometimes the cadence of casualties was relentless. But how could we choose one life over another or base our decision on the competing news of the day?

While being respectful of families, we tried to tell the story of each man or woman. Frequently on deadline, we called their hometown papers and found editors across the country quick to share what they knew.

We covered mass casualties of soldiers who died in a helicopter crash and others who were killed by a bomb in their own mess hall. We covered the wars’ signature tolls — mild traumatic brain injury, amputation and post-traumatic stress disorder. We looked into the armor on soldiers’ vehicles and the quality of their mental health treatment.

We talked to wives spending Christmases alone and met children born while their daddies were away.

Adam Ashton, our military writer since 2010, sadly has covered three war crime trials, all at JBLM. In addition to the Bales trial, Ashton wrote about Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, convicted of leading a group of soldiers who also killed Afghan civilians, and about a soldier who admitted to killing five fellow service members at a clinic in Baghdad.

But for every Bales or Gibbs, there were tens of thousands of local soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines who served ably and bravely. Ashton was the first to interview Staff Sgt. Ty Michael Carter from Spokane, now stationed at JBLM, who will receive the Medal of Honor on Monday at the White House. Carter repeatedly risked his own life to rescue a wounded comrade during a 12-hour firefight in Afghanistan in 2009 that left eight soldiers dead.

Our job for more than a decade was not to take a side, but to tell the story.

To do the job right, we had to be there. Eight times TNT staffers volunteered to go with our soldiers to Iraq or Afghanistan. In addition to Ashton, they included reporters Mike Gilbert, Adam Lynn, Sean Cockerham and Scott Fontaine; photographers Peter Haley, Tony Overman and Joe Barrentine; and editor Matt Misterek. Haley alone made four trips. Together, they showed us what the war looked like from a soldier’s point of view.

Those were the stories that came back to me Friday when a reader accused us of having an “anti-military attitude” because we ran a reminder about Saturday’s homecoming parade on A3 instead of Page One.

Hardly.

As an Army wife and now an Army mom, I will tell you that these stories admittedly hit close to home. But the military also is woven into the fabric of Tacoma and Pierce County. To some parts of the country, war is a distant thing. Not so for us.

While our war coverage wasn’t perfect over the years, we worked hard to do it justice. More important, we hope it’s drawing to a close.

We’d rather turn our attention to issues of troop training, JBLM as a major employer, veterans’ services, and the interactions between the military and our local communities.

And no matter your opinion of our coverage or of U.S. military strategy, it’s time to thank our local service members for their service, to welcome them home and to pray for peace.

Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434
karen.peterson@thenewstribune.com

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