Even during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was difficult to impress upon some Americans the sacrifices made by our soldiers and the families they left behind.
It’s even harder to keep their story alive now.
But today’s front-page story illustrates the personal fight many still face as they recover from the physical, mental and emotional scars of war.
Reporter Adam Ashton worked for months to gather the story of 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment. The Joint Base Lewis-McChord unit lost 22 soldiers in Afghanistan — more than any unit its size in that war. Eight more have died since they returned home in 2010.
“In late February, Sgt. James Roger Kirker emailed me with some questions about my coverage of Madigan Army Medical Center,” Ashton said. Kirker was a 1-17 medic. “He told me he had an infection from a surgery there, and he believed his concerns were being ignored. I gave him what I could, but I was not ready to launch into a story on him at that time.”
Three weeks later, Ashton saw Army friends on Facebook mourning Kirker’s suicide.
“I made up my mind then to explore the ways soldiers and families from his deployment have recovered — or not,” Ashton said.
In the five years he’s covered the military for the TNT, we’ve reported on two other early deaths of 1-17 veterans, one in a car accident and one in a police shoot-out. Others died without making the news.
“At the same time, I knew many veterans and families from the 1-17 had gone on to great things,” he said, “both in the Army and out of it. I wanted to write stories that would reflect what went wrong for Kirker and the ways some of his peers have moved forward since the year they shared in Afghanistan.”
He reached out to people from the unit he’d written about and went to the unveiling of a new memorial for them at JBLM.
“I was nervous because I knew I was bringing up bad memories, but people sincerely wanted to talk,” Ashton said. “They wanted to share stories of recovery. They told me about some of the traumatic events they experienced in Afghanistan and the ways they’ve overcome obstacles at home. I could tell they’re still looking out for each other.
“Kirker’s family wanted to talk, too. They wanted me to know they loved him, and they hoped sharing his story would help other veterans.”
Kirker’s heartbreaking story ran in Saturday’s paper and is available on our website. We also shot videos of those who loved Kirker talking about his life and their loss. Other videos go along with today’s stories, offering stories of hope and resilience.
These stories get eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart with a band of young infantrymen who shared a horrific warfighting experience. Some didn’t make it. Others found ways to overcome and move on.
The stories of both remain important.
READER BESTS TNT, NEW YORKER EDITORS
Note: Local news editor Randy McCarthy spent hours last week unraveling an error in a story from Monday. Here’s his tale:
Turns out we have some really, really careful readers — more careful, apparently, than the proof-readers at the New Yorker.
The magazine recently ran an article detailing what will happen when the tectonic plates along a fault line Washington, Oregon and California shifts, potentially setting off a tsunami and a devastating earthquake.
The story quickly became what we call a “talker,” one we wanted to localize so South Sound readers would know what they are facing. How bad will such a disaster be?
To find out, we did our Monday Q&A with Bill Steele, a seismologist and spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network.
In addition, to give non-New Yorker readers a taste of the magazine article, we printed two excerpts. One quoted a federal disaster official as saying, “... everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”
That’s where the trouble started.
The article defined “everything west of Interstate 5” as “some hundred and forty thousand square miles, including Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Salem (the capital city of Oregon), Olympia (the capital of Washington), and some seven million people.”
Not even close, as at least one of our readers noticed.
The unnamed reader left a voice mail message on our corrections tip line.
He pointed out that all of Washington and Oregon cover about 170,000 square miles, What he called “the narrow sliver from the highway to the coast” is nothing close to 140,000 square miles, as the New Yorker article stated.
A bit shamed that our own editing didn’t spot what looked like a big error, we began to double check the figure. Maybe the reader was wrong. Maybe the writer’s definition of “the Pacific Northwest” — arguably a slippery question — somehow accounted for the number.
A check of the U.S. Census Bureau website — and using a definition of the Northwest that includes some of Northern California — determined the counties that touch I-5 or lie to the west are in the ballpark of 70,000 square miles and 9.3 million people.
So the magazine article certainly looked wrong. What did the New Yorker have to say?
An email exchange with its director of communications disclosed the source of the 140,000 figure was a report from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
We asked for a link to the report or to talk to the article’s writer to check further. Neither happened, so we kept bugging the spokeswoman.
She eventually said she’d found that the 140,000-square-mile, 7-million-person figures covered the entire impact area of a major quake, not just along the coast.
“We’ll be updating the piece to note that we misstated the size of the land area west of I-5,” she concluded. “Thanks very much for bringing this to our attention.”
By the next day the I-5 reference had been replaced in the online version of the story with “the area of impact.” An asterisk noted the “earlier version of this article misstated the location of the area of impact” but didn’t define just where it is.
To wrap things up as best we could, we published our own correction, which ran Saturday.
Thanks to the New Yorker for correcting its mistake, and thanks to our readers, who keep us on our toes.