A soldier's story brings home the loss

July 25, 2004|By Paul Moore

FOR MONTHS, readers have written and called seeking updated information about the number of U.S. soldiers killed and wounded in Iraq. Their e-mails and phone messages convey an urgency that transcends politics or opinions about the war itself. They express a desire for information and for articles that reflect the sacrifices and struggles of individual soldiers and their families.

This trend, exemplified by last Sunday's front-page story "`Ripples' of War," which chronicled the effect of a soldier's death on a wide circle of family, friends and acquaintances, represents a more humanistic approach to reporting about the ramifications of war. The same day, The New York Times had a front-page article about deaths of soldiers over age 50 and how their loved ones and friends are coping.

These stories, and others like them, illustrate a fundamental difference between the coverage of soldiers during the war in Iraq and the war in Vietnam. These new stories put a more human face on the war and are more attuned to problems that deaths or permanent injuries pose for the people in their lives. In the Vietnam era, the social turbulence of the 1960s and early 1970s combined with the longevity of the war, the military draft and the number of casualties made the American public and the press less conscious of the wrenching personal consequences faced by families of soldiers killed and by those soldiers who returned.

Veteran Sun reporter Joe Nawrozki, who served in Vietnam as an Army sergeant, agrees that the press today is more compassionate in its reporting on soldiers and their families. Mr. Nawrozki also said that because so many Reservists and National Guard members have been called to serve in Iraq, the issue hits closer to home.

It doesn't mean The Sun and other newspapers ignored the deaths of soldiers during the Vietnam era. G. Jefferson Price III, who has been an editor and a reporter at The Sun for 35 years, recalls that the newspaper's city desk kept a "Dead Book," which contained the names of Marylanders killed in Vietnam. "The afternoon-shift police reporter would call the Pentagon every day to inquire if there were any casualties from Vietnam," Mr. Price said. "If there were, the reporter's assignment was to call the family and to do a story on the person who died." Today, The Sun still produces a story when a soldier from the region is killed in Iraq.

Sun reporter Scott Calvert's "`Ripples' of War" focuses on Army Staff Sgt. Morgan Kennon, whose death in November had a profound impact on the diverse group of people who knew him. Mr. Calvert met Sergeant Kennon, who was from Memphis, Tenn., when the reporter was "embedded" with a battalion of the 101st Airborne Division during the invasion of Iraq. "With the reporting, I wanted to go beyond the cliches and get to the particular as much as possible," Mr. Calvert said. "The more concrete the details, the more it would resonate with readers."

The story clearly resonated with Elizabeth Walker of Pasadena. "I found the story very moving and important," Mrs. Walker said. "It put a human face on the soldier and all the people in his life. It did not matter that he was not from Maryland. It had universal interest. I have a 19-year-old nephew serving in Iraq, and I can relate to the love and anxiety of family and friends described in the story."

Jerry Cervelloni of Ellicott City disagrees: "On the The Sun's front page and center columns is `Ripples of War,' complete with a large color picture of a young woman in a cemetery. The caption under the picture says that `she has been staggered by his death.' This is clearly an antiwar, anti-Iraq policy statement."

Maybe our society today does not distinguish between U.S. foreign policy and its effects on U.S. soldiers and their families as much as I thought. But I'm convinced that if The Sun, The New York Times and others continue to report and write these types of stories, the ultimate cost of war - death - will not get overwhelmed by political and diplomatic issues.

Mr. Calvert wrote his story with this in mind: "If you opposed the war, you might think, `What a terrible waste of a young life.' If you supported it, you might think, `It's important to document the sacrifice troops make for a worthy objective.' Either way. my goal was the same - to show just how far the `ripples' go when soldiers die."

Paul Moore's column appears on Sundays.

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