Monday, May 28, 2007

Sometimes commas just aren't that important

One of my responsibilities at the newspaper is to format a running list of the week's casualties from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. Department of Defense e-mails us the updates, and we compile them and print them every Sunday in our Nation/World section as a service to our readers.

Like any task done on a regular basis, it hardly registers anymore. I fly through the responsibility every Friday night, bolding the service members' names, putting commas where needed and changing the word "sustained" to "suffered." It's a small thing, but a big part of what I do at my job. I'm paid to get picky. Inanimate objects sustain injuries. People suffer them. But apparently our Department of Defense prefers to gloss over that fact.

There was a time in the more than two years that I've been doing this that the casualty list didn't require an entire page. Sometimes it was 15 to 20 names long, allowing me to pair it with the latest story from one of the wars and maybe a graphic or a photo. I'd title the page "War on terrorism."

But not lately. Ever since President Bush mandated a troop surge in Baghdad, I'm titling the page "Casualties" and fighting to squeeze all of them in.

Each entry includes a name, age, the service member's hometown, date and location of their death, a brief explanation of how they died, which regiment they belonged to and where it was based in the U.S. On occasion, it also includes, "Death is under investigation."

But today, on Memorial Day, it bothers me that I can distance myself enough from the gruesome reality of our nation's dead to search for misplaced commas. Or to make sure Arkansas is correctly abbreviated to Ark. when it comes after a city.

I know I'm not completely desensitized, though. Sometimes, while scrolling through the hundreds of photos that pop up after doing a search for "Iraq" on our Associated Press membership website, I stumble upon images that give me pause. There, in between the pictures of a soldier in desert camouflage staking out a post with a large automatic rifle, are a few simple mugshots. With an American flag hung vertically in the background, a young man or woman in uniform was likely told to sit on a chair and stare into the camera before being shipped off to war.

I always click on the thumbnail image to look at the individuals more closely and read the accompanying personal information. It's almost as if I'm drawn to them. Every face is different. Some are smiling, some aren't, but one thing always strikes me: the look of pride.

That is what pride looks like.

And they're all dead.

The Department of Defense makes the mugshots available to the media when the service members die -- whether from a roadside bomb, improvised explosive device or enemy fire.

Putting a face with the name always haunts me. It somehow connects me with their family back home. With the profound sense of loss they must be feeling. I often get choked up thinking about it.

It makes me angry at the assembly line of it all. I can't help but wonder if formatting that list of casualties would hit home more if along with their name, age and hometown, the Department of Defense included what their favorite hobby was. What kind of car they drove. How many kids they left behind.

So I guess I want to say thank you to all of them and all of the generations that served before for giving the greatest sacrifice of all in the name of freedom: their lives. All in the hope that a group of people, hundreds of thousands of miles from here, would know what it feels like to cast a ballot. To make their voice heard. To walk to a market and buy ingredients for a meal without fear. To be able to obtain an education. To worship whatever religion their faith calls them to. To enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

And to show my thanks, I won't take any of it for granted.


Leslie said...

Well said.

My father was in the army. My brother , Andrew, is a former Marine. He's thinking about going back in. He has a wife (Leigha) and a two-year-old baby (Taylor). Thinking about him going back makes me cry. Just like looking at all the photos of the troops that have died. Because it could have been Andrew. I understand the guilt he feels, when they say they need help , when his friends get sent back... I just couldn't take it if it were him being sent to Iraq again.

I'm immensely thankful for what he (and my father) have done. They are probably the most brave men I know.

Did you see the Doonesbury yesterday? I guess part two will be in next Sunday's paper.

Pauline said...

Lately, I've started tearing up everytime I hear about the soldiers who have died. Especially when they start talking about those they left behind. It isn't like me to start spontaneously crying, trust me.

I admire our soldiers beyond words. I also have a new hate for Bush after watching 60 Minutes last night.

Melissa said...

Sorry, I know this is completely not what your story is about..but I can't help but have to point out that the correct abbreviation for Arkansas is actually AR, not Ark.

JenJen said...

The news media gets so flooded with reports of killing and bloodshed that it's easy to become desensitized today. I'm not blaming the media, because they are only reporting what is going on in our world, as tragic as that is.

It always strikes me just how young these men and women are who paid the ultimate sacrifice with their lives-and I'm sickened every time I hear reports of another being sent into battle.

Chelsea said...

I know that in some of the papers by me, that if some one in the service is killed (and is a local resident)that they'll write about their family, and their hobbies, and little things about them.

I'm grateful for the family I have who have served there. Its really interesting to hear their side of the story. Like I know a lot of the soliders like to get to know the Iraqis and their culture, and discover that they're just like us. Soliders even room with them, and learn their language.

Sarah said...

My cousin is going into the army next month, I hope you won't ever have to type in John Dunn from Rhode Island. =/

I can't wait until all the soldiers just come home safely...

Kelly said...

Melissa, Associated Press newspaper style is different than postal service abbreviations.

Kristin said...

That was very nicely said, Kelly.
That was possibly the most interesting thing I've read about Memorial Day today, lol.


Leslie said...

I'm glad someone pointed out to Melissa that Ark. is AP style.


Woo journalism!

SilverWolf said...

The "Casualties of War" page is one I can't force myself to look at. Maybe I'm just too close to the action, but it's just too painful. :( I know for sure that when I get back, I won't even be able to watch the news - it's a lot harder to deal with when you've seen what's actually going on.

corbow said...

I also find it very irritating that the media like to say that X number of "troops" were killed on a given day. It really depersonalizes it.

a pondering plainsman said...

Obviously I liked your post, concentrating on the human factor without a heavy political cast that blurs the personal sacrifice.

Very similar in theme to my first xanga post a year ago which I repeated yesterday. I guess giving thanks and saying it are pretty universal thoughts. Or should be more so.

And on much more trivial items: Appreciate your tenacity in correcting Ark. or NJ to N.J. when prefixed by a city name. But English has always been a fluid language and many "spel-chex" and otherwise educated ones have assumed the post office two letter abbreviations are correct in all cases. Is ours a losing battle?

ajandmac said...


and thank you.

Ray said...

WOW. I never knew you were in charge of listing the casualities of war. I guess there's always something new to learn about somebody. It's crazy for me to read about a newspaper having that, seeing as though you come from a small town, and here I live in New York not so far away from you, and they don't even do such things. Not that I'm aware of anyway. I don't read the paper. But it truly is sad as you've said that the list of casualities used to be from 15-20 is now at such a large number, you have a hard time fitting it into one page.

In a way it upsets me because the death numbers shouldn't be larger, the soldiers should be home by now. Hopefully soon they will be home and this will be over with. But I'm too much of a cynic to believe such things. I believe that things will get much worse. Hopefully I'll be proven wrong.

Take care, Kelly.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if you'll see this since this is an old post that has already been pushed off the front page.

A boy from my high school in Torrance, CA was killed in Iraq last week, Joseph Anzack Jr. He wasn't killed by enemy fire or a roadside bomb-- he and two other soldiers were kidnapped. Joe's body was found floating in a river days after he died, and he had gunshot wounds in his head and neck and was beaten before his body was disposed.

He was only 20.

I always felt kind of disconnected from the war, even though it started so long ago. I'm sad that it took so many years and such a tragedy for it to sink in. I can't imagine how many people have suffered through the same loss.

Kelly said...

Oh, I've been following the story of those kidnapped soldiers for weeks. Your friend's story is so tragic. I'm very sorry for your loss.

And I completely understand what you mean about it finally "sinking in."