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Some US troops question Woodruff coverage

By PAMELA HESS, UPI Pentagon Correspondent   |   Jan. 31, 2006 at 5:22 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Jan. 31 (UPI) -- The American media stood up and took notice when an improvised explosive device grievously injured an ABC News crew Sunday.

In Iraq, and throughout the military, there is sympathy and concern for anchor Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt, but there is also this question:

"Why do you think this is such a huge story?" wrote an officer stationed in Baqubah, Iraq, Monday via e-mail. "It's a bit stunning to us over here how absolutely dominant the story is on every network and front page. I mean, you'd think we lost the entire 1st Marine Division or something.

"There's a lot of grumbling from guys at all ranks about it. That's a really impolite and impolitic thing to say ... but it's what you would hear over here."

At least 2,242 troops have died in Iraq since the war's start, 1,753 of them killed in action. Another 16,000 have been injured, half of them seriously enough to require evacuation from the battlefield. According to the Pentagon, 60 percent of the deaths are the result of IEDs. IEDs have injured more than 9,200 troops, nine times more than gunshots.

"The point that is currently being made (is that) that press folks are more important than mere military folks," a senior military officer told UPI Tuesday.

The unavoidable consequence of war is this: People are savagely wounded and killed. Soldiers in Iraq watching the coverage on satellite television and reading the news on the Internet are getting the impression that the press has only just discovered this fact.

It's not quite as simple as that, of course. Military personnel often express frustration that the media harps on military casualty reports at the expense of what they consider their successes in Iraq.

However, as it promoted its story on Woodruff and Vogt Monday evening, the local ABC News affiliate in Washington showed a montage of exploding vehicles in Iraq -- footage culled largely from insurgents, who videotape the attacks and post them on Web sites to advertise or magnify their successes.

The families of the 76 troops killed and 533 wounded in action in Iraq from the District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland might say the war had already come home.

"It's just a bit frustrating to see something so dramatized that happens every day to some 20-year-old American -- or worse to 10, 30-year-old Iraqi soldiers or cops alongside us. Some of the stories don't even mention the Iraqi casualties in this attack, as if they're meaningless," wrote the officer in Baqubah.

Kathryn Montgomery, a professor at American University's School of Communication, has been thinking the same thing.

"When you see the kind of coverage this story is getting it draws attention to the lack of coverage that hundreds of cases don't get," said Montgomery.

Having a personal connection to someone injured or killed on the battlefield is a relatively rare experience for journalists. Fewer than 1 percent of the U.S. population is part of the military; very few reporters have served. The war is comfortably distant, until a fellow journalist is affected. It could have been me, we think. The full weight of war is hard to comprehend until it happens to you, or someone you know, or someone like you.

Incidents like the serious wounding of Woodruff are rare. It has never before happened to any anchorperson for any of the U.S. television networks. Consequently, the event had significant news value.

But many journalists have been injured and killed covering the current conflict in Iraq: According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 61 have died from hostile action since March 2003, many of them Iraqi or Arab and therefore unfamiliar. That compares to 66 journalists killed during the entire Vietnam War, according to the Freedom Forum.

Modern American celebrity culture has certainly magnified the latest incident: Woodruff is recognizable, relatable, respectable. He was selected for his job as co-anchor not just for his undoubted journalistic credentials but also because ABC decided he was the kind of person Americans would want to welcome into their homes every night. His injury, therefore, feels personal to many viewers.

"He's the kind of celebrity we feel we know. That's the mature of these anchors. But we feel we know these people and we care what happens to them," Montgomery said.

That leaves the uncomfortable question about how much the media, or the American public, cares about the injured who are less well known, but in just as dire straits.

ABC News' national broadcast Monday ran coverage on the extremely well equipped field and manned hospital at Balad Air Base, a transportable emergency room with not one but two neurosurgeons on duty, better than most emergency rooms in the United States.

It was a story ABC News became aware of because that was where Woodruff and Vogt were treated. It was not a story ABC necessarily had reason to do before; there was no news hook. However, this was where hundreds of wounded soldiers and Marines had previously been stabilized before being moved to Landstuhl Air Base.

"As we are hearing the details of Bob Woodruff's medical care and how he was shipped to Germany, and we go inside the operating room, (we realize) it's a part of the war that the press has basically ignored," said Montgomery.

In the midst of a two-month reporting trip in Iraq in 2005, I stopped at the Balad emergency hospital, toured it for an hour and interviewed a dozen doctors and nurses. I couldn't find a news hook to write about it, so I didn't.

Woodruff volunteered for the assignment, and he was where he ought to have been because he wanted to report with authority on Iraq. But reporters' trips to Iraq are brief by comparison to soldiers, and we calculate the risks before going out on a mission. Soldiers and Marines do not have the option of demurring, and they are almost guaranteed to see colleagues maimed and killed during their seven to 12 months deployed there. They are as much volunteers as Woodruff in Iraq, and less well paid.

Here is an incomplete list of American service members who were killed by hostile fire in Iraq that same week that Woodruff and Vogt were hit. The Pentagon does not release the names of the injured.

Spc. Brian J. Schoff, 22, of Manchester, Tenn., died in Baghdad, Iraq, on Jan. 28, when an improvised explosive device detonated near his HMMWV.

Sgt. David L. Herrera, 26, of Oceanside, Calif., died in Baghdad, Iraq, on Jan. 28, when an improvised explosive device detonated near his HMMWV during combat operations.

Lance Cpl. Billy D. Brixey Jr., 21, of Ferriday, La., died Jan. 27 at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany, from wounds received as a result of an improvised explosive device while traveling in a convoy in Afghanistan on Jan. 25.

Lance Cpl. Hugo R. Lopez, 20, of La Habra, Calif., died Jan. 27 at Brooke Army Medical Center, San Antonio, from wounds sustained from an improvised explosive device while conducting combat operations against enemy forces in Rawah, Iraq, on Nov. 20, 2005.

Staff Sgt. Jerry M. Durbin Jr., 26, of Spring, Texas, died in Baghdad, Iraq, on Jan. 25, when an improvised explosive device exploded near his dismounted patrol during combat operations.

Sgt. Joshua A. Johnson, 24, of Richford, Vt., died in Ramadi, Iraq, on Jan. 25, when a rocket propelled grenade struck his vehicle during combat operations.

Staff Sgt. Lance M. Chase, 32, of Oklahoma City, Okla., and Pfc. Peter D. Wagler, 18, of Partridge, Kan., died in Baghdad, Iraq, on Jan. 23, of wounds sustained that day when an improvised explosive device detonated near their M1A2 Abrams tank during patrol operations.

Sgt. Sean H. Miles, 28, of Midlothian, Va., was killed in action Jan. 24 from small arms fire while conducting combat operations against enemy forces in Al Karmah, Iraq.

Sgt. Matthew D. Hunter, 31, of Valley Grove, W.Va., died in Baghdad, Iraq, on Jan. 23, when an improvised explosive device detonated near his dismounted patrol during combat operations.

Sgt. Sean H. Miles, 28, of Midlothian, Va., was killed in action Jan. 24 from small arms fire while conducting combat operations against enemy forces in Al Karmah, Iraq.

Tech. Sgt. Jason L. Norton, 32, of Miami, Okla. and Staff Sgt. Brian McElroy, 28, of San Antonio, Texas, were killed Jan. 22, when their vehicle struck an improvised explosive device while conducting convoy escort duties in the vicinity of Taji, Iraq.

© 2006 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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