veterans

This is how you do it: New York Times regional desk puts spotlight on a sacred World War II drama

This is how you do it: New York Times regional desk puts spotlight on a sacred World War II drama

Human lives are ticking clocks and, right now, it's easy to forget that the clocks are ticking louder and louder for members of America's Greatest Generation.

These clocks have made news before. If you worked in the Washington, D.C., area toward the end of the 20th Century, it was easy to follow the debates about the World War II Memorial that was finally, finally, built on the National Mall. It was, in my opinion, a stunning commentary on American priorities that it took so long to build it (and required the intervention of an actor and a movie director to make it happen). We built the Vietnam and Korea memorials first.

Meanwhile, these clocks keep ticking. People who run newsrooms should remember that fact, since older Americans are loyal news consumers. In the years ahead, we will be seeing lots of coverage of symbolic events linked to the passing of the Greatest Generation and these stories could have strong religious content.

Thus, news editors and producers should mark Feb. 3 with a permanent pin on their computer calendars -- marking the Feb. 3, 1943, sinking of the U.S.A.T. Dorchester, a military transport ship carrying 902 Americans. Hit by German sub torpedoes, it sank in 18 minutes 100 miles off the coast of Greenland.

Journalists can file a copy of the New York Times feature marking the 75th anniversary of that event, which focused on the ship's four most famous casualties. The headline: "Remembering the Four Chaplains and Their Ultimate Sacrifice."

Symbolic stories, whenever possible, should be linked to appropriate symbolic events. Someone helped the Times regional desk find the perfect news hook -- the annual memorial rites held on the first Sunday of February at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Kearny, N.J. Here is the story's crisp summary of the drama on the doomed ship:

Panic ensued. The sailors who were not killed in the explosion or trapped below rushed to the decks, where some of the lifeboats had frozen to the ship, survivors recounted. But four chaplains standing on the decks remained calm, distributing life jackets. When the supply ran out, the chaplains gave the sailors their own.

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How 'bout a little context to go with outrage over Muslims in Veterans Day parade?

How 'bout a little context to go with outrage over Muslims in Veterans Day parade?

Daily journalism is tough. Reporters face time constraints, space limitations and competing demands.

Here in the easy world of Monday (or Friday) morning media-critique-quarterbacking, it's easy to forget those realities.

Still — while acknowledging all of the above — a news story in today's Tulsa World frustrated me.

What irritated me about this story? Mainly, how little information the World gave me.

This is the lede:

For the first time, Oklahoma Muslims will have a float in the Veterans Day Parade in downtown Tulsa on Nov. 11, and not all parade participants are happy about it.

How many parade participants are not happy about it?

Just one, it appears based on the story:

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Battlefield PTSD, the healing power of community and one giant religion ghost

Battlefield PTSD, the healing power of community and one giant religion ghost

Sebastian Junger is as fine a reporter specializing in war and conflict coverage as there is today. He shot to fame in 1997 with his book "The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea" (a non-military saga, of course) and ever since has been producing award-winning journalism for print and screen, most of it conflict related.

His work includes the extraordinary feature documentary "Restrepo," a 2010 Academy Award nominee. Restrepo resulted from his spending a full year embedded along with photojournalist Tim Hetherington with an Army airborne platoon manning a highly vulnerable forward position in the mountains of Afghanistan. Restrepo was the name of a platoon member KIA.

Junger's now produced an absorbing piece of long-form magazine journalism (more than 7,100 words) published in the June issue of Vanity Fair on the subject of battlefield PTSD, now more prevalent than it's ever been for U.S. military personnel. Junger writes that it's also probably the highest military PTSD rate in the world, following more than a decade of American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.

(Exact PTSD rates are hard to determine for various reasons, including some fraud cases and some conflating of military PSTD with pre-existing conditions. Here's some numbers from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

But Junger's piece is about way more than psychological battlefield wounds that often do not manifest until a soldier reenters civilian society.

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Religion angle? WWII vet united with his prayer book, long after it fell from 30,000 feet

Religion angle? WWII vet united with his prayer book, long after it fell from 30,000 feet

For a decade, starting in 1995, I led a month-long reporting "boot camp" here in Washington that always included Memorial Day. Year after year, I was amazed at the personal stories that would emerge as I helped young reporters cover these events for local newspapers across the land.

You want symbolic details in poignant stories? Cover Memorial Day in greater Washington, D.C. I still have a soft spot in my heart for Memorial Day stories.

This brings me to an amazing Baltimore Sun story -- "Towson WW II airman's prayer book returned from Europe after 70 years" -- timed for Memorial Day that, for some reason, the editors decided to play on A2 with timid art.

This story really got to me, and not in a good way, in part because of how it failed to take seriously it's strong and obvious religion angle. Let's start with the "probably" angle in a lede -- atop a story with a near miraculous fact that slid down a few paragraphs. 

By the time he was drafted and deployed to Italy in 1945, Larry Hilte was probably familiar with one of the most popular songs of the World War II era, "Comin' in on a Wing and a Prayer."
The lyrics of the song describe the plight of desperate airmen trying to find their way back from bombing runs over enemy territory in airplanes either shot full of holes, on fire or both.
Little did the Towson resident know then that 70 years later his prayer book, which fell from the Consolidated B-24 Liberator he rode on a mission over Europe in the final months of World War II, would find its own safe landing. Hilte does not know exactly when the prayer book fell from the plane, and, at this point, it doesn't really matter.

Right. The details of a pop song the veteran may or may not have known are more important than the personal details linked to his "Jesus Teach Me to Pray" prayer book that fell from the sky onto a house, where it was retrieved and ended up, decades later, in a flea market.

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