Stories come from unexpected places. This one emerged from a war resigned to memory but revived by a personal favor I wanted to do for some soldiers.
In the fall of 2011, I decided to write an account of the battle at As Samawah, Iraq, during the invasion of 2003. I was one of the embedded reporters during that invasion, working for The Oregonian newspaper in Portland and attached to the 2nd Combat Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division. Contemporary histories had skipped over the week of fighting in that city, as most people then and now misunderstood its significance. I wanted to honor the soldiers I had known there with the story of what they endured.
One soldier died in the fighting — Sgt. Jacob Butler, 24, of Wellsville, Kan. I started asking for casualty reports, after-action reports, anything that would detail the ambush. My requests, both legal and informal, went unanswered. No one in the Army, it seemed, had any record of his death. I continued asking for more reports from the fighting, anything that would detail battlefield movements. Again, the U.S. Army kept telling me through informal and formal channels: "We don't have the records."
Frustrated, I did what I dreaded; I contacted Jim Butler, the father of Sgt. Jacob Butler, and told him of the trouble I was having finding records of his son's death. His reply to me: "None of them exist." It turned out he had been on his own journey seeking some of the same records I was after.
As my reporting went forward, my historical writing morphed into a return to journalism as I realized the magnitude of the problem. Historians within and without the U.S. Army told me repeatedly that the missing records problem extended far beyond one soldier. In fact, they said, it covered two wars and entire Army brigades.
I set my original story aside. I contacted ProPublica, where Steve Engelberg and Tom Detzel were working in New York. I had worked with both of them in my days at The Oregonian; in fact Engelberg had been my editor when I was in Iraq.
That partnership produced the story ProPublica has now released. I will get back to the story of the battle at As Samawah soon and finish what I started, with or without the field records.