Journalism in the Public Interest

This Memorial Day, the Best Stories on How We Treat Our Troops

The best watchdog journalism on U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan – with a few classics thrown in.

Members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment place American flags at the graves of U.S. soldiers buried in Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery on May 24, 2012. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

We rounded up some of the best accountability journalism for U.S. soldiers in our recent wars. Check them out while you're basking on a boat this weekend, and remember the reason for this federal holiday.

Armored Humvees are in Short Supply, October 2003, News Observer
When the insurgency in Iraq started, the U.S. Army didn't have enough armored Humvees to protect its troops. As soldiers died in vehicles not built to withstand combat, the Army boosted their orders. But that takes time. While waiting for requests to be filled, soldiers rigged their own with sandbags.

Barrage of Bullets Drowned Out Cries of Comrades, The Washington Post, 2004
Part 1 and Part 2
After NFL-star-turned-soldier Pat Tillman died in Afghanistan, the Army took weeks to admit friendly fire had killed him. Over a year later, records emerged indicating they'd also withheld details of his death by fratricide, and the case spun into a saga of an investigation. When we asked national security expert Andrew Exum for a seminal piece on the case, he replied:

Contributed by @BradsNews

Behind The Walls of Ward 54, Salon, February 2005
Soldiers at Walter Reed said that the facility's psychiatric care was outdated and inadequate -- heavily medicating soldiers in "lockdown wards," offering group therapy that often didn't address wartime experiences, and in some cases, hesitating to diagnose PTSD at all.

Soldiers Face Neglect, Frustration, at Army's Top Medical Facility, The Washington Post, February, 2007
The first article in a Pulitzer-Prize-winning investigation of neglect and bureaucratic failures at Walter Reed. While the surgical hospital was held up as a paragon of care, hundreds of soldiers went unnoticed in decrepit outpatient wards with few services or oversight. Soldiers described the experience as living in a chapter from Catch-22.

Arlington National Cemetery, Salon, 2009
Mismarked graves. Botched documentation. Unknown remains. Trashed personal mementos. In a yearlong investigation, Salon discovered grave errors at Arlington National Cemetery that pushed some families to extremes to make sure their loved ones were buried correctly -- and that it was really them.

The Battle of Wanat, The Washington Post, October 2009
On July 13, 2008, nine U.S. soldiers were killed and 27 wounded in one of the bloodiest battles of the Afghan war. The attack provided a window into what went wrong in Afghanistan and prompted the Army to reassess its strategy. (Be sure to check out the on-the-ground videos in the timeline; they provide a very real peek into what it was like at this base.)

Restrepo, 2010
This Oscar-nominated documentary chronicles the year journalists Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington (who was killed last year in Libya) spent embedded with a U.S. Army platoon in Afghanistan, from deployment to battle and back home.

How Pricey For-Profit Colleges Target Vets' GI Bill Money, Mother Jones, October 2011
As for-profit colleges swooped in to take advantage of the GI Bill's generous education benefits, they often employed deceptive marketing techniques -- in this case, websites that looked like official guides on how vets could maximize their education funds but were actually run by marketing firms for the schools.

Aftershock: The Blast That Shook Psycho Platoon, ProPublica and NPR March 2012
More than 115,000 soldiers have suffered mild traumatic brain injuries since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began. But our investigation with NPR found the military has failed to provide its returning soldiers with the care they need.

John Huston Film About WWII Soldiers that Army Suppressed Is Restored, The Washington Post, May 2012
A post-WWII documentary on the psychological effects of war has been hiding for nearly 60 years. The Army says it was because they wanted to protect the privacy of the soldiers; others say they wanted to preserve soldiers' "warrior" image. Either way, the film has been restored, and as the Post notes, is "striking for its potential relevance for a new generation of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan."

Black Hawk Down, Philadelphia Inquirer, November 1997
This brutal, 15-hour battle in Somalia killed 18 elite U.S. soldiers, wounded 73, and changed the way America approached foreign intervention. Before it was a movie, or a book, Mark Bowden chronicled the soldiers' ordeal in this brilliant account in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Why don’t you honor the fallen military personnel by having stories that apply just to the fallen military personnel instead of making Memorial Day another Veteran’s Day? There is a significant difference. Just ask someone who has the pain of losing a loved one or comrade.

Wei Ling Chua

May 26, 2012, 4:52 a.m.

American politicians don’t care much about human rights across the globe, it is not a surprise that they didn’t care much for their soldiers as well. The soldiers are after all the 99% who have no money to fund their political campaign.

It’s rather ironic you asked Andrew Exum for a “seminal piece” about the Pat Tillman story!  He’s the guy who was chastised by the Washington Post’s ombudsman after Exum wrote his horribly biased review of Jon Krakauer’s book, “Where Men Win Glory,” without disclosing his conflicts of interest (e.g. his close personal & professional ties to Gen. Stanley McChrystal).

I’d suggest the DVD “The Tillman Story,” Mick Brown’s piece “The Betrayal of an All-American Hero,” Mary Tillman’s “Boots on the Ground by Dusk,” or the post “Something to Die For” at the feralfirefighter blog.

P.S.  The post on Exum’s role in the Tillman whitewash is called “He Who Shall Not Be Fact-Checked” at the feralfirefighter blog.

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