A few days before Christmas, the American military announced that the Army had charged eight fellow soldiers in the death of  Pvt. Daniel Chen, 19. (New York Times, 12/22/11)  Eight Stryker soldiers from the 1st Brigade 25th Infantry Regiment face multiple charges, including dereliction of duty and manslaughter. The Army called his Oct. 3, 2011 death “an apparent suicide by gunshot.”

News reports quoting the Chen family focus on alleged incidents of bullying and hazing by his fellow soldiers in the 3rd Battalion 21st Infantry Regiment at their outpost in southern Afghanistan prior to his death.

Before the story broke, Maj. David Mattox, the public affairs officer, had already fired a shot across our bow, telling us that Col. Wood was concerned this incident would draw our focus away from the positive things the soldiers were accomplishing. For a number of reasons, I was not in a position to report on the Chen story; however, I was not going to ignore it or sidestep it either.

When the story broke, I had just filed our first story to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on Zeke, the therapy dog. I mentioned it would be a good partner story to the breaking news of the Chen story. Rod Boyce, the editor, wrote back and asked for soldiers’ reactions to the news of the charges.

This put me in a place I’ve never been before. I wondered—if I ask soldiers about the charges/story, will I be breaking the ground rules of the embed documents I signed? Would I jeopardize our embed? Surely the Army could find a way to boot us.

JR and I had each invested roughly $5,000 each to travel to Afghanistan and document the 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team soldiers. Did we want to risk the time and money (and our entire reporting project) that we’d already invested to get a few quotes for the local paper?

I pulled out the five pages of ground rules I’d signed. I didn’t read anything that indicated I would violate them if I asked for soldiers’ reactions. Next I sent an email to Maj. Mattox and asked for his response. When I didn’t hear from him, I called.

“We can’t talk about it in order to maintain the integrity of the Uniform Code of Military Justice process. It’s still under investigation,” he said. 

He told me that talking to the soldiers wasn’t a violation of the ground rules—but the soldiers know they’re not supposed to talk about it.

At 0530 the next day, two soldiers came into the MWR mud hut and made phone calls.

“Did you see the news? About the Stryker soldiers?” one asked.

“I knew those guys,” another guy said.

 I immediately realized I was listening. I had many choices.

Some journalists would listen and take notes. Some journalists would wait and talk to the soldiers after the call and ask questions. Some might track the soldiers down later.

I thought about it. I realized that these soldiers were in their Morale Welfare Recreation center. Even though they were talking out loud in a common space, they had an expectation of privacy in a place where they come to spend time connecting with family and friends. It’s a very public yet intimate space.

I’ll admit I was conflicted. I wanted to hear what the soldiers had to say—and I also realized I wouldn’t want someone listening to my private conversation.

Upon considerable reflection, I decided I would inquire about combat stress and hazing/bullying. I wrote Maj. Renee Reagan with the Combat Stress Team. (I’d spoken with her for the therapy dog story.) I asked about how her team addresses such incidents and what efforts the Army makes to prevent these types of incidents. By email, she declined to comment, citing as Maj. Mattox did, the ongoing investigation.

I then went to Lt. Col. Brian Payne, commander, 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment and asked him to comment on how such an incident affects the leaders and what types of training or actions they would take to prevent future incidents. NOTE: Lt. Col. Payne is not the commander of the battalion in which Pvt. Chen was serving.

“I’m not familiar with all the facts so I don’t want to speak on that piece but I can tell you that …any leader is going to be broken-hearted if something like that happens,” Payne said. “I know Lt. Col. Miller and I know a lot of guys that were there and at no point in time would they ever have wanted something like that to happen or dreamed something like that would happen.

“The Army works very, very hard to prevent those types of things, both prior to and then also dealing with it immediately.”

He said they dig into it the details to determine all the contributing things that took place and how to prevent another incident from happening in the future.

I offered the News-Miner the quotes from Maj. Mattox and Lt. Col. Payne. I did not question the soldiers I heard talking in the MWR.

I’m sure there are plenty of journalists who will disagree with my decision. In the end, I did what I thought was right. I had considered the possibility of losing our embed position…and I was surprised that I had been afraid of that possible consequence, though ultimately that possibility had no bearing on my decision.

I decided I would not violate the sanctity of that dark, cold mud hut where soldiers speak their own fears and feelings into the night air, surrounded by fellow soldiers.

As a human being and as a journalist, I made the right call.

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