Journalists recall &8216;good&8217; stories of war

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 17, 2006

Jim Varney thought maybe he had got the story wrong. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter, who spent a month in Iraq last summer with photographer Chris Granger, saw U.S. soldiers reaching out to Iraqis &8212; rebuilding schools, handing out food, even picking dates with children.

But at a panel discussion on the West coast recently with other reporters who covered the war, all he heard was &8220;gloom and doom.&8221;

Varney, one of several journalists and military professionals who spoke to the Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press Managing Editors Association, said security, especially now, is one reason members of the American media do not have a chance to do the &8220;good&8221; stories about what soldiers are doing.

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Lt. Col. Tim Powell, the public affairs officer for Camp Shelby, where the APME meeting was held, agreed. While he, too, would like to see more positive news about the soldiers&8217; actions in Iraq, he knows it can be difficult because of the security conditions.

But Powell said many stories of soldiers&8217; simple acts of valor return when the troops return. Those stories often wind up in hometown newspapers, such as the account of two engineer battalions from Mississippi that helped rebuild bridges and schools.

&8220;National Guardsmen are citizen soldiers,&8221; Powell said. &8220;These engineers go over there with that citizen-soldier background.&8221;

The engineers took it upon themselves to renovate schools in poor condition &8212; and asked their family support group back in Mississippi to send supplies for the children. They paid the postage themselves, Powell said.

&8220;This is something you don&8217;t see in the national news,&8221; he said.

Varney and Granger were in Iraq last August, during a relatively peaceful time. They were embedded with troops but were able to move around and find unique stories.

Granger, showing slides from his trip, recalled one particularly poignant story of a small neighborhood art show. His photos captured smiling Iraqis holding up pen-and-ink cartoons, including one of Saddam Hussein being crushed by a U.S. soldier&8217;s boot. According to Granger, the residents in this neighborhood had always been forbidden under Saddam&8217;s rule to hold something as simple as an art show.

The logistics of many of those stories are often too difficult to do now, the reporters and military officials on the panel agreed.

Many journalists now, since April was such a violent month, must remain in their hotel work spaces or keep tight with the troops, for safety reasons.

Which is a reminder that, while they do not do the work our troops are doing, these wartime journalists are risking their lives every day to bring us stories and photos from Iraq. They are, of course, not all &8220;good&8221; stories; it is still a war. As Associated Press reporter and former embed Jonathan Ewing said, &8220;In the tragedy of war, there is enough for everyone to go around.&8221;

Varney was asked how he separated being an American from covering the war as a journalist.

&8220;I was an American and I wanted us to win,&8221; he said. &8220;But I didn&8217;t pull any punches because of that.&8221;

Kerry Whipple

is editor of The Democrat. She can be reached at (601) 445-3541 or by e-mail at