Thursday, May 12, 2005
'Milbloggers' are typing their place in history By Mark Memmott, USA TODAY Imagine some of the soldiers who survived the Battle of Gettysburg stopping the next day to write their dramatic tales — and people around the world instantly reading them. If that battle had been fought today, no imagination would be necessary. The number of Internet Web logs — or "blogs," as online diaries are known — by American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan is soaring, giving people everywhere unprecedented windows into servicemembers' lives. From 50 or so a year ago, the number of their online journals is now about 200 and is expected to be near 1,000 by the year's end, say the bloggers themselves and experts who track the Web. The growth means a historic phenomenon is gaining momentum: Anyone with access to the Internet can read many first-hand accounts of life in a war zone within seconds after they're finished. And the blogs are "full of real substance and depth," says Jon Peede, director of the National Endowment for the Arts' Operation Homecoming program, which helps troops and their families write about their wartime experiences. "They're raw, powerful reflections on the war." They also could be among a troop's last words. At least one "soldier blogger," Army Spc. Francisco G. Martinez, has been killed in action. From the front lines Many of the stories troops tell in the blogs are about everyday life at their bases. But some also show how terrifying, confusing and chaotic battle can be. Among the most gripping stories told so far: Army Spc. Colby Buzzell's Aug. 5, 2004, account in his blog My War of a battle in Mosul, Iraq, the day before. "I saw 2 guys creeping around this corner ... (and) hiding behind a stack of truck tires," he wrote. "I saw another guy come out of that corner with an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) in his hands. I freaked ... I gathered my composure as fast as I could, put the cross hairs (of a gun) on them and engaged them. ... I didn't see anybody move from behind those tires after that." Capt. Jason Van Steenwyk, 35, of the Florida National Guard served in Iraq from May 2003 to February 2004. He's now home in Florida. While he was in Iraq, he used his Countercolumn to take readers on to the streets and into the neighborhoods. One entry was a harrowing tale of a tense encounter at one intersection: Spc. Jean-Paul Borda, 30, of Burke, Va., is serving with his National Guard unit in Afghanistan. He's used his blog, The National Guard Experience, to talk about how much he misses his family, the life of the Afghans he meets, and to spread the word to readers about what they can do to help make life a little better for U.S. soldiers in the combat zones: Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Steven Kiel, 26, of Alexandria, Va., is on active duty in Iraq. His blog, Steven Kiel Army Reservist, is a running commentary on daily life for a sergeant in Iraq. In one entry, he looked back at his two-and-a-half month stint on guard duty: Read excerpt Army Spc. Cinnamon Wilkinson, 35, is a combat medic training at Fort Campbell, Ky., for her expected year-long deployment to Iraq. Her blog, She is using her blog, A Female Soldier Story, to write about her new life as a soldier and the challenges she is facing as she prepares to leave with her unit. In one entry, she wrote of her feelings: Army Reserve Sgt. Chris Missick, 24, who returned home to California from Iraq last month. His blog, A Line in the Sand, followed his experiences in Kuwait and southern Iraq. One entry, about being homesick, caught the attention of thousands of readers: Buzzell is now home in Brooklyn, N.Y. He says the number of people reading My War, which he'd only started a few weeks before that entry and was writing anonymously as "cbftw," soared to several thousand a day after that account. About a month later, he was done blogging. Commanders had figured out who the writer was and ordered him to have his entries reviewed by an officer before he posted them. There was some concern his detailed reports might have divulged too much information about Army tactics. Buzzell stopped blogging and removed most of his stories from the internet. No one knows exactly how many military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan are doing blogs. Most troops are not: There are about 148,000 on duty in Iraq; 16,700 in Afghanistan.Not all of the blogs are easily found or open to everyone surfing the Web. Mena Trott is co-founder of Six Apart, a company that controls three of the Web's most popular blogging platforms — Movable Type, TypePad and LiveJournal. Trott says there are 7.5 million to 8 million blogs using those services. From one-quarter to one-third are private or fully open only to a blogger's family and friends, she says. Of the military bloggers who do make their blogs available for anyone to see, most do not reveal their names. The Web site www.mudvillegazette.com acts as a directory of sorts for the troops' blogs. It now links to about 170 "milblogs." Many of the blogs on the site's list are written by troops' family members, by civilians interested in the military and by troops stationed around the world. Another site, www.iraqfiles.com, links to about 50 milblogs. But there are many more active bloggers now deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan than those lists indicate, says Staff Sgt. Steven Kiel, an Army reservist now in Iraq. He writes a blog, Steven Kiel Army Reservist, and maintains the blog, Iraq Files. The fastest way to find blogs written by troops now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan is to go to any of these Web sites and explore their links to "milblogs" or soldier blogs: www.mudvillegazette.com www.blackfive.net www.bloggersforfreedom.com www.iraqfiles.com www.aapavatar.net/blogs.htm www.indepundit.com Kiel, in an e-mail to USA TODAY, said he agrees with an estimate by the blog The Mudville Gazettethat the current number is close to 200 and that growth will take the count to about 1,000 by year's end."I would use the 200 number as a minimum," Kiel wrote. "Honestly, the reason I only have 50 listed on iraqfiles is because I haven't found the time to search around and add more of them." Sifry also agrees the number of military blogs is "in the hundreds" and says that "six to nine months from now there's no doubt, based on the current growth rate," that there will be around 1,000. Some are easy to find because of their popularity. Buzzell's blog has been linked to more than 500 other Web sites. More than 1,200 sites link to The Mudville Gazette. Judging from the links, the blog's most avid readers are current and retired military personnel. But they're also attracting readers who are interested in politics, current events and history. Keeping in touch A major reason for a surge in the numbers: Some of the troops "rotating" into Iraq and Afghanistan have seen the blogs written by others and want to try it themselves. They've heard from other troops that a blog is an easy way to let a lot of people back home know what's going on and to share photos. The bloggers still use e-mail (as do thousands of other troops) to send personal messages. But blogs make communicating with large groups simple: A servicemember doesn't need to remember, save or type in anyone's e-mail address.Army Reserve Sgt. Chris Missick, a blogger A Line in the Sand who returned home to California from Iraq in early March, says he could sense the dramatic growth. "It was really interesting to see all the new blogs that were being launched this year as soldiers were arriving in theater," he said in an e-mail to USA TODAY. Army Spc. Cinnamon Wilkinson has started her blog, called A Female Soldier Story, even before she heads overseas. A combat medic, she is training at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, expects to be in Iraq by fall and to stay there a year. She's using the blog now to share stories about what it's like to be in the military for the first time at age 35 and have teenage sons.Also driving the growth: The feeling among some troops that the "mainstream media" aren't telling the whole story about what's happening in Iraq."Look at the run-up to the Iraqi elections," says Jason Van Steenwyk, a captain in the Florida National Guard who writes the blog Countercolumn. He served in Iraq from May 2003 to February 2004. M. Scott Mahaskey/ Army Times Troops can update their blogs at Internet cafes, like this one at the Baghdad airport. Before the Iraqi elections, Van Steenwyk believes, TV networks and newspapers focused on the potential for violence and low turnout. "But the soldier blogs," Van Steenwyk says, "were pretty optimistic. The people who weren't surprised when the elections went off as well as they did were the soldiers and the Iraqi people."Many of the military bloggers are using their own laptops to write their stories. At the larger bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military has set up Internet cafes. Typically, a blogger will write on his laptop, transfer the file to one of the cafe's computers and then post it. Commanding officers may order them to stop blogging, or as with Buzzell, require them to submit their work for review, if there's concern that they could put troops at risk. There are only a few reports of bloggers running into such trouble. One New York National Guardsman, Jason Hartley, author of the blog Just Another Soldier, was demoted from sergeant to specialist shortly before his unit came home New Year's Day. Like Buzzell, Hartley had run into trouble with his commanders for allegedly jeopardizing "operational security." Of specific concern: He had posted photos of detainees, possibly violating the Geneva Conventions. Also like Buzzell, Hartley will soon be a published author. His book is due from Harper Collins next January. Just Another Soldier, the blog, is in hiatus. He still keeps a journal, though. Fans can sign-up for e-mail updates from him by sending a request to firstname.lastname@example.org. Last words live on Army Spc. Martinez, 20, died March 20 after being shot by a sniper in Tamin, Iraq. Martinez had updated his blog on a regular basis while stationed in Korea in 2003 and 2004. On Aug. 4, just before heading to Iraq, Martinez wrote, "My intentions are to come home safe and sound, but my (enemy's) is to prevent that from happening. So tonight, before you sleep, or while you sit to eat, think of me, and my brothers who are going to sacrifice our lives, so that you may enjoy your every day turmoils and frustrations." He only had time to write three blog entries after getting to Kuwait and Iraq. His last, on Jan. 19, included these lines: "I am alive. I am still kicking. ... (I'm) counting down my days till I get the hell out."Martinez's father communicated with his son frequently by e-mail and instant messaging. The soldier's last e-mail to his dad, two days before his death, told of "truly one of the most trying times of my life." He had helped recover the remains of four soldiers killed by an enemy bomb. Getting e-mails from his son was wonderful, Francisco T. Martinez says, but his son's blog was special, as well. "You grow used to going to the blog to look at what his thoughts are," Martinez said by telephone from his home in Fort Worth. "Now you almost wish he could be blogging from heaven. ... That there could be more. ... But there won't."