The Milblogosphere

When the mainstream media lost touch with the military community, the military community created its own network online.


On May 26, 2003, Army Maj. Mathew E. Schram was killed while leading a resupply convoy in western Iraq. A support operations officer for the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment out of Fort Carson, Colo., Schram was responsible for ensuring his troops never ran out of food, fuel or ammo.

The convoy set out early, followed by a car carrying an embedded reporter from a major weekly magazine. When insurgents ambushed the vehicles, Schram was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade while trying to protect his men, and the reporter. Later, Matt Burden of Chicago wrote of his friend: We were as close as a Green Bay Packers fan and Chicago Bears fan could possibly be ... friends as long as we didn’t talk about football. In an Army largely dominated by Southerners, we Midwesterners tended to stick together. In the military, growing up 90 miles apart meant we were neighbors. Major Mat Schram was the BEST that this country has to offer. He always wanted to contribute, to help, to do his part, to save the world. And our world most desperately needs people like Mat Schram. He made us want to be better people, better soldiers, better men ...  I will never forget him. What really gave Burden pause was what wasn’t written about his friend. He added: The weekly magazine never ran a story about my good friend, Mat. Burden vowed then that if the mainstream media wouldn’t talk about Schram’s sacrifice, he would. Seven years later, his “Blackfive” military blog has a readership most media outlets only dream about. Those in the press who want to know what’s really on the minds of U.S. military personnel check his site and others like it daily. Meanwhile, servicemembers and veterans use such sites to voice their opinions on the issues that matter most to them. They find each other and commiserate in an expanding galaxy of online forums known collectively as the milblogosphere.

The Blog, Defined. Blogs (short for Web logs) are personal Web sites where individuals discuss life’s events, usually by theme or topic. Some of the more popular cover technology, sports, law, business, parenting, science, health and politics. There is no denying military blogs – milblogs, for short – have carved out their own niche. Hundreds now exist, many of which draw tens of thousands of visitors a day, including the year-old American Legion Burn Pit blog site, which I started and continue to edit and manage.

Bob Michael, the milblogosphere’s unofficial senior statesman and historian, served 24 years as a meteorologist in the Air Force and since 2003 has blogged under the nom de guerre of “Greyhawk” at MudvilleGazette.com. He just retired after two tours in Iraq, Air Force and Army. Tall and lanky, usually wearing a cowboy hat, Michael looks every bit his Internet persona: part gumshoe detective, part beat reporter. But rather than bird-dogging crime scenes and police precincts, he does his work with speed and alacrity online.

“Six years ago, there were a handful of blogs compared to the number online today,” Michael explains. “We live in a country that takes great pride in free speech, but until a few years ago, the average citizen’s chance of actually being heard beyond the dinner table was pretty small. The best you could hope for was that the local paper might print your letter to the editor.”

The Internet – interactive blogs in particular – changed that.

“I thought they were about the craziest thing I’d ever heard of,” Michael says. “I quickly realized they were also a place where a troop could speak for himself or herself. I considered a list of good reasons not to do that, but in my mind they were all defeated by this absolute truth: if you don’t speak for yourself, someone else will.”Military blogs are proven activists. They have helped raise funds for Iraqi children and wounded veterans. They have inspired songs, launched films, cut book deals and initiated grass-roots troop-support efforts.

Still, most who engage the blogs simply want to tell their stories, Michael says. “By design or happenstance, in doing so they’ve written their part of the history of these times, documenting a war that many feel the traditional media has failed to capture.” Blogs and other new media, such as Facebook and Twitter, are rapidly growing as traditional media hemorrhage readership. According to the Newspaper Association of America, 80.8 percent of Americans read a daily newspaper in 1964. Today, it’s roughly 48 percent. But in the past five years, readership of online news has jumped by an astounding 30 million people. Advertising in print media has plummeted 18.7 percent in newspapers and 14.8 percent in magazines, while digital advertising is up nearly 10 percent. VideoUniversity.com claims that more video was uploaded to YouTube in a two-month period than has aired on CBS, NBC and ABC combined since 1948.

Facebook launched in February 2004, and now has more than 500 million users. Twitter, which allows users to send messages of 140 characters or less, now has more than 190 million individual “Tweeters” sending 65 million messages a day.And there are blogs. No one has an accurate handle on just how many exist, but the search engine Technorati tracks more than 112 million.The Legion’s New Media. As his year as the Legion’s national commander wound down in 2009, Dave Rehbein of Iowa sought better ways to communicate with veterans and their advocates. “The traditional method of drafting and distributing news releases depended on their acceptance and publication in other media,” Rehbein said. “Sometimes, people wouldn’t even see our messages. Burn Pit put dissemination under our control, and gave veterans an opportunity to weigh in, too.”As Legion leadership passed to Clarence Hill of Florida, another devotee of fast-paced electronic media, The American Legion’s first blog site, The Burn Pit, was breaking into the milblogosphere.

Named for the burn pits of Iraq and Afghanistan where troops often gathered to talk, the site was created to give Legionnaires a forum to discuss important issues of the day. The Burn Pit has three missions: to tell the stories of America’s men and women on the front lines, to discuss the military ramifications of political decisions, and to provide help when our troops need it.

Just a few weeks after launching the blog, an attack occurred at Combat Outpost Keating, deep in the mountains of Afghanistan. More than 300 insurgents armed with machine guns, rockets and grenades swarmed an Afghan police post and pressed on to COP Keating, where they were repelled only after a bloody daylong battle. Eight Americans and two Afghans were killed. Many others were injured. Most of the personal belongings of U.S. troops stationed there were destroyed.

Shortly after the battle, The Burn Pit received an e-mail from one of the survivors. He talked about the battle, losing friends, and how “most people back home don’t even know ... no one gives a s**t.” The COP Keating Relief Fund was instantly born to help replace the personal belongings and, honestly, to prove the soldier wrong. People back home – particularly Legionnaires – did care. The Burn Pit raised $200,000 in money and goods in a matter of days.

Blog sites can perform other services, as the mysterious case of Sgt. Richard Owens proved last fall. No one knows exactly how Owens’ Purple Heart citation ended up in a Salvation Army depot in upstate New York, but that’s where it was found, with no kin to claim it. A paratrooper with the famous “Band of Brothers” in the 101st Airborne Division, Owens was killed on D-Day.

When I learned about the citation’s discovery and posted the story on The Burn Pit, a massive manhunt ensued to find a family member who could claim the medal. The search started in Winchester, Va., where Owens’ enlistment documents were located. The trail led from there back to rural southern Indiana, where birth certificates for Owens and his brother were found.

The search continued for weeks until Susanne Marshall, Owens’ grandniece, was found. On Armed Forces Day, during a ceremony at an American Legion post in James Island, S.C., she received his Purple Heart. “I want everyone to know that Richard was never forgotten by our family,” said Marshall, who had no idea how the citation ended up in upstate New York.

“I’m glad this brought so much attention to a man like Richard, who deserves it,” she said.

Other Burn Pit initiatives were on behalf of the living, such as when Col. Van Barfoot, a Medal of Honor recipient from Virginia whose homeowners association told him to remove the towering flagpole from which he flew the Stars and Stripes. The Burn Pit came to his defense.

“The flag is a symbol of our country,” National Commander Clarence Hill said after the posting. “People should fly it proudly. That’s all Col. Barfoot wants to do. If he were desecrating the flag, instead, the association couldn’t do a thing to stop him.”  Joseph Caouette, the Legion’s Americanism chairman, found the homeowners association’s position “especially disgraceful given the fact that our president has ordered another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in defense of our freedom. I wonder what they think of all of this.”

The association soon dropped its demand.

The Burn Pit also came to the aid of Albert Snyder of York, Pa., whose son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, was killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The grieving father had to deal with unwelcome visitors at his son’s funeral: members of the Westboro Baptist Church, which insists that all U.S. military deaths are the result of God’s wrath because the United States permits homosexual conduct.

Snyder filed suit in a Maryland court and was awarded nearly $8 million in damages. But the 4th Circuit Court overturned the decision, requiring Snyder to pay Westboro Baptist’s $16,510 in legal fees. The Legion set up a legal-defense fund for Snyder, and more than $20,000 poured in via The Burn Pit. The Legion has filed an amicus brief in support of Snyder, whose case appears to be headed for the Supreme Court.

In another legal foray, The Burn Pit took on Rick Strandlof, aka Rick Duncan, who told anyone who would listen that he was a former Marine injured in the battle of Fallujah. He wove incredible tales about how he, an openly gay battalion commander of Marines, successfully led attacks in that signature battle. He also claimed he graduated from the Naval Academy, and that he was in the Pentagon on 9/11. All these stories were lies, and they violated the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, which makes it a crime for persons to wear or claim receipt of military medals for valor they did not earn.

Even as groups such as the ACLU and the Rutherford Institute rushed to support a constitutional right to make up war stories to defraud honest citizens, The Burn Pit analyzed the laws and cases and argued for punishment for those, such as Strandlof, who falsely claim heroic service. The constitutionality of the Stolen Valor Act will be taken up by the Supreme Court after a Colorado judge threw out Strandlof’s case, saying – contrary to a court in California – that the law is overly broad. The Burn Pit will continue to follow the case, which is sure to draw heated reactions from our audience of veterans and military members.

Along with high-profile controversies, The Burn Pit also shines a light on unique items from around the Web, including historical essays, videos, photos and other material you won’t find in the mainstream media, or even on the Legion’s own site. That’s what makes a blog different.

When Facebook and Twitter use dramatically increased, questions arose about the long-term viability of blogs and even of Web sites. Information had become something for consumers to engage in, rather than simply receive and interpret like an evening newspaper. Blogs have made nearly everyone capable of becoming a media outlet. Social media makes the discussion global and largely unrestricted.And while unharnessed electronic communication has spawned such national-security threats as WikiLeaks, which this year published classified military documents and a video of U.S. troops accidentally killing noncombatants from a helicopter, the new interactive media outlets of this generation can prove cathartic for those who grapple with their wartime experiences, helpful to those who can use funds or support, and compelling to folks who simply want to go online and get into a good argument. Such is the shape of this thing we call the milblogosphere, which is still evolving seven years after a guy from Chicago just wanted to share something meaningful about a fallen friend and a hero.

After a full year of blogging at The Burn Pit, I can say that Burden’s simple model has changed the lives of a bunch of soldiers from Fort Carson, a Medal of Honor recipient, the family of a World War II hero, and dozens of others whose stories too often float past the main stream of media in search of a place to call their own. Mark Seavey, a former combat infantryman with service in Afghanistan, is new media manager for The American Legion.

 

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