Reporters on the Job
• When a Soldier Dies: For most Americans, the daily reports of US soldiers dying in Iraq are no longer a shock, especially at a time when even the commander in chief has told Americans to expect more such news as the military employs tactics that may put more soldiers in harm's way.
But when the news involves someone we have known, even briefly, it's different. It's personal. Suddenly the casualty is not a stranger in a force of 160,000, but an individual with a name, a history, and aspirations. Perhaps even a friend.
Staff writer Howard LaFranchi learned with sadness of the death this past weekend of 1st Lt. Frank Walkup, of Woodbury, Tenn., who was felled by a bomb during a foot patrol Saturday in Rashad, Iraq. It was the same area of northern Iraq – an arid valley southwest of Kirkuk that the US is trying to take back from insurgent control and turn over to US-trained Iraqi Security Forces – where Howard spent seven hours in a humvee with Lieutenant Walkup in May. The story, "Life in a remote US Army outpost in Iraq: IEDs, DVDs, and A/C," appeared in the Monitor on May 30.
"You wouldn't quickly forget patrolling for an afternoon with Lieutenant Walkup," says Howard, who remembers a young man with a sharp sense of humor ("He repeatedly ribbed me with the fact that I was not only more than twice his age, but older than his own father." ) and an observant mind. "Under the veneer of soldierly trash talk and bravado, was a thoughtful guy. Going over my notes from the patrol he led, I realized he gave me some of the most insightful quotes. And he had this great smile."
During the patrol, Walkup had described the work he and his men were carrying out as akin to "fighting ghosts," since the enemy planted the bombs they feared and then melted into the landscape – sometimes to become the villagers they were assigned to protect. When the lead humvee he sat in with Howard sailed safely over a buried explosive device, only to have the second truck in the patrol set off the device (with no injuries), Walkup wondered aloud if the Monitor reporter wasn't "some kind of guardian angel with us."
Correspondents who cover wars are cognizant of the fact that the soldiers they interview face daily dangers that may later give their comments a special meaning or irony. Those quotes not only breathe life into a story, but turn that anonymous soldier into an individual – someone readers can relate to. "Frank Walkup showed me on patrol that day that he cared about his men, and that he cared about a reporter who had been entrusted to his care," Howard says. "But aside from his smile, what I'll remember are his words, and his willingness to reveal a little bit about who he was as a young man tackling a difficult job in a distant land."
– David Clark Scott