Andi, ArmyWifeToddlerMom, Sarah, and ButterflyWife are currently in Las Vegas at the Blog World Expo, attending panels on Milblogging. I will update as the panel continues.
Milblogging Panel 3: From the Front
Moderator: Ward Carroll from Military.com
Chuck: I started blogging when I was downrange and would yell at the TV in the dfac. I thought there were big world issues and all it was was Britney and K-Fed. I talked to family back home and all they knew was what was on the news.
Tim: I was deployed in 2003 with no internet access. I never blogged then, but when I got home, the story of Abu Ghraib broke and the reporting was terrible. I knew things weren't right with the story. So I spent time telling people about it. I set up a blog before I deployed the second time so I would be ready to tell people if they were getting the real info from the news. I blogged from 2005-2006. I want to start a younger Blackfive thing at vox veterana (ha, chuckles in the audience).
Gordon: I started the blog sitting in Kuwait, yelling at the TV too. I tried to get out the story of where I was and what I was doing. The day-to-day boredom never makes the news.
Tom: I was in recruiting, finishing up and getting ready to go back to the infantry when I discovered Wizbang. I jumped in not necessarily as a milblogger but more talking about current events. It went from talking about gas prices to talking about family to talking about recruiting. I settled into talking about military issues. I deployed and had the opportunity to blog from the front. I feel like I gave a picture of my piece of the pie.
I want to ask about the crackdown on blogs from the military. But first, please assess the stigma of being known as a blogger among your peers on active duty.
Chuck: No stigma at all. My blogging does not affect my job or my soldering. I've never been castigated, but I have been cautioned once to "dont poop where you eat." Know who's reading your blog, and if you decide to take your command to task, you will be in voilation of UCMJ if you don't follow chain of command.
Tim: I flew under the radar for a while. But I started interviewing some guys in my unit, and then some guys started giving me crap that I wasn't interviewing them! Then Fox News found out about my site, and I went on Cavuto while I was on leave and some of the guys on my unit saw me on TV back downrange! They were surprised.
Gordon: I had good and bad experiences. Per chain of command, my commander was Badger 6, so there was no problem there. It was good for me because I never posted anything that was sensitive, but at times when I wanted to post something that might push boundaries, I could go to Badger 6 and ask his advice. When I got to Iraq, they made everyone write down their blog or MySpace so they could keep track of it. Some guys wanted to know if I'd pay them when I talked about them. Ha, first I need to make money.
Tom: For me blogging in Iraq was a challenge. My battallion commander was sour on it. I got the feeling he didn't like it. I didn't make it a secret that I was blogging, but I made it clear that I wouldn't talk about anything they didn't want me to talk about. And I didn't talk about people in my unit without asking them about it first. I was on a MIT team, a small team, so I didn't air my dirty laundry. But another conflict for me was the PAO and S2, they didn't want me to put anything out there. Late in the deployment, we found some homemade rockets aimed at our FOB, which was surprising and unusual. We naturally all took pictures to show our families. Two days later I found on the multinational Iraq site the same types of rockets. I thought it was an odd coincidence and wanted to blog it. The PAO said it was a bad idea. I disagreed and went to the commander, who thought it was OK. But I never got around to it because of internet connectivity.
Can you define why you were blogging from the front, a mission statement?
Chuck: Some things weren't being covered, and sometimes I escorted journalists who then got the story totally wrong. But also it was a way to decompress before bed. Or write about missing my family or what I liked about the dfac. It was like a diary for me. And my wife could tell by my writing whether I was happy, sad, up, down. I was in a unique position because a lot of milbloggers at the time were junior officers or enlisted soldiers, but no company commanders giving their point of view. But I never wrote " we did this and it was dumb." But, one example, we let a bad guy go on the advice of the local sheiks and townspeople. I didn't feel good about letting him go, and shortly thereafter he hit a detonator and blew me up. But I never blogged about how I thought it was a bad idea to let him go. We had to trust the Iraqis. And I won't go back and second guess the decisions we made, on good faith and with lots of deliberation. So I never want to talk about the bad decisions we made.
Tim: Chuck is a better man than I. I talked about stuff I saw that I thought was crap. My mission was that I didn't want to countearact the media but just to show another side. I agree that we have a limited perspective on the war as a whole, but all of us put together can be pieces of the puzzle that readers can all put together.
Gordon: My mission was to tell the story. I wanted to talk about what was happening in my area. I was in Anbar and watched the entire area transform before my eyes. One instance, a PAO was escorting a journalist and was killed by an IED. She had done a lot of work to represent Ramadi. The journalist getting killed got mentioned but the PAO's work didn't get mentioned. I regret that I didn't write about her and her good work.
Tom: I pictured being too busy to write much while deployed. I didn't want to draw attention to where we were, as a small unit on a small FOB. But then I had the time and resources to keep blogging, but I kept it general and small. The short answer was that I was ready to let the blog go during deployment.
It seems like the blog starts on a small level -- catharsis, inform family/friends -- and you realize people you don't know are reading it, that it's viral. Do you remember a point when you realized this?
Gordon: It was friends and family first, but when the audience got bigger, I started telling more of the story. I wrote more, and ha started talking less on the phone to my family.
Tim: I've been in it for the women from the beginning (laughs from audience). I got picked up by the New York Times, and it's funny that the posts that got picked up by big papers like NYT and by Fox, it was always the crappiest posts that I hadn't spellchecked. I always put pen to paper really quickly without editing and within an hour it had gotten picked up.
Chuck: I have no filter.
This brings us to the crackdown in May. I spent my career locking horns with PAOs that I thought had a different view of what was important. So the Army wanted to crackdown, even though it's been shown that PAOs give out more info than milbloggers do.
Chuck: Right after the milblog conference in May, I took an Army publication and found a soldier, tracked down his unit, his family, his hometown. That's more damning than what bloggers do. I didn't do this for any reason other than to prove it could be done, but the enemy has a far bigger reason to do it. I don't want to malign the PAOs, but they do break their own rules. And the Army says they tightened up, but they really didn't. They don't really scan registered blogs for OPSEC violations. It far more important to make sure that what soldiers are saying on blogs is true. Otherwise we end up with the Beauchamp issue. The harder you make it to blog in theater, you limit the people who are willing to do it for the right reasons. Also, in the PAO releases, they can't say whether something is right or wrong. It's very vanilla. The people at home want to know whether events are good and bad. PAO has to "hook," there's no reason for me to pass on the info if there's no meat there. It sounds like a release of the Apple Picking Festival.
Blackfive: No one wants to lose a soldier because of a stupid blog post. That's the reason it's the way it is.
Tom: I want to take it more macro. I don't blame the PAO, I think it's an institutional problem with change. In the 60s they were worried about counterinsurgency, and now, lo and behold, we are freaking out that there's a counterinsurgency. We're pulling tankers and any MOS and turning them into infantry. We don't react to problems well.
Yeah it's a bureaucracy and they're slow, but this was also a barometer of your leadership, the commanders, how did they react to the policy.
Chuck: The way GEN Cody dealt with me and with Neil Prakash...I know that at his core he is concerned with the wellbeing of the soldier. He knows it could be a conduit to put people at risk. He may have been heavy handed, but he did it for the right reason. But we do train our soldiers what to say and not to say when they call home. We need to train our folks to use all the resources to engage the enemy but also to engage the public to fight a total war.
So let's turn this on its head. If one soldier is lost, blogging is not worth it. Have soldiers been saved from blogging?
Chuck: Yes, definitely for stuff with PTSD. We are recognizing it more and it is saving lives, whether with suicide or whatever. We have Soldiers Angels and Valour-IT. We see a lessening in the divorces of wounded people.
Tim: It's not even just that. We can win the war on the ground, we all agree. But it's the hearts and minds, and milblogs do that. They're a vehicle of change. My senators in my state are reading my blog.
Tom: We know the enemy is beating us on the IO front. They do it better than us. But to give DoD its due, we're in the middle of the war. They are struggling. But it would've been better if when the reg came out, the connotation wasn't that it was bad but maybe they could've said, instead of writing about IEDs and maybe giving info to the enemy, we want you and soldiers to keep writing but work with us to get the message out.
Jack Holt: But some of these kids right out of basic, they've had their MySpace longer than they've been in the Army. They don't think of it in terms of OPSEC. They need to be reminded that it's a public venue.
This has nothing to do with DoD, but if Osama puts out a five year old video tomorrow, it will dominate the news. But our good stories and stuff bloggers and PAOs are putting out doesn't get the play in the mainstream media. So should every unit have a blogger?
Chuck: NO!!! Just train the soldiers in the mission and tell them to tell their story! If it's an MOS, it's lame.
Tom: I love the "hometown recruiters," they're the MySpace guys, the Facebook guys, who talk to guys back home and say how bad it sucks at basic and it spreads like wildfire. We need guys like that to spread other messages too, their from the front stories.
We at SpouseBUZZ consider our blog a community. What is your feeling towards your commenters, your readers?
TIm: I have moms that wanted me to marry their daughters! And care packages and people wishing me well.
Tom: If I didn't put a post up for a week, I felt guilty. I knew people were checking and wanted to know what was going on. So I'd say I'm still here, it's still hot.
Chuck: When I got home from the hospital, someone told me I had mail. It was a whole truck full of care packages from readers. And he had two more loads to bring! I forwarded it all back down to Iraq to my soldiers. The outpouring of goodwill means so much. The commenters who come to throw rocks, you can abuse them. Either way, it's a great mental exercise.
Tom: Being at the front, you're kinda the expert. I don't know if I changed any minds, but I got into discussions with anti-war folks through comments and email.
Gordon: I am family with the commenters. I would get busy and not blog. Then Badger 6 would start getting emails asking if I was OK. Now I want to go meet all those people and get all those free beers!
What about your historical role?
Chuck: You had diarists in the Civil War and stuff, but not in real time. Now, no one is limited by education or anything. We're getting up to the minute primary resources for history to follow.
Tim: I'm idealistic, I want to create change, and if I can do that through blogging, I want to help change the world.