Our January Roundtable looks at “After the battle, Mike Sword’s war within,” by Beth Macy. In her story, Macy explores the death of a combat veteran in southern Virginia, tracing the effects of the loss on his family and asking what role PTSD might have played in how his life ended. The story, part of a multimedia project from The Roanoke Times, was edited by Carole Tarrant.

Laurie Hertzel
Senior editor for books and special projects, Star Tribune

One of the great challenges of narrative journalism is veracity. As you set the scene and build your character, you must remain absolutely faithful to the facts. What do you do if there are things you don’t know? (There will always be things you don’t know.) What do you do if the main character won’t talk to you – or can’t talk to you?

In Beth Macy’s story, Mike Sword couldn’t talk to her because Mike Sword was dead. And how he died, and why, are the crux of her powerful piece – even though the “why” is never entirely answered.

Macy’s piece is admirable for many reasons. It’s seamlessly written, it’s rich in telling and heartbreaking detail, and it’s well-reported. Most important, she tells only what she knows. The question that drives the piece is stated clearly in the second paragraph:

How did it come to pass that the 24-year-old, an expert marksman and former military cop, opened fire on police from Roanoke and Franklin counties in the ­early-morning hours of Feb. 29, 2008, provoking a shootout that ended his life?

It is a question that is never entirely answered, and yet the piece remains satisfying because Macy makes the wise decision to turn unanswered questions into a recurring theme. She poses questions, and she lets us know that the answers are a mystery.

What did Mike think about the roadside bombing that killed his friend? Nobody knows. He never talked about it.

Was he suffering from PTSD? Some think he was; others say he seemed fine.

The summer before his death, was he withdrawn and silent because, as one co-worker thought, he wanted to die? Or was he that way simply because that was his naturally quiet personality?

The night he died, did Mike panic when he saw the cops chasing him? Or was this what he had hoped for? Why was his truck loaded with guns and ammo? What was he doing at the strip club? Was he suffering from a flashback? Or was he suicidal?

Macy writes exactly as much as she knows, and no more:

Grainy video from the only dashboard camera working that night — shot from the cruiser farthest from Mike — offers no clues to his mindset, just the flinching of officers scrambling to duck for cover as Mike, a onetime turret gunner, fires on them.

Tom Huang
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News

Beth Macy’s story on the death of Mike Sword is a great example of using multiple sources (people and records) to write about a person who is no longer around to tell his story. By my count, Macy got at least 14 people to go on the record, including Sword’s father and several relatives, Sword’s Air Force colleagues and Roanoke-area law enforcement officials.

She got these sources to open up – enough to allow her to write a profile full of anecdotes and character details. Her reporting also made it possible for her to include a riveting description of Sword’s last moments.

Here’s what I think Macy got from each group of sources:

Sword’s father, Graham, and other relatives help readers see what Sword was like as a child – adventure-loving, comfortable with camping and hiking in the woods, driven to play war games and paintball. His family also gives us glimpses of Sword later in life – particularly his struggles with Crohn’s disease. And we learn about his lighter side – his love of “Napoleon Dynamite,” Johnny Cash lyrics and prank calls.

Sword’s emails, instant messages and photos help readers get inside Sword’s head and see some of what he experienced in Iraq. As a good narrative reporter, Macy knew that interviewing Graham Sword wouldn’t be enough. She needed to read Mike’s emails and see his photos. Because of that, we get some powerful details, including the image of the aftermath of a roadside bomb that killed one of his fellow airmen. We also learn about how Sword witnessed a young girl getting run over by a military vehicle.

One key family source, Larry Blankenship, a Vietnam veteran, helps us understand that while his nephew didn’t show any trademark signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, he had learned how to hide it. Through Blankenship, we learn that Sword sought counseling at the local Veterans Affairs Medical Center and that he filed a PTSD disability claim.

Sword’s Air Force colleagues portray him as stoic and focused, serious and ambitious. We learn that he was reliable and worked hard, and that he had high ethical standards, once turning in a military contractor who pumped Air Force gas into his personal car. Through his colleagues and relatives, we get a sense that Sword must have felt crushed when the Air Force handed him a medical discharge, in part because of his Crohn’s disease.

Law enforcement officials – including Lt. Chuck Mason, Officer Shaun Chuyka and Deputy Brian Garland – give Macy enough details from their recollections that she deconstructs most of what happened during the high-speed chase and 40-second shootout. She presents what she has found with such fairness and balance that we see the tragedy of Sword’s death from the perspective of both family members and police.

Police reports, court records and police video provide supporting evidence of what happened to Sword. Again, Macy is thinking about how she can document her story beyond interviewing human sources.

One challenge that Macy faced was that Sword’s widow, Kristi, did not give VA counselors permission to talk to the reporter. I presume that Macy was not able to get his medical records, either. She is upfront about this in her storytelling, and while it would have been nice to have that material, I don’t think its absence weakens the story.

To prepare these comments, I compiled a list of Beth’s on-the-record sources and include it here:

  • Graham Sword (father)
  • Court records (describing Sword’s parents’ divorce)
  • Windsor Nevitt (sister)
  • Quentin Floyd (shift supervisor at Andrews AFB)
  • Sandra Mihovich (Air Force colleague)
  • Mike’s email and instant messages (providing details of his tours in Iraq)
  • Mike’s photos from Iraq
  • Carleena Blankenship (aunt)
  • Larry Blankenship (uncle)
  • Kristi Sword (Sword’s widow, interviewed by phone)
  • VA counselors were not allowed to talk
  • Shawn Godfrey (Salem postal supervisor)
  • Lt. Chuck Mason (Roanoke County police)
  • Officer Shaun Chuyka (Roanoke County police)
  • Deputy Brian Garland (Franklin County officer who shot Mike)
  • Dashboard camera video
  • Police reports
  • Tyler Putnam (hospital surgeon)
  • Chris Wilson (fellow airman)
  • Bill Cleaveland (family attorney)

I’d recommend Beth’s story as a case study for any journalism instructor teaching a class on sourcing.

For more on this story, read our Q-and-A with Beth Macy. For full bios of the Roundtable editors, see our introductory post.

Is there a story you’d like the Roundtable to tackle? Send a link to us at contact_us@niemanstoryboard.org.

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