It’s easy to forget, amid all the cookouts and trips to the beach, that Memorial Day was created to remember the men and women who have died in military service. In honor of the holiday, we’ve gathered a few outstanding stories about wars and the soldiers who fight them:
“The Other Walter Reed,” Dana Priest and Anne Hull, Washington Post. 2007. A searing investigation into the treatment of veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, this project prompted public outcry, spurred federal reforms and received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for public service.
“Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan’s room, part of the wall is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mold. When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above through a rotted hole. The entire building, constructed between the world wars, often smells like greasy carry-out. Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses.
This is the world of Building 18, not the kind of place where Duncan expected to recover when he was evacuated to Walter Reed Army Medical Center from Iraq last February with a broken neck and a shredded left ear, nearly dead from blood loss. But the old lodge, just outside the gates of the hospital and five miles up the road from the White House, has housed hundreds of maimed soldiers recuperating from injuries suffered in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
“Black Hawk Down,” Mark Bowden, Philadelphia Inquirer, 1997. Before there was the Ridley Scott film or the best-selling book, there was the 29-part newspaper series documenting an attempt by American forces to capture the lieutenants of a Somali militia leader which, instead, erupted into the biggest firefight involving American soldiers since Vietnam.
“STAFF SGT. Matt Eversmann’s lanky frame was fully extended on the rope for what seemed too long on the way down. Hanging from a hovering Blackhawk helicopter, Eversmann was a full 70 feet above the streets of Mogadishu. His goggles had broken, so his eyes chafed in the thick cloud of dust stirred up by the bird’s rotors.
It was such a long descent that the thick nylon rope burned right through the palms of his leather gloves. The rest of his Chalk, his squad, had already roped in. Nearing the street, through the swirling dust below his feet, Eversmann saw one of his men stretched out on his back at the bottom of the rope.
He felt a stab of despair. Somebody’s been shot already! He gripped the rope hard to keep from landing on top of the guy. It was Pvt. Todd Blackburn, at 18 the youngest Ranger in his Chalk, a kid just months out of a Florida high school. He was unconscious and bleeding from the nose and ears.
The raid was barely under way, and already something had gone wrong. It was just the first in a series of worsening mishaps that would endanger this daring mission. For Eversmann, a five-year veteran from Natural Bridge, Va., leading men into combat for the first time, it was the beginning of the longest day of his life.”
“Generation Kill,” Evan Wright, Rolling Stone, 2004. Wright spent two months embedded with U.S. Marines during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. His three-part series, which won a National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting, was later adapted into a book and an HBO miniseries.
“Culturally, these Marines would be virtually unrecognizable to their forebears in the “Greatest Generation.” They are kids raised on hip-hop, Marilyn Manson and Jerry Springer. For them, “motherfucker” is a term of endearment. For some, slain rapper Tupac is an American patriot whose writings are better known than the speeches of Abraham Lincoln. There are tough guys among them who pray to Buddha and quote Eastern philosophies and New Age precepts gleaned from watching Oprah and old kung fu movies. There are former gangbangers, a sprinkling of born-again Christians and quite a few guys who before entering the Corps were daily dope smokers; many of them dream of the day when they get out and are once again united with their beloved bud.
These young men represent what is more or less America’s first generation of disposable children. More than half of the guys in the platoon come from broken homes and were raised by absentee, single, working parents. Many are on more intimate terms with video games, reality TV shows and Internet porn than they are with their own parents. Before the “War on Terrorism” began, not a whole lot was expected of this generation other than the hope that those in it would squeak through high school without pulling too many more mass shootings in the manner of Columbine.”
There are many other excellent examples of writing about war and its aftermath, some of which we’ve previously highlighted on Storyboard. Esquire writer Chris Jones discussed “The Things That Carried Him,” his 2008 story about the return of one soldier’s body from Iraq, during a visit to Lippmann House in 2011. And Washington Post national enterprise editor David Finkel spoke to the most recent class of Nieman Fellows in October about his two books documenting the experiences of an infantry battalion in Iraq and upon their return home.
What stories would you add to our list? Tweet to @niemanstory.