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Controversy over Leija coverage

Post by News Tribune Staff on Jan. 31, 2007 at 7:30 pm with No Comments »
January 31, 2007 7:30 pm

New York Times reporter Damien Cave’s story Monday about the death of Staff Sgt. Hector Leija brought readers painfully close to the war in Iraq – into the very room where the Stryker squad leader fell under fire in Baghdad, and where his fellow soldiers struggled in vain to save him.

But the story, accompanying pictures by Getty Images photographer Robert Nickelsberg and a video may have been too close for U.S. military officials in Baghdad and at the Pentagon. They have reportedly suspended the pair from embedding with American troops, following complaints by Leija’s family and some within the Army about the graphic nature of the coverage.

The Houston Chronicle reported Wednesday that the family had complained over the coverage – particularly a photo depicting the mortally wounded Leija being carried to aid on a litter. A Fort Lewis spokesman said the Army casualty assistance officer assigned to the Leija’s family in Raymondville, Texas, passed along their concerns, which were in turn forwarded to public affairs officials in Baghdad and at Army headquarters.

The 5-minute video – click on the one called “Return to Haifa Street” – features brief interviews with Leija in the moments before he was shot Jan. 24. It also depicts his buddies trying to save him in the darkened apartment. The scenes are emotionally wrenching, but graphic images of the wounded soldier are not shown.

We ran Cave’s story on page one Monday without photos. Our Sunday night crew didn’t spot that Nickelsberg’s photos were available, and we were tight for space in Monday’s paper. I haven’t pressed the bosses here for their call on the one picture, but having been an editor and reporter here for 20 years, I can say I doubt we would have run it.

The Fort Lewis spokesman said the command in Leija’s unit – the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, and the higher 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division – were also concerned about the coverage.

"I know they were upset that we had a family back here who were very distraught about the situation," spokesman Joseph Piek said.

He said it was his understanding Cave and Nickelsberg would be suspended from embedding with U.S. troops until Army and Department of Defense officials decide whether they think the pair violated the ground rules that journalists sign as a condition of linking up with a military unit. Those rules are posted here.

A brigade spokesman in Iraq, Maj. Rob Parke, late Wednesday in an e-mail said the journalists were “no longer welcome with our organization.”

A statement by the Times is here.

At Leija’s memorial ceremony Wednesday at Fort Lewis, he was remembered as a true friend and an unflappable leader. I spoke to a soldier there, a fellow I got to know when we were in Iraq together during the 3rd Brigade’s first trip. He said soldiers here thought the coverage went too far – that it was insensitive to the family.

But he added the American people seem largely unattached to what’s going on in Iraq, that they have only a vague notion of the sacrifices being made there.

He wouldn’t want his parents to have to see a picture of him, gravely injured, being rushed to help on a litter. But people need to know what really happens when they send their soldiers to war, he said, no matter how hard it might be to look at.

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