The Digital Journalist
May 2004

by Cpl. Paula M. Fitzgerald

I've been in Iraq for three months and reported on a handful of memorial services. They never get any easier to cover, and I never want them to.

There's a misconception about Marines in mainstream media. They know we are trained to kill. They know our Marines die. Press agencies report the names, ages and hometowns. They clamor to the families' homes and get the quotes of the bereaved.

They make it in by deadline, and it's off to cover the next firefight.

What they miss is the humanity. That's what I've seen. That's what I've reportedů too many times.

After the fighting ceases and the adrenaline rush is over, the surviving Marines are left to mourn their losses and pick up the pieces. That means tending to wounds, cleaning weapons and refitting for combat. It's also the time to honor the fallen.

FORWARD OPERATING BASE HURRICANE POINT, Iraq -- A memorial stands outside the command operations center here during a rememberance ceremony held March 24 for Lance Cpl. Andrew S. Dang, a combat engineer with 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment. Dang, of San Francisco, was killed during a raid in the town of Ar Ramadi March 22.

USMC Photo by Cpl. Paula M. Fitzgerald
That's where I come in.

As a combat correspondent, it is my duty to tell the Marine Corps story - good and bad.

Many of my stories are less than hard-hitting news stories and border on "fluff." These stories are welcome breaks for deployed troops' family members and friends who spend much of their time watching civilian news networks' coverage of the killing that goes on here.

My stories help remind America that Marines are not the killing robots the media builds them up to be. They are human beings. They have names. They have friends. And they bleed and sometimes die.

Their names are printed and wire services up the body count. News agencies read their names, calling it "patriotic," reminding America of their sacrifices. It makes good headlines. It gives them a reason to sell their stories.

But what they don't see is the quiet dignity of their fellow Marines. They don't see how Marines honor their fallen, simply, without fanfare or chest thumping. These events are solemn, noble ceremonies for Marines who didn't die fighting for patriotism. They died fighting for each other.

CAMP COMBAT OUTPOST, Iraq -- Sgt. Maj. Wayne R. Bell, 1st Marine Division sergeant major, pays his last respects to Lance Cpl. William J. Wiscowiche, who was killed in action during a patrol for improvised explosive devices one mile from the camp here March 30. A memorial service was held here April 1. Wiscowiche, "Whiskey" to friends, was deployed for the invasion of Iraq last year with 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment.

USMC Photo by Cpl. Paula M. Fitzgerald
Every service follows the same regimented procedures. An M-16 service rifle topped with a helmet and adorned with identification tags is placed bayonet-down into a box or sandbag behind a pair of combat boots. The memorial symbolically represents the contribution the Marine gave to the Corps. It represents his fighting spirit and how he gave his life for all that we stand for in the Corps and America.

First, the National Anthem is played followed by the chaplain's invocation. A close friend speaks about his relationship with the Marine. They are haunting words. Men this young shouldn't know these horrors, but they do. They know them without shame or pride, without boast or reservation. They know them so others may never understand.

Most of these Marines have seen Hell at an appallingly young age. Some were even there when their 19 and 20-year-old buddies were killed. Some might have held them as they died. Some might have known they couldn't help them in time.

These men don't try to hide their pain. No one does.

For that brief half-hour ceremony, no one is trying to prove anything.

CAMP BLUE DIAMOND, Iraq -- A memorial ceremony was held here April 12 in remembrance of Pfc. Eric A. Ayon, motor transportation operator from Truck Company, 1st Marine Division. Ayon, of Los Angeles, was attached to 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment for his deployment to Iraq. Ayon was killed during a firefight April 9 but was able to save two Marines before being struck down.

Photo by Cpl. Paula M. Fitzgerald
During all of this, I'm moving in and out of the crowd trying to capture the images and scribble the notes that will best tell this story. Marines, for the most part, understand my mission. They know I'm one of the "good guys" who will lift up their buddy's name. They tend to be wary of the media, but the fact I wear the same uniform as them puts their minds at ease.

Still, there are those few who look at my camera and me with contempt. They view these ceremonies as private affairs, something the outside world couldn't possibly understand. Anyone who hasn't lived through the horrors, who hasn't called their Marine "friend" and isn't silently honoring the sacrifice of their Marine is an outsider.

There's not much I can do to change their views of my fellow combat correspondents and me, so I go on about my business trying to go unnoticed.

All I can do for these Marines is make sure America knows the names of these Marines, so they are never forgotten.

They are quiet, somber and proud affairs, these memorials to Marines. The wounds are still raw. The emotions run high. Capturing it all takes a certain amount of connection and detachment all at the same time. Telling the world about the contribution of one Marine in a short news story is tough. Understanding that a life given for a cause greater than oneself is never easy.

I hope it never is.

© Cpl. Paula M. Fitzgerald

Cpl. Paula M. Fitzgerald is a Marine combat correspondent deployed to Camp Blue Diamond in Ar Ramadi, Iraq. She has been in country since February.