Cyber Soldier

From his home in suburban Chicago, former army paratrooper Matthew Currier Burden took his fight to a new battlefield: the blogosphere. In the process, he has reshaped war coverage by giving soldiers a forum for their frontline dispatches

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Burden, a former army officer and Gulf War veteran, assembles his machine gun in a 1987 photo.

 

Q: What is the genesis of Blackfive?
A:
In the beginning there were about 200 people communicating over the Internet whose thoughts were not in sync with news reports. I received calls and e-mails from friends serving and the stories they told were contradicting media accounts. Their stories focused on local events and people—their successes and failures. The honesty of those posts was missing from media coverage. Blackfive provided an opportunity to publish them in a coherent place. Most soldiers are proud of what they are trying to do and want to express it. Blackfive also raises money to help returning soldiers get the kind of medical and mental health help they need.

Q: How did you know you were on to something bigger than communicating with friends, and friends of friends?
A:
For the first six months, even though I was getting thousands of visits a day, I didn’t know how powerful the medium was until early 2004, when a soldier was grievously wounded (he lost both legs and an arm) and his mother was notified by the army that he was being moved to Walter Reed in Washington, D.C. She lived in North Carolina; his fiancée was in Texas. He hadn’t woken up, so he didn’t know what had happened to him yet. All the free housing for wounded soldiers’ families was full and his mother had to figure out a way to pay for a place to stay in D.C. He was looking at a year minimum in the hospital. What should she do? I wasn’t going to let her lose everything, so I put out a plea for help on the blog. In less than 48 hours we had raised $30,000 to support the family. Last November military blogs raised over $200,000 in one week to help support wounded soldiers. It runs the gamut from a VP of a large company who wrote a personal check for $25,000, to a Dallas waitress who pledged her tips for a month to help the wounded.

Q: The tech genie is out of the bottle. How will military blogs balance government concerns about openness with the need soldiers have to communicate with each other?
A:
I don’t think the powers-that-be understood the Internet generation. Soldiers flooding the war zones brought iPods, laptops, cell phones with cameras, digital cameras—it was certainly a Pandora’s box for the military. Each year the military increases restrictions on communication from soldiers to family and friends. Now soldiers must register their blogs and Web sites with their chain of command, and they must observe Operation Security Measures when communicating. Anything useful to the enemy is forbidden without approval. I’d like to see bloggers have the same restrictions as embedded journalists—no more, no less.

Q: Why is Blackfive so popular, and who is it popular with?
A:
I have been surprised that cable news producers, general officers, soldiers, and even journalists have paid attention to us. We are subject matter experts, but we aren’t slick and we aren’t paid for our opinions. Most importantly, we resonate with the military family (active duty, Reserve or Guard, retired vets) because we write passionately and honestly as a voice for them.

Q: You have gotten a lot of personal attention for Blackfive; what do you see as your role?
A:
I am just a conduit. I post the stories, connect people who want to help or send support. As much as people credit me for strengthening their faith in military men and women, those same people have renewed my faith in civilian Americans.

Q: Who reads military blogs aside from those directly involved?
A:
Americans who want to know what it is like to be a soldier in a war zone or a family member left behind. Many want to know more about the Iraqis and the Afghanis. People read blogs for balance, as much media coverage focuses on our failures.

Q: Do these blogs deepen our understanding, or contradict what we hear in mainstream media?
A:
Both. Bloggers will never replace mainstream media coverage but they do supplement how people get their news.

Q: How do bloggers, and Blackfive in particular, look for balance?
A:
There is a sign at a marine outpost in Iraq that reads, “America is not at war. The Marines are at war. America is at the mall.” We have tried to look for ways to tell our stories that will be heard by those not doing the fighting.

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