Dispatches From Fort Campbell
Be careful what you write to your hometown paper—it can help your career, or it can kill it. That's the lesson two soldiers from the same Army battalion learned in Iraq.
Back in her hometown of Hutchinson, Kan., Capt. Katrina Gier Lewison, a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot, had become a bit of a celebrity. Her letters home were republished in the Hutchinson News, a newspaper that covers western Kansas. I read some of them to track the progress of her unit, the 6th Battalion, 101st Aviation.
As I prepared to travel to Fort Campbell, Ky., to write some more stories about that unit, I telephoned Lewison, who described how she had inadvertently become a reporter herself. The Hutchinson News had approached her parents for a story on local soldiers; they thought the letters she wrote were so interesting that they asked to publish some of them.
"It was never asked of me if that was OK, so at first I was furious," she said. "But I received such a positive response ... that I felt I had an obligation to continue to write those stories, to get the message out about what was going on."
Her battalion did quite a bit of civil affairs work in the Mosul area. Lewison wrote upbeat reportson her work helping local villagers—repairing schools, running engineering projects, building a clinic.
Rep. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, took note of her stories. During a congressional trip to Iraq, he sought out Lewison during a visit with Maj. Gen. (now Lt. Gen.) David Petraeus, the division's politically astute commander. As it happened, Lewison was in the cockpit of the general's helicopter when Moran asked after her.
Lewison had been wounded on Aug. 2, 2003, her husband Tyler's birthday, while accompanying Tyler on a hearts-and-minds mission at the local university. As they left one of the buildings, someone lobbed a grenade at their Humvee; Katrina Lewison was lightly injured by shrapnel.
"I think that Congressman Moran asked Gen. Petraeus about me, because he knew that I was in the 101st, and he was also familiar with it because I had been writing all the letters for the Hutchinson News," Lewison said. "And because he was on the headset, I heard him ask that question, and lo and behold, I could get on, and I spoke to him while we were flying—so it was very clever."
That's also when Lewison found out she would get a Purple Heart.
"Gen. Petraeus mentioned that I had been involved in the incident, and the congressman indicated that he wanted to be the one to pin that on me," Lewison said.
The ceremony was a marvelous photo opportunity for the general and the congressman, and it was the subject of an Associated Press story. Lewison, however, was typically self-deprecating about her injury.
"I guess you have preconceived notions in your head about what it takes to get a Purple Heart," she said. "But by regulation, even my minor injury sufficed."
Another soldier in the same battalion, Spec. Tim Predmore, gave the division the kind of publicity it didn't want. The same month that Lewison was injured in Mosul, Predmore was hitting a rough patch. The division's stay in Iraq had been extended, and Predmore, a helicopter mechanic, was unhappy with his job (he had served in the first Gulf War, and had preferred his old military job in Psychological Operations). So, he decided to vent some frustration.
"My buddies, we were all sitting around bullshitting one night, and the next day I was bored, so I wrote an article," he said. "I let them read it, and they said, 'Dude, send it in!' And I was like, 'Yeah, it'll never get published.' "
Predmore sent it to the PeoriaJournal Star, his hometown newspaper in Illinois. The letter—which described Operation Iraqi Freedom as "an act not of justice, but of hypocrisy" and a "crusade to control another nation's natural resource"—was quickly republished in major papers at home and abroad.
"The next thing I know, it's in the frickin' L.A. Times and everywhere else," Predmore said.
Even if his letter had never been reprinted, Predmore still would have been in trouble. A retired Army four-star general happened to live around Peoria. He saw the original article and got on the phone. Predmore was soon called on the carpet by his battalion commander.
"He got real mad at me when he was questioning me about the whole thing, because he was like, 'You really don't understand why we're here?' and I was like, 'Well, no.' "
As Predmore recalled, his commander said the United States was in Iraq because of 9/11.
"And I said, 'With all due respect, sir, we're in the wrong country then, because the last thing I remember, 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.' "
That didn't sit well with Predmore's superiors, who threatened severe punishment—possibly jail—for making disloyal statements. But perhaps mindful that he would make an instant free-speech martyr, the Army struck a deal with him.
Predmore described the arrangement: "Hey, you suck at working on helicopters, and apparently you're not real pleased with the Army and the activity going on right now, so we'll let you get out of the Army for not being able to work on helicopters—you go your way, and we go our way, and everybody's happy."
Predmore received an honorable discharge. Now back at home in Illinois, he is working for the Illinois Department of Corrections as a prison guard while finishing up his bachelor's degree in humanities.
For a while in September 2003, Predmore was something of a cause célèbre. Left-wing and anti-war Web sites republished his letter, praising him for speaking out. But when I contacted him, he sounded a note of regret: "I'm out of the Army now. I miss the Army all the time," he said. "I know I was wrong in writing the article. It wasn't my place as a soldier to be writing that, and I felt I let a lot of people down when I did that."
But there's another irony. The Army is still stretched thin, and the National Guard has been falling short of its recruiting goals. The door is wide open for Army veterans to re-enlist.
"I got an e-mail from a National Guard recruiter the other day, and they're offering a $15,000 enlistment bonus for prior-service guys," Predmore said. "And I said, 'You know, that would be great if I didn't know I'd wind up right back in Iraq.' "
The Lewisons, meanwhile, are heading for a tour of duty in Korea.
Nathan Hodge has reported for Slate from Russia and Afghanistan.