- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 30, 2009

ON BASE WITH GRACE COLUMN:

They are passionate, committed and courageous. They work long hours without much hope of fame or fortune. They believe in their cause and are united by a strong urge to serve the troops. These are the military bloggers who attended the 2009 milblog conference at the Westin Arlington Gateway hotel Friday and Saturday.

Many milbloggers are former or current members of the armed forces; others are spouses and parents who are familiar with the issues and want the rest of America to understand their concerns. They come from all walks of life. Yet they share a camaraderie that is instant and infectious: If you are present, you immediately feel welcome.

What unites this diverse group? They are bonded because they believe in each other more than in the mainstream media or the official military class. A recurring theme at the conference was mutual respect; the bloggers find one another’s writings more informative than what they see in the pages of America’s newspapers. Retired Special Operations Master Sgt. Uncle Jimbo - pen name for the founder of one of the leading blogs, Blackfive - lampooned what he called “distortions” and “inaccuracies” in the media. There is an “agenda” there, he said, and the media tell the story “they want to tell.”

JD Johannes, a former Marine and a blogger for outsidethewire.com, said the local news on the military is predictable: Local boy goes abroad to fight, local boy is among the fallen or local boy comes home from the front (either injured or a hero); wife is shortchanged by the mortgage company. The “home front is just as important as the war front,” said Craig Stewart of the National Museum of Americans in Wartime, urging more stories that “educate and inspire.”

Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, lamented “stereotypes” about veterans: Veterans are often presented as “unhinged” and prone to violence. The panelists on veterans affairs were unanimous: The media highlight stories in which violence occurs, they said. What about all the productive work of veterans? Many veterans continue to be community leaders after their military service; they carry on the values of serving the common good and remain role models.

Genevieve Chase of American Women Veterans pointed out that female soldiers and veterans are hardly ever mentioned in the press. She stressed that many who serve do not necessarily have a team on which they can rely for support when they return to civilian life and they feel abandoned and alone. Lily Burana, author of “I Love a Man in Uniform,” said military wives usually are presented as stereotypes. They are not all subservient, she said. They often are dynamic professionals in their own right.

These bloggers also share the goal of alerting military authorities about problems that require urgent attention. There was much discussion about the need for greater openness to address mental health issues among the troops. Active-duty soldiers in mental distress often fear they will be viewed as “weak” or will be denied opportunities if their problems are known to their superiors.

Bloggers also want more support for their writing. They discussed the “generational struggle” within the armed forces between those who view media exposure as positive and those who see it as troublesome. Mrs. Burana announced during her panel presentation, with tears in her eyes, that her book signing at West Point had just been canceled. When the crowd murmured “Why?” she shrugged her shoulders. Many could relate to her sense of isolation.

Yet the founder of Great Americans, Matt Daniels, was optimistic. He said over cocktails - and with a twinkle in his eyes - that military bloggers are not the Fourth Estate. “They are the Third Estate, right? They are the people in action.”

The exceptional zeal and can-do spirit of this group were perhaps captured no more clearly than when blogger C.J. Grisham of theyhavenames.com and asoldiersperspective.us took the microphone to tell the audience that Base News Editor Grace Vuoto was present and The Washington Times had an important message. I was prompted to come forward ahead of schedule. “I have to hand it to you bloggers,” I said. “I have just been scooped on my own announcement.” The crowd laughed uproariously, as though in a warm embrace. I was then swamped by enthusiastic writers who expressed joy and relief that at last they would have a larger platform.

Hence, in an ironic twist, the 2009 milblog conference also revealed that perhaps some segments of the mainstream media aren’t so out of touch, after all.

Grace Vuoto is the editor of Base News, a citizen journalism project of The Washington Times for America’s military community.

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