Friday’s American Morning on CNN featured an interview session with two members of a Cleveland-area Marine reserve unit just back from Iraq who outlined how their one-on-one experience with Iraqi people showed the situation isn’t nearly as hopeless as the media portray it. Miles O'Brien set up the segment: "The story we get out of Iraq on a daily basis, whether it's through politicians or through the media, is generally a story which doesn't paint a rosy picture of the situation there. A couple of Marines who are just back from some very difficult duty in Iraq would like to tell you a little different story.” Corporal Stan Mayer relayed how “we saw a lot of transformation in the towns we went into. They really kind of, they got a lot safer, we got a lot more smiles after we spent enough time in a certain area." O'Brien pressed: "The big picture analysis here is that, that, militarily, this is a -- it may not be a war that the U.S. can win. Do you disagree with that?" Corporal Jeff Schuller shot back: "Definitely."
Doing a search on Yahoo News, I discovered how CNN found them: They were the focus of a Monday Christian Science Monitor story which reported that “soldiers clearly feel that important elements are being left out of the media's overall verdict” on Iraq. Focusing on the 3/25 Marine unit, reporter Mark Sappenfield traveled to Brook Park, Ohio and found that “amid the terrible scenes of reckless hate and lives lost, many members of one of the hardest-hit units insist that they saw at least the spark of progress” and that “their conversation could be a road map of the kind of stories that military folks say the mainstream media are missing.” Sappenfield relayed how “the Iraq of Corporal Mayer's memory is not solely a place of death and loss. It is also a place of hope. It is the hope of the town of Hit, which he saw transform from an insurgent stronghold to a place where kids played on Marine trucks. It is the hope of villagers who whispered where roadside bombs were hidden. But most of all, it is the hope he saw in a young Iraqi girl who loved pens and Oreo cookies.” (Full transcript of CNN's segment follows as well as an excerpt from the CSM article.)
For documentation of the bad news tilt of the TV networks, check the MRC’s October study by Rich Noyes, “TV’s Bad News Brigade: ABC, CBS and NBC’s Defeatist Coverage of the War in Iraq.”
The MRC’s Megan McCormack caught the live interview which aired at 7:35am EST on the December 2 American Morning.
Miles O'Brien: "The story we get out of Iraq on a daily basis, whether it's through politicians or through the media, is generally a story which doesn't paint a rosy picture of the situation there. A couple of Marines who are just back from some very difficult duty in Iraq would like to tell you a little different story. They happen to be with the Third Battalion, 25th Marines, the 3/25. Back in August, you may remember, this particular battalion lost no less than fifteen Marines in a one week period. A terrible, terrible loss. Marine Corporals Jeff Schuller and Stan Mayer returned from Iraq in October, and they join us now from Cleveland to talk about the reality there as they see it. Good to have you both with us, corporals. Corporal Schuller, I'd like to start with you. How did your expectations about what you'd see in Iraq jive with the reality?"
Corporal Jeff Schuller, sitting beside Mayer, via satellite from Cleveland: "Well, I, you know, you see what's on the news before you go over and you kind of make a mind-image of what you think is going to go on over there. And I had to say it was a lot more positive than what I was seeing on the media. A lot, you know, we were -- I really felt like we were making progress, and we did make many forward ah, um."
O'Brien picked up: "Well, I mean, things were better than, than you saw on the news. Corporal Mayer, did you agree? Did you have sort of a view that Iraq was in a very bad way, and what you saw was somewhat different?"
Corporal Stan Mayer: "Oh, you see a lot of tragedy. That's obviously headline stuff. But I saw a lot of good things happening over there, and that, you know, you have to bring the, the bad and the good in together. It's a war, so you're going to have that tragedy, but at the same time, you know, that's the cost of all these progressive steps we're making. You know, we're really helping out. And we saw a lot of transformation in the towns we went into. They really kind of, they got a lot safer, we got a lot more smiles after we spent enough time in a certain area."
O'Brien: "Well, you guys are quite literally the pointy end of the spear, is kind of a trite term, but it's very apt, you're right there at the forefront. So you, more than anybody, are in a position to see what you're seeing here and, and have contact with, you know, children, where there is, there is brutal honesty, one way or another. Corporal Mayer, did you, did you find that the, did the children respond to you? Were they afraid of you? What happened with them?"
Mayer: "Well, the, the children are skeptical at first. I mean you have, you know, big tall foreigners with scary guns and, you know, giant trucks driving through your neighborhood. I'd be pretty scared if I was a kid."
O'Brien: "Yeah, I think we'd all be a little scared of you guys."
O'Brien: "You guys are pretty menacing when you're walking down the street in full regalia, you know?"
Mayer: "Well, thank you."
O'Brien, chuckling: "As only a Marine could say, thank you, sir. I look like a killer, thank you, sir."
Mayer: "It took us awhile for them to get them to warm up to us. It, it became a game. You know, we'd, we wanted to make the reach out to the children, and we'd bring them things. We'd go out of our way to, you know, pack some extra gear that, you know, was for the kids, you know. Maybe a bottle of bubbles for blowing, or some candy or something like that. They love pens. And we would, we'd set them out for them, but they wouldn't come near us, and we'd walk away from what we set down, and then they'd see if the coast was clear, and they'd come out and get it after we were away. But, you know, after we spent enough time with these kids, they started to build some trust with us. They'd recognize our faces if we ended up in the same area frequently. And by the end of, two months later in one specific town, the city of Hit, I remember specific kids that would, that were terrified of us would come right up to us and take candy right out of our hands."
O'Brien: "Well, so, so there was a bond that was built there. Corporal Schuller, it wasn't just kids. I understand you struck up a relationship with an older fella, and it began with a lighter of all things."
Schuller: "Actually it began with food and water, basic, you know, just trying to make a gesture, trying to let them know that, you know, we're here to, we're here to help you. We're here to try to, you know, give you the, the opportunity to live the kind of life that is of your choosing. And, but yeah, it ended up ending with my uncle sent me a lighter back from home, obviously. And just a Zippo. And he, I noticed he smoked quite a bit, and I gave it to him. And, you know, just, I'm not really a translator. You know, I, you learn a little bit of, you know, of the language and then they know a little bit of English here and there, and, you know, it was just a, you know, gift, gift and very, very pleased, very impressed with the, the Zippo lighters."
O'Brien: "Final thought here, Corporate Schuller. You guys are, you know, right there on the ground, one to one. You don't, big picture is not your thing when you're a corporal."
O'Brien: "But the big picture analysis here is that, that, militarily, this is a -- it may not be a war that the U.S. can win. Do you disagree with that?"
O'Brien: "Why is that?"
Schuller: "I believe that. I've seen firsthand the progress we've made. The, you know, people being scared to come out of their houses. The people being scared of you. You know, their media portrays us in a very negative light most of the time, and so, you know, they don't get to see the, you know, they, they hear that we're, you know, not nice people and then when we actually get to interact with them, you know, they see that we're there to help. We're trying to assist them in, in making their country a place they can be proud of."
O'Brien: "Marine Corporals Jeff Schuller and Stan Mayer, we thank you for your service. We wish you well. We know you're both going back to school and we wish you well with that. With the 325 Marines, and as they always say, semper fi."
An excerpt from the November 28 Christian Science Monitor story, “The Iraq story: how troops see it,” by Mark Sappenfield. (For it as posted by the Christian Science Monitor, with pictures, go here; for it as posted on Yahoo News, sans photos, go here.)
BROOK PARK, OHIO -- Cpl. Stan Mayer has seen the worst of war. In the leaves of his photo album, there are casual memorials to the cost of the Iraq conflict -- candid portraits of friends who never came home and graphic pictures of how insurgent bombs have shredded steel and bone.
Yet the Iraq of Corporal Mayer's memory is not solely a place of death and loss. It is also a place of hope. It is the hope of the town of Hit, which he saw transform from an insurgent stronghold to a place where kids played on Marine trucks. It is the hope of villagers who whispered where roadside bombs were hidden. But most of all, it is the hope he saw in a young Iraqi girl who loved pens and Oreo cookies.
Like many soldiers and marines returning from Iraq, Mayer looks at the bleak portrayal of the war at home with perplexity - if not annoyance. It is a perception gap that has put the military and media at odds, as troops complain that the media care only about death tolls, while the media counter that their job is to look at the broader picture, not through the soda straw of troops' individual experiences.
Yet as perceptions about Iraq have neared a tipping point in Congress, some soldiers and marines worry that their own stories are being lost in the cacophony of terror and fear. They acknowledge that their experience is just that -- one person's experience in one corner of a war-torn country. Yet amid the terrible scenes of reckless hate and lives lost, many members of one of the hardest-hit units insist that they saw at least the spark of progress.
"We know we made a positive difference," says Cpl. Jeff Schuller of the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, who spent all but one week of his eight-month tour with Mayer. "I can't say at what level, but I know that where we were, we made it better than it was when we got there."
It is the simplest measure of success, but for the marine, soldier, or sailor, it may be the only measure of success. In a business where life and death rest on instinctive adherence to thoroughly ingrained lessons, accomplishment is ticked off in a list of orders followed and tasks completed. And by virtually any measure, America's servicemen and women are accomplishing the day-to-day tasks set before them.
Yet for the most part, America is less interested in the success of Operation Iron Fist, for instance, than the course of the entire Iraq enterprise. "What the national news media try to do is figure out: What's the overall verdict?" says Brig. Gen. Volney Warner, deputy commandant of the Army Command and General Staff College. "Soldiers don't do overall verdicts."
Yet soldiers clearly feel that important elements are being left out of the media's overall verdict. On this day, a group of Navy medics gather around a table in the Cleveland-area headquarters of the 3/25 -- a Marine reserve unit that has converted a low-slung school of pale brick and linoleum tile into its spectacularly red-and-gold offices.
Their conversation could be a road map of the kind of stories that military folks say the mainstream media are missing. One colleague made prosthetics for an Iraqi whose hand and foot had been cut off by insurgents. When other members of the unit were sweeping areas for bombs, the medics made a practice of holding impromptu infant clinics on the side of the road.
They remember one Iraqi man who could not hide his joy at the marvel of an electric razor. And at the end of the 3/25's tour, a member of the Iraqi Army said: "Marines are not friends; marines are brothers," says Lt. Richard Malmstrom, the battalion's chaplain....
In Hit, where marines stayed in force to keep the peace, the progress was obvious, say members of the 3/25. The residents started burning trash and fixing roads -- a sign that the city was returning to a sense of normalcy. Several times, "people came up to us [and said]: 'There's a bomb on the side of the road. Don't go there,' " says Pfc. Andrew Howland....
To the marines of the 3/25, the explosions clearly do not tell the whole story. Across America, many readers know the 3/25 only as the unit that lost 15 marines in less than a week -- nine of them in the deadliest roadside bombing against US forces during the war. When the count of Americans killed in Iraq reached 2,000, this unit again found itself in the stage lights of national notice as one of the hardest hit.
But that is not the story they tell. It is more than just the dire tone of coverage -- though that is part of it. It is that Iraq has touched some of these men in ways that even they have trouble explaining. This, after all, has not been a normal war. Corporals Mayer and Schuller went over not to conquer a country, but to help win its hearts and minds. In some cases, though, it won theirs.
Schuller, a heavyweight college wrestler with a thatch of blond hair and engine blocks for arms, cannot help smiling when he speaks of giving an old man a lighter: "He thought it was the coolest thing." Yet both he and the blue-eyed, square-jawed Mayer pause for a moment before they talk about the two 9-year-old Iraqis whom members of their battalion dubbed their "girlfriends."
The first time he saw them, Mayer admits that he was making the calculations of a man in the midst of a war. He was tired, he was battered, and he was back at a Hit street corner that he had patrolled many times before. In Iraq, repetition of any sort could be an invitation of the wrong sort -- an event for which insurgents could plan. So Mayer and Schuller took out some of the candy they carried, thinking that if children were around, perhaps the terrorists wouldn't attack.
It was a while before the children realized that these two marines, laden with arms to the limit of physical endurance, were not going to hurt them. But among the children who eventually came, climbing on the pair's truck and somersaulting in the street, there were always the same two girls. When they went back to base, they began to hoard Oreos and other candy in a box....
Whether or not these notes of grace and kindness are as influential as the dirge of war is open to question. But many in the military feel that they should at least be a part of the conversation.
Says Warner of reaching an overall verdict: "I'm not sure that reporting on terrorist bombings with disproportionate ink is adequately answering that question."