The Army, once again, is facing record numbers of suicides, a subject that came up during a conference for journalists last week in Philadelphia. In a panel discussion facilitated by Columbia University’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, I shared my experiences about working on such stories. I also had a few tips. The handout I shared with reporters follows…
Tip Sheet for Covering Military/Veteran Suicides
For the Dart Center for Trauma and Journalism (Columbia University)/WHYY, Philadelphia, Sept. 22, 2012
By Michael de Yoanna/Investigative Journalist (email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Be respectful to troops and their families and sensitive to the fact that it can be difficult for them to talk immediately about their losses and/or suicide attempts. It may take time for them to open up. Be clear about your deadlines and reason for pursuing the story.
- Get every piece of information you can get about the military units you are covering.
- Strive to understand how the military works, including its jargon, expressions and acronyms.
- Find an outside expert to help guide you, including psychological experts.
- Befriend journalists who report on local military communities and ask them for help navigating areas that are new to you.
- Don’t be afraid to be confused. Ask good questions when you don’t know something. Keep asking questions, acquiring knowledge about military processes and culture.
- Be patient: These men and women want to know someone is listening.
- It can be exhausting and frustrating trying to get individual stories. You are often talking to folks (or their families) with TBI and PTSD. They can go from clarity to paranoia in a single sentence. It is hard for them and not too easy for you. Be prepared to put in long hours.
- File Freedom of Information Act requests to get documents or databases.
- Acquire relevant documents, including:
o DD214 (Defense Department document No. 214: This is the discharge document all military troops have and it will tell you where and when someone served as well as the nature of their discharge (i.e. honorable, bad conduct, etc.)
o Medical documents (including any military medical evaluation board paperwork and final analyses that indicate wounds, mental and physical, and disability rating)
o Veterans Affairs records (which may challenge findings in military medical records)
o Court martial or criminal court records
o Disciplinary statements by commanders that track a service member’s conduct (i.e. “counseling statements”)
o Investigations by the military into alleged events, for instance, Army Criminal Investigative Command documents
- Look around you and what’s in your community. Be aware of possible stories lurking beneath the surface of daily news reports. Connect the dots to reveal trends that impact communities and show why suicides may be happening and what professionals are doing about it.
- Don’t always assume the worst outcome. Yes, there is much reporting to be done on the themes of homelessness, drugs, homicide, suicide and harassment of wounded soldiers by the military. There are also many inspiring stories of veterans returning home and healing their wounds of war and persevering. There are many who have considered suicide and have found the resources and support they need. Telling their stories can be very powerful and inspiring.