Alicia C. Shepard
[Last Thursday, the family of a Navajo Marine who was killed in Afghanistan asked NPR to stop mentioning his name because of how the Navajo culture views death. His death was the focal point of three NPR stories in two weeks. I am respecting the family's request in this column although the U.S. military has made his name public and it's easy to find.]
"He's dead," yelled a female voice as gunfire erupted around the Marine unit in Marjah in Afghanistan.
Dead in an instant was a 23-year-old Navajo from Rock Point, AZ. He left behind a wife nearly five months pregnant with their first child.
Listeners captivated by NPR Kabul correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson's compelling audio, learned of his death through the anguished cries of his fellow Marines.
"A bullet struck him in the head, killing him almost instantly," Nelson reported in a Feb. 19 story, three days after the battle. He "had planned to call his wife on my satellite phone that very night."
Nelson was embedded with the Marines' India Company 3rd Battalion, 6th Regiment. She traveled, ate and slept alongside them. Her reporting did what great journalism should do: It put you there. You could feel the tension and taste the fear as the Marines together with Afghan soldiers exchanged gunfire with the Taliban.
But the piece on All Things Considered also aired the intimate last minutes of a young man, graphically providing details of how he died. [ATC did warn listeners, before the story aired, about disturbing combat scenes.]
Some listeners found the piece extraordinarily powerful. However, an equal number were bothered by it, feeling that the moment of death was too private to share over the air. "A loved one should never be exposed to hear the last sounds of their hero passing in the defense of the nation," wrote Charles Walden, a retired Air Force colonel.
Among those most upset were some of the Marine's family members. While the military notified the family of the death well before NPR aired its 9-minute piece, no one told them specifically how he died or what happened to his body — as the piece did.
Nor did NPR warn the family about the piece. They heard about it through friends.
"The only complaint we, as the family, have is that we were not notified about the broadcast," said his sister-in-law on March 2. "It was quite a shock when we actually heard the story then heard the moment he was killed from the audio. It was too graphic for us to hear."
The sister-in-law said the family understood the journalistic value but would have preferred that NPR not use his name out of respect for Navajo culture. [The family also asked the Navajo Times not to run his photo. Tradition says you shouldn't publish anything to do with death, according to Tom Arviso, the paper's publisher, who honored that request though the paper did run a story with his name.]
Last Thursday, March 4, Morning Edition aired a two-way interview between host Renee Montagne and Nelson about the physical and emotional challenges of embedding with a military unit. During the interview, Nelson broke down while talking about how she'd come to know the young man and how painful it was to watch him die.
"And Lance Cpl. [name withheld], who I'd gotten to know over the last previous days — I didn't realize where he was standing — and I just, I mean, I saw him get hit, and certainly the captain next to him realized that he'd been killed," said Nelson. "And it was just, there was nothing anybody could do, because at that stage the gunfire was so heavy.
"I mean, I just put my tape recorder where I knew I could capture what was going on," she continued. "But then I just sort of curled up as much as I could under my vest and just prayed — I mean, 'cause I really thought this might be it. And I kept thinking, is this worth it? And then at some point when, I guess, the gunfire died down a little bit, they carried Corporal [name withheld] to - sorry, give me a second here."
After she recovered her composure, Nelson continued talking about how she and the Marines reacted to the corporal's death.
Some of the corporal's family members contacted me right after this interview aired, begging NPR to stop talking about his death.
"In our Navajo tradition, once we lay him to rest we cannot talk about his passing anymore," said his sister-in-law on March 4. "Culturally his spirit will not be at ease if we keep hearing about his death...It is hard for all of us to grieve the loss of [name withheld] with all this media attention it is getting and we know that this is not what he would have wanted. He was not the type of person to have wanted all this attention."
This story is fraught with ethical issues. Should NPR have aired the moment of death? Should his name be aired? Should NPR have notified the family before the piece aired?
There are no easy answers.
Foreign editor Loren Jenkins said NPR decided to embed Nelson with the Marines because "the operation in Marjah was advertised by the Marines and U.S. officials as the biggest and most important battle in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Anything that big, had to be covered. The only way to cover it was to tag along with the Marines."
Nelson, who opened NPR's Kabul bureau in 2006, has done about a dozen military embeds in her 25-year career. The latest was from Feb. 9 to Feb. 25.
"It's very important being here in Afghanistan to bring the reality of Afghanistan and the war into people's lives so they understand what is going on here," Nelson told me. "It is rare we get to see war that up close and personal. This tape was just incredible and I thought it was important to listeners to get a front row seat."
Airing the report was a way to put a face on a Marine who sacrificed his life. Any listener now knows this young man was deeply in love with his wife and was proud to be defending his country — that's much more than what we know about most of the other 1,000 American troops who have died in Afghanistan.
NPR was right to run Nelson's story.
There are two ways to look at this story: from a traditional journalism perspective and from a traditional Navajo perspective.
"Stories like Soraya's inform listeners about the real nature of war so they are able to form valid opinions," said George Hardeen, communications director for the Navajo Nation and a journalist. "It's the reason reporters go to war."
But from a Navajo perspective, "it could be argued that the graphic nature of the piece brought death too close to the living, and the two worlds should be kept separate," said Hardeen.
"My bottom line," he added, "graphic as it was and difficult for the family to listen to, if they did, I believe it was a true and ethical piece of radio journalism."
At the time Nelson did her first piece, she did not know that the young man was a Navajo.
"Of course, I thought about [his] family," said Nelson. "I have a son who is a similar age. I think about the family now and we are in touch. And according to them and Gillian Kohl who did the obit, they are in the end, glad that we helped the world know who [he] was. [Kohl, a reporter for Arizona Public Radio, attended the Marine's funeral on Feb. 26, and did a piece on the service for ATC.]
"We didn't plow into this blindly," said Nelson about her two pieces. "It's important you know that there was a lot of thought that went into this. And in my case, a lot of feeling."
Should NPR have notified the family before the original story aired? Not necessarily, but in a perfect world, it would have been a nice courtesy.
"We don't notify everyone we talk to that we are going to put stuff on the air," said Lee Wilkins, a professor at the University of Missouri journalism school. "Secondly, his voice was never part of the report. You don't hear him at the moment of death. You do hear gunshots."
In fact, Nelson had done an interview with this Marine before he was killed, but she elected to not use it out of respect for the family.
Nelson put her life on the line to bring news of a distant war many of us routinely forget. As intense gunfire ricocheted around her, a terrified Nelson lay behind a dirt mound curled up in a fetal position — with her recorder on.
It is unfortunate that in executing this piece NPR bumped up against taboos in the Navajo culture. But what counts most is that the story was done with a great deal of care and that the young Marine was portrayed with dignity.
"I apologize for intruding on [the family's] grief," wrote listener Ruth Arwood, of Atlanta, GA, "but probably for the first time ever I can say that I have personally felt the death of someone who gave everything for our country and I will always remember him."