By Gerry J. Gilmore
WASHINGTON, Sept. 26, 2006 – A Marine corporal quizzed top leaders at a recent Pentagon employees' question-and-answer session about what the department can do to counter the reporting of negative news from Iraq and Afghanistan. "Negativity in the press is absolutely detrimental to the morale of our forces and our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan," Cpl. John A. Stukins said to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a Sept. 22 town hall meeting.
"What are we doing to confront this problem and to better the morale of our forces over there -- not only over there, but here as well?" asked Stukins, a 23-year-old administrative specialist from Lafayette, La., who works with the Marine Staff at the Pentagon.
Rumsfeld and Pace both congratulated Stukins for asking his question.
Fielding Stukins' query, Pace said there was around-the-clock media coverage of the overseas exploits of the U.S. military early on during the global war on terrorism.
"We had television, newspapers, magazines," Pace explained. "If you were interested, you could read as much as you wanted and you could watch as much as you wanted, and you could form your own opinions."
However, as the conflict continued, other issues began to compete with military news for radio or television airtime or newspaper or magazine copy inches, Pace said.
"News is a business, and now the news cycle is such that only certain amounts (of coverage) of every day are allocated to coverage of the war," Pace said. "And, unfortunately, the parts of the war that then become shown are the parts that capture people's attentions."
And, more often than not, Pace noted, today's military news coverage in Iraq and Afghanistan seems to focus on "where the bombs are going off," instead of "where the schools are being built and the like."
So, the general said, it's important that department leaders and rank-and-file military members tell the public about the good, as well as the not-so-good, military news from overseas.
One way the military provides unfiltered information to the public is having Iraq and Afghanistan veterans share their wartime experiences with hometown citizens, Pace said.
It's necessary "to make ourselves more available to the American people so that we can, in fact, get more of the story out here so that the American people -- whose center of gravity is really very, very solid -- have the opportunity to digest all that information and judge for themselves what's really going on," Pace said.
In a later interview with American Forces Press Service, Stukins said he believes U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is the right thing to do. He joined the Marines shortly after completing high school in October 2001 and said the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, greatly influenced his decision to enlist. Stukins recalled working at Marine Corps Base Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, in January 2005 when he'd heard 30 Marines and a Navy corpsman had died in a helicopter crash in Iraq.
The incident was jarring, Stukins said, because he'd prepared the deployment orders for most of the Marines who died.
"To see my name in association with them, it struck deep," Stukins said. "These guys were doing the greatest things out there." Hawaiian newscasts reported the incident, Stukins recalled, noting some residents who were interviewed seemed to sharply question the purpose and necessity of the war.
Stukins said he thought such a presentation of the news "was reprehensible" and seemed to discount the sacrifices made by the servicemembers who died.
"Basically, (it's) somebody speaking ill of your sacrifice," the corporal said, as well as compounding the suffering of friends, spouses and relatives of the deceased.
Stukins says he's a firm believer in freedom of speech as guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights. "But, I also have the right to respect your right to be wrong," he said.
The U.S. military is doing a great job fighting terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stukins said. But, he stressed, things would be better "if people could see the good things that are going on over there and not hear all about the bad."
Stukins said he's thankful he could express his views to his leaders directly at the Pentagon town hall meeting. "It's great to have open dialogue," he said.