Soldiers blogging the war
The history of war is the history of separation and reintegration. It's a hard process – to fit back into civilian life – but serving personnel, some from Austin, have found that blogging can help ease that transition and make others more understanding of their experiences before they even get back home.
As a specialist with the 3rd Stryker Brigade, Alex Horton spent 15 months in Iraq, stationed in Mosul, Baghdad, and then Baqubah. He started his blog, Army of Dude (www.armyofdude.blogspot.com), when friends and family wrote asking him about Iraq. "I was tired of writing all these separate e-mails saying basically the same thing, so I created the blog as a go-to place where I can talk about what's going on in my life." He would write on his laptop, then use an Internet cafe on the base to upload his postings. It was intended for a small audience but accidentally gained wider notoriety. "The first months of my deployment, my readership consisted of my family, my current girlfriend, and some of my friends," Horton explained. "My parents gave the link to one person, and it spread pretty quickly. Within a few months, I was hearing from my superiors. They read it themselves and liked it, which was pretty surprising – because I thought that, as soon as they found out, the hammer would fall." Horton would later cringe as he heard people on base call him "that Army of Dude guy."
Battlefield blogging is a complicated balance: The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says sharing can be helpful for deployed personnel and veterans and that families should let the serving family member take the lead – something that blogging, even more so than a phone call – allows them to do. But in 2007, the U.S. Army updated its regulations to address blogs, noting they could create "potentially significant vulnerability" if too much operational information was given away. While Horton originally wrote for the sake of others, he has since seen the benefits for himself. "Now I've had time to flesh out my feelings; I do identify it as an outlet," he said. "I pushed myself to get those thoughts out so the next person could identify with that and better relate their experience to whomever they need to talk about it."
The benefits can flow both ways. The U.S. military's Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences stresses that communication can be vital for children of service personnel. When naval commander Dr. Carlos Brown transferred to Iraq in August 2006 as a trauma surgeon, he left his wife, Debbie, and three children behind. So, like Horton, he used his blog, Trapper'los, M.D., (www.trapperlosmd.blogspot.com) to communicate with those back at home. It was a two-way experience: His brother bought the family a new Mac and helped them post videos for him. He counted himself lucky compared to troops in Iraq before him, who rarely had phone time, never mind Internet access. "My kids have no interest talking on the phone for more than 30 seconds," he said. "[The blog] made it easier for them, because they like making videos and watching videos. They knew what I looked like, and I knew what they looked like, even though I was so far away. It made the reunion much more powerful."
Both men have since left the military and live in Austin. Brown is director of trauma services for University Medical Center at Brackenridge, while Horton is a journalism student. Horton still finds it difficult to discuss Iraq. "I'd have to explain 20 things to explain one thing," he said. When he does, the questions can be asinine ("'Were you in Baghdad?' – because that's the only city people know"), insulting ("'Did you kill anyone?' – because that's really offensive"), or just unanswerable ("'What was it like?' – how are you supposed to answer that without going on a tirade?").
Unlike Brown, Horton continued blogging stateside. "I told someone that the shelf life of a military blog is the period of deployment," he said, "but there are still things to talk about." The blog has become more political as he discusses his on-the-ground experience. "You're left with Fox News and CNN, and they're not exactly great sources on Iraq," he explained. "It's all just Sunni are good or bad, or Shi'ah are good or bad, and you just don't get down to the basic principles."
Horton still gets feedback from former platoon mates who, he said, "give it to their friends and family and say, 'This is what it was like; this is what we did.' It's a way for them to ease on into their thoughts and feelings." There's another upside: his girlfriend. They met online while he was deployed and just celebrated their first anniversary. "The blog was a way for her to get to know me better through my writing," he said. "She became my muse, the reason to keep writing even today."