by Jordan Green
Dave Philipps is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He hardly needs my endorsement.
Still, his piece about a Marine Corps unit plagued by suicide after service members returned from combat duty in Afghanistan that ran in the Sunday New York Times caught my attention.
Every once in awhile a story comes out that reminds me why I entered the profession and provides a model for the caliber of journalism I aspire to. It’s usually, but not always, long-form writing. The stakes are high with any story longer than 1,500 words: Sometimes longer stories about important topics can be tedious to read — dense with policy jargon or crammed full of aimlessly sentimental anecdotes. More often than I’d like to admit, I realize I am forcing myself to muddle through long stories out of a sense of obligation rather than appetite.
It helps to have good material to begin with.
Philipps’ story about the Second Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment dominates the front page above the fold, and then jumps to a three-page spread illustrated with vivid photographs of the service members in civilian life. I couldn’t put it down.
Known by its members as “the forgotten battalion,” the 2/7 deployed to a remote area of Helmand Province in 2008 as part of a war that not many people back home were thinking about in that presidential election year. If anything, Afghanistan was known as the war Obama was committed to waging, while vowing to get out of Iraq.
Philipps carries readers from the brutal firefights and carnage that both haunted the marines and forged a lasting bond among them, then quickly picks up the story of how they struggled to adjust to civilian life. One by one, members of the battalion plagued by nightmares and depression began taking their own lives. After the seventh suicide, the marines converged at a funeral and made a pact to reach out and support each other so there would be no more deaths. Readers can scan a row of 13 headshots along the bottom of the page that chronicle the suicide toll, and track the faces with the narrative. This is one of the heartbreaking aspects of the story: Even after they rallied at the six funeral, the deaths continued.
Philipps reports on efforts by the Veterans Administration to improve suicide intervention, and shows how services fall short of the mark through the frustrations of the marines in the 2/7. But mostly, the story focuses on the Marines’ efforts to help each other.
Relationships are the basis of most good stories. What comes across in this story is the fierce determination of these men to protect each other, even as life remains tenuous for each one. There’s no epiphany at the end, but the conclusion — poignant without being sentimental — is a model every aspiring reporter should study for writing a strong kicker.