Every Memorial Day since 2004 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has published a special section dedicated to military members from Wisconsin who died while fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A color photo of the fallen service member along with a short story about the person, their rank, military unit, hometown and date of death fill at least one page and sometimes two as the ebb and flow of the wars is reflected in the number of faces each Memorial Day.
Writing individual stories about each casualty means contacting their families or friends, talking to them about their loved one and then illustrating, in a few paragraphs, a life cut short. I've done this every year - most years I've written all of the stories - since 2004. Each year I hope it's the last Memorial Day the Journal Sentinel publishes a special section. I hope there's no one to write about the following year, no one who died in a far away battlefield. I'm not embarrassed to admit I frequently cry while talking to the families and writing the stories.
Last May Pvt. Steven Drees, 19, of Peshtigo, Wis. was on the list of Wisconsin's fallen heroes. I called his father Paul and asked him questions about his son. I had written about Steven when he died the previous June, I knew he had been an organ donor and had died at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, the large hospital where Americans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan are funneled on their way home.
Paul Drees and I talked about his son, about his likes and interests, his love of basketball, his plans for the future, his desire to be a gym teacher, about the short time he had spent in Afghanistan before the firefight that left him with a bullet in his head. When I asked about Steven's wish to be an organ donor his father said something that made me pause. He said he and his family would never know who received Steven's liver because German laws are much stricter than organ donation rules in the U.S.
That's something I had never considered – who receives the organs donated by U.S. service members who die in Germany?
There are many ways in which journalists find stories, sometimes they fall into your lap, sometimes they're assigned by editors. But some of the best stories are ones that come from a reporter's heart, the stories that started out by asking the question – I wonder…