I realize you probably have already written your piece on bloggers in Iraq for the Army Times, but I'd like to respond to your email anyway.
First a quick background. My unit (2/108 Infantry from New York) returned from Iraq on New Years Day. We spent a week at Fort Drum with the demobilization process and we are now all back to being citizen Joe again. All told, we spent fifteen months on this deployment, about eleven of it in Iraq in the Sunni Triangle.
I started my blog at the beginning of our deployment and had it online for a few months during our training-up period before my commander asked me to take it down. Our Family Readiness group knew about the blog who eventually leaked it to my commander. He flipped out. So I took it down, but continued to write, emailing my stories to those who wanted to continue to read. I successfully flew under the radar like this for most my deployment.
Once there were about two months left on our deployment, I put the blog back online with everything I had written. It took less than two weeks for someone from the New York National Guard stateside to inform my command. That's when things got bad.
My commander decided to court martial me. Then he said he saw how the court martial against the soldiers who refused to go on a fuel convoy mission was thrown out, so he changed the request for a court martial to a field-grade article 15 because he wanted to be certain he "could see me punished". My commander is an assistant district attorney in Manhattan in real life and is an expert when it comes to bullying people. I suspect once he cooled off a little he realized that a court martial was a bit much, so gave me the fuel convoy story as an excuse for changing his mind. I also suspect he just wanted to scare me as much as possible by telling me he wanted me court martialed.
My battalion S2 section made a hard copy of my blog and there was an investigation. It concluded that I had violated OPSEC, violated the Geneva convention (for photos of detainees), and that I was guilty of conduct unbecoming an NCO (primarily for a photograph of me sitting on a shitter, among other things). Then I sat around for a month after being transferred from my job as a rifle squad leader (about to be promoted to E-6) to our headquarters platoon doing absolutely nothing while I waited for the other shoe to drop. I was taken off missions altogether (which is the ultimate punishment for a soldier-- to not let him work). Waiting for my article 15 hearing and not knowing what was going to happen to me was one of the worst experiences of my life. I wanted to demand a court martial because I felt I had done nothing wrong, but the thought of being kept on active duty in legal limbo while the rest of my unit went back to their homes weighed very heavily on me. I was ready to be off active duty like I can't explain. Sitting around for that month while anxiety consumed me was far worse than combat. Call me a wimp, but it really sucked.
Apparently our brigade JAG guy (2 BCT 1 ID) was too busy with his own blog (daggerjag.blogspot.com or something like that) to process my article 15 while we were in Iraq, so it didn't get resolved. Instead it was handed over to the garrison support unit at Ft. Drum upon our return. The article 15 I was given charged me with violating a direct order and violating OPSEC. The JAG lawyer I spoke with at Drum was little help and I was in no shape emotionally at that point to deal with a court martial, so I took the hit. I was given a field-grade article 15 by a colonel I never met in my life who didn't know me from a bucket of paint except for an investigation that made me sound like a traitor. I was demoted to E-4 and fined $1000.
The most interesting aspect of this entire fiasco is how OPSEC is defined, or rather not defined. Since there is no concise legal definition of what constitutes a violation of OPSEC (or at least not one anyone could produce for me when I requested it), it's impossible to determine when something crosses the line from "not a violation" to "a violation". It's like trying to define what pornography is or bad taste in music. To make a convincing argument how OPSEC has been violated is trivial. You pretty much only have to smarter than the person you are trying to convince, or just instill in him enough fear, uncertainty, and doubt that he'll have no choice but to agree. It's like accusing someone of being a communist. If you disagree with the person making the accusation, you'll be considered a communist sympathizer, or maybe even a communist yourself. The fight is over before the gauntlet is even dropped.
To answer the rest of your questions: My advice for soldiers who want to blog is to retain legal counsel before you start blogging. Have every legal detail worked out beforehand in regards to what you can and can't blog about. That way when your commander tells you to take your blog down, you can tell him to take the matter up with your lawyer. I had no idea my blog would become such a big issue, but if I had to do it over again, I would have gotten a lawyer before I started or at least made a call to the ACLU.
There is no way to blog about Iraq without your unit finding out about it. The guys in my unit knew about my blog within a month or two from the time I started it, but it took a few months before my commander found it. The only way for a soldier to not get in trouble is to write nothing but insipidly agreeable and conspicuously patriotic content that is reviewed by his or her leadership before posting. So yes, I do feel as though my First Amendment rights were violated. My article 15 was officially about my supposed violations of a direct order and OPSEC, but the ass-chewings I received focused a lot more on my penchant for explicating on the abundant absurdities of military life and combat. This was the real issue moreso than the supposed OPSEC violations and this is why the First Amendment exists-- to protect speech, even unpopular speech.
Everyone has a vision of how they want to remember their combat experience and particularly how they want others to view their combat service. Most soldiers, and especially infantrymen, want to realize all their Jerry Bruckheimer-fueled fantasies with macho military fervor. All I did was include more details in hopes of providing a more honest and humorous perspective of what soldiering is typically like. I could write "We went on a raid tonight. We smashed the gate down and cleared the house, but the guy we were looking for wasn't home." But instead I'd write "Tonight we went on a raid. It wasn't till 3am and I couldn't sleep so I masturbated before we left. On the way to the raid we got lost, but after driving around for a while we finally found the house. We tried to breech the gate of the outer wall, but in the process accidentally ended up knocking the entire wall over. After clearing the house, we realized it was the wrong one. Once we figured out where the correct house was, we raided it. But the guy we were looking for wasn't home. As I was pulling security on an alley, I realized that the chow we had for dinner wasn't agreeing with me and when I tried to fart ended up shitting my pants a little. Once we finished searching the house, we hopped back in our Humvees and took what we thought was our planned egress route, but instead found ourselves on a dead end canal road. While turning around, one of the Humvees got stuck in the mud. Most raids do not go this badly. We eventually made it back to our base safe and sound. My ass had started to chafe from when I 'sharted', so I took a shower, masturbated, and went to bed." (This, by the way, is a true story.) If I wrote a story like this, my commander would spend thirty minutes condemning me for portraying our unit as incompetent and unprofessional, but charge me with violating OPSEC because I disclosed tactical details on how we perform breeches.
All in all, I think Army leadership can't grasp that it's possible for a soldier to be critical or satirical of the Army but still be pro-Army. I've been in the Army 14 years. I love being an infantryman. But there are so many great stories that don't get told because there are so many people who don't want their illusions molested. Or because telling them apparently constitutes a violation of OPSEC.
If you have any more questions, I'd be happy to write more for you.
p.s. I hope you don't mind but I've bcc'd this email to my mailing list.
Joe Chenelly wrote:
My name is Joe Chenelly with the Army Times. I was wondering if you'd answer a few questions for us? I am looking at writing about the service members blogging in Iraq.
I've was wondering if you could expand on why you stopped posting? Did it all blow over after you stopped blogging? Were you ever told how you violated OPSEC?
How did your command find out you were blogging?
What kind of advice do you give other soldiers thinking about starting their own blog?
OK, here is the question you're probably expecting me to ask: Do you feel your free speech rights have been violated by the military? I had to ask.
Are you still in Iraq?
Although I have a lot more I'd like to ask, I fully understand how incredibly busy you must be, so I will toss one last question your way: If you had it all to do over again, what would you do? I hope that last question wasn't too cliché for you.
Thanks in advance for your time and assistance. I certainly would understand if you cannot get back to me for a while or even at all, but I really hope you have some time in the future to shoot me an e-mail. If you don't while you're over there, please let me know when you're back in the ole U.S. of A.
Take care of yourself,
Joseph R. Chenelly
Deputy News editor, Army Times