2009 MRE journalism contest winners announced

Moni Basu of CNN has been selected as the winner of this year’s Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting, the top prize in the annual Military Reporters & Editors journalism contest.

“This award goes to the story or series of stories that the judges recognize as the best in military reporting from the previous year,” said MRE president Ron Martz.

The judges called Basu’s eight-part series titled “Chaplain Turner’s War,” which ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2008, “quiet and moving. Her portrayal of the burdens of war, both emotional and physical, unfolds through the story of a 35-year-old chaplain and the soldiers of Bravo Company…She reports sensitively on the damage war does to soldiers’ marriages and to their faith, even to the faith of a chaplain.”

Basu will receive a $500 cash prize sponsored by the McClatchy Company and an engraved plaque.

Also honored by the judges was Jenn Rowell of The Montgomery Advertiser for her series of stories on officer training at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. Rowell was selected as the winner of the second annual James Crawley Award, which recognizes the best in regional reporting. The award is named after the late James Crawley, one of the founders of MRE and a former president who died in 2008.

Photo by Sheila Vemmer

High-security prisoners in a crowded Iraqi jailhouse remain still as soldiers from Special Troops Battalion, 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, search their room in Tikrit, Iraq on Friday, March 14, 2008. Sheila Vemmer of Army Times was named the winner in MRE’s photography category.

This year’s awards recognized the best stories from the calendar year 2008 on the military, veterans’ affairs, national defense, and homeland security in print, photography, broadcasting and online media.

Other winners include:

  1. Overseas coverage, print: Betsy Hiel, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, large market; James Kitfield, National Journal, small market.
  2. Domestic coverage, print: Tom Infield, Philadelphia Inquirer, large market; Sydney Freedberg, Jr., National Journal, small market
  3. Photography: Sheila Vemmer, Army Times, large market.
  4. Television: Dan Rather & Steve Tyler, “Dan Rather Reports,” large market; WSAW-TV, Wasau, Wisc., small market.
  5. Online: Forbes.com
  6. Radio: Anna Sussman, KALW, Public Radio.

Complete List of Winners


Category 1 Overseas Coverage – large newspapers/magazine: Betsy Hiel, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Photography by Justin Merriman, “The Battle For Afghanistan” and related stories  

Judge’s Remark: Betsy Hiel gives readers a platoon-level view of trying to establish control over a dangerous piece of territory just miles from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. She records the action of firefights and the compassionate visits to villagers. Her clear prose explains the difficulties of working “outside the wire” and the moral choices that become commonplace in such unforgiving terrain.

Category 2 Overseas Coverage – small newspapers/magazines: James Kitfield, National Journal, “The Neglected Front” & “Backsliding”

Judge’s remark: James Kitfield presents strong and clear analysis of the progress and lack of progress of American and other forces in Afghanistan. His pieces, published in February and September 2008, are prescient of the Afghan difficulties widely discussed in the media a year later. With a bird’s-eye view – and a seat in a general’s helicopter – Kitfield tells readers about the anxiety over Afghanistan’s leadership and the inevitable strain on international forces. He also describes vividly the tension caused whenever the Taliban gain either actual or perceived victories. With unadorned prose, Kitfield encompasses the history of the struggle along with current tactics. His command of facts and figures is impressive and he explains both the goals of counterinsurgency and the frustration of fighting an insurgency that enjoys sanctuary in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Honorable Mention: Steve Mraz, Stars and Stripes, “Fistfight of a Firefight”

Judges’s Remark: Most reporting is not firsthand but depends on other’s accounts. Even more, Steve Mraz understood that a writer should get out of the way when he has two wounded survivors recount what happened in a “Fistfight of a Firefight.” Mraz’s writing from Germany is spare but dramatic as the soldiers recall what happened when a forward operating base in Afghanistan came under sustained attack by an estimated 200 insurgents. The rush of action, especially when underscored by the small details of the fight, makes it a compelling read.

Category 3 Domestic Coverage – large newspapers/magazines: Tom Infield, Philadelphia Inquirer, Photography by David Swanson,  “Alpha Company ” Series

Judge’s Remark: Tom Infield’s series “Alpha Company” is one of the best examples in recent times of how to report and write a great newspaper series. It tracks a Pennsylvania National Guard unit in which six soldiers were killed. More important, he tracked down all but one member and told readers what they’re doing now, after their combat experience in Iraq. In addition to the extensive reporting, Infield took each company member through an extensive questionnaire and, by tabulating the results, produced a terrific sociological look at the company.

Honorable Mention: Sharon Cohen, The Associated Press, Photography by Jay Hong, “The Long Haul “

Judge’s Remark: Sharon Cohen’s “The Long Haul” tracks the lives of National Guardsmen whose unit had the longest continuous deployment of any U.S. ground combat unit in the war. Her masterful storytelling vividly shows readers the effects of the deployment on the soldiers and their families in tales that were simply too good to stop reading.

Category 4 Domestic Coverage – small newspapers/magazines: Sydney Freedberg, Jr., National Journal, “Treating Trauma ” & “Chess with the Sheiks”

Judge’s Remark: Sydney Freedberg’s winning entry is an outstanding body of work, from “Treating Trauma” to “Chess with the Sheikhs.” His interviews with soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder show a sensitivity and depth of feeling while revealing the many facets of treatment. His reporting from Iraq was compelling in the detail and analysis he provided of how the military shifted its approach to the Iraqi tribes and helped stabilize the country, providing new insights on the ways units implemented new strategies using the sheikhs as key allies.


Category 1 Large newspapers/ wire services/ magazines: Sheila Vemmer, Army Times

Judge’s Remark: Sheila Vemmer’s photography captures the grittiness of normal patrol duty in Iraq, the interaction with Iraqi soldiers and civilians, and the often harsh environmental conditions in which troops operate. Her photo angles, use of shadow and other techniques provide a disarmingly natural context whether the subject is a jailhouse search or the casual tossing of anti-mine mines. She frames each picture to tell its own story and the viewer can imagine hearing the conversation during a lonely twilight walk in a threatening neighborhood or when street kids trail soldiers down the sidewalk under a hot sun.

Honorable Mention: Justin Merriman, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Judge’s Remark: Justin Merriman’s portraits display the lonely task of soldiers and the completely separate culture and landscape they deal with in the mountains of Afghanistan. There is a haunting quality to his work.


Category 1 Network / Large Market: Dan Rather & Steve Tyler, Dan Rather Reports, AXS TV, “Battle Plan”

Judge’s Remark: Dan Rather’s “Battle Plan” stood out for advancing public understanding of the military through hard-hitting, in-depth reporting on efforts to redefine the role of the U.S. Armed Forces in a changing world.

Rather’s balanced and thorough reporting enlists proponents, skeptics and dissenters in an engaging debate over an emerging vision for a new kind of military. In the process, his team brings the story to life by profiling the National Training Center at Fort Irwin in the California desert. There, it turns out, new “cities” are being built to serve as training grounds for troops destined for the Middle East – troops that are not only being taught to fight, but also to live among civilians and win their “hearts and minds.”

The military’s future role proves a divisive issue over the course of the report. But as Rather and company’s reporting also makes clear, the outcome of the debate has significant implications not only for the military but also for the nation, its friends and its foes.

Honorable Mention: Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill, Downtown Community Television Center, “Section 60”

Judge’s Remark: Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill’s “Section 60” is a beautifully executed documentary portraying the human toll of war through vignettes filmed over the course of four months in the area of Arlington Cemetery reserved for military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What emerges is a moving portrait of a community of spouses, parents, fiancés, children, friends and others mourning lost loved ones while also caring for and supporting one another.

These skilled filmmakers silently bear witness, allowing storylines to develop and unfold organically. At one point two young widows in their 20s see an elderly woman holding onto a headstone in a nearby section, her head bowed in apparent grief. They investigate after the woman departs, wondering if she too had recently lost a loved one. As they clear flowers away, they see that the soldier buried there served in the Second World War and the Korean conflict. Without having to be told, the viewer realizes the young women fear that they’ve just glimpsed their future.

Category 2 Small Market: “Our Local Heroes”, WSAW-TV, Wasau, WI

Judge’s Remark: The ongoing series “Local Heroes” is commendable for its commitment to recognizing men and women in the Wausau region who have served in the military, whether during a conflict or in peace time. The broadcast segments and the series’ rich online component (www.wsaw.com/ourlocalheroes) exhibit a dedication to community building and to enabling local viewers to see themselves, their friends and their neighbors in the stream of national events.

ONLINE: Forbes.com, “Supply Lines”

Judge’s Remark: Entries in online category included many moving tales of patriotism, valor, personal sacrifice and remembrance. Writers, videographers, editors and designers did well in portraying the human side of war and how those who remain, at home and on the front lines, soldier on.

But unique among the entries was “Supply Lines,” the Forbes.com special report on American military logistics past, present and future. David Ewalt, deputy editor of special projects for Forbes, wrote of being “tasked” with creating the report, and that’s a bit like how I felt when I pulled it from the stack of compelling entries awaiting evaluation. But however they wound up “tasked” with such an assignment, Ewalt and his colleagues delivered an engaging, thought-provoking and timely multimedia package that sheds light on a critical if underreported aspect of the military experience. Exceptional.

Honorable Mention: Jenn Rowell, Montgomery Advertiser, “Sky’s the Limit”

Judge’s Remark: Jenn Rowell’s online work for the Montgomery Advertiser stands out for its depiction of the many ways in which a domestic military air base and its host region are intertwined.

In two entries — a series on the history of military aviation in Montgomery, Ala., and an in-depth Web package on officer training school, with major contributions from photographer Mickey Welsh – Rowell and the Advertiser provide strong evidence of their commitment to chronicle Maxwell Air Force Base and its impact on the community of Montgomery. Their apparent enthusiasm to take on multimedia storytelling challenges (and, it seemed to this reader, to push the limits of montgomeryadvertiser.com’s content templates) is laudable.

Radio, Special Entry: Anna Sussman, KALW Public Radio, “Homeless Veterans”

Judge’s Remark: Anna Sussman deftly weaves together the voices of recently discharged soldiers and their advocates to create an audio picture of what some fear is a coming tsunami of homeless War on Terror veterans. Her interviews with Veteran’s Administration representatives in Palo Alto add credence to such concerns, with fact-based projections and a sobering discussion of preparations under way to serve the growing at-risk population.

The Galloway Winner: Moni Basu,  Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Photography by Curtis Comptom, “Chaplain Turner’s War”

Judge’s Remark: Moni Basu’s quiet and moving “Chaplain Turner’s War” takes readers beyond the action and firefights of embedded reporting in Iraq to the more personal narrative of how warfare affects individual soldiers and those who feel responsible for them. Her portrayal of the burdens of war, both emotional and physical, unfolds through the story of a 35-year-old chaplain and the soldiers of Bravo Company. Basu’s eight-part series moves from a American sniper talking about his killing role to a stateside visit of the chaplain to a soldier who lost three limbs. She reports sensitively on the damage war does to soldiers’ marriages and to their faith, even to the faith of a chaplain.

The Crawley Winner: Jenn Rowell, The Montgomery Advertiser, Maxwell Air Force Base Series

Judge’s Remarks: Jenn Rowell provides a riveting look at Officer Training School at Maxwell Air Force Base — with great descriptions and personal anecdotes that bring the stories alive and help readers get an insider’s look at what the officers endure and learn during their 12 weeks at Maxwell.