When public interest, private anguish clash in war

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By Andrew Alexander
Ombudsman
Sunday, June 6, 2010

The period around Memorial Day is especially difficult for those whose loved ones have died in combat. For Larry Mace of Winchester, grief has been accompanied by lingering anger at The Post.

His son, 21-year-old Army Spec. Stephan L. Mace, died after being wounded in Afghanistan in October during a ferocious battle with insurgents. In a gripping front-page account three Sundays ago, Post military reporter Greg Jaffe described the daylong effort by Mace's fellow soldiers to save his life while they were under heavy enemy fire.

The story told how Mace, wounded in both legs and his hip, crawled on his elbows, calling out, "Help me . . . . Help me. Please." A comrade applied a tourniquet and a tree-branch splint to his fractured, bleeding leg while stuffing gauze in shrapnel wounds. Mace was in pain. At times, his pulse became so weak from blood loss that he nearly slipped away. Desperate to save him, fellow soldiers drew bag after bag of their blood and pumped it into Mace. After about 13 hours, a medical evacuation helicopter was able to airlift Mace out. He died on an operating table.

For many readers, Jaffe's story captured the reality of the Afghan war and the extraordinary valor and sacrifice of U.S. soldiers there. But to Larry Mace, the story's explicit descriptions were jarring and unwarranted. He had no idea The Post was working on the story, he said. And when it appeared, he said, it was the first time he learned the disturbing details of Stephan's final hours.

These were "details that I have not even heard from the Army and none that should have been printed for the public to read, especially without my permission," he wrote in an angry e-mail to Jaffe and Post national security editor Cameron Barr.

Mace told me that the Army had provided only vague details of Stephan's fight for survival. "What actually happened on the field I didn't know until I picked up The Washington Post," he said. And those details should be "only for the family."

But who is the "family"? Mace divorced Stephan's mother, Vanessa Adelson, when their son was a teen. Jaffe was unaware of that when he talked at length with Adelson while researching the story.

Adelson had already learned many details about her son's death from his fellow soldiers and from an Army autopsy report she requested. Jaffe assumed Adelson was informing Stephan's father. Indeed, Adelson told me she had alerted her ex-husband that the story was in the works and that Jaffe knew details of how Stephan died. Mace disagrees, saying she told him only that Jaffe had been in Afghanistan looking into the battle but she did not mention a planned story.

Whatever the truth, Jaffe blames himself. "You just don't think to ask whether people are divorced," he said. "I absolutely wish I had." On the Sunday the story appeared, Jaffe e-mailed Mace with an apology. "I spoke with Stephan's mom Vanessa after returning from Afghanistan, but didn't know the full family situation," he wrote. "I should have inquired."

Barr thinks his reporter is overly self-critical. "What is our burden to determine whether or not members of a family are communicating adequately internally?" he asked.

Should The Post have been in touch with Mace before publication? Ideally, of course. But it's hard to fault Jaffe, who acted in good faith and is regretful.

The greater journalistic question is whether The Post was wrong to publish what Mace asserts are "very graphic" details that should remain private.


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