It's possible that Navy Cmdr. Dan Struble has seen more of the war on terrorism than almost anybody else.
He flew nighttime missions over Afghanistan and served on more than a dozen different warships, sometimes as many as three a week. Before his six-month tour was up, he'd bounced among Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and six other countries in the region, visiting a long list of units.
For most of that time, Struble, a Naval Reservist from Arnold, was armed with not much more than a digital voice recorder and a notepad. His unit, Navy Combat Documentation Detachment 206, is charged with recording history, not making it. Now preparing for deployment once again, this time to the Middle East for the war in Iraq, its mission remains the same: Assemble a record of the conflict through documents, photographs and the oral accounts of soldiers and sailors, grunts and admirals.
Long before the term "embedded journalist" entered the popular lexicon, the Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Army had been placing their own in the field to document war. Like journalists, they are there, said Capt. James R. Gosler, the commander of the Navy's unit, "to get the story." Although some of their work on the Iraqi war may be classified, much of it will be available to scholars, reporters and the public, and it is likely to influence how the conflict will be remembered for years to come.
But unlike reporters, the military historians share the uniform of those they cover. It means that their mission requires a delicate balance of fidelity to the institution and obligation to history.
While Gosler acknowledged that their ties to the armed services make them "less independent" than journalists or scholars, he said their mission is to get a full accounting of what happens, "warts and all."
"We're going to be bonded," he said. "But we don't take orders that say this is how the story should go."
They're not historians by training. Out of uniform, they are government workers and consultants. One is a commercial airline pilot, another an FBI agent. Some, like Struble, who has a doctorate in political science, have advanced degrees that help. But others don't. Gosler took one history course in college and said he saw "little use of history before I joined the unit."
Part of the group's preparation, then, has been spent with historians, one of whom discussed the importance diaries from Civil War soldiers have played in the recounting of that war. And a blank diary is what Gosler said the unit tries to be. Investigations of war crimes or friendly-fire incidents are not part of their portfolio. The members' job is to simply capture people's stories for the record, he said, and let history interpret them.
Marine Corps Col. Nicholas E. Reynolds, of the Field History Branch, said his unit plays a similar role. "We're somewhere between a reporter and a court stenographer," he said.
The issue of editorial independence concerned historian Randy Papadopoulos when he was hired by the Navy to research a book about the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But as he's gone through the transcripts of interviews done by the Naval Reservists after Sept. 11 (which are not available to the public until he's finished with them), he's been amazed by the reservists' access, which he said is far beyond what any civilian would get. And he said their work will be "utterly invaluable" to history.
The naval unit, which has about 25 members, has been around since the Persian Gulf War and has documented many critical moments in the history of the service since then, including the attack on the USS Cole in 2000.
And to paint a full picture of events, Gosler said, the unit makes a special effort to reach out "not just to the four-star admirals, but the guys doing maintenance on the airplane."
Their stories are filed away at the Naval Historical Center at the Washington Navy Yard. They are tales that drift from self-aggrandizing bravado to humble stoicism. There are candid complaints and technical postmortems. But mostly there are combat stories, many filled with the graceful and horrible details that bring humanity to history: the naval officers at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware who used masking tape to lift the lint from the uniforms of the dead; or the woman who could see the passengers on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon; or the man trapped inside the Pentagon who wondered whether he would suffocate or bleed to death, before finding a hole to escape through.
Sometimes, the Navy researchers encounter reticence. But more often, it seems, combatants want their stories to be told, not for headlines but for the record. "They'd often say, 'I don't want to see this in the paper tomorrow. But I do want history to know about this,' " Struble said.
Navy Capt. Michael McDaniel said treading the dark corridors of traumatic memory is a delicate process. He's seen confident, high-ranking officers suddenly relive horrific events and break down crying.
"One of the big lessons we learned from Vietnam was that so many didn't talk about their stories," McDaniel said. "They suppressed them. . . . Their training is to take what happens and keep going. They compartmentalize it.
"But then you can see that they are starting to open this emotional door without knowing what's behind there. They kind of say with their eyes, 'Is it okay to go there?' And you try to tell them yes, yes," he said.
One crew member on the USS Cole offered a vivid account of the suicide bombing of the ship in the Yemeni port of Aden that killed 17 U.S. sailors Oct. 12, 2000.
After the explosion, he recalled grabbing the first boots he could find -- they were two sizes too big -- and running to help.
"I will call it the bloody aisle as long as I live. I step into the aisle, and it was a nightmare. Blood everywhere and people laying dead on the side. . . . It was so loud in the bloody aisle from screams and moans that I had to talk very loud."
He recounted using a broomstick to splint one crew member's broken legs and seeing another friend whose face was covered in blood. "I knew in my mind he would not make it, but he lay there fighting like a champ."
It's not just recent history that interests the unit. There are also many old stories that haven't yet been captured for the archives, stories from World War II and Korea that rattle around in the homes of military veterans and then disappear. That's why on the 60th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a group of Navy historians interviewed some of the survivors of that attack.
"If we don't get those stories," Gosler said, "they'll be lost."