The U.S. military has had an uneasy relationship with soldiers using blogs, video and photos to offer an unvarnished, uncensored view of war. The military brass has responded in the past by restricting blogging by enlisted soldiers, and having commanders review blog posts before posting. But that may be softening with the launch of a new project by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) public affairs division. It’s called 30 Days Through Afghanistan and is written by two Air Force sergeants.
Sgt. Nathan L. Gallahan has a background as a print and photojournalist, while Sgt. Kenneth J. Raimondi is a broadcaster. Gallahan is taking on the role of blogger/journalist, while Raimoni will be doing daily video blogs. The two will spend 30 days criss-crossing Afghanistan, visiting the five major command centers and telling the good, bad and in-between stories of the international forces, as well talking with Afghan citizens. Most surprisingly, their commanders will not be approving posts before they are published.
“This is revolutionary, I don’t think anything like it has been tried in the military before,” Gallahan told me. “I have a responsibility to the taxpayers to provide them a completely unbiased look at what’s happening. There’s good things happening here, there’s bad things happening here. You talk about both of them, and let the readers be the judge.”
They are now on Day 3 of the project, which they consider to be a pipe dream come true, and have spread the word about it via a Twitter feed, Facebook, and various other social media outlets. But there have been hiccups along the way. The video on the site tends to load and reload and buffer, though it works better on a YouTube channel. The site comments also run from newest to oldest, against the usual convention, and they designed the site with white text on a black background — not always pleasant for readers.
Here’s their report on Day 2:
I was able to speak to the pair on their second day in Kabul, Afghanistan (at 1 a.m. their time), and the following is an edited transcript of our discussion, along with some audio clips.
Whose idea was it to do this project?
Sgt. Ken Raimondi: It was kind of a dream of ours to do something like this. To be honest with you, we weren’t sure how our command would react to this. It’s something that’s not normally done in the military public affairs field. We brainstormed and drew up a presentation and pitched it to our command, and they actually enthusiastically accepted it. We were obviously pretty excited about that.
Nathan did all the web design on his own. That’s his expertise. He built the whole thing from scratch, and it sort of went from there.
Sgt. Nathan Gallahan: Ken’s being rather modest in this whole thing. I built the site, but he’s been managing most of the heavier aspects of it. He’s been looking into the travel arrangements and making plans, and I’ve been concentrating on the structure of the website and the inner workings of the project. So it’s been a real team effort that was developed by both of us. There’s a lot more hands in it, too, there’s Capt. [Nicholas] Sabula, who’s sitting here with us and is helping run the management of the project.
And what was your end goal, what was your aim?
Gallahan: Our goal was to create a 30-day online conversation. We want to create something that everyday people from across the world can participate in, so that they can ask the questions that matter most to them, and Ken and I can go out and find answers for them. We also have the goal of humanizing the people in the conflict here in Afghanistan. Because there are so many headlines that people see flow across their television sets every night, and it’s usually bad. In this country it’s not all bad, there’s a lot of good. We want to tell the entire story, and we have 30 days to do it.
How do you think you’ll get that global participation? Are you reaching out to people in other countries?
Raimondi: We’re marketing through the DIVDS process, the Digital Video & Imagery Distribution System [the military uses to deliver content to the media] — you know we love acronyms. They’ve helped with our international push. But another way we’re doing it is through Web 2.0 initiatives, through Facebook, through Twitter, through YouTube.
Just to give you an example, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has its own Facebook page, and they have 42,000 fans on there, and it’s a worldwide audience. We’re trying to tap into that audience as well. We also have an interactive forum on our site [that requires registration] that we’re trying to push an audience to. Granted, it is in English, but we hope to have translations at some point.
Hear Sgt. Gallahan explain how the team has had success getting the attention of a German blogger and some folks in the U.K.:
Do you see this as more of a NATO project? On your Day 1 report, you talked with someone from Australia. So it’s not as much of an American project then?
Gallahan: This isn’t an American project at all. This is strictly an ISAF project. Me and Ken are assigned here for the ISAF joint command, and our job here is to shed light on Afghanistan in its entirety. It’s not an American focus, it’s an international focus. One of our primary goals is to highlight all the hard work and sacrifices all the international folks stationed here are doing to help with the greater good of Afghanistan.
Raimondi: We know this is going to be a challenge because there are 44 participating nations in this group, and we only have 30 days to get through Afghanistan. We know we’re not going to be able to showcase every nation that has a large part [of the operations] here, but it’s definitely our goal. One of the reasons we wanted to showcase someone from Australia on our first day was to show that.
You have all your forces there as well as residents of Afghanistan. How will you mix your coverage of those?
Gallahan: The beauty of this is that we have an overarching plan, but as we start going through these areas, we’ll figure it out. As we go to each area, we’ll see who’s there. Me and Ken have previous experience in the east and west parts of Afghanistan. And what we’ve noticed is that there are international forces in all those locations. It’s not just Americans in one spot and Lithuanians in another spot. As you go across this country, the international effort is throughout the entire country.
Raimondi: For the Afghan perspective, for every regional command we visit, we’re going to speak with the local Afghan population and get their opinions and hear their stories. We also want to put a human face on the Afghans and reveal some of their culture, because they have such a rich culture, so we hope to display some of that.
So how does your editorial process work? Do you have to get someone to approve things before they post?
Gallahan: Well, Ken reads my blogs, but he’s a broadcaster. So after he puts his broadcaster edits into my blog posts, I put them on the website. That’s it.
So there’s no one in the command looking at things before they’re posted?
Are there any ground rules you need to follow as far as what you can cover — outside of the usual guidelines around protecting operational security and not giving away troop locations?
Gallahan: We’re not going to be inaccurate. That’s the primary thing. You already mentioned OpSec (operational security). There isn’t a chance in Hades that Ken or I would put something out there that will ever compromise any kind of mission or safety of anyone in this country. That’s of huge overarching importance to us. We just want to show what’s going on in this country and do it as accurately and open as possible.
How have the established milbloggers reacted to your project?
Gallahan: I have to admit I’m new to the blogging world. The first blog I ever wrote went on the White House blog, but Capt. Sabula has been a great mentor to me helping me understand the way blogging works. I’ve been mostly reactive to the milbloggers that are out there. I’ll see who has mentioned our blog and I’ll comment on their blog posts. But I’ll be honest, I’m still a little shy about it now, I’m just getting my feet wet and learning — but that’s part of the adventure.
The comments that I’ve seen so far from [milbloggers] is ‘we’ll wait and see how it goes.’ I’ll just say that this is revolutionary, I don’t think anything like it has been tried in the military before. I think everybody has the rights to their opinions, and in time I hope we’ll earn the credibility and [trust] from the bigger milbloggers out there.
Hear Sgt. Raimondi discuss the ground support they are getting for their project:
There’s been a lot of battles between milbloggers and people up the chain of command who wanted to restrict blogging among the military. Do you feel like that’s starting to change, and that there’s more acceptance of blogging in the military?
Raimondi: This was a pipe dream for us, it was something we were hoping to do but didn’t have big expectations that we’d get to do it. On the U.S. side, the Dept. of Defense is opening to Web 2.0, including blogging, Twitter and more. But it’s a slow process, and they’re still figuring out how to use it. That’s why Nate and I are so excited, because we hope the military community will see this project as a success and use it as a model to make things like this better.
What made you decide to do it for 30 days, and would you extend it if possible?
Gallahan: We’re both history buffs, and I look at Ernie Pyle from World War II who got out there, and his stuff was different than modern day journalism. He was out there in the war for long periods of time, and Ken and I discussed that this was something we both really wanted to do. How could we present a project that was not only doable but feasible? So 30 days, really that’s the time we have. We are returning home shortly thereafter, and it took us 6 weeks to get the project together. Would I like to come back again to tell more stories? You bet, I’m kind of living my dream here. This is something I would do for a long period of time.
Raimondi: So would I.
Gallahan: It’s an absolute dream for me.
How do you see this as a different format than what you typically do in journalism and in broadcast?
Raimondi: This is really exciting for me, because often I’m stuck in a minute and a half to tell an entire story [in a broadcast setting] and that’s not a lot of time. The great thing about this is that it lets me be more creative in the shots I take and the people I talk to. And it gives me more time to tell their story, and we can cover things that aren’t just mission-related. A lot of times when we go out to cover broadcast stories, we’re covering something that’s happening. In Afghanistan there’s always something happening. So if we go out there to talk to people about what they’re doing, it might not be the biggest mission of the day, but it’s important to them.
Gallahan: This is such a personal thing for me. As a journalist, I’m never the subject matter expert. I’m paid to be a conduit for information for the people who are subject matter experts … With blogging, there’s so much personality that goes into it. You’re laying yourself out there for the international community to judge. The words that I’m writing now, each one has special meaning and purpose. I’m really, really enjoying it.
You are doing this project in a pretty independent way, if you don’t have people editing or vetting material before posting. How do you fight the tag of just being propoganda for the military?
Gallahan: That’s a great question. The way you fight it is by being honest. You have to tell the story how it is. What I’m not going to do is run out there and take this freedom to start bashing things, because it’s not the right thing to do.
Sgt. Raimondi talks about how they don’t want to showcase disgruntled soldiers but will tell stories about real concerns:
Do you get feedback from the audience as to what you should cover?
Gallahan: We’re getting constant feedback. We think it’s wonderful. Our forums have brought us some great topics of discussion. So we can take those questions right to the people. One example today was whether Afghan people, when they hear aircraft flying overhead, whether that made them feel good or whether it scared them. We were able to go find some answers for them. It was a great feeling to hear their concerns and help them out.
What do you think about the 30 Days project? Do you think they can give an honest portrayal of Afghanistan? What more do you think the military could be doing with social media? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
King’s Palace photo by Gallahan via the 30 Days site.
Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.