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Troops' Letters Not What They Seem

Several U.S. newspapers print identical messages from Iraq, not realizing that they aren't original.

October 14, 2003|Aaron Zitner | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The letter to the local newspaper was detailed and personal, relaying the work that American soldiers were doing to rebuild the northern Iraq city of Kirkuk. The police force and fire department have been rebuilt, it said, and the streets are largely clear of trash.

"Children smile and run up to shake hands and in their broken English shouting, 'Thank you Mister,' " it said. But the letter was not the personal message from a hometown soldier that it purported to be. Identical copies have appeared in newspapers around the country, signed by soldiers who agreed with its message but who apparently did not write it.

The letters were published at a time when surveys show that Americans have growing doubts about the U.S. mission in Iraq. The Bush administration recently began a public relations effort to tell the nation that plenty of good news about Iraq has gone unreported by the major media.

The Pentagon downplayed the notion that the letter was part of a large, coordinated effort to sway public opinion.

"All we know here is that some unit's commander decided that what he wanted to do was write a letter to some of the Gannett newspapers

The letter also was sent to papers that were not part of the Gannett chain of newspapers.

Several copies of the letter were received by the Los Angeles Times, but none have been reprinted.

Bob Bolerjack, editorial page editor at the Herald in Everett, Wash., said his paper had been "duped."

"I won't second-guess a layman, but someone inside our business would understand that you don't do that, that it isn't right," he said, adding that the paper "wants to present the thoughts of folks that are expressed in their own words, not the words of others."

The Herald printed the letter, signed by Sgt. Chris Shelton of Snohomish, Wash., on Sept. 6. Editors realized that it was a form letter when they subsequently received two identical copies signed by other servicemen.

The same letter also appeared in the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia and the Tulare Advance-Register in California, each time with the name of a local soldier. In all, the five-paragraph letter was published, in some form, in at least 11 newspapers, the Gannett News Service found. Those letters were in addition to the ones The Times received.

Each letter carried the name of a soldier from the 2nd Battalion of the Army's 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment. The Gannett News Service reported that it had reached six soldiers directly or through their families and that none had said he was the author of the letter. One told the news service that he did not sign it. All said they agreed with its message.

Susan Locke, the mother of Chris Shelton, said in an interview with The Times that her son had acknowledged to her in a phone conversation that he did not write the letter. He said his commander had circulated it.

"But he said: 'That letter is gospel truth. We were asked if we agreed with it to sign it, because we are so sick of the media telling stories that are not true and want people to know what we are doing over here,' " Locke said, quoting her son.

The letter laid out the ways that U.S. troops are rebuilding Kirkuk.

"New water treatment and sewage plants are being constructed and the distribution of oil and gas are steadily improving," it said. "All of these functions were started by our soldiers here in this northern city and are now slowly being turned over to the newly elected city government....

"The quality of life and security for the citizens has been largely restored and we are a large part of why that has happened."

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Times staff writer John Hendren in Washington contributed to this report.

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