Beth Macy on Edna Buchanan, sources in conflict, and stories too sad to tell
Our January Editors’ Roundtable looked at “After the battle, Mike Sword’s war within,” a story by Roanoke Times reporter Beth Macy about the death of an Air Force veteran in Virginia after service in Iraq. A former Nieman Fellow, Macy has also been a contributor to the American Journalism Review, Parade, and O, the Oprah Magazine. She talked with us by phone this week about the Sword story, and in these excerpts from our conversation, she discusses reporting on PTSD, navigating FOI stonewalls and the value of persistence.
How did you first hear about Mike Sword’s death?
It was in our newspaper, and it was reported widely. Even when stories came out that proved that the police had acted appropriately – there were even follow-up stories where they won awards for valor – you never got a sense of what really happened with him. People just assumed it was PTSD, but it was never brought up.
Then I did a story about a woman soldier who had been a prison guard at Abu Ghraib right after the big ruckus there. And she had PTSD. She was one of the first to come back and really get involved with the VA community, so writing about her was a great way of writing about the VA. She was buddies with all these old vets from World War II, a guy from D-day. But she had a lot of problems, and one of the things that she and the vets focused on was Sword’s story. You could tell it was really powerful in the vet community. “What happened with him?” “I’m sure it was PTSD.” And they would tell their own stories about hearing a lawn mower and ducking behind the bushes.
I mentioned Mike Sword’s death in writing about Debbie (Camicia), and his sister contacted me. She was trying to come to grips with what had happened and wanted to know if Debbie would speak with her. I followed up with her to see if she would be willing to tell her story, and she said no.
Fast forward a few years to last year: We wanted to do a story on PTSD. The guy I was initially following was a National Guardsman from an hour away. He was really suffering. He was on full disability, with back issues and PTSD. I spent a lot of time with him, and he eventually decided it was too painful to discuss. His wife said, “After you leave, he’s a mess.” Of course that makes you feel horrible.
So my story backed out, and a couple other reporters were working on other stories. And in the meantime, Mr. Sword’s father contacted our top editor. He wanted an anniversary of 9/11 piece honoring all the fallen heroes, including his son, who he thought was a fallen hero because of his PTSD. Finally, we got our chance to tell the story.
You were trying to get different sides of Sword’s character from family members who are estranged from each other. Have you ever had to deal with that before?
I don’t think so. It was to the point that one family member would tell me not to talk to another one because they had already asked, and that person didn’t want to talk to me. But I would call to confirm it, because I needed to hear it from them, and they would say, “No, I want to talk to you.”
The deeper I dug, the sadder it got. Then you think, “Is it worth it as a story?” You want to inform the public, but are you stirring up too much pain?
The story has a classic narrative structure: You start in the present to let people know there was a shootout, then you cycle back through Sword’s life, bit by bit to the tragedy and then the present again. Was that the structure you always had for the piece?
I knew the whole thing was building up to the really intense shooting scene. So much of my reporting had to focus on that. A lot of those details hadn’t been reported before, because the police were really shut down about what they’d give out.
The first thing I did was to file an FOI request. I asked for everything and got an official form letter back, citing this clause saying, “We’re not going to give you anything, because it’s ‘still under investigation’ ” – even though it wasn’t. It was just this clause they were using. I checked with FOI officials statewide, and they really can say that – even though the subject is dead, even though it’s clearly not under investigation. It’s a loophole.
But the nice thing was that the police said, “We don’t want to be jerks about this. We’ll meet with you.” I met with them four times. Each time, the main policeman would have his laptop there, with all the information on it. He would stop and consult with the PR person and say, “Can I tell her this?” They gave me a few details that weren’t released at the time.
Then through reporting, I would go back in and say, “Well, I learned this.” And they would say, “We forgot to tell you that.” Once I said, “Why didn’t you tell me this?” and the police officer said, “Well, you didn’t ask.” So I told him that story about Edna Buchanan, and I said, “I don’t know exactly what I want to know. But I want details that will allow me to build a really rich narrative.”
They kept talking about “the loud music, the loud music.” I said, “What kind of music? Was it heavy metal?” This guy says, “I don’t know. It was just really loud and horrible music, but they left it on for a long time because it was crime scene.” I said, “But what was it?” One of the policemen said, “No, it wasn’t heavy metal, it was hard rock.” When I finally got the cop who fired the fatal shot, he said, “I’ll never forget that song. It was Buckcherry’s ‘Crazy Bitch.’ ”
That policeman was another person – almost nobody wanted to talk to me for this story, which makes you feel bad. But this policeman had initially agreed to “work with me.” I said, “What do you mean by that?” He said, “I’ll talk to you, but I don’t know if I want you to use everything. I’ll work with you.” The idea was that I would go over with him what I was going to use ahead of time, but we didn’t get into specifics about on the record/off the record on the phone, because I was going to do that when we met.
And then he kept cancelling. And then we were Facebook friends, and he would contact me that way. Then he unfriended me and cut off all connection. And then as I was getting ready to polish up the draft, I just wrote to him on Facebook, I sent him a message, which you can still do if you’re not friends.
I said, “Per our initial agreement that I would work with you, I’d like to talk to you about what I’m going to use from you for our first couple of phone conversations.” I kind of acted like I had forgotten that he had unfriended me, but that got his attention. Once he called me and we started talking, he was just full of questions about what this guy was like. Then he spelled out everything the other police wouldn’t tell me: just exactly how it went, exactly where the cars were located. He was very open, as if he had really needed to talk about it.
In the end, he thanked me and said it had really helped him process what was going on with him, but he said, “All my friends told me not to talk with you.”
Since this was part of a larger multimedia project that the paper did, how much background about PTSD did you feel you needed to include? How did you think about it?
Well, I knew Sarah (Bruyn Jones) was writing about the science of PTSD, and I knew she was also looking at specific changes at the Salem VA. I talked to the people at the VA several times. They’re not very media friendly. I have an old friend who’s the director of mental health there, and he wants to help, but he’s like, “We’re just not allowed to talk to you unless a PR person is here with us. We can’t send a vet to you, even if they want to talk.”
It’s really hard to get in there. So I did a lot of hanging out at the VA. There’s a plant nursery there, where the veterans, as part of their therapy, work on growing plants, and they sell them. And I’m a huge gardener. So a lot of times, when I’m looking for a story or I need to write something about the vets, I just go hang out at the nursery, and I meet people. And one thing will lead to another. And I actually ended up contributing some of the reporting to her story based on conversations I had with vets I met at the nursery. It’s a huge complex – just giant.
One time some guy was supposed to meet me, and I got out there to find a note posted on a picnic shelter, just a piece of white paper with handwriting, “Dear lady at The Roanoke Times. I’m sorry I can’t meet you today.” I didn’t have his phone number, but he was in treatment there, and he said, “Call me back at this number at such and such a time.” He didn’t have my number either.
That informed my work with my story, but I was also helping her out a little bit too. I was casting my net wide, especially at the beginning. I did a lot of interviews in February, when I thought I was writing about the other vet.
I don’t know that very much of what I learned (about PTSD) is actually in this story. Knowing that she was writing the bulk of what was going on with the science and at the VA allowed me to concentrate on the narrative instead.
You raise some questions early on that in the end can’t be resolved, because Mike Sword is dead. Can you talk about how you decided to navigate that in terms of your storytelling?
It was disappointing that I couldn’t know, but I think I was also pretty careful not to act like I was going to answer the questions at the end. There’s nothing more frustrating than that – you’re sort of robbing the reader. The question to me is, what should we have done differently? That to me was something the family of a veteran would take away from it. I had to deal with the facts I had. It’s still really, really sad.
It’s not like you’re promising something that isn’t delivered. It’s like you’re leaving it for the rest of us to determine if we need to be doing more. Is there something that could have stopped this?
I got to watch the father come to that realization. At the end, he said, “We should have been circling the wagons.” I had been hanging out with him off and on for a couple months by the time he came to that realization. He lives in Virginia Beach, so I didn’t actually hang out with him, but we would meet every couple of weeks to go over what I had learned.
He had the motivation that he wanted a reporter to do this big investigation and find out that the police improperly shot his son. When I finally was able to see the video of what happened, it was not a good video, because it was from the car farthest away.
The police finally let me see it the fourth time I asked, and only because through reporting, I learned that what they had told me in my initial meeting with them didn’t jibe with what family lawyers told me. The policeman, trying to be helpful, said, “When you watch the video, you can see Mike getting out of the truck and shooting at the officers.” He was really specific about that. I recorded all the interviews, because I knew it could all be contentious. So I knew he had said that.
But everybody else specifically remembered that you couldn’t see that. I said, “Chuck, you’ve got to let me watch that video. I don’t want this to be some kind of problem in the story: ‘So and so says this’ and ‘so and so says that,’ but I can’t see the video, so there’s just one big other mystery that I can’t answer.” He said, “Okay,” and he went down and watched it in the basement archives.
He came back and said, “I am so sorry. They are right. I was wrong. I was misremembering.” It had been a couple years. And he said, “We’re going to let you watch it.” Once I saw it – and they let me watch it as many times as I wanted – you don’t actually see Mike, because it’s dark and he’s too far away. But what you do see is the police officers walking. They’ve got their hands on their guns, they don’t have their guns drawn yet. And all of the sudden sparks are flying. You know they’re being shot at before they even had their weapons drawn.
To me that kind of answered the major question, because once you open fire like that, they have to shoot you. So I called Mr. Sword’s dad and said, “I know this isn’t what you want to hear. But I saw the video, and to me it’s really clear.”
What I think the story suffers from the most is that it doesn’t feel very intimate. To me, it doesn’t sound like me, the way I write. There’s too much attribution in it. I got one conversation with the wife, who spent more time with him than anyone. Of course I never got to talk to him. I talked to as many people as I could who would talk to me about him. I’m not sure you have a huge sense of who he is. Some of this stuff about their relationship – I had some stuff on the record, a lot of stuff off the record, but some stuff I had was just too painful to put it in. The last conversation they had, I chose not to put it in. I just thought it was too painful. The reader didn’t need to read it, and the widow didn’t need to read it.
Do you have any advice for anyone else trying to tackle a story like this?
I don’t want to do another story like this for the rest of my career. It’s an honest and true story. It’s not a complete story, because of not being able to talk to some people. I think the complete story would probably be even harder to tell.
Talking to that policeman, I could tell the first time I talked to him that he really wanted to talk … but that was months of trying to coax him and being pushier than I’m normally comfortable being. Still, I think it added a lot to the story to have his point of view.
Every detail just makes it a little bit richer. It was copyedited a lot with the idea that “this is a controversial thing” and “you’ve got to say where you got all your information.” I wanted to make sure I wasn’t relying on just one family member. Because of the dispute about the police, I had to say exactly where I got my information, which I felt made it more awkward and less conversational. When I read it again the other day, it didn’t sound like the way I normally write. So it leaves me a little cold, but I guess the whole thing leaves me cold because every little piece of it was emotionally draining to do.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know?
I guess just the thing about going back to people. When I first talked to the sister, she wasn’t interested. She said the whole family wasn’t interested. It came like a gift when the dad got in touch. By then the sister was willing to talk. And the soldier who canceled on me – by the time the series ran six months later, he was willing to talk to us again. He’s included in a couple of the other installments.
People change their minds, and it’s worth going back to them gently, respectfully, saying, “How are you doing? Would you be willing to talk to me?” It’s not a comfortable thing, but what you’re doing you hope is for the greater good.