05 February 2010

Taps and Reveille: Capt. Dan Whitten

CPT Whitten Pic.jpgI am speeding along my usual ribbon of morning highway, keeping a wary eye on the dashboard dials. The engine temperature isn't where it should be, not this long after dropping the kids after daycare. I can still see my breath inside the car. The sky is a uniform white-gray, nearly the color of the salt-stained concrete below, and I feel clouds hunching over me.

One of the recently rediscovered joys of having a longer commute is having quality time with my thoughts, my coffee, and Iowa Public Radio. Rather than its usual classical music, the FM station is still playing news at the time I'm up and moving. This means I get to avoid the low nighttime power of the AM band, which is further degraded by the power lines running alongside this county highway. I'm Army-trained to hear past the static, of course, but switching from AM to FM is like a switching from Speed Metal to Cool Jazz.

The local announcer hits just the right tone of concern and regret when she teases the upcoming top-of-the-hour news. It's what she says that throws me into an emotional skid:

"An Iowa soldier died in Afghanistan Tuesday ..."

I hate it when they do that. Yes, I hate it when anybody dies, and I realize that's the bigger-picture, larger-issue here. And, no, I don't take fault at those in the news media for doing their jobs. But I hate it when radio or TV broadcasters don't give enough of the who, what, where, and when to avoid causing unnecessary distress for those of us with buddies and loved ones downrange.

Now, I have to drive 10 long minutes to find out what the newscaster meant by "Iowa soldier." I start mentally tallying, by unit or individual, who the Iowa Army National Guard has downrange right now. The media often messes up the distinction between active-duty, reserve, and National Guard soldiers. We're all one Army, one Total Force, but we're also different organizations. It'd be like the news media teasing listeners with "A car manufacturer recalled thousands of dangerously flawed vehicles today ..." Think you could be a little more specific?

The newscaster could've spared me and the families of other soldiers minutes of agony this morning. She could have been more specific. She could have said "an active-duty Iowa soldier" or "An Iowa Army National Guard soldier ..." or "A U.S. Army Reserve soldier on active-duty ..." Editors and reporters don't often think about that, however. Not many of them are prior service anymore, or have direct experience reporting on the military. (On the record as both a soldier and a reader, however, I have to say that I think Bill Petroski at the Des Moines Register is doing a good job.)

Army Capt. Daniel P. Whitten, 28, of Grimes, Iowa, and Pvt. Zachary G. Lovejoy, 20, of Albuquerque, N.M., were killed Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010, when their mounted patrol in the southern Afghan province of Zabul was attacked with an Improvised Explosive Device (I.E.D.) Whitten was a 1999 graduate of Johnston (Iowa) High School, where he played football and worked on the student newspaper. He was a 2004 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he double-majored in mathematics and English. He was a paratrooper and company commander, a soldier who wore the distinctive maroon beret of the 82nd Airborne Division. He was on his third deployment, his second to Afghanistan. He is survived by his wife, and his parents. News reports indicate that his family will bury his remains at West Point.

Here's a Des Moines Register excerpt:
"[Whitten] was the kid who was always doing the right thing. He always stood by his values, and was true to his family and himself. He was the kind of young man who you hoped your own kids would grow up to represent," said Stratton, who acknowledged he was struggling today to come to grips with Whitten's death.

"When I think about kids who are thinking about going into the military, the one thing about Dan is that I always trusted his character as a person who I would want representing our country," Stratton said.
Here's a WHO-TV excerpt:
Family friend and former Pastor Bob Solberg says Dan was a "real man amongst men." Even as a youngster at Zion Lutheran Church in Des Moines, he knew Dan was destined for great things and believes he found his calling at West Point. He says Dan "had the gift of leadership, the gift of humility, and the gift of honor." News of his death is still hard to believe. "I just really have a hard time believing that he's gone really at the prime of his life," says Solberg.
I didn't know Capt. Whitten, but I drive past his former high school and his hometown every day. I'll try to use those fleeting encounters for some radio-less reflection in the coming days, cold and dark as they are sure to be. Earlier today an on-line friend of mine, Aunty Brat, just happened to point me to a prayer that Eleanor Roosevelt was said to have carried with her at all times. I'd like to share that with you below. I like it because it's simple, and it's a quiet call to action. (I'd also invite you to see what Aunty Brat said about it here.)

Dear Lord,

Lest I continue
My complacent way,
Help me to remember that somewhere,
Somehow out there
A man died for me today.
As long as there be war,
I then must
Ask and answer
Am I worth dying for?


  1. Since the military won't release names of fallen soldiers to the public until after family is notified, your criticism of the newscaster is misplaced.

  2. RIP to these brave soldiers. And yes, "anonymous" is right about the DoD, BUT I share your views on the mainstream media. It drives me crazy that our fallen usually get the 10 second soundbite, and then they go on to the rest of the news, not seeming to care that for some families - this news of their loved one changes the world forever.

    I always remember that these men and women are somebody's loved one: a husband, son, father, brother, who have LIVED. They always deserve more than the brief insert.

    I could go on, but I think you know where I stand..;)

    Thank YOU!

  3. Daniel was my husband's cousin, and a loved and cherished family member. He has so many people who love him and are proud of him. We are sure that his service and subsequent death was in God's plans, but hurt none the less. Thank you for your tribute.

  4. @Anonymous: You partially misunderstand me. The newscaster was "teasing" the full story to be read at the top of the hour. Family had been notified; names, places, and circumstances were already public knowledge. My point was that the newscaster should have been more specific with the tease, if only to avoid unnecessarily toying with people's emotions.

    Given a hypothetical news teaser, if you say "Iowa National Guard soldier," you avoid worrying those of us with active-Army loved ones downrange. If you say "An active-duty Army soldier ...," you avoid worrying the families of deployed National Guard soldiers.

    It might seem like a nit-picky, word-smithy thing to worry about, but I've experienced its effects first hand. You wake up to the clock radio and the first thing you hear is "wait 20 minutes until we tell you whether someone you know has been hurt." You try to tamp down the mental gremlins, but they're sneaky when you're roused out of bed like that. The first rule of journalism (even before "get your facts straight") should be "first, do no harm ..."

    Any reporter working for me would learn this finer-point very quickly. Keep in mind, Sherpa has not only worked ON Army radios, he's worked IN radio. If you catch my drift ...

    @Kalee: I am very sorry for your family's loss. The love people have for Dan is apparent in everything I've seen or read about him. I'll keep an eye out myself, but if you learn of anything that people can do here in central Iowa to help his family, or help celebrate his life and service, could you let me know?


  5. Powerful stuff. Exquisite treatment. RIP brother Whitten. Never can get over that boot-in-the-gut reaction when news of a fallen soldier hits the airwaves. (BTW, Sherpa, I feel your pain WRT newscasting teaser tactics. It can be maddening.)

  6. Thank you for this. I am so glad to see these young veterans getting the respect they deserve, unlike some of us.

    9th ID

  7. @Mike: My father was tactical airlift in Vietnam, and I also have family and dear friends who served in on the ground and water during that time. So I know that it's never too late to say "welcome home," as well as thanks for pathfinding for those of us who followed. I'd like to believe that the challenges your generation of veterans faced, both abroad and at home, made us in the long-run a stronger, more self-aware Army.

    We've still got a long way to go, I think, but thanks for your part. I'd like to shake your hand.

    On a further personal note, I'd like to thank you for reminding me about the 9th ID. I'd almost forgotten about the "cookie" patch. I first entered service in the late 1980s, and the division was still on Fort Lewis, Wash. I still cherish a small field bible a chaplain gave me there. On the camo cover it read: "A New Testament for Old Reliables" ...

  8. Not much longer, and there will be more families listening to the radio hoping to not hear that. I'll be serving with Red Bull soldiers next year, barring any pre-deployment injury issues. Nothing would make me happier than no one's familiy having to experience the wondering; my wife said watching the new was horrible at time back in '03-'04.

  9. @MauserMedic: Roger that.

    Looking forward to embracing the suck along with you and your fellow medics. Thanks for coming up on the Red Bull Rising net--make sure to keep in touch, and tell all your friends. I'll look forward to doing the same with your own "Mausers Medicine and Motorcycles" blog. (Way to wrap everything together in one easy-to-read package, by the way!)

  10. Beautiful tribute, Sherpa. For anyone interested in learning more about our fallen soldiers, here's a site dedicated to that purpose (and related topics): http://www.unknownsoldiersblog.com. In fact, they recently added a profile of Pfc. Zachary Lovejoy, who was killed in the same terrorist blast that took Capt. Whitten. RIP to these men and other brave troops who dedicate their lives to protecting ours. (http://www.unknownsoldiersblog.com/2010/02/love-and-joy.html)

  11. @KKruse: Thanks for the supporting fire! I felt badly that I'd not been able to figure out how to address the death of Zachary Lovejoy, too. The dedication and determination of our soldiers, as well as the sacrifices made by their families, is humbling. The loss of any soldier seems almost too much to bear ...

  12. Wonderful, scenic writing. Thanks for sharing this. A fitting beginning and an eloquent end to certainly what is a tragic event.

  13. Dan was a terrific person. Thanks for sharing his story.


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