Silent Posting

With His Blog Kaboom, a Young Soldier Told of His War. Last Month, the Army Made Him Shut It Down.

By Ernesto Londoño

Washington Post Foreign Service

Thursday, July 24, 2008; C01

BAGHDAD

There was a boy who went to war, like many other boys before him. Maybe it made him a man, maybe it didn't. Maybe he already was a man, maybe he wasn't. Maybe it doesn't matter, maybe none of it does, maybe it all does. Maybe.

-- Lt. G, March 4

He was an unlikely warrior, this scrawny boy from Reno, Nev., the son of two lawyers, raised in the suburbs.

He had a way with words, this boy. When his Stryker unit deployed to Iraq last winter, he was a rookie platoon leader who had never seen combat. And like many other soldiers before him, he decided he'd chronicle the war on a blog. Intending to keep family and friends abreast of the follies and pitfalls of soldiering in a five-year-old war that now relies less on gunfire and more on diplomacy, this boy, under the pen name Lt. G, launched "Kaboom: A Soldier's War Journal."

An indictment of the war it was not. Lt. G's dispatches -- at turns hilarious, maddening and terrifying -- provided raw and insightful snapshots of a conflict many Americans have lost interest in.

Word got around, and more and more readers closely followed the postings of 25-year-old Lt. Matthew Gallagher, with the site drawing tens of thousands of page views. By the time Kaboom went kaput last month -- Lt. G was ordered to take down his blog -- it had a following that would be the envy of many a small-town paper.

The blog's downfall was a May 28 posting that, in violation of military blogging rules, Gallagher failed to have vetted by a supervisor. (That the posting depicted an officer in the unit unflatteringly might have played a role. Gallagher declined a request to comment.)

The blogosphere, as it's wont to do, went berserk.

"This is a disgusting decision on the part of the Army command," one reader fumed, while another wrote: "A free society would not shut down your blog." Still another drafted a template letter and urged others to contact their lawmakers to demand that Lt. G's cyber gag order be lifted.

Dennis Gallagher, 55 -- Poppa G to Kaboom readers -- was likewise steamed.

"I find it incredibly ironic that the day after the US Supreme Court issues a landmark decision concerning the second amendment of the Constitution, some midmanagement bureaucrat decides he can [make a mockery of] the first amendment," he wrote in the blog's comments section. "Incredible!"

* * *

Matthew Gallagher began considering a military career as his high school years were coming to an end. His father, a lawyer for a Las Vegas casino and hotel chain, made it clear that the 'rents would be happy to pay for college. The son said thanks, but no thanks.

"He made a decision when he was a senior in high school that he wanted to basically pay for his own education," Dennis Gallagher said in an interview.

The United States was not at war then. Dennis and Deborah Gallagher were proud when their son, ROTC scholarship in hand, headed to Wake Forest University to major in history.

When it came time for him to take the oath to become an officer in the U.S. Army, Dennis Gallagher pulled him aside for a little chat.

"Matt, the world is very different today than it was four years ago when you decided to pursue the ROTC road for your education," Dennis Gallagher told him. "You haven't taken your oath and the Army could be reimbursed for the cost of your education."

Matthew looked into his father's eyes.

"No, Dad," he replied. "I have a duty to our country."

And so it was that Matthew, a bookish, at times goofy lad -- "He was not a GI Joe type of kid," his father noted -- became Lt. Matthew S. Gallagher in May 2005.

* * *

There's a reason most soldiers grow up in rougher neighborhoods than this. There's a reason most soldiers grow up hunting deer in the woods instead of hunting for the right-sized designer tee shirt at Abercrombie & Fitch. And there's a reason most soldiers come from the breadbasket of rural America and not from west coast suburbs: we want to win the wars.

-- Lt. G, Nov. 17, 2007

Lt. G and his platoon -- code-named Gravediggers in Kaboom -- arrived in Iraq with the 25th Infantry Division's 2nd Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment in December. They spent their first few days at a large base just outside Baghdad. The Gravediggers didn't care much for the forward operating base, militaryspeak for areas with American fast-food restaurants and high-ranking officers who boil down the victories and tribulations of war each day into PowerPoint presentations.

Bravo Troop, Lt. G's unit, was soon pushed out to a small combat outpost in a village northwest of Baghdad. Kaboom readers came to know it as Anu al-Verona, the Mesopotamian sister village, if you will, of Romeo and Juliet's Verona, where Sunnis and Shiites played the roles of Capulets and Montagues.

Iraqis know it as Sabaa Al-Bour, an impoverished rural community that has seen its share of sectarian violence; extremists of Sunni and Shiite stripes; a burgeoning partnership between disenfranchised Sunnis, including some former extremists turned U.S. allies thanks to a monthly paycheck; and an unsteady, trigger-happy and often initiative-lacking Iraqi security force. In short, it was a perfect microcosm to explain how this war is unfolding now.

In the center of Anu al-Verona, lies the imposing American castle known as a combat outpost. The Gravediggers and their brothers-in-arms reside here; dirty, tired, and hardened by the daily rigors of war, we all already imagine returning home to our families, but wish to do so with our honor intact by making progress with the grander mission emplaced upon us. Across the street from this compound is proof that, at least three years later, the Coalition of the Willing is more than just an uncomfortably-titled punch line. Estonians, Iraqi Army (IA), and Iraqi Police (IP) operate out of this rustic structure, who in very different ways, all display a dark cynicism and fearlessness that sprouted from growing up in the third world -- the Stones from being trapped behind the Iron Curtain, and the Iraqis from being locked in Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist basement. Coordinating all of these assets for the betterment of the Republic of Iraq can be a challenging task, and sometimes degenerates into a walking monster of mental anguish for me and my men. Nobody said this would be easy, and breaking up drunken fistfights between the IP and IA is only amusing the first time.

-- Lt. G, Jan. 9

Along with tens of thousands of soldiers operating out of similar bases across Iraq, Lt. G's platoon was tasked with fighting extremists -- "Ali Babas" to Kaboom readers -- training Iraqi soldiers and policemen, brokering disputes between rival sheiks (or local leaders) and keeping the population safe.

Lt. G's war was full of surprises. A suspected roadside bomb turned out to be a discarded Bon Jovi tape. Protracted gunfights broke out between Iraqi soldiers and the Sunni guards on the U.S. payroll, Sons of Iraq, when each side thought it was warring with Ali Babas.

One night, when a sheik's men detained a suspicious individual seen scurrying from a Sunni part of town to a Shiite enclave, the Gravediggers were called to assist. The would-be Ali Baba turned out to be a Shiite girl, whose age Lt. G estimated to be 13. When the sheik demanded to know what a Shiite girl was doing in a Sunni area, well past curfew, she broke down in tears. She'd tell him the truth, she said.

"But not in front of Americans," a translator for the sheik explained. "They scare her."

Lt. G and his men left the room. "It's an interesting thing," he would later write, "coming to terms with your own boogeyman status."

The sheik returned seconds later, bellowing with laughter.

"She has Sunni boyfriend she visits at night!" he said, as recounted by Lt. G. "She say her father would beat her if he knew she had a boyfriend, especially a Sunni boyfriend!"

Lt. G said he could relate.

"My grandma was horrified when my mom told her she was marrying a Catholic," he wrote. "Same concept, right?"

Sometimes overtly, sometimes not, Lt. G wrote about what he saw as a widening disconnect between America and its warriors. His dispatches often read like a desperate call from a largely forgotten war. The Gravediggers received odd letters and care packages from strangers. Some were from older women probably looking for love. One was from someone in corporate America who somehow figured golf shirts would come in handy in a war zone.

Then there were the letters from children, which spoke volumes about how many Americans have come to feel about this war. Some excerpts from a Feb. 6 entry:

"I hope you don't die, soldier. That would be bad."

"I feel sorry for you."

"I think war is worse than math."

"My daddy doesn't want me to be in the soldiers, cause he says that the Irack will last forever. Maybe if he changes his mind I'll see you in the Irack."

"My cousin was in war but he got hurt. Now he has a big beard and drinks beer all day long. My mom says he should get a job."

"Can you send me back a bad guy's head? That would be cool."

"I'm going to study real hard, so I don't have to go to Iraq. Do you wish you had done better at school?"

* * *

Halfway into his deployment, Lt. G, who was up for a promotion, was asked to take a new job in Iraq. In a May 28 posting describing a conversation with a supervisor, he juxtaposed their dialogue with what was going through his mind.

"No, not me," he wrote. "Not interested. Keep me on the line. I want nothing to do with a lateral promotion . . . that involves becoming a logistical whipping boy and terminal scapegoat for all things NOTGOODENOUGH. I've been out here in the wilds too long, dealing with matters of life and death, to go back to Little America for PowerPoint [contests]. Not me."

The supervisor took it "like a spurned teenage blonde whose dreamboat crush tells her point-blank that he prefers brunettes," Lt. G wrote.

The lieutenant told the officer that he wanted to stay with his platoon. Besides, he had decided he wanted to leave the Army after his deployment. So the promotion should go to an officer who wanted to stick around.

The supervisor gave up, Lt. G wrote, but threatened to give him a new job nonetheless.

"I got a rubber stamp with your name on it," Lt. G wrote, summing up the outcome of the conversation.

Shortly afterward, Gallagher, who is now a captain, was ordered to delete his blog. He did. The content remains on an archive blog one of his friends created: http://kaboomwarjournalarchive.blogspot.com. The old blog site is now controlled by City Girl, Gallagher's fiancee, who occasionally pens updates on the Gravediggers.

Lt. Col. Steve Stover, a military spokesman, said in an e-mail that Kaboom was "deemed by the commander to be counter to good order and discipline of his unit." He added that the blog had not been registered with the military, an assertion Dennis Gallagher disputes.

Lt. G wrote in his last dispatch that all postings, except for the one about the promotion talk, had been vetted by a supervisor. On June 27, he wrote one last entry, titled "A Tactical Pause":

I'm a soldier first, and orders are orders. So it is.

If you think, please think of us. If you pray, please pray for us. The second half of our deployment will be just as challenging and dangerous as the first half.

Thank you for caring. Agree or disagree with the war, if you're reading this, you are engaged and aware. As long as that is still occurring in a free society, there is something worth the fighting for.