California's War Dead
By Ben Welsh •
This Memorial Day weekend marked the formal launch of California's War Dead, our database of the state's casualties from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It's the result of a lot of hard work by many people at the paper, a large share of which had already been carried through the years by our many obituary writers.
The site intends to allow users to explore the data using a variety of criteria (for example, you can quickly look up fallen troops by hometown, high school or marital status). And to learn more about individuals by reading their obituaries from our back archives. Choice quotes have been selected to "pop" out of the individual profile pages and visitors are encouraged to leave memories and thoughts as comments.
Besides all my coworkers who pitched in to make this happen on a tight deadline, thank yous should be extended to all the great developers in the Django community. They not only provided the Web programming tools that made this idea possible, but also the leadership that showed me how the tools can be used to make journalism for the Web, not just on the Web. The same goes for all the people in the NICAR community who, by leading by example, have pushed me to keep learning new things and have the courage to take chances outside of journalism's well worn comfort zones. Personally, I just hope that first group can forgive me for ripping off their ideas and that the second group doesn't resent my getting the opportunity to do things like this without having to put in the once requisite 5 to 10 years on the cops-and-courts beat.
If you're stretched for time, or maybe doubting there's anything new to be learned about the war, let me promote a couple spots that might interest you.
- Over the course of assembling the data, I was surprised to learn how many immigrants to California have died. It's more than fifty, from Mexico and the Phillipines and South Korea and a number of other places. Check out the lists here. A fascinating story is of Sgt. Rafael Peralta of San Diego, who enlisted the same day he received his Green Card and died in Fallouja, Iraq, when he sacrificed himself to save his compatriots from a grenade attack. His profile is here and the story of his heroic death is here.
- The most rewarding part of the project for me has been to see how quickly we're getting great, thoughtful comments submitted by friends and family members of the deceased. One of my goals in the design was to give their writing equal footing with our previous reporting. It can be heartbreaking to read, but I'm proud to have helped make something that people think is worthy of such sensitive information. Examples I find particularly moving are the memories shared by the family of Sgt. Jason J. Buzzard of Ukiah and Corporal Christopher D. Leon of Lancaster, who I'm honored to know better now than I did before our commentors contributed.
- It seems natural to expect that spending so much time with casualty data would have a numbing effect. But I think that's only the case when we let the very real people we've lost remain numbers in a casualty count or unknown names on a page. It's the stories that bring them to life, and my experience has been that the more stories you hear, the less numb you feel. The pain is in the details. A moving example is Teresa Watanabe's obituary of Lt. Mark J. Daily of Irvine, who was inspired to join the war by the political writing of war advocate Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens has since gone to write a moving response to learning of Daily's readership, and sacrifice, that you can find here.
- Finally, I'd suggest checking out the video of California's Riverside Cemetery by the LAT's Saatchi Cunningham. Riverside is home to dozens of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, the top resting place in the state.