By Armando Durazo
Senior Editor, El Paso Times
Since the March 23, 2003 ambush of Fort Bliss’ 507 Maintenance Company in Iraq, the El Paso Times has owned this story, built strong relationships with the soldiers who were captured and with the families of those who were killed, and followed this tragic story with great detail.
From the day the story broke, to their rescue and their return, the Times has documented the pain, the happiness and the grief. Ten years after the ambush, reliving it was one challenge for the soldiers and their families and for reporters and editors.
Finding some of them after 10 years also presented another challenge. The source list was helpful in some respect, but did absolutely nothing in another.
That’s where technology came into play.
Reporters now have great tools to use to find people. Google, Facebook and texting played a key role in making this special report a success. Where it wasn’t used, traditional methods — like knocking on doors — still work.
The combination paid off for readers of the El Paso Times.
For reporter Diana Washington Valdez, the most challenging aspect of the package was how to quickly find people the El Paso Times had not interviewed in 10 years, or at least since we reported on the fifth anniversary of the unit’s fateful encounter in Iraq.
“Most of the Rolodex entries were out of date, and we had a short turnaround period to achieve the deadlines,” Diana said.
Diana wrote the main piece in the package, an overview designed to put the rest of the stories in perspective. She also produced a feature profile of El Pasoan Shoshana Johnson, the former Army cook who was wounded and captured by Iraqi forces.
Diana used Google and Facebook to track down sources, including veterans, active duty members and their relatives.
Here are some highlights of Diana’s thoughts: “Google maps and GPS tools helped us to locate their homes or workplaces. Facebook was a great help” because several former 507th soldiers had Facebook accounts, and Facebook messages were the only way they liked to communicate.
We could also see who else from the unit they were keeping in touch with. A couple of the sources we interviewed preferred texting over phone calls, as well as for follow-up questions after the in-person interview. We knew ahead of time that some of the sources located did not want to relive the past, but learned they might be willing to do interviews in the future.
Diana also noted that for future contact, reporters and editors should encourage sources to acquire free Skype accounts or to use features like face time on their smart phones, whenever possible.
“Skype comes in handy to interview sources who are in other countries or want to see your face during the interview,” Diana said. “It’s the next best thing to being there.”
Reporter Ramón Renteria relied on El Paso Times archivist Trish Long to help find the main sources for his two assignments, a feature profile on the El Paso area Estrella family that lost a young son in the Iraq ambush, and Jessica Lynch, the unit’s wounded, captured and rescued soldier who became an international celebrity.
“Like Washington Valdez, I quickly discovered that some of our contact information was outdated,” Ramón said. “For a while I worried that I might be unable to carry out my assignment, especially a phone interview with Lynch.”
The archivist relied on digital media and quickly located a phone number for the Estrella family. Unfortunately, the Estrellas had dumped their land line in favor of a cellular service. Their small auto repair shop, based at their home in rural far East El Paso, was not listed in the regular phone book or Internet phone directories.
Ramón searched past articles in the Times archive and found a reference to their home address. This is where good, old-fashioned, gumshoe reporting still plays an important role in getting information.
Unable to reach the family by phone, he drove to Montana Vista, the community where the family lives, knocked on their door, and scheduled an interview for the following week.
“The father, recalling our earlier coverage, cooperated 100 percent. When we showed up for the actual interview, the soldier’s still grief-stricken mother at first refused to be interviewed or photographed,” Ramón said. “With a little luck and patience, I persuaded her that others needed to know more about her son’s personality, his life, and what he meant to the family. By the time we left, she had also agreed to be part of our photo package, although still somewhat reluctantly. It always helps to remind yourself that many of these people are still grieving and to respect how they deal with it.”
The Times librarian produced phone numbers for three people named Lynch in the West Virginia town where Jessica Lynch still lives. None of the numbers were Jessica’s but Ramón contacted a sister who promised to forward the phone interview request to either Jessica or her publicist.
Ramón waited days without getting a response. As the deadline for the piece approached, he started looking for other ways to contact Lynch. He found an Associated Press story in which they quoted Lynch’s publicist. Ramón found her on Facebook, friended her and finally was able to set the interview request in motion.
Lynch did not call until the day before the package deadline. But she revealed during the short phone interview that she planned to participate in a memorial service in Arizona for Lori Piestewa, the close friend she lost in the attack. Ramón quickly contacted photo chief Ruben Ramirez who arranged to have Lynch photographed at the memorial service.
“Lynch was a difficult interview,” Ramon said. “Most everything she said seemed rehearsed or scripted, possibly because of the over exposure to media over the years.”
Ramón captured Lynch’s personal phone number on the company’s caller ID. He then used his smart phone to send her a text message requesting a mug shot.
“Without digital media, tracking down people for the package would have taken much longer,” Ramón said.
Reporter Victor Martinez also pointed out that using social media to track down sources that reporters or editors might not have contacted in years made his job as a journalist much easier.
Victor relied on Facebook to reach out directly to Joseph Hudson, one of the soldiers held hostage after the ambush. He left him a Facebook message. Hudson responded within a few days, granting the El Paso Times an interview and a photo session at his home. Hudson settled down in El Paso after returning from Iraq, so locating him was an easy task.
Contacting sources for another assignment proved more of a challenge for Martinez. Here are his observations:
“Tracking down the family of Chief Warrant Officer II Johnny Villareal Mata was a bit more difficult. The phone numbers we had for his widow, Nancili Mata were outdated. She had moved from El Paso to Odessa, Texas, a few years after her husband’s death. On occasion, when the El Paso Times would attempt to contact her, it was clear she struggled with questions about Mata and did not want to be interviewed.
Covering Mata’s funeral in Pecos, Texas – his hometown – 10 years ago, allowed me to interview many of his high school and childhood friends. Based on an interview I had with Mata’s best friend, Elias Payan, I checked on Facebook to see if Payan had an account, which he did.
Again, as with Hudson, Payan, who was living in Odessa, returned a simple Facebook message. Payan granted me a telephone interview. During that 30-minute phoner, I was able to piece together the foundation of my story.”
Victor also contacted Mata’s youngest sister Rosa Salinas on Facebook. “In her Facebook profile, she listed her place of employment which I immediately called and left a message on her voice mail. I also left her a Facebook message explaining that the El Paso Times was putting together a 10th year anniversary package on the ambush of the 507th. A few days later, she called me informing me the family was willing to talk,” Victor said.
Photographer Rudy Gutierrez and Victor drove to Pecos (about three hours from El Paso) and spoke with Mata’s mother Elvira and father Domingo.
“Rudy took some amazing photos and recorded most of the interview for use on our website, making this a complete package of words, images and video that touched many of or readers. It is through multi-media and social media that this story was allowed to be told in a way that touched the readers,” Martinez said. “The use of multi-media, the written words, photo images and video, gave the reader a true first-hand insight of what these families are going through.”