[You can watch a live feed of the conference at Mudville Gazette.]
8:20 a.m. -- Last night I was told there was a really special surprise in store for us to open the conference. I was told it was something I would definitely not want to miss. Andi opened by saying they asked someone to address the conference, and that it was a shot in the dark, but that he said yes. She then announced that the President of the United States would be addressing the 2007 Milblog Conference and many in the room gasped. The President then appeared on the two large screens at the front of the room. He thanked milbloggers for their contributions for telling the story from the field and for the charity work many have done on behalf of those in the military and their families. The room erupted in applause following his statement. Jim Hoft posted video of the President's remarks. Also be sure to see Jim's interview with J.R. Salzman. He has an amazing and inspiring story to tell. [Mary Katharine is blogging at Townhall.com.]
8:40 -- Rear Admiral Mark Fox then made a brief statement via teleconference and took questions. The first question was about Anbar province. He talked about the progress that is being made, but said that it was important that the political situation be stable in order for the country to be secure. He was then asked how to best support the troops. Offering clear and heartfelt message of support is the most important thing. He said the charities should work through DOD to coordinate care packages and other items being sent to the troops.
Fox then spoke about the situation in Iraq in general. He said that the way to protect the Iraqi people is to live among them. That creates a trust between the troops and the people that results in them sharing intelligence. He said that violence is down in Baghdad by 2/3, but that the enemy uses high visibility spectacular attacks that will catch headlines. He said we are facing an "evil and diabolical enemy" that targets women and children and old people. Al Queada has become public enemy number one because they are ones "tearing the fabric of the Iraqi society." We are trying to create conditions to move forward, but it will take time.
When asked about the milblog role, Fox said that milblogs are leading the mainstream media in many cases and that it really is true that "the truth will set you free." He said it is important to remember that we are the good guys. When Abu Ghraib story broke, we were the ones to correct it and punish those involved. When we see something wrong, our ethic is that we fix it. Walter Reed was not a pleasant story, but it is good that we have a free media that brings truth to light so that a wrong situation can be addressed. He said that milblogs will only grow in influence. Regarding the MSM, he has more a beef with producers and editors seeing how stories get edited and presented rather than the reporters he deals with. He said he understands that explosions are more exciting than opening clinics, but that sometimes the result is a skewed picture.
Fox said this is the first time there is the opportunity to have a representative government in the Middle East. Under Saddam, very little hope and opportunity, but even today with the violence, we can say we have given the Iraqi people the opportunity for freedom and hope. Even though things are hard, they are not hopeless.
Update II: John Noonan is live blogging.
Ward Carroll, the editor of Military.com, opened the panel part of the conference by saying "I am Jamie McIntyre of CNN" and he then said he spoke for CNN and Fox and all of the mainstream media when he said, "I'm sorry, we got it wrong." He then admitted he was not Jamie McIntyre, who was unable to attend due to family illness.
8:45 -- Panel #1 Matt of Blackfive opened the first panel, From the Front. He read a letter from the front to the milbloggers. "Thank you for telling the truth" He wanted everyone to know that al Queada, "manure heads" were on the run, to thank those sending us all the swag and "manure" and said those gals are "the heat."
He introduced Sean from Doc in the Box by saying he was one of the very first milbloggers, and has done three tours. Next up was Jim of Sgt. Hook. He talked about noticing the Afghan kids didn't have shoes and he told his men he knew some people who could probably help with that, but to be careful what you wish for. He then said they were inundated with shoes and he filled a 40 ft. shipping container full. Matt then went to Bill Roggio and talked about how many generals read Roggio's work and talked about his role in the resignation of Eason Jordan from CNN. Bill Ardolino of INDC Journal is the fourth member of the panel.
They began by talking about how they are able to blog from the field -- internet cafes on base, etc. Sand is evidently not the friend of the computer mouse. Cell phones are increasing because there are now more cell phone towers. Discussion moved to that of the new Army regulations. Sean said he expects that eventually those who are tasked with reading blog posts will get bored with it and that it might be more of a "big stick" than anything. Sean said the only problem he has ever had was one blog post titled "Attacked by Gay Santa." He was told he couldn't say "gay Santa."
Ardolino says the media is two steps behind. The Anbar Awakening story in NYT almost gave him a heart attack because it was actually positive. Some mainstream media don't have people actually there, where the action is.
Roggio talked about the "militia" that is being reported in Anbar negatively. He gave a description of what is happening there. Roggio calls it a real counter insurgency success story in Iraq, but that the media template is not to report success stories in Iraq.
Ardolino told the story of a reporter who went to every major European paper begging to go to Iraq to report, but no one wanted to take the chance that he might be killed.
Roggio says he often goes out on patrols everyday and nothing happens. He said the story is often one that nothing is happening. Fire fights happen and grab headlines, but there are many more stories that are not being covered. Sgt. Hook said he wonders if Ernie Pyle would be successful today. Matt told the story of an AP reporter who told him that he filed a story everyday but the only one that ever got picked up was one in which someone got killed. Bill Ardolino talked about the embedding process.
Matt asked the panel a question from one reader who wanted to know the "truth" about troop morale. Ardolino says there are some guys who are cynical out there, but that the MSM reports always quote those same three guys who have a complaint. He said there is complaining, but that it is overstated in the MSM. He said most of those he encountered were positive and trying to do the best job. He said it is understated how many believe in the mission. Roggio said that even most of those who did not understand why we are in Iraq, still had good morale. Sgt Hook said that morale is a snapshot because it ebbs and flows. He said that if we can maintain a level of good morale then we can accomplish the mission. He talked about the Army retention rates being "through the roof" and that is the best indication of morale. He said the best thing for the soldiers' morale is doing the mission. Sgt. Hook says it is a fallacy that "stop loss" is the reason for retention. He said that some wait to re-enlist until they go back over so that they can get a tax free bonus and that he applauds that.
Constraints on blogging -- Roggio says there are rules he has to follow as an embed. Two are don't write about special forces and do not photograph injured soldiers.
One chat room question was whether or not blogs can get the message out to a big enough audience to counter the mainstream media spin. Ardolino says blogs are countering it somewhat, but that most in the media are not reading milblogs and that the number of people reading blogs is still not comparable to the number watching and reading mainstream media. Sgt. Hook says stay the course -- that milblogs are having increasing influence. Ardolino said the media has gotten the story completely backward. He says in many cases the Iraqis would welcome the Americans into their neighborhoods to arrest people, while they would not the Iraqi forces because they had the institutional memory of Saddam's forces. He said that he heard over and over again how the Americans were trusted by the Iraqi people. Roggio said the MSM won't go away and that we should build bridges and develop relationships with those in the media. If we maintain an adversarial relationship then we will scream at the top of our lungs and won't make much headway.
Matt says there are some good people in the media who want to balance stories and get the truth out. Roggio says there are some in the media that are frightened by people like him, but they are interested too.
One comment from a questioner (I think it was Michael Fumento) about embedding -- "Marine PAOs rock, Army PAOs suck." Matt says Army is getting much better. Easy to get into Afghanistan, but really hard to get out. He said one AP reporter he encountered said he believed the towers were brought down on 9/11, but that it was Bush/Cheney, not al Queada.
Ana Marie Cox (former Wonkette) asked if milbloggers were expressing their opinions now because the military has become more politicized. Roggio says many "pro-mission" are being called political. Matt said that many milbloggers are Democrats. Sean says he is pretty liberal, but said one reporter asked him if he was a mouthpiece for the political right, even though he doesn't talk about politics on his blog. Sgt. Hook said he stays away from the political on his blog and that most would be surprised by his political affiliation, but that he has been accused of being a KoolAid drinker. Ardolino said that anyone saying milblogs are a political endeavor are wrong.
Someone from Free Republic talked about how the networks will cover pro-troop events, but then won't run them. He said they always get the killed count right though and always run it.
Roggio said it is well known that much of the enemy's strategy is an information one. He said they plan attacks for maximum media coverage and effect. He said they cannot beat us on the battlefield so they have a media strategy to win. He said we have captured their documents that talk about this. Sgt. Hook said they don't want to point fingers at the media, they just want to see a little more coverage of the "boring stuff." Roggio said some reporters were frustrated about stuff they cover that does not get run. He told a group of journalists he had just published something and they were amazed, being unfamiliar with blogs, and wanted to know how to do it because so much of their work never got published.
One interesting thing -- the Library of Congress, Dept. of Military History is now archiving milblogs.
Sgt. Hook talked about his visit to Walter Reed. He said he went in feeling sorry for those there, but then he felt bad for feeling sorry for them when he left. He said there was not one complaint or negative comment. When asked what he would say to those who want to support the troops by bringing them home, Hook said he would tell them "I don't want to come home 'til we win."
10:45 -- Panel #2 All in the Family
Sarah of Trying to Grok says she has been called the #1 "war cheerleader." She said it bothered her at first, but then figured her job as a spouse of someone who supported the mission was to be a war cheerleader so she might as well be #1. Sarah talked about her "knife in my heart" post about an Iraqi who quit after a fellow Iraqi was beheaded.
Carla talked about her son who was wounded in war and was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. She said it is just one fallout of war. She said "It. Is. A. War." She said that when people call her "pro-war" she says no one is less pro-war than the mother of a soldier, but that sometimes war is necessary.
There was some discussion of leaks about redeployment. Rachelle said there is a way they prepare for that separation and it is not something you want to find out about in the car on the news, or at the store, or from a neighbor. She says everyone has a different circumstance and when news does not come from official channels, it causes problems.
Becky talked about the hateful things that were posted on her blog and came in her email following her appearance on Larry King. She said some people wished the troops were dead, and that some told her she would not realize what was going on until her son was killed. Someone told her it would have been better for the world if she had been born barren.
Sarah said that on her site she notices that some people don't pay attention and some even thought she was a man. (She is just about as pretty a woman as you can imagine and the name Sarah isn't even close to being a guy name.)
Sarah said some people say, "then why don't you enlist?" She said that it is harder to send a loved one than to think about going yourself.
Andi opened a discussion about Spousebuzz and how it especially helps those spouses who are reservist and national guard spouses who are isolated and not near a military support. Sarah said she was amazed at how civil the discussions are on the site, unlike many other places on the internet.
Robert Stokely spoke about his son, Mike, who was killed in Iraq 3 months after he married his wife. He talked about how he bought an inexpensive clock at Walmart that he set to Baghdad time and put in his room so that anytime he walked past his room he knew what time it was where his son was. He said that after the death of his son, the blogging community gave him his life back. He said that after he lost his son he wondered if he had lost his mind. He went from wondering if he was okay to knowing how much support and love he had. He spoke about losing his son, who was his best friend. He held up a tiny disposable diaper ("unused of course", he said) and said his premature son who once wore a diaper that size grew into a man of 6' 2" and over 200 lbs. He said that people ask him, "Was Iraq worth it?" He said to ask the little boy who became that man.
There was discussion about the media. Sarah talked about a local reporter in Fayetteville that only did a big story on a soldier when her high school friend who was a soldier was killed. She said she wished more reporters realized that all the soldiers killed were the high school friends, and sons and husbands and brothers of someone.
Sgt. Hook, who joked that he didn't get enough microphone time earlier, asked the panel whether or not their blogging had any impact on their family members' careers. Carla said that when her son was injured she broke anonymity and put her son's name out there and people started telling him that they read his mom's blog. She said she considered starting another blog because she missed the anonymity.
12:00 - 1:00 The Soldier's Angels lunch featured several awards given out to angels for their service and stories were shared about some of the ways the program has changed lives.
1:30 -- Panel #3 Rapid-fire Roundtable
John Donovan of Castle Argghhh! is leading a panel discussion on general topics relating to milblogs. Participants (copied from Jim Hoft): Mark at Eagle Speak- covers maritime security issues, Murdoc- Murdoc Online- Started in 2003- Blogs about military issues, Noah Shachtman of Wired Magazine- an MSM employee with interest in blogging, Slab from OPFOR- a popular military blog, Captain Anthony Deiss from CENTCOM
Noah Shachtman of Wired Magazine started off by trying to dispel some myths about the MSM. He said that reporters are not anti-war, or biased toward bad news, but they are biased toward conflict and controversy and the old "if it bleeds it leads" holds true. He said another myth he wanted to dispel was that journalists were all sitting the Green Zone away from the danger. He pointed out that this has been the deadliest war for journalists. He said there was an ignorance among many journalists coming from places where they had not been exposed to people in the military and that some saw those in the military as something strange and alien.
One questioner told an interesting story. He stood outside of the White House Correspondents' Dinner and held a huge sign with pictures of Cindy Sheehan and Paul Smith. Smith was dressed in his uniform and identified by name. He asked over 100 of the media elite entering the dinner what these two people were known for. Everyone knew who Cindy Sheehan was, but only one out of over 100 knew who Paul Smith was and that was Brett Baier, who at the time was the Pentagon correspondent for Fox News.
John concluded this panel by giving each panelist his own personalized "clue bat."
[I was busy listening to this panel, and grousing to Jim Hoft about the MSM, and since things moved so quickly I did not get as much of it blogged.]
2:45 Panel #4 Support -- More Than Just a Bumper Sticker
Moderator Chuck Z of From My Position...On the Way!, Participants: Sandra Edens for Sew Much Comfort, Roxie Merritt for OSD/America Supports You, Patti Patton-Bader for Soldier's Angels, and Mary Ann Phillips for Soldier's Angels Germany.
This is an emotional one. These women are doing amazing work and it is incredible how far they have come in a very short period of time. Roxie Merritt explained how these various programs are a way to channel the support coming in so that the military mail system doesn't get clogged up. She said this is a way to show that America really does support them. She said that is a tremendous support when they are watching CNN and getting a different message. She made the point that it doesn't matter whether or not you support the war in Iraq -- you can still support the individuals.
Patti says the largest expense involved in support is postage -- more than laptops or anything else. Patti got emotional about the decision at Walter Reed not to accept mail except from family. She said if the military would ask Soldier's Angels there would be a hundred volunteers there tomorrow to sort and deliver mail. She said it broke her heart to hear about a soldier who has been at Walter Reed for 8 months and has not gotten one letter when she has a bag full for him.
Mary Ann Phillips talked about her work in Germany where there are not politicians falling all over themselves to visit the troops. Many stay there for a few weeks and then get sent back out. She said that she tells those she talks to that she is there representing their mothers. She said it is not all about "stuff" but is about the support from those back home that it represents. Patti said of Mary Ann's work that one mother told her she felt as if an angel had carried her son back home to her. Mary Ann said she did not like the word "charity" in this case, but thought "duty" was more appropriate.