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While the military embraces blogging, servicemembers walk line between free speech and responsibility to command

By ALLISON BATDORFF AND TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 8, 2008

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Jim’s blog began as a way to post his Navy adventures. Ports visited. Exotic food consumed.

Then he wrote about hot-button issues within the forward-deployed U.S. Navy — sailor crimes in Japan, liberty policy and a lunch-duty grievance at a base school — and visitors to his Fewl.net site swelled to about 15,000 per month.

The 25-year-old sailor, who asked to remain anonymous, said the blog has influenced some positive changes in liberty policy, but he fears reprisals from the military for speaking publicly.

"I’ve been told that the blog is going to adversely affect my career," he said. "I’ve also been told that I need to realize how powerful this is and that I have to be more judicious."

Other bloggers said they have been challenged or asked to change posted comments, and they point to the regulation of free speech online as a top concern in the growing military blogosphere.

Thousands of servicemembers, family members and military workers now keep blogs to share their stories, connect with others and vent over the mass media and politics.

The U.S. military has outwardly embraced blogging. Still, many bloggers face a thin line between the freedom to speak and the reality of commands that do not like electronic dissent.

Army 1st Sergeant C.J. Grisham, of Huntsville, Ala., and a partner operate a site that is among more than 2,000 U.S. military blogs posted around the world, according to Milblogging.com, a site that tracks the military blogosphere.

He said he has been confronted by the military twice over his writings. A Web security unit of the Pentagon sent a message asking Grisham to remove a post on his blog, "A Soldier’s Perspective."

In a separate incident, a public affairs office passed along a message from a commanding general that alerted the military to his blogging, Grisham said.

"I work hard not to cross the lines and keep my blogging separate from my military responsibilities," he said. "But I’ve had commanders and officers who had problems with my writing in the past."

Operational security — keeping sensitive information from public forums — is a top priority for the military. Grisham feels 99 percent of bloggers understand operational security rules and would not release damaging information.

Bloggers, such as Army Maj. Charles Ziegenfuss, a wounded combat veteran from Indiana, Pa., often see their Web posts as an exercise of their hard-won rights.

Ziegenfuss said he has been approached about the content of his blog site — "From My Position … On the Way!" — but refused to change or delete postings.

"I will continue to exercise my freedom of speech, which I have literally given pounds of flesh to purchase, realizing fully that whatever I write may be read by my mother, my priest, and my boss," Ziegenfuss wrote in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes.

Meanwhile, the military is publicly supportive of blogging and has created blog sites such as the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center Blog and shipboard blogs aboard the USNS Mercy and USS Russell.

President Bush met with military bloggers in 2007 — some videoconferencing from Iraq — to discuss issues such as the war.

Blog entries are also included with the press clippings passed up to Navy leadership, a show of their growing influence on military policymakers, said Lt. j.g. Laura Stegherr, who clips news reports for the Navy Office of Information.

"Blogs are a representation of public opinion, and we do consider them media," Stegherr said. "We are ultimately accountable to the American public, and that public scrutiny will ultimately bring out the best in the Navy."

Still, some bloggers said they are not received so warmly in their daily lives.

"I have never officially been reprimanded for my blog, only indirectly discouraged," a blogger corpsman wrote in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes.

The corpsman asked to remain anonymous because he said he feared reprisals for speaking publicly.

"One of the powers that be inadvertently told someone in my immediate chain of command that, while I was allowed to blog and I couldn’t be ordered to stop, my actions could inadvertently affect the comfort levels of the people that work for or with me," the corpsman said.

Commander U.S. Naval Forces Japan has no official policy to regulate blogs but uses a "reasonable approach," treating blog sites similar to other media outlets, said CNFJ spokesman Cmdr. Ron Steiner.

"We’d be concerned if there was an operational security violation. We’d let the sailor know," said Steiner. "Also, if there was some egregious error in fact, we would treat the blog like any other media source and let them know about it. It’s up to them whether they decide to use the correct information."

For the most part, bloggers and blogger fans police themselves, said Jim. He even includes a tutorial for bloggers-to-be on his site.

While policies change, and controls loosen and tighten with changing leadership, military bloggers show no signs of giving up their space — and voice — in the blogosphere.

"I feel like I’m making a difference, to an extent," Jim said. "But I was told once, ‘Live by the gauge; die by the gauge,’ and that’s probably true."


Military blogs: A growing domain

Today, there are 2,018 military blogs from 37 countries registered on Milblogging.com, a site that tracks the military blogosphere.

The growth in military blogs began after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States and flourished during the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, according to a history posted by the Mudville Gazette military blog site.

The blogs started as a way for servicemembers to stay in touch with family and friends during deployment.

But early "milbloggers" were also inspired by the do-it-yourself attitude of the political blogs such as Instapundit that surged in popularity during the first half of the decade.

Some milbloggers gained fame, too. LT Smash, which claims to be one of the first widely read blogs issued from a war zone, went from about 500 readers per day to 200,000 after the site was touted by mainstream media, according to the Mudville Gazette.

Milblogging quickly evolved into a mouthpiece for servicemembers who felt their side of the story often went untold or who needed a space to vent frustrations with the mass media and politics.

The influence of military blogs continues to grow. In 2007, President Bush met for a roundtable discussion on military issues with milbloggers, some of them videoconferencing from Iraq.

— Travis J. Tritten


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