Chasing down a Korengal lie shows why publishing beats ‘un-publishing’

Ernie Gates, Stars and Stripes ombudsman

By ERNIE GATES | Stars and Stripes ombudsman | Published: September 8, 2015

Everybody knows how fast a lie can travel — “halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on,” as that down-at-heel old saying puts it. These days, though, thanks especially to the Internet’s long memory, lies aren’t just fast, they last.

The story that led Stars and Stripes’ weekend edition, though, proved that a determined band of soldiers can outlast the lie. In “Loss and Lies: A soldier’s lie unravels 8 years later, opening old wounds,” reporter Travis J. Tritten sets the record straight on a gripping — but false — Stripes war story from 2008, and shows that it’s better by far to correct the record than to try to erase it. That is, it’s better to publish than “un-publish.”

The thoroughly reported and well-told tale reveals how a group of 10th Mountain Division soldiers never gave up on calling out fellow soldier Brandon Garrison for concocting a false and self-serving story about the death of their combat brother, Sgt. Christopher Wilson, in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley in 2007. Though he was nowhere near the site of the Taliban attack, Garrison told Wilson’s mother that he held her son in his arms when he died, that he had held a pressure dressing against a stomach wound Wilson didn’t actually have, that her son had died bravely and not in pain.

In an HBO documentary shot in 2007, “Section 60,” he told a version of that lie at Wilson’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery, actually being consoled by Wilson’s father. And he told it in Stars and Stripes in 2008, when he was the central subject in a story about post-traumatic stress disorder.

Now, confronted by Tritten and by a television reporter in Kansas City, where he lives, Garrison admits he made up the story — a fabrication he attributes to his PTSD and medication at the time.

That admission was a long time coming.

Garrison’s lie to Wilson’s family especially enraged his fellow soldiers, and they say they tried to get HBO and Stripes to correct it back then but got no response, something I couldn’t sort out. The rage re-surfaced every time Garrison, who had gone on to work as a veterans’ advocate and wounded warrior spokesman in Kansas, found his way back into the news — doing Veterans Day interviews on TV, being honored in an NFL pre-game ceremony, getting a free house, a free service dog and, most recently, speculating in a Kansas City television report that he might be suffering from exposure to toxic smoke from burn pits in Afghanistan.

The Internet may have a long memory, but it also has a long reach. Garrison’s former sergeant, Robbie Myers, and Wilson’s fire team leader, Shane Wilkinson — two men who knew firsthand the facts of Wilson’s death — mobilized their unit members again, by phone, via email and especially on Facebook. They and others took their case to FOX-4 TV News in Kansas City and called me at Stripes. Some wanted Garrison’s hide, and those Facebook comments get pretty nasty. But others didn’t question Garrison’s health issues, or doubt that he suffers from PTSD — it’s too real for too many, and they weren’t going to minimize it. They just wanted him to admit that he lied about Wilson.

Talking with Myers and others, I found their recollections and argument especially credible and persuasive. My initial impression was that the 2008 story might be that rare case that actually deserves to be “un-published” — expunged from the Stars and Stripes archive, so the many links on the Web would go to a dead end. It is a nicely wrought tale, right down to the heart-tugging ending in which Garrison and his then-wife, Lily, name their newborn son Christopher. But Garrison’s fantasy of Wilson’s death is so central to the 2008 story that the whole thing dissolves into untruth.

But what did Garrison say? I couldn’t reach him, but a TV reporter in Kansas City went to his home. Reluctantly, he admitted he hadn’t been with Wilson when he died. Stripes ran the resulting TV report in the video window on stripes.com.

That on-camera admission triggered the next steps, and Stripes Editor Terry Leonard made the right call. He was committed to setting the record straight, not erasing part of it. And, like the experienced journalist he is, he’d withhold judgment until it checked out. If new reporting showed that the 2008 story was wrong, then Stripes would fix the record. Maybe with a correction in the archive. Maybe with a fresh story altogether. He handed that question over to Tina Croley, managing editor for content, and Tritten’s reporting took it from there.

The result was a story in its own right — not just a correction to the 2008 story, though it accomplishes that with a link to the original (and the digital archive will be amended with an editor’s note on the old story, and a link to the new one). Tritten delivered a revealing front-page story, including the true account of the attack in which Christopher Wilson died, the effect on his mother of both the lie and the admission of the lie, Garrison’s tangled health issues and local “status” as a wounded warrior, and all the complicated, unresolvable recollections and emotions that link back to that attack in the Korengal Valley. Finally, it is a story of how the persistence of Garrison’s lie was no match for the persistence of Wilson’s comrades-in-arms in their pursuit of the truth.

Stripes, too, is in the business of truth, not untruth. And that means it’s in the business of publishing, not “un-publishing.”

Got a question or suggestion for the ombudsman on what appears, or should appear, in Stars and Stripes? Send an email to ombudsman@stripes.osd.mil, or phone 202-761-0587 in the States. For several links associated with this column, please go to Ernie Gates’ blog. It can be found at stripes.com/blogs

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