Midway through his one-year deployment to Iraq, Oregon National Guard Specialist Joe Coon returned home recently for a two-week leave with his mom in West Linn and his dad in Bend.
He's got hardship stories to tell about his Quick Reaction Force patrolling areas north of Baghdad while wearing 70 pounds of body armor in temperatures approaching 130 degrees.
But the 24-year-old Coon also has other stories to share about the military shutting down his blog over concerns about possible security violations. Coon has re-posted most of the material following military clearance, and now his commanders must review, and approve, all new content before posting.
Coon, whose libertarian beliefs give him a strong freedom-of-speech ethic, sat down with WW during his leave to discuss his blogging, the Death Cab for Cutie concert he caught on leave (awesome!) and life on patrol outside the wire in Iraq.
WW: Why did you join the Oregon National Guard?
Joe Coon: Sounds naive, but after Sept. 11 I was pretty shaken up. I wanted the illusion of control in keeping my friends and family safe. I thought I would go over to Afghanistan, but joined too late. So I ended up in Iraq.
Why'd you set up your blog?
I'd read a few soldiers' blogs back home where I learned it was a great way to get information not in the regular media. So in Iraq, it was a good way to start a diary and keep family and friends updated. It grew way bigger than I ever thought.
And then your commanders stopped the blog. What were you told?
Stop until the site could be reviewed, and make no new postings.
Do you think your blog revealed any dangerous secrets?
So as a libertarian, doesn't it piss you off that somebody is censoring your communication?
At first I was pretty angry and upset. I didn't want to continue writing if I had to do it with someone looking over my shoulder.
Aren't you over there ostensibly so Iraqis can have freedom of expression?
Yes. It is unfortunate that soldiers are held to different rules. We have a difficult and dangerous job. I'll accept restrictions on my freedom of speech for now if it means bringing my friends home safely.
How did you get the blog back up?
I got enough emails and letters saying,"We look to your blog for news on our loved ones. No one will know about these Iraqi kids. Don't be selfish." So I talked to my commander, and my leadership took care of me. Now my colonel reviews everything before it goes online. And I need approval to publish a picture. But he hasn't stricken a single word. It reaffirms to me that I had been careful the whole time.
OK, some questions off the topic of blogs. What's the strangest thing you've seen out on patrol in Iraq?
A suicidegirls.com sticker. A little piece of Portland porn in Iraq.
What's the biggest misperception about what's happening in Iraq?
I get depressed watching the news here. All it shows is the death and destruction-constantly. But over there for me it is monotony with peaks of excitement. People here don't see pictures of people getting shoes. The Iraqis know our names. Kids run alongside the trucks and call out to me, "Joey."
Is it true the soldiers lack adequate equipment?
Pretty much on the money. But my unit has been exceptionally lucky. Fully outfitted. We have all the freaking toys.
Do you think Bush should meet with Cindy Sheehan, the military mom who's camping outside his ranch?
I've been out of the country and away from news media for too long to know what's going on at home. I know that she, along with many Americans, has questions about this war. Our leaders must be open and honest regarding why this war was fought and how and when it will end and be held accountable, just as we soldiers are, for any mistakes or wrongdoing along the way.
What's your biggest fear about your time in Iraq?
I'm afraid that after I leave, nothing will have changed.
Coon's blog (www.gozarthetraveler.blogspot.com) is one among reportedly hundreds maintained by active-duty soldiers in Iraq. Check www.mudvillegazette.com for all things milblog.
Coon graduated from Lakeridge High School in 2000 and attended Portland State University (majoring in economics and philosophy) until his call-up in August 2004.
Coon got his family and friends to collect more than 1,200 pairs of shoes for distribution to Iraqi children.