Writer-at-large Cecilia Ballí, who wrote this month’s feature “The Unknown Soldier”, discusses reporting a story about death and the need for media sensitivity.
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texasmonthly.com: Where did the idea for this story originate?
Cecilia Ball': A staff member in state senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa’s office sent me an e-mail about the Perez family’s ordeal with the government. I had never written about the military, and I wondered whether I could put myself in the shoes of a soldier. But after I met Hector Perez’s relatives, I realized that the story was really about the holes that are left when an individual is killed in war. We tend to think about the sacrifices that soldiers make for our country, but we don’t reflect on the way that their deaths forever change other people’s lives.
texasmonthly.com: Why did you want to tell the story of a soldier killed in Iraq and his grieving family?
CB: On the one hand, the Perez story illustrates the way in which a government process of transporting bodies back home can instantly come undone when a family makes an unexpected request. I also cared a lot about Hector’s death because he did not just leave behind parents and a wifeNhe also had three daughters. My father died when he was Hector’s age, and I know from personal experience that his daughters will never stop feeling his absence.
texasmonthly.com: How did you approach the family about the story? What was Elisa Perez’s initial reaction?
CB: Elisa was very willing to talk. She had dealt with a lot of reporters by the time I came into her life, and she and Rosa Anna, Hector’s sister, were so concerned about the handling of soldiers’ remains that they wanted to tell their story.
texasmonthly.com: How did Hector’s children respond to your presence? How much time did you spend with the family to allow the members to warm up to you?
CB: I met Hector and Elisa’s daughters only after I had first interviewed Elisa and Rosa Anna in Brownsville. I didn’t want the girls to have to sit through the uncomfortable talk of government failures and of their father as a body. I finally met Marla, Lisa, and Lilli in Corpus Christi. They were a little shy at first but always courteous and sweet, and they shared some of their stories with me. When I saw them again in April, I could tell they had grown tired of talking to the press about what it’s like to lose a father. I understand this completely, so I didn’t push them any further.
texasmonthly.com: Your article jumps back and forth between past and present, from the Iraqi battlefield to the family’s struggle to cope with Hector’s death. Why did you choose this format to relay your story?
CB: I think the process of comprehending death is like thisNit jolts one back and forth between the past, the present, and the future. I wanted to communicate a little bit of the confusion and the clash of time periods that come with grieving.
texasmonthly.com: How can the media respect the privacy of a grieving family while still presenting the public with pertinent information?
CB: Anytime a family asks the press to step aside, we need to be willing to do so. Sometimes it can be disrespectful to focus, for instance, on the face of a weeping mother, because the agony of death is something very internal and personal. But in my six years as a journalist, I’ve usually found that even the hardest families turn soft when you simply ask them to share their best memories. Nobody wants his deceased family member to be forgotten. Especially in times of war, I think it’s the media’s responsibility to write about the lives behind the casualties, to give readers a sense of the human and social costs.
texasmonthly.com: In terms of the sensitivity of your subject, how did this story compare with those you’ve written in the past?
CB: All stories are sensitive to some degreeNimages or reputations are always at stake by the way we represent them. I take this responsibility seriously. But, of course, reporting a story about death is something like attending the funeral service: You have to really focus on being sensitive and compassionate toward the family. I think the most important thing is to open one’s heart, to try to understand someone else’s experience of death not just cognitively, but viscerally and emotionally as well.
texasmonthly.com: What was the biggest challenge in writing this story?
CB: Accommodating so many different elements. The story is about one soldier’s life, but it is also about a governmental process and the public debate over media coverage of war casualties. The article encompasses many time periods, from the day Elisa and Hector met, to the moment Hector was killed, to the months of grieving that have followed his death. Telling a cohesive story was challenging.
texasmonthly.com: Is there anything you would like to add?
CB: I feel more personally invested and responsible for the fate of our soldiers. I hope readers will experience a little bit of this too.