It was Memorial Day 2005 when Ross Connelly, co-publisher and editor of The Hardwick Gazette, decided to use his weekly editorial to name the American soldiers killed in Iraq. By that time, 34 months after the U.S. invasion, the American casualty count was 1735.
Connelly headlined the column "In Memoriam." Trying to squeeze in as many as possible, he listed only the soldiers' names and ranks. He set the column in agate type, a small point size generally used for classified ads. Within several weeks, he was able to print the names of all the Americans killed in Iraq through Memorial Day.
Each week, Connelly -- who has owned the paper with his wife, Susan Jarzyna, since 1986 -- would go to the Web to download "another chunk" of the Department of Defense casualty reports. Reading the details of the reports, which include not just the soldiers' names and ranks, but also their hometowns, armed-forces divisions and circumstances of death, had an effect on Connelly: "They became real people, not just names." These people came from a place, maybe like Hardwick, where each had a family, a pet, a best friend, a hobby. And each suffered his own, unique death.
"As I was doing it," Connelly told me, "I had this real emotional sense of loss. I felt sad. I wanted to share that with readers."
So the Gazette started printing all the information Connelly downloaded. He abandoned the agate for a larger type. It was a newspaperman's humble homage.
Then, on September 22, 2005, the realness got realer. Specialist Scott P. McLaughlin, 29, of Hardwick -- 1st Battalion, 172nd Armor Regiment, 42nd Armor Division of the Vermont Army National Guard -- was fighting outside Ramadi when a sniper's bullet pierced the seams of his body armor.
Scott and Nicole McLaughlin had only recently moved to Hardwick. They had a baby daughter, Molly, and a 6-year-old son, Tyler. McLaughlin had enlisted in the Marines after high school, then returned to Vermont and joined the National Guard. Before shipping out, he worked as a laser-cutting technician in Middlesex. He was an active member of Living Hope Fellowship church. He loved strawberry shortcake and fishing -- he went fishing on his wedding day, in his tux.
That week, Connelly dedicated the column to Scott McLaughlin. He set the announcement inside a black border. Then he resumed the ordinary lists.
Until last week.
Just six months after Scott McLaughlin's death, the Gazette ran a second black box, for another Hardwick family burying one of its own. This time, it was National Guard Specialist Christopher Merchant, a volunteer with Company C, 1/172nd Armor, who later transferred to Task Force Saber. Merchant was killed on March 1, in an attack on Iraqi police headquarters a few miles outside Ramadi. He died instantly after being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, according to the National Guard. The press release added, "He was wearing his full complement of Individual Body Armor and Kevlar helmet."
Merchant, born in Burlington, was the father of three daughters and a stepson, ages 9 to 14. He was a fan of the New York Yankees and Star Wars, and an excellent bowler and baker; he attended St. Norberts Church. Only two months before leaving for Iraq, he had been hired as a custodian at his alma mater, Peoples Academy in Morrisville. His mother Janet worked in the cafeteria.
"He volunteered to go to Iraq with the hope that he could make a difference, so his son would not one day have to go to war," wrote his wife, Monica, in a public statement. His friend Colin Mlcuch expressed a similar sympathy. "I think [Chris] joined up when he saw what was happening to the soldiers there. He saw a lot of young kids dying too young." Merchant was 32.
Recently, some members of a student club that opposes military recruitment at Hazen Union School placed an ad in the school paper, the T-Bone. It was a photograph of a graveyard; its text began, You can't be all you can be if you're dead. The ad pointed out, "There are other ways to get money for college," and urged students to "think about it" before signing up. Recruiters regularly set up tables in the cafeteria, distributing pens and other souvenirs to students who show interest. To reach its enlistment quotas, the Army has admittedly targeted working-class communities like Hardwick, where jobs are few and many families cannot afford college tuition. After the ad ran, a raft of letters hit the Gazette. A few writers supported the students, but most were angry.
By contrast, the Gazette has not received one letter about Connelly's "In Memoriam" columns. Only a handful of folks have even mentioned them to Connelly. One person was appreciative. Another, who served in Afghanistan, asked if Connelly meant to make a political statement. Before the editor could answer, his interlocutor answered his own question: "I guess it's whatever politics you want to put on it. It's up to the reader."
U.S. deaths in Iraq have reached 2300, including 23 servicepeople with ties to Vermont -- two from Hardwick, a town of 3200. An estimated 15,000 to 32,000 Iraqi civilians have also been killed. We don't know their names.
Since Memorial Day, the editor's space in the Hardwick Gazette has become a serial memorial. Connelly has not missed a week of listing, except the first of the year, when the paper customarily shuts down publishing. But the Gazette can't keep up with the war in Iraq. "In Memoriam" is three months behind.