Up Front: June 2007

The specialist

Like the Blackwater security contractors he writes about in this month’s cover story, Ed Martin put to good use the training he got in the service after he left it. The military taught him how to wield words as well as weapons. It’s a skill with which he’s won his livelihood ever since.

A patriotic kid, he joined the Army at 20, fresh off the family farm in the Virginia foothills. He had always liked writing, and “the Army was the only branch that would guarantee to train you and keep you in a job if you qualified.” His first time on an airplane was the flight to New York, where, after basic training, he spent nine months at Defense Information School. Taught by officers, as well as members of Columbia’s and NYU’s journalism faculties, its students came from all branches of the service and from the Pentagon. Most had a lot more education than a high-school degree.

It was the only time in his life he has suffered from nerves. Flunking out meant he would lose his chance to learn the craft. It also would have voided his contract — the Army could then put him wherever it needed him. This was 1964. Vietnam was heating up, and what the Army needed was cannon fodder. But he graduated near the top of his class and was assigned to headquarters of the 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg. He put out press releases, wrote for the base newspaper, escorted visiting reporters around. He wore a tie to work. Then, one morning in spring of ’65, he walked into work only to be told to go home, get his gear and be back within 30 minutes. He left Natalie, the childhood sweetheart he’d just married, in tears as he raced off with the 82nd Airborne Division to the Dominican Republic. Six months passed before he was back.

“One of the first dirty little wars,” he recalls. “Lots of urban warfare, with people shooting at you from buildings. It was totally unclear who we were fighting and why. I never really understood why we were there.” The official reason was to protect American interests during an uprising that threatened to turn the country into another Cuba. Twenty-four U.S. servicemen died, a figure he suspects is low. Back at Bragg, he resumed his duties as an information specialist. His hitch ended in spring of ’67, and he embarked on a career that continues to this day. “I think I got out on a Friday and started work at the Durham Morning Herald the following Monday. It was one of about a half-dozen job offers I had.”

In his 40 years in the news business, Ed can’t recall many who got into it the way he did. Like many veterans, he can be very critical of the military, but you won’t find another who’s more grateful for what it gave him.