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Internet Obituary Hoax

Matt Schudel

Last week former Washington Post Pentagon reporter Thomas Ricks forwarded an e-mail to us about a promising subject for an obituary. He had received a message about the death of a neglected hero, with this lament: "Michael Jackson dies and it's 24/7 news coverage. A real American hero dies and not a mention of it in the news."

Even though I had a hand in the Post's obituary of Michael Jackson, I agree that the wall-to-wall coverage of the aftermath (especially on television) has been over the top. So I was eagerly looking forward to the chance to write about someone who truly deserved the recognition.

The hero in question was Ed Freeman, who was one of 246 recipients of the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War. (By the way, no one ever "wins" a Medal of Honor -- it's not a contest. You "receive" or "are awarded" a Medal of Honor.)

At any rate, Freeman was an Army helicopter pilot in Vietnam who, in the words of his Medal of Honor citation, "risked his own life ...

"by flying his unarmed helicopter through a gauntlet of enemy fire time after time, delivering critically needed ammunition, water and medical supplies to the besieged battalion. His flights had a direct impact on the battle's outcome by providing the engaged units with timely supplies of ammunition critical to their survival, without which they would almost surely have gone down, with much greater loss of life. After medical evacuation helicopters refused to fly into the area due to intense enemy fire, Captain Freeman flew 14 separate rescue missions, providing life-saving evacuation of an estimated 30 seriously wounded soldiers -- some of whom would not have survived had he not acted."

The military actions took place in 1965, but Freeman was not awarded his Medal of Honor until 2001.

I began looking into Freeman's life because, if there's anything an obituary writer likes, it's an adventure story with a clear, certified hero. It was obvious that Freeman acted, in the words of the Medal of Honor, "above and beyond the call of duty," but there was just one problem. He hadn't died "on Wednesday, June 25th, 2009, at the age of 80, in Boise, ID," as the e-mail indicated. (June 25 -- the day Michael Jackson died -- was, in fact, a Thursday.) Freeman actually died on Aug. 20, 2008.

As I began to investigate matters, I found out that Freeman's name had been invoked several times to berate the news media for its supposed lapses. Just as he hadn't died on June 25, he hadn't died last September and been neglected in favor of coverage of Paul Newman. He hadn't died in February, as a widely circulated e-mail claimed, and been buried in an avalanche of stories about "some Hip Hop Coward beating the crap out of his 'girlfriend.' " He hadn't died, as still other e-mailers wrote, on March 25, 2009.

Most of the e-mails contain this phrase: "The media has no honor and God is watching."

Well, as it happens, neither The Washington Post nor the New York Times published an obituary of Freeman when he died last year. But papers in his native Mississippi and in Idaho, where he lived, did publish obituaries.

For most out-of-town deaths, we rely on wire services to inform us, but the only wire story I could find on Freeman was a short AP dispatch from Aug. 21, 2008, which was included among a long summary of other brief obituaries. It read in full: "Ed Freeman, an Army veteran who was awarded the congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism during the Vietnam War, has died. He was 80. A son said Freeman died from complications due to Parkinson's Disease. Freeman's heroics as a flight leader during the war were depicted in the 2002 Mel Gibson movie 'We Were Soldiers.' "

I'm sorry we missed his death when it occurred. But I can assure our readers that no one here deliberately ignored the death of Ed Freeman -- on the day it really happened -- in favor of titillating coverage of celebrities.

By Matt Schudel |  July 15, 2009; 5:59 PM ET  | Category:  Matt Schudel , Military
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Fascinating - thanks for taking the time to set the record straight. If only the Internet "citizen journalists" were so meticulous in their research, but I guess that's what professionals are for.
Great job, Matt -- keep up the good work!

Posted by: westsloper | July 15, 2009 7:31 PM

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