The unsettling deaths of Omar Mora and Yance Gray

Three of seven soldiers who wrote a critical Op-Ed piece on Iraq have been gravely wounded there, two fatally. Will Washington pay attention?


Joan Walsh
September 13, 2007 3:42PM (UTC)

Early on Wednesday we got permission from the New York Times to reprint the remarkable Aug. 19 Op-Ed by seven soldiers in Iraq, "The War as We Saw It," after learning that two of them died in Iraq Monday. It was our cover most of the day. Coming on the heels of Gen. David Petraeus' bewildering assertion that we don't know how to win this war, we don't even know if it's winnable, but we must keep at least 130,000 soldiers there indefinitely, the deaths of Sgt. Omar Mora and Sgt. Yance Tell Gray made me enormously sad. Both men leave behind infant daughters. My condolences to their families.

I wrote about "The War as we Saw It" when it was published last month because I thought its bravery and clarity were remarkable. I quoted from it at length, starting with this: "[W]e are skeptical of recent press coverage portraying the conflict as increasingly manageable and feel it has neglected the mounting civil, political and social unrest we see every day ... The claim that we are increasingly in control of the battlefields in Iraq is an assessment arrived at through a flawed, American-centered framework." I was surprised the Associated Press story about Yance Gray's death Wednesday morning didn't mention his coauthoring the noted Times Op-Ed. It seems the story drew from reporting in the local Montana paper, which didn't talk about Gray's Op-Ed either, because the writer didn't know about it. That story is heartbreaking as it is. Gray's mother told the paper: "They call him the Tin Man over there ... He never refused a mission, he never took a day off. That's what his wife said when she called this morning 'Why couldn't he take the day off?'" He liked to write and to draw, his family said.

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The Galveston Daily News did write about the Times' Op-Ed in its obituary of Mora, who was a step away from becoming a U.S. citizen after moving to Texas from Ecuador as a child. He taught Sunday school at his local church. His mother, Olga Capetillo, told the paper that "by the time Mora submitted the editorial, he had grown increasingly depressed. 'I told him God is going to take care of him and take him home,' she said. 'But yesterday is the darkest day for me.'"

Wednesday she told the Associated Press she wanted answers about her son's death in a single-vehicle accident that killed Mora and Gray along with five other soldiers and two detainees (he was reportedly riding in the back of a cargo truck). "I want to know all the details of how he died. I want to know the truth. I don't understand how so many people could die in that accident. How could it be so bad?"

I found myself wondering how these young men got the courage to write their searing Op-Ed, at a time when Petraeus was giving the media and Congress members personal tours of Baghdad's Green Zone, serving lobster tortellini and asparagus soup, and spinning his story of progress. New York Times editors told Editor and Publisher that the seven soldiers came to them, they didn't solicit the opinion piece, and the soldiers didn't want payment for their work. Deputy Editorial Page editor David Shipley worked to prepare the soldiers for the negative reaction that might follow. "They said from the get-go they did not want to be paid for this," Shipley told E&P. "It was a definite statement from them."

"It was a really wonderful piece, we thought. I am proud of them," Times Editorial Page editor Andrew Rosenthal said. "I thought it was great and what the Op Ed page is for. We had heard they got some grief from bosses about writing about this. But this is the 21st Century and people communicate with each other. Not every soldier in Iraq buys this Potemkin war that they are selling."

Tragically, Staff Sgt. Jeremy Murphy, another of the seven authors, was shot in the head in Iraq before the Op-Ed was published and is being treated at the National Naval Medical Center in Maryland. What does it mean that in the last month, three of the seven Op-Ed authors have been gravely wounded in Iraq, two of them fatally? I'm not jumping to any dark theories, though I hope Mora's mother and the other families get answers to all their questions. At minimum, it's a stunning and awful coincidence that should work to focus us on the awful waste of lives in Iraq today. As President Bush prepares another speech Thursday night, more "Stay the course" denial, this time dressed up as an announcement of a troop reduction, let's hope Congress examines the deaths of Omar Mora and Yance Gray and decides: Enough.


Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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