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The rise and fall of a military blogger

Decorated soldier's blog attracts loyal following, but he says his bosses are muzzling him

Dec. 8, 2009 - 01:50PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 8, 2009 - 01:50PM  |  
C.J. Grisham displays his blog on his laptop in Huntsville, Ala., on Dec. 2.
C.J. Grisham displays his blog on his laptop in Huntsville, Ala., on Dec. 2. (PATRICIA MIKLIK DOYLE / GANNETT NEWS SERVICE)
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Master Sgt. C.J. Grisham is not the type to shy away from a fight. Decorated for valor in Iraq, the 15-year Army veteran is also saluted as one of the most popular, if sometimes controversial, bloggers in the military. Where the average life expectancy of a blog is said to be less than three months, Grisham's has survived for six years.

But he says he has had enough.

"Blogging is no longer worth the trouble," Grisham recently wrote on his blog, A Soldier's Perspective, under the headline "ASP Closed for Business."

Assigned to a military intelligence company at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., Grisham's in-your-face opinions have won him a loyal following but also earned the scorn of his superiors, who contend he violated military limits about what troops can say on certain topics.

Grisham has criticized President Barack Obama's fitness to run the country, chided the Democratic Party and battled with local school officials. He has been investigated by the inspector general and called on the carpet by his commanders.

Though he has not been ordered to stop blogging, he says he can't do so under the restrictions placed on him.

In a note to the nearly 5,000 people on his private mailing list, Grisham wrote, "The facts are clear. The Army does NOT want honest bloggers. They want sheep. ... If I can't be honest and open, I won't write at all."

Lt. Col. Bruce Johnson, commander of Grisham's parent command, the Fort Meade, Md.-based 309th Military Intelligence Battalion, referred questions to a spokesman. Command Sgt. Maj. Carl Myers of the 309th told Military Times that Grisham's situation was "in the process of being looked into. I'm not sure what the particulars are, just that it's being looked into."

Grisham and his blog posts underscore the challenges in trying to impose military limitations on free speech on troops fighting to protect such freedoms. And they highlight the difficulties the brass faces in trying at the same time to embrace and contain the reach of blogging, Facebook, Twitter and other forms of newly emerging "social media."

‘Chicken Hawk'

Standing an inch shy of 5½ feet tall in basic training, Grisham was dubbed "Chicken Hawk" after Henery Hawk, the tough bird with a big mouth in the Foghorn Leghorn cartoons. He earned the nickname when he took down the biggest guy in his platoon three times in a row during pugil-stick training.

Eight years later, during the invasion of Iraq, Grisham took down a squad of Iraqis when his counterintelligence detachment got pinned down in an ambush. He earned the Bronze Star with "V" after rushing through the gunfire by himself with just a 9mm pistol and a hand grenade.

No, Grisham is not afraid of a fight and he's not afraid to speak his mind, either.

After returning from war, Grisham launched A Soldier's Perspective. He started the site as a way to share his experiences and tell his Army story. In his first post he promised to cover the range of military life "from the inane to the insane. ... Sometimes I will complain about and sometimes I will laud my chosen profession of arms."

And he delivered.

His posts soon gathered a wide following with a readership that has spanned more than 120 countries. Nearly 1 million hits later, ASP garnered an average of 1,500 visitors per day, making it the second most popular site on MilBlogging.com, an index of military blogs.

Focused and scrappy

Pugnacious, deeply patriotic, pro-Army yet prolific in both his praise and criticism, Grisham has helped launch four successful blogs and a weekly Internet radio show. He mostly focuses on raising awareness (and often money) for veterans issues, but he also patrols through theminefields of local and national politics.

Indeed, he is an unabashed conservative with razor-wire wit who has cast stones at what he calls "Repugnicans" and "Dumbocrats" alike but has also been to the White House twice — invited first by President George W. Bush, and more recently by President Barack Obama — for roundtable discussions on military outreach.

All this while remaining a top-rated senior noncommissioned officer, a troop-leading first sergeant and an active counterintelligence agent, according to his fitness reports. "A true Soldiers' Soldier. Promote to SGM immediately," gushed his senior rater in Grisham's most recent evaluation in June.

Yet after nearly six years of active blogging, in recent months Grisham has found himself the target of an inspector general investigation and a threatened general letter of reprimand. Now his command is exploring formal charges against him.

A summer of dissed content

Last summer Grisham got into hot water when someone complained to officials that he encouraged readers to vote against gun control measures, called for a wholesale changing of the guard in Congress and questioned Obama's truthfulness.

In a blog section titled "Obama is wrong for America," he wrote: "The reality is that the American people can NOT take the President at his word."

At least that's what he assumes was the problem based on the questions investigators with the Army Intelligence and Security Command's inspector general asked him.

The IG closed the case without further action. Grisham filed a request for a copy of the report but still hasn't seen it. "Four months later I have yet to actually see any of the IG complaints against me or where I might have done anything wrong," he said.

The IG's office did not return phone calls requesting comment.

Not long after, Grisham was fired from his job as an intelligence company first sergeant at Redstone and punted to a garrison position. The firing also came not long after he announced on his radio show — during an interview with Gen. Peter Chiarelli — that he was wrestling with post-traumatic stress disorder and planned to seek help. During the show, Grisham said he wanted to leadfrom the front when it came to reducing the stigma of PTSD.

The move also came just days after being quoted in a http://www.armytimes.com/offduty/technology/offduty_social_media_072709w/">Military Times feature story on the changing landscape of social media inside the ranks.

"The upper echelon gets it, the lower echelon gets it," Grisham said at the time, "but it's the middle ranks in between — the O-5s and O-6s — that are still really struggling with whether or not this is a good thing."

Uniform dissent

Grisham's most recent battle with his superiors grew out of his blogging about disagreements he had with the local school board after they decided to implement a student uniform policy halfway into the year without input from parents. Grisham, who had two kids in the school, posted unflattering video he shot of school officials fumbling through a meeting. School officials called the Army to complain. His company commander, Capt. Brian Hawkins, called Grisham in to talk about it.

"I felt like this was a matter between him and the school," Hawkins said. "They were concerned about him being a threat. I can tell you he's not a threat. I read what he wrote. I didn't take it as threatening."

Hawkins' message to the school: "If you feel threatened by him, if you feel threatened by anyone, you should call the police."

school officials instead took their complaints up the chain of command.

In the weeks that followed, Grisham says, Redstone Arsenal garrison commander Col. Robert Pastorelli and Command Sgt. Maj. Rickey Cooper repeatedly called him on the carpet, ordering him to remove posts.

Grisham said he was ordered to see investigators at Criminal Investigation Command to determine whether he'd broken any laws.

"They said the only threat I made was to threaten a lawsuit and, of course, that's not illegal," Grisham said. He was soon ordered by his command to scale back his blogging, so his wife, Emily, took over.

"Since he gets in trouble every time he writes something, I'm going to write what's going on. They can't do anything to me," she wrote. The next day, Grisham said he was yelled at for his wife's posts.

Pastorelli and Cooper declined to comment. Post spokeswoman Kim Henry said Grisham was counseled and ordered to remove the video posts, but said she would have to consult with military lawyers when asked if that was a lawful order.

"It's not a lawful order and it goes to the heart of free expression," said Capt. Mike Lebowitz, an Army lawyer for the Virginia National Guard who regularly lectures at Yale University on military free speech issues. "Filming anyone at a public meeting is fair game."

"I don't know how he disgraced the NCO Corps," said Sgt. 1st Class Chad Vervaet, an instructor at the NCO Academy, who has moved his son out of the same school because of problems there. "This never should have been a military issue in the first place. I was at all the same meetings at the school with C.J. and he never once threatened anyone."

"This is a failure of leadership on the Army's side," said Dale Jackson, a former soldier and local radio journalist who has been covering the controversy. "Instead of the commanders protecting their soldier, they just tried to make the problem go away by telling C.J. to shut up. Except C.J. stood his ground. He's not one to be bullied."

"We are in need of more veterans and troops speaking out, not less," writes one blogger at War on Terror News. "Whether the voices are silenced by governmental interference, harassment, or fatigue, the results are the same: another voice in the debate silenced."

Even officials at the Pentagon have taken notice.

"I know he's pretty frustrated. And it must be a pretty high level of frustration for him to stop doing what he's doing because I know he loves what he's doing," said Lt. Col. Kevin Arata, the Army's point man for social media issues, whohas known Grisham's name for years.

"As far as what's going on between him and his chain of command, I don't think that's for me to say, but he's certainly done a great job over these past few years," said Arata, adding "any time we lose someone of that caliber, there's a certain amount of loss for the Army."

The last word

Grisham is preparing to report to Fort Hood, Texas, in February. He's hopeful for a fresh start but says he is feeling pessimistic. He was planning to take a month of leave, but his command has told him any time off will be suspended if officials decide to conduct a fact-finding "15-6 investigation" into his blogging.

"I feel frustrated, and I feel betrayed," he said. "It really affects me. Moral integrity means something to me. The NCO Creed means something to me," he says, quietly repeating it aloud from memory, almost as if in prayer.

"I am surrounded by heroic Americans who would give their lives if needed, but this whole thing has really soured me and made me second-guess what I'm doing here. Why am I in an organization that would throw you to the fish like this? ... All it takes is one command who doesn't get it [to] turn your life upside down."

___________________

Grisham's blogs

• http://www.soldiersperspective.us">A Soldier's Perspective: Grisham's personal blog has had more than 856,000 visitors, more than 3,000 posts and more than 26,000 comments. About 12 guest bloggers — from all four services, including several general officers — also post.

• http://www.theyhavenames.com">They Have Names: A site dedicated to telling the individual stories of fallen service members in Iraq and Afghanistan.

• http://www.blogtalkradio.com/youserved">You Served Weekly BlogTalkRadio Podcast: A weekly Web radio show with a variety of guests of interest to the military community.

• http://www.twitter.com/cjgrisham">Twitter: Grisham's microblogging site.

• http://militarypundits.com">Military Pundits: A site for more politically charged commentary, launched by Grisham and now a collective for several writers.

___________________

Related reading

• Facebook face-off: Services squabble over future of social media

• DoD launches ‘Social Media Hub'

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