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War story told by former sailor disputed

Deployment to Iraq not in personnel record; paper issues correction

Mar. 25, 2007 - 12:34PM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 25, 2007 - 12:34PM  |  
The Sunday New York Times Magazine from March 19 featured stories of female veterans grappling with emotional problems. The Navy says one subject of the piece, former Builder Constructionman Amorita Randall, never served in Iraq, despite her claims to the Times.
The Sunday New York Times Magazine from March 19 featured stories of female veterans grappling with emotional problems. The Navy says one subject of the piece, former Builder Constructionman Amorita Randall, never served in Iraq, despite her claims to the Times. (James J. Lee / Staff)
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The March 18 Sunday New York Times Magazine cover story was a gripping account of the emotional problems some female veterans suffer as results of their war experiences, sexual assaults or both.

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The March 18 Sunday New York Times Magazine cover story was a gripping account of the emotional problems some female veterans suffer as results of their war experiences, sexual assaults or both.

One of the women featured in the story was a former builder constructionman Amorita Randall, 27, who served six years as a Seabee. Randall told the Times that while in the Navy, she was raped twice — in 2002 while she was stationed in Mississippi, and again in Guam in 2004. She also told the Times that she served in Iraq in 2004, which the Times reported as fact but which it now appears was not the case.

The story was written by Sara Corbett, a contract writer for the magazine. Here's how Corbett presented it: "Her experience in Iraq, she said, included one notable combat incident, in which her Humvee was hit by an I.E.D., killing the soldier who was driving and leaving her with a brain injury. ‘I don't remember as all of it ? I don't know if I passed out or what, but it was pretty gruesome.' "

The story goes on:

"According to the Navy, however, no after-action report exists to back up Randall's claims of combat exposure or injury. A Navy spokesman reports that her commander says that his unit was never involved in combat during her tour. And yet, while we were discussing the supposed I.E.D. attack, Randall appeared to recall it in exacting detail — the smells, the sounds, the impact of the explosion. As she spoke, her body seemed to seize up; her speech became slurred as she slipped into a flashback. It was difficult to know what had traumatized Randall: whether she had in fact been in combat or whether she was reacting to some more generalized recollection of powerlessness."

The Navy, while expressing sympathy to a woman it believes is suffering from stress, is annoyed that the Times did so little to check the woman's story. A Times fact checker contacted Navy headquarters only three days before the magazine's deadline. That, said Capt. Tom Van Leunen, deputy chief of information for the Navy, did not provide enough time to confirm Randall's account of service in Iraq. Nonetheless, Van Leunen said, by deadline the Navy had provided enough information to the Times "to seriously question whether she'd been in Iraq."

Aaron Rectica, who runs the magazine's research desk, disputes that. He said that by deadline, the Navy had not given the Times any reason to disbelieve Randall's claim of service in Iraq. Rectica said the Navy only told the paper that Randall's commanders believed she'd been in Iraq but that no one in the unit had been in combat.

Unlike daily newspapers, which are usually printed very early on the day they are distributed, the Times' magazine is printed a week ahead of time. The March 18 magazine went to press Friday, March 9. On the following Monday, March 12, the Navy told the Times that it had no record of Randall ever receiving hazardous duty pay or a combat zone tax exemption. One of the reasons for the Times' apparent error was a medal. Randall's personnel file includes a Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, which is only awarded to troops who have served in a war zone. The Navy now says that medal was given to Randall in error.

Reached by phone at her home in Grand Junction, Colo., Randall declined to talk but gave the phone to her fiancé, Gregory Lund.

"This lady was sexually assaulted twice in the Navy and no one was ever punished for it," he said. While the Navy says it can find no rape complaint, Lund says she told her doctors about the assaults.

"She went through a lot." Lund said. But he admits he doesn't know for sure if Randall was ever in Iraq.

"If she wasn't, it was a bad mistake on her part," he said. But, he added, "For her to cope with [all she's been through], her mind somehow believes she was in Iraq ? She doesn't remember anything in Iraq . If she was wrong about that, she's sorry. But what you folks need to realize is how traumatized she is. If she's wrong, I don't know. She doesn't know."

The editor of the magazine, Gerry Marzorati, said he now suspects Randall was never in Iraq.

"I think she thinks she was in Iraq," he said. "I don't think she was trying to pull the wool over our eyes."

The magazine did not call the Navy to check Randall's Iraq story sooner, Marzorati said, because they believed that checking rank, years of service and time in Iraq "would be a perfunctory thing."

He added that no one has challenged the military records of the 30 other women mentioned in the article.

On Sunday, The Times published http://www.nytimes.com/ref/pageoneplus/corrections.html">a correction to the March 18 cover story. In it, the Times states that "it is now clear that Ms. Randall did not serve in Iraq, but may have become convinced she did."

The correction also noted that since the article was published last week, Randall herself asked a member of her unit as to whether she served in Iraq. According to The Times, the sailor told Randall that she had not been deployed there.

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