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AP Enterprise: Internet self-portraits memorialize many of Iraq war’s fallen

    WASHINGTON — Army Pvt. Clinton Tyler McCormick is buried in Florida, but his photo and his words are still online. They haven’t changed since he logged in to his MySpace.com profile on Dec. 27, 2006 — the day before he was killed by a makeshift bomb in Baghdad.
    In earlier wars, families had only the letters that soldiers sent home; often, bits and pieces were removed by cautious censors. Iraq is the first war of the Internet age, and McCormick is one of many fallen soldiers who have left ghosts of themselves online — unsentimental self-memorials, frozen and uncensored snapshots of the person each wanted to show to the world.
    Army Pfc. Johnathon Millican of Trafford, Ala., wrote on his MySpace page before he was killed in Karbala, Iraq: ‘‘You don’t have to love the war but you have to love the warrior.’’
    ‘‘I am a paratrooper, that means that I jump from a perfectly good airplane into who knows what,’’ wrote Millican, who was 20 when he died. He never had the chance to move back to the southern United States, as his profile says he wanted to do.
    McCormick, 21 when he died, also was from the South. ‘‘Dixie boy,’’ his profile proclaims in big letters outlined in red. His photograph is a faraway headshot with an ironing board propped up against a white wall in the background. McCormick isn’t smiling.
    Bob Patrick, an Army veteran who runs the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress, says, ‘‘War as we know it and as we’re taught through schools, in most cases it’s through the filter ... of a historian.’’ MySpace pages, he says, ‘‘are grass-roots stories on the foxhole level, or the cockpit level.’’
      <B>YOUNG DEAD<B>
    The phenomenon is growing because the war dead are young — as of March 24, more than three-fourths of those killed in Iraq were 30 years old or younger — and comfortable putting personal information online.
    ‘‘A lot of the younger soldiers, especially young enlisted soldiers, have a MySpace page,’’ says Army Sgt. Tom Day, one of the living who has served three tours in Iraq and is currently deployed to Kuwait. MySpace has more than 100 million registered users.
    The result has been pictures of war that are ‘‘much more personal and much more public,’’ said the History Project’s Patrick. ‘‘That’s a function of technology.’’
    The number of soldiers who leave behind online profiles could drop after the Pentagon’s recent announcement that servicemembers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan won’t be able to access MySpace and other social Web sites from Defense Department computers. But the new rules don’t affect commercial or private computers — so soldiers will still be able to create profiles from their homes in the U.S. before they leave. They can also use Internet cafes or commercial connections to maintain their profiles from Iraq and Afghanistan.
    Even if the Pentagon blocks soldiers from accessing MySpace, Facebook or other sites, people will find a way to use the latest technologies to remember the fallen, said Peter Bartis, a senior program specialist at the Veterans History Project.
    ‘‘There is a part of the human psyche that wants to memorialize important people in their lives and important places,’’ Bartis said. ‘‘I think that cutting it off is interfering with a normal human behavior and that human behavior will find another way of doing it.’’
    MySpace, a unit of News Corp., has had to deal with the issue. ‘‘We often hear from families that a user’s profile is a way for friends to celebrate the person’s life, giving friends a positive outlet to connect with one another and find comfort during the grieving process,’’ said Dani Dudeck, a MySpace spokeswoman.
    MySpace won’t delete a profile for inactivity, and it also won’t let anyone else control a deceased member’s profile.
    Family and friends can create different memorial profiles as long as they comply with the site’s rules, and families can have a fallen soldier’s profile deleted.
    That could be a relief to some families because profiles suddenly frozen sometimes violate the tradition of not speaking ill of the dead. Some profiles linked to soldiers’ names include references to using illegal drugs or ethnic slurs for Iraqis. And some pages are rife with the profanity often forgiven in war zones.
    ‘‘Soldiers are soldiers, and soldiers use language when they’re in the middle of battle that they wouldn’t use at home,’’ said Patrick.
    Before his death in Iraq last year, Army Pfc. Nathaniel Given of Dickinson, Texas, posted a survey on his MySpace page that posed the question, ‘‘Do you swear?’’
    He answered: ‘‘What the (expletive) do you think, I’m in the infantry.’’
      <B>PUBLIC GRIEF<B>
    The profiles also have become public outlets and displays for grieving loved ones. Sgt. Day said that if the worst happened to him, he would want his MySpace profile to stay up. ‘‘I would hope people would save their photos and remember the good times we had and not dwell too much on how I went,’’ he said.
    Rev. John Harwell, who ministered to Pvt. McCormick at the Evangel Temple Assembly of God church in Jacksonville, Fla., discovered the Army private’s page after he died. ‘‘We left up MySpace for people as a guestbook sort of, for people to come and give thoughts and condolences,’’ Harwell said in an interview.
    McCormick, who went by his middle name, Tyler, had a tough family life, Harwell said. He was adopted at age 6, but didn’t get along with his adopted mother and spent some time living with another member of the church.
    ‘‘He really didn’t have a family, it’s one of the reasons he went into the military,’’ Harwell said. ‘‘When we read MySpace, we said, ’Who are all these people that Tyler was connected with, that we’ve never known before?’’’
    They are MySpace ‘‘friends’’ who have left comments attached to his profile — they didn’t have to visit a grave and leave flowers to say goodbye. Months later, some are still coping.
    ‘‘I can’t believe this. It’s my worst fear come true. I don’t know how I’m ever going to be able to accept this ... to know that you’re not coming home to me and I’ll never get to see your face and hold you in my arms where you belong,’’ Stacey Zeller, Tyler McCormick’s fiance, wrote the day after he died.
    Zeller, a 20-year-old student at the State University of New York-Canton, said in an e-mail to The Associated Press that she and McCormick planned to marry when he got out of the military. She said he sent a mysterious package from Iraq with instructions not to open it until he came home on leave, scheduled for February.
    She opened it when she found out he had died. ‘‘It was an engagement ring along with the wedding band,’’ she said.
    She posts on his MySpace page because it helps her deal with losing him. ‘‘It’s a way for me to feel like I can still communicate to him, still get my thoughts and feelings out,’’ she said.
    ‘‘You and God are where I pull my strength from every day,’’ she wrote on March 19, months after McCormick’s death, ‘‘just to get out of bed and continue on.’’
    ———
    Associated Press multimedia editor Matt Ford contributed to this report.
    ———
    On the Net:
    Clinton McCormick’s MySpace page: http://profile.myspace.com/65811933
    Nathaniel Given’s MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/natearmy2005
    Johnathon Millican’s MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/haiyoto
    Tom Day’s MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/hollywoodtd
    Veterans History Project: http://www.loc.gov/vets/

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