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Monday, October 11, 2004 - Page updated at 09:38 A.M.

Mike Fancher / Times executive editor
Story on virus moved readers and Pentagon


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When Michael Berens joined The Seattle Times in July, he was introduced to the staff as one of the nation's finest investigative reporters and one of the nicest, most helpful people you'll ever meet.

Those qualities have shown clearly in Berens' handling of his first project for The Times, last Sunday's story about a virus afflicting the military. Berens earned the trust of those closest to the story, the doctors and the families with sons and daughters in the armed forces. His story brought quick, positive response from the Pentagon and from readers.

The nub of the story is that the Pentagon developed oral vaccines to fight a lethal respiratory virus infecting recruits, but defense officials stopped using them to save money. "Now recruits are dying, thousands are falling ill, and the military is desperately racing to bring back a vaccine it once owned," Berens reported.

Adenovirus infects 1 in 10 recruits. It has been associated with the deaths of four recruits in the past year.

Berens reported Wednesday that the Defense Department is speeding up efforts to deal with the epidemic. "I was gratified that the Pentagon was willing to come forward and say a mistake was made and we're going to fix it," he said.

The heroes of this story, he said, are the military and civilian doctors who dedicate their lives to protecting soldiers and who themselves were frustrated and concerned. "The doctors were thrilled that someone in the media cared about this issue as they did," he said.

The military practices some of the best medicine in the world and has the best surveillance systems to detect medical problems, Berens said. After all, the military helped find this virus and created the vaccines to fight it.

"But they still have a lot of shortcomings, and they know that," he said.

Reader response to the story included poignant messages from military families whose sons and daughters have fallen ill.

One mother whose son was sick for weeks wrote, "He didn't go to a Dr. on base because if they get pulled out they have to redo Basic Training all over again. They're also not allowed to have any over the counter medication in Basic Training unless they get it from a base doctor. So most of them don't go to the doctor. They stay sick longer and just keep passing it around."
 
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Another whose son got sick wrote, "Most people told me I was an over-protective mom. I was so angry at the military for treating our young soldiers with such little concern and I'm still angry. I could have lost him to a virus which could have been controlled, not for our country which he is ready to die for if he must."

Berens wants to learn more about the culture in boot camp, where every minute is precious. Instructors struggle to distinguish "some guy who wants to slack off from one who really is suffering a medical malady."

Berens found that if recruits complain of illness they may get superficial care. Often they don't complain, because "a lot of soldiers don't want that tag in their file.

"That's an issue I'm obviously going to explore. Their system doesn't seem to be working as well as it should."

His next step will be to interview one of the people who responded to his story, the mother of a soldier. "He tried to tough it out and he ultimately collapsed and died," Berens said.

He also wants to explore the effects of adenovirus beyond the military. "This virus is more than a military germ. It is considered a military germ because they are the only ones tracking it."

Berens acknowledges "there is a crusading aspect to what we do, but we temper it by being as accurate, fair and balanced as possible.

"I like to question conventional wisdom. Is this the way it should be? Is it working properly? Is it safe?"

He then looks for the human texture behind a story and how to express it in quantifiable ways. His report on adenovirus had a stunning amount of detail. The story and much of the documentation behind it are available at seattletimes.com/virus.

Spend a little time with Berens and you quickly appreciate how much he cares about people. "This isn't a job for me. It's a calling. It's a privilege to be the observer and storyteller of other people's lives."

Berens spent the first 16 years of his career at The Columbus Dispatch in his native Ohio. He came to The Times after seven years at the Chicago Tribune.

His investigative work, especially on health-care issues, has won some 60 awards. More importantly, it has changed laws and saved lives.

We're lucky to have such a respected journalist and nice person at The Times.

If you have a comment on news coverage, write to Michael R. Fancher, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, call 206-464-3310 or send e-mail to mfancher@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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