Canadian Controversy Over Mother Jones' Article of a Doctor's Account of Cpl. Megeney's Death: The Editors Respond

| Sat Aug. 4, 2007 3:36 PM EDT

There's a lot of controversy in Canada over the Mother Jones article by Dr. Kevin Patterson, "Talk to Me Like My Father: Frontline Medicine in Afghanistan," published in our July/August issue.

This 7,000 word diary of Dr. Patterson's time serving at the military hospital at Kandahar Air Field culminates with a scene in which Dr. Patterson (a Canadian) is on call when Canadian Cpl. Kevin Megeney, who'd just been accidentally shot by another soldier in his own tent, was brought in to the ER. Cpl. Megeney arrived unconscious, his pupils fixed and dilated. Dr. Patterson and the other doctors at hand tried to do what they could—including opening his chest with a "clamshell incision"—but the bullet had entered his heart.

The controversy started when the The News—a community paper that serves Pictou County, Nova Scotia, where parts of the Megeney family live—reported that George Megeney, Cpl. Megeney's uncle, was upset that Dr. Patterson described the methods used to try to save his nephew, and did not disguise his identity:

"Had he not identified Kevin, it would have been bad enough," he said. The use of the soldier's name – and lack of permission from the family to identify him – has Megeney questioning the author's ethics.
He said the first the family heard of the article was when he and Kevin's parents received a letter from Mother Jones advising them that the magazine was publishing a story with graphic content about the death, and offering to send them copies of the magazine prior to publication.

Which is more or less correct. But what The News failed to report (in part because it didn't talk to us or Dr. Patterson) in its initial article was that I spoke to Cpl. Megeney's mother at length by phone and that even after reading the article, some members of the immediate family wrote us to thank us for publishing the article and Dr. Patterson for doing all he could to try to save Cpl. Megeney. Here's the response that I posted on our website after a few people who'd read The News article wrote in to express their outrage:

As the co-editor of Mother Jones, I would like to make a few things clear in regards to the part of this story that involves Cpl. Kevin Megeney. First, we sent a letter to Cpl. Megeney's parents, uncle, and sisters, ahead of publication, informing them that this 7,000 word diary of a doctor's month of service at Kandahar Air Field did contain a scene involving the tragic death of their son. That it was written by a doctor present when Cpl. Megeney was brought in for emergency surgery, and that it would likely be disturbing to those close to him. We offered to send it to them or any intermediary they would like if they thought it would be too disturbing to read it themselves.
I then spoke with Mrs. Megeney by phone at length. She assured me that the family would like to see the article, and that she was a nurse and would read it before any other members of her family; she said it would help to have closure to know more about what happened. We heard from other members of the family who also wanted to read it, and some whom, after they did, expressed the desire to write to Dr. Patterson "to express my appreciation to him for exhausting every effort to save [him]." They asked that we link to Cpl. Megeney's memorial site, which we were already planning on doing, so our readers would have a chance to express their condolences [they've since asked that it be removed. See below].
As to the question of anonymity: The death of Cpl. Megeney was an extremely well covered story in Canada. There was no way to write about the incident and not have it be instantly clear to any member of his family or any member of the Canadian press, or anyone who'd followed the story who we were talking about simply by omitting his name. So we felt it would be false anonymity at best. Doctors can and do publicly talk about how patients die when the story is already in the news--consider press conferences following tragic accidents. And there was certainly nothing in this account that disparaged Cpl. Megeney, who served his country admirably and died in a tragic accident.
This was an extremely emotional story to work on. The account of Cpl. Megeney's death was particularly poignant, but there were many other stories in there of death and injury to soldiers and civilians that are hard to read. But in our opinion for the greater public to live in denial about what happens in a war does a disservice to those soldiers who serve and the civilians who are affected.

I could go into greater detail about our correspondence with the Megeney family, but I'm not going to. They have the right to disagree amongst themselves or to change their minds, individually or collectively, about their reaction to the article. And they have a right to express those views publicly. Their loss and their grief is their own.

But now, perhaps emboldened by (or having stirred up) this controversy, the Canadian military has announced that it will investigate if Dr. Patterson—who is a veteran of the Canadian army but went over there as a civilian because the Canadian army (like our own) is running out of enlisted doctors—violated any military rules or ethics by writing about the event. (No one, I might add, is questioning the factual basis of the article, which was rigorously fact-checked. Just whether it was okay to recount the facts.)

Now, I can't look into the military's heart and know why it is investigating Dr. Patterson. But I can say that in multiple conversations I've had in the past 24 hours with various members of the Canadian press, they've all told me off the record that they a) thought the article was great, sensitive to all parties, and responsible b) an antidote to the sanitized coverage of the war c) that the Canadian military was mostly upset because this kind of realistic account of the war (or any war) "hurts recruiting," and d) they get upset whenever they can't control the press. Particularly around a friendly-fire incident, as the Pat Tillman incident has taught Americans quite well.

I can however speak to Dr. Patterson's character, which is being maligned by some on various comments boards. I've known Dr. Patterson for nearly a decade. In addition to serving Canada in the military as young man, he took the risk to go to Afghanistan and treat allied personnel and Afghan civilians. He's also worked in Inuit and tropical communities treating TB patients (which he wrote about in "The Patient Predator" for Mother Jones; the reporting inspired his novel Consumption, which has just come out to rave reviews.). In sum, he's not only a great writer, but a truly fine human being. Were I, or anyone I loved, sick or injured, I could only hope to come under the care of someone as compassionate as he.

And on the subject of compassion: At the Megeney family's request, we've removed the link to Kevin Megeney's memorial site as some people on our site—that means you, "Jackie"—were using it to mock the family. Those posts have been deleted and we will continue to monitor. I would ask any visitor to our site that no matter what your feelings about the war in Afghanistan or Iraq that you not conflate your political opinions with other people's loss.

You can read more about the controversy at the Globe and Mail here and subsequent comments, where I've weighed in, but that has mostly deteriorated into a shouting match about the war itself here. A CBC radio interview with Dr. Patterson can be found here. And an account by the (Nova Scotia) Chronicle Herald, is here. More from The News here and here. And of course people have weighed in on our site here.

You can also view a photo essay by Canadian photographer Lana Slezic on the plight of women in Afghanistan. And CNN terror analyst and Taliban expert Peter Bergen lists ten reasons why the war in Afghanistan is starting to look more like Iraq here.