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:: By Katie Brandt

:: Photo by Dan Dry

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:: Arts & Letters

A veteran’s voice

Matthew Currier Burden uses his blog to tell soldiers’ stories.

Matthew Currier Burden, SM’02, uses his blog to comment on war news and tell individual soldiers’ stories. In some ways, his blog is like the dozens of other outlets offering commentary on the Iraq war. But Blackfive differs noticeably from the norm. Burden’s an ex–army man who enlisted at 17, beginning as a paratrooper and eventually joining Special Operations. In service through Europe and Asia, he lived the stories of his fellow infantrymen. He knows things about that life that the folks back home—whose tax money pays for RPGs and MREs—don’t.


In memoriam: ex–army man Matthew Currier Burden blogs for a fallen friend, Mathew Schram.

Now Burden works as an IT executive in Chicago, responsible for engineering computer networks. But he also uses computers to write about things he feels passionately about, and even though writing isn’t his first nature, Burden says, “it’s easy.”

Burden started Blackfive—named after the military call sign executive officers use “to make things happen,” he explained in an interview with—in 2003 with the story of his friend, Major Mathew Schram. Schram was killed in a surprise roadside attack on his convoy, and Burden, a Gulf War veteran then safe at home in the States, couldn’t get his friend’s death off his mind. He wanted to do something.

So he started the blog. At first Burden only posted about individual soldiers, stories about people he knew—other vets and those still fighting. News of his military blog, or “milblog,” spread through word of mouth. Troops overseas read it, as did their families: “people hungry for news they [couldn’t] really get anywhere else.” Three hundred e-mails a day soon flooded Burden’s inbox—most from troops on the front lines who wanted to let him know what was happening.

In October 2004, a year into Blackfive, Burden reported on a soldier named Joey Bozik who had lost both legs and an arm when he drove over a desert land mine near Baghdad. Bozik then contracted a drug-resistant bacterial infection caused by the pathogen Acinetobacter baumannii, not found in the States. At the end of his post, Burden listed an address where people could send donations to help Bozik’s mother and wife afford a hotel and food while staying near his hospital bedside. Within 24 hours Burden collected $30,000. One anonymous donor, a corporate executive, donated most of that money.

By 2006 the blog was getting 2 million hits a year, and Simon & Schuster approached Burden about publishing an anthology, The Blog of War. When the book came out a Vanity Fair reviewer wrote, “Grab it before the Pentagon orders it burned on the ever growing bonfire of lost civil liberties.” It has since sold 20,000 copies.

Balancing home life with a full-time job, school (he’s working toward an MBA at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), and preparing the book forced Burden to recruit other Blackfive contributors. Ten writers now post, and most are veterans. While Burden tries to remain neutral on political topics, not all the writers do. Contributor “Uncle Jimbo” makes clear his feelings on a Washington Post reporter embedded with Iraq’s Mahdi Army in a March 29 post: “Let there be no doubt that the press is not on our team,” he writes, referring to reporters whose tactics he disagrees with. “[O]ur media has no qualms about engaging with (not in the proper way), reporting on, and essentially becoming terrorist press agents.”

Blackfive gets 8 million page views annually, a fraction of the readership of mainstream sites, but several generals overseas have been quoted in national newspapers about their devotion to Burden’s blog. In a 2007 Washington Post article Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, who serves in Iraq, listed Blackfive as one of his three favorite blogs.

Burden’s popularity earns him occasional panel appearances on Fox News Channel and CNN. When an April 17, 2007, army regulation required active-duty soldiers to get permission from their supervisors before publishing frontline information in public forums, “a perceived crackdown on bloggers,” reported a May 2007 article, Burden was an oft-quoted source: “I worry that we’re losing the information war and am trying to find ways to make some victories for our military. … When was the last time you read a story about the combat effectiveness of a unit in Afghanistan or Iraq?”

His blog’s increased popularity also brings some hate mail. Most he doesn’t respond to. Readers have accused him of being in cahoots with George W. Bush and receiving oil money. A couple of e-mail threats have shaken Burden so badly that he’s gone to the FBI.

The threats don’t keep him from writing Blackfive, though. Schram and others live on, Burden says, because he makes sure no one forgets. He dedicated one post to his friend Cooter, a Kentucky man whom Burden met in the army. Coot died in Afghanistan. As Burden drove to work early one morning, the Metallica version of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Tuesday’s Gone” came on the radio. His mind wound back to the last dinner he and Coot shared, when the restaurant’s band started playing the same song. Coot jumped up singing and cajoled Burden into joining him.

“And now I’m in the car and thinking of Coot and hearing the song and thinking of that night—thinking of his wife and wondering how she’s doing and that I should call her,” he wrote in an August 17, 2005, blog post. “So now, my eyes are a bit wet and the guy in the Lexus next to me is wondering what’s up with the guy in the Ford, singing loudly and out of tune?”

Burden ended his post with lines from the song: “Tuesday’s gone with the wind, but somehow I’ve got to carry on.”