What if the Jayson Blair Was on the Other Foot?

Big trouble at the New York Times Magazine this morning, as an editors' note reveals that one of the women who appeared in last week's cover story on female Iraq veterans never served in Iraq and might have made up much of what she told reporter Sara Corbett in her interview.

In the original article, 27-year-old Amorita Randall (pictured) claimed to have been stationed in Iraq during 2004. She also said that she suffered a brain injury during a roadside attack, in which her Humvee was hit by an I.E.D. Today, the Times writes that, "Based on the information that came to light after the article was printed, it is now clear that Ms. Randall did not serve in Iraq, but may have become convinced she did."

A few post-publication revelations seem to have revealed that while Randall stands by her story, official Navy records show that she was not in Iraq, but Guam.

A fact-checker from the Times first called the Navy on March 6, three days before the issue was supposed to print. According to the editors' note, "There was preliminary back and forth but no detailed reply until hours before the deadline." At that point, a Navy spokesman told the Times that they had no record of the Humvee incident or of Randall's brain injury, and that "Randall's commander, who served in Iraq, remembered her but said that her unit was never involved in combat while it was in Iraq." All that information was added into the article, but the basic facts of Randall's story—namely, that she'd been in Iraq—remained intact because she had won a medal that was only awarded to people who'd served in a combat area.

On March 12th, three days after the Times put the issue to bed, the Navy got in touch with the fact-checkers again with seemingly conclusive evidence that Randall had never served in Iraq. The medal, they said, had turned out to have been awarded on the basis of a clerical error.

According to an article in the Air Force Times, the Navy people are "annoyed that the Times did so little to check the woman's story." Capt. Tom Van Leunen, deputy chief of information for the Navy, told the paper that the New York Times' fact-checker called too late and didn't allow enough time for a proper confirmation. The fact-checkers object but Van Leunen maintains that the Navy had given the Times enough info on Randall by deadline "to seriously question whether she'd been in Iraq."

Gerry Marzorati, the editor of the Sunday Magazine, told the Air Force Times that he doesn't think Randall was lying on purpose. "I think she thinks she was in Iraq," he is quoted as saying. "I don't think she was trying to pull the wool over our eyes."

To her credit, Corbett emphasized from the get-go the hazy nature of Randall's recollections about the Humvee attack and her service in Iraq in general. "I don't remember all of it," Randall is quoted as saying, "I don't know if I passed out or what, but it was pretty gruesome."

If you look at all the hedge-words and qualifiers Corbett uses to describe Randall in the piece, it's pretty clear that she had some reservations about the woman's story. By way of introduction, she wrote of Randall's tendency to "[coexist] with her memories"—to "mostly [inch] up to them" instead of just remembering what happened.

You can see Corbett covering her tracks in the original piece, saying that, when it comes to post-traumatic stress disorder, the truth of what happened is less important than the way someone remembers it:

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.
—LEON

The Women's War [NYT Magazine]
Corrections [NYT]
Navy Disputes War Story Told by Former Sailor [Air For Times]