NEW YORK -- Dennis O'Brien, a military reporter with The Virginian-Pilot and a former Iraq war embed who died over the weekend, apparently committed suicide, according to sources in and outside the paper -- sparking speculation that his war experience might have contributed to his death.
The Virginian-Pilot reported Sunday that O'Brien, 35, had died Saturday, without revealing a cause.
Several editors at the paper would neither confirm nor deny that O'Brien took his own life. Norfolk police confirmed they had responded to a suicide on Saturday, but would not reveal the exact circumstances or the identity of the deceased. Several sources, however, said the reporter had taken his life, and suggested his time in Iraq may have played a role.
"I think it was a contributing factor," said one colleague, who requested anonymity. "He saw some awful things while he was over there. I saw things get worse when he got back. He did tell people it was an awful experience."
Coming just seven months after O'Brien returned from a nearly six-month reporting stint with a U.S. Marine unit in Iraq, his tragic death sparked concern among journalists about the potential deadly effects of war reporting.
"That is very distressing news," Sig Christenson, a military reporter for the San Antonio (Texas) Express-News and vice president of Military Reporters & Editors, said upon hearing about O'Brien. "People should try to know why it happened and if it had anything to do with the war."
Virginian-Pilot Managing Editor Denis Finley downplayed speculation that O'Brien's Iraq service might have been a factor. "I don't believe they are related," he said. "I am sure there are others who believe that. It was part of his job. I didn't see where it really affected him. It is something he wanted to do, and requested -- it was one of his dream assignments."
O'Brien, who joined the paper in July 2000, was one of the first embedded journalists in Iraq, joining Charlie Company of the U.S. Marines' 2nd Light Armor Reconnaissance Batallion in January 2003, traveling with the group until June 2003, according to the paper. The story also mentioned that he had been involved in an ambush while in Iraq, but was not injured.
O'Brien wrote about his war experiences in a July 27, 2003, story in the Virginian-Pilot: "I lost 30 pounds, and 4 inches off my waist. I also probably lost a little of my mind, but it's coming back -- I hope. I'm just glad that's all I lost.
"I can't tell you how many times the sailors and Marines told me I was crazy. They couldn't believe I volunteered for this. Never mind that they also had volunteered -- and for much longer tours of duty.
"They were just doing their job, they said. And I was doing mine."
Editors at the paper said they did not reveal the cause of death at the request of O'Brien's family. He was married with a two-year-old daughter.
Staff writer Steve Stone, who wrote Sunday's story, seemed prepared for readers seeking further information on the cause of death. He placed a message on his regular voice mail explaining that the cause was withheld at the family's request.
Kay Tucker Addis, Virginian-Pilot editor and vice president, said the paper does not normally cover suicides, but will on a case-by-case basis. "We don't believe it was a public incident," she said about O'Brien's death. "We covered it consistent with the way we cover the death of a fellow colleague."
Addis would not speculate on whether O'Brien's death was related to his time in Iraq, adding that "It would be wrong for people to leap to assumptions. I don't think it is appropriate for anyone to talk about what was his state of mind."
Professional grief counselors were brought in to the newspaper for two sessions with staff members on Monday, according to Addis, who said the paper also held two special staff meetings to discuss the incident. The paper is creating a memorial book of O'Brien's work and condolence cards and letters for his daughter, while also discussing formation of a trust fund for her.
In the paper's story Sunday, Addis said: "Dennis was a talented and committed journalist who touched people around the globe with his dispatches from Iraq." O'Brien wrote 67 stories during his coverage of the war "that gave a unique, up-close look at the war through the eyes of those on the front lines," she added.
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