Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

Ilona Meagher
Ilona Meagher

Why vets bristle
at public fascination
with celebrities

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News Release

Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635

August 29, 2007

Ilona Meagher, NIU’s ‘citizen journalist,’
becomes voice for veterans with PTSD

DeKalb, Ill. — Summer didn’t exactly provide a break for Northern Illinois University’s Ilona Meagher.

Since the spring semester closed, Meagher published a new book, embarked on a cross-country speaking tour and cemented her reputation as a leading voice for combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Meagher has been quoted widely in the media, ranging from The New York Times to Pat Buchanan’s magazine, The American Conservative. In August, she served as a panel member, along with Gen. Wesley Clark, at the annual convention of the popular liberal blog, the Daily Kos. She even received a phone call one morning recently from presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, who said he was moved by her book.

These would be heady accomplishments for any faculty member. But Meagher isn’t a professor, she’s a student at NIU—a junior studying journalism.

“It’s been an incredible journey,” Meagher says from her home office in small-town Caledonia, northeast of Rockford. A 41-year-old former flight attendant, Meagher is not your traditional student, nor is she a traditional journalist.

Her work would best be described as “citizen journalism”—the use of blogs and new media by people at the grassroots level to collect, report, analyze and disseminate news and information.

And while her role as an advocate for victims of PTSD became more prominent this past summer, it wasn’t achieved overnight.

Her book, “Moving a Nation to Care: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and America’s Returning Troops,” was the result of a year of intense research, but her journey really began in August 2005. That’s when she read a story in Seattle Weekly titled, “Homefront Casualties.”

The article focused on seven homicides and three suicides in the State of Washington involving active troops or veterans of Iraq. One incident in particular struck a nerve with Meagher. Army Specialist Leslie Frederick Jr. had served with distinction in Iraq. Stateside, he became among the first soldiers to receive the U.S. Army’s new Combat Action Badge.

Less than two weeks after receiving the award in a formal ceremony, he committed suicide.

“I wanted to know what happened to him, so I started digging,” Meagher says. “And I wondered how much this was going on. I realized that PTSD affects not only soldiers but also their families, employers, churches and communities.”

She began collecting media reports of combat-related PTSD incidents. Eventually her work developed into the “PTSD Timeline” that is now maintained by ePluribus Media, a citizen-journalism initiative. The only public collection of possible, probable and confirmed reports of post-combat reintegration difficulties, the timeline has been accessed by dozens of media outlets and government offices.

“That’s the most significant contribution I’ve made on this issue. No one else was keeping track of this information,” Meagher says. “All types of news media, from The New Yorker to the New Republic, have used the database in their reporting.”

Meagher also launched an online blog, “PTSD Combat: Winning the War Within.” In the spring of 2006, her work drew the attention of Ig Publishing in New York, which asked her to write a book on the plight of returning veterans. Meagher devoted herself to the project, reading all she could on PTSD and interviewing veterans, their family members, veterans’ advocates and medical experts.

“Moving a Nation to Care” was published in late May 2007.

“The whole point of the book is to bring the average person, just like me, up to speed on the issue of PTSD,” Meagher says. “I also wanted to provide a resource for veterans and military families, while pointing out why average citizens should care about the issue and what they can do about it.”

The book frames present day debates over PTSD in the context of history. Meagher found mentions of combat stress in ancient Greek writings and eventually chronicled 80 different names for the disorder, including nostalgia, hysteria, shellshock, buck fever, combat fatigue, battle reaction and disorderly action of the heart. Her studies at NIU helped as she researched and wrote the book—and worked to publicize it.

“So many of my professors went out of their way to help me,” Meagher says. “They gave me opportunities to practice my presentations and broadcast news of my work to others. And they gave me personal assurances that I could accomplish my goals.”

In Communication Professor Jeff Chown’s class, Meagher studied films on Iraq, learned about Middle East history and participated in intense discussion about representations of the war. In an honors class taught by English Professor Steve Franklin, her work would crop up in discussions about the great thinkers throughout history and their views toward war. Franklin, himself a veteran, took an interest in her work outside of the classroom as well.

“Ilona is really engaged in life, in terms of politics, policy and contemporary and moral issues,” Franklin says. “She provides an exemplary example for students and citizens.”

Communication Professor Laura Vazquez led Meagher to resources for her book and helped her prepare for speaking in front of a camera. Meagher also presented her work to students in the classes of Instructor Jason Akst.

“My students were just stunned,” Akst said. “What she’s accomplished so far is a testament not only to her work but also to the rise and possibility of citizen journalism.”

Meagher continues to be active as an advocate for PTSD. She recently visited Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which is giving copies of her book to military chaplains. Just last week she served as a panel member on a discussion of PTSD that followed a screening in Chicago of “In the Valley of Elah,” the story of an Iraq War veteran’s disappearance, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon.

Akst says he expects more great things from Meagher in the future.

“I’ve already asked her what her next book is going to be about,” he says.

Related links
Ilona’s blog, “PTSD Combat: Winning the War Within“:
PTSD timeline:

“Why vets bristle at public fascination with celebrities”