Lee Kelley

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LANCE CLAYTON FOR TIME

Milblogger Lee Kelly on an old road just off the edge of Great Salt Lake, near Salt Lake City proper.

Captain Lee Kelley is 35 and hails from New Orleans. He spent 12 years in the Army without once being posted overseas, but that streak ended in June 2005 when he volunteered for service in Iraq and became a signal officer at Camp Blue Diamond in Ramadi. He has always been a writer—he has noodled around with a novel, done some freelance journalism. But it turns out he had to go all the way to Iraq to find his voice.

Kelley needed a way to convey to his family—especially his kids—what he was going through. As he puts it, "something I could leave behind if, God forbid, something happened to me." That's why he started taking some nonstandard gear with him on patrol: a notebook. "Work could last either eight hours or 20," he says. "I began to look forward to sitting down to write at the end of it." When he went off duty, he would grab a shower and then bang out a story about what had just happened. "Even though I was writing down what had happened in Ramadi that day," he says, "this was sort of an escape from the violence all around me."

Kelley is a military blogger, or mil-blogger, one of at least 1,200 servicemen and -women who write about their lives online. So far his blog, Wordsmith At War, has logged more than 200,000 hits. Mil-bloggers are a different breed from the domestic blogger who keeps, say, a record of his cat's mood swings. Here's Kelley on driving in Ramadi: "You have to go around big potholes and chunks of concrete blocking part of the lane. It's not a good feeling, because all your training tells you that these are ideal sites for IEDs ... The threat is very real, and you can sense it in the air. You can't think 'it won't happen to us,' you have to assume it will. Yet we discuss it in the same tone we might talk about last night's football game."

If Vietnam was the first war to be televised, Iraq is the first to be blogged—and YouTubed. Kelley says he and other soldiers are disappointed by how the media portray the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. "If you looked at all the coverage, you'd think the whole thing is a huge mess waiting to blow up. I sometimes wonder where these reporters are. I guess it's not exciting enough to write about schools being built." Kelley and his fellow mil-bloggers aren't just writing letters to their families. Unlike generations of soldiers before them, they're writing for history. "If they are archived, blogs will give the best account of this war," Kelley says. "No one knows what's going on better than the soldiers on the front lines."

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—Reported by Jeremy Caplan and Kathleen Kingsbury/New York, Susan Jakes/Beijing, Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles, Grant Rosenberg/Paris and Bryan Walsh/Seoul