Lisa Chedekel ’82 was a recent finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting. Chedekel was nominated, along with fellow Harford Courant staff writer Matthew Kauffman, for a four-part exposé that revealed deficiencies in the U.S. military’s mental health system in Iraq and triggered a swift congressional response.
The nominated series, “Mentally Unfit: Forced to Fight,” first appeared in the Courant in May 2006. The story highlighted the military’s increased reliance on anti-depression and anti-anxiety medications to treat mentally unstable soldiers in the war zone. Coupled with inadequate counseling and monitoring of the medicated individuals, the practice may have induced a string of suicides that in 2005 reached a peak of 22.
In mid-2005, Chedekel and Kauffman were looking into different aspects of the U.S. military’s presence in Iraq and how manpower shortages could be leading to the proliferation of unqualified soldiers.
“We put in a batch of requests to the Pentagon for data related to mental health, and began calling troops and their families to talk about the issue,” Chedekel said. “Within a few months, it was clear we were onto a major story.”
Since the U.S. military does not tally suicides but rather lumps them into a category called “non-hostile deaths,” the reporters had to parse through the statistics to identify the suicides by a process of elimination. They found that at least 11 U.S. soldiers who committed suicide in 2004 and 2005 had previously been kept on duty despite “exhibiting signs of significant psychological distress.” In at least seven of these cases, military investigative records and interviews with families showed that superiors were aware of the problems.
During the unnerving task of contacting deceased soldiers’ families, Chedekel and Kauffman were surprised to receive welcoming and cooperative responses. They found that the family members, who were mostly pro-military, often unleashed resentment at the military for neglecting the mental health of their loved ones.
The series sparked a firestorm, especially among the American medical community and the government. Following the lead of senators Joseph Lieberman and Barbara Boxer, Congress added reforms to the Defense Authorization Bill of 2007 that called for a more exhaustive mental health assessment before deployment, and required that pre-deployed soldiers who exhibit symptoms of mental problems be referred to mental health professionals for further evaluations.
The reforms also spurred Dr. William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for Health Affairs, to impose a set of guidelines in November mandating stricter supervision and treatment of mentally unfit soldiers as well as those placed on psychotropic medications.
While at the University, Chedekel never anticipated her ascent into the top ranks of journalism, let alone a career in the field. Her decision to major in English led to the pursuit of an interest in non-fiction writing, but she still had not discovered a suitable career path by graduation.
“I literally stumbled into newspapers about a month after I graduated, when I was looking for a waitressing job in New Haven, and a manager at one of the restaurants that turned me down asked me what kind of job I really wanted,” she said. “When I mentioned writing, she pointed me down the street to the offices of the New Haven Advocate, a weekly newspaper. I walked in and asked if they were hiring, and the woman at the front desk told me to drop off a résumé and a few writing samples. I brought back a one-paragraph résumé, highlighting my status as an All-New England Lacrosse player—I had little else to boast about—and a 20-page term paper on Chaucer. Remarkably, they hired me.”
During her 18-month stint at the Advocate, Chedekel covered crime and corruption stories in New Haven. She worked for the New Haven Register as a staff writer for the next seven years before signing on with the Courant, for which she has covered a wide array of issues.
“I’ve had great opportunities here in 14 years and have covered almost every beat imaginable—from the state capital to the Hartford schools to immigration,” Chedekel said. “I’ve visited sweatshops in Mexico that make T-shirts for UConn and traveled to Saudi Arabia to capture the mood there after 9/11.”
Chedekel has previously won a Pulitzer Prize, sharing an award in the Breaking News category for a story about a quadruple homicide at the Connecticut Lottery Corporation. Still, she underscored the satisfaction she received from the nomination.
“This one was especially meaningful, because it’s in the ‘Investigative Reporting’ category,” she said. “With all the downsizing and retrenching that newspapers are doing these days, it’s really rewarding to be recognized for the kind of in-depth, old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting that went into the soldiers’ series.”
Chedekel and Kauffman have already received a host of accolades for the “Mentally Unfit” series, including the George Polk Award for Military Reporting, the Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Reporting, and the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting, which included a $35,000 prize.
The Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting, announced Monday, went to Brent Blackledge of The Birmingham News for his coverage of corruption in Alabama’s two-year college system that led to the dismissal of the system’s chancellor and other reforms.
Chedekel’s victory in 1999 adds her to a short list of Wesleyan Pulitzer Prize winners, including David Garrow ’75 for Biography and Alan Miller ’76 for National Reporting.
During graduation weekend, Chedekel and education writer Linda Perlstein ’92 will give a lecture called, “Digging in: Master Journalists Discuss In-depth Reporting and Storytelling.” According to Chedekel, the lecture will focus on “the challenges and rewards of trying to educate readers about complex issues in this instant-news world.”