• Learning about the arcane world of stock numbers and missile launchers

    Missile Launcher and Jarrette Schule

    Jarrette Schule found what appears to be an anti-tank missile launcher on his rural property in the Hill Country. My video about this weird discovery was posted last night. Here’s the story with more details.

    One of the interesting things about journalism is you learn something new every day. And this odd story definitely qualifies. When I visited Jarrette and saw the missile launcher, I realized I would have to try to confirm if this thing was actually real. So I started taking a ton of pictures of it — especially of this decal on the side:

    Decal of Missile Launcher

    When I got home I studied that photo. I keyed in on the “NSN” term. I had never heard of it before but it seemed kind of like a social security number for military hardware. It turned out “NSN” stands for “National Stock Number” and it’s used to identify military equipment. Stock numbers are widely used and have even been fictionalized. The pulse rifles in “Alienshave stock numbers, which makes Aliens even more awesome.

    I looked for official government Web sites to learn more about this particular stock number and found this searchable database maintained by the U.S. Defense Logistics Information Service. The URL of the Web page ends in a “.mil,” meaning it’s a military site. As a reporter, that’s the kind of thing I look for — authentic sources of information.

    This site allows you to plug in a stock number and I typed in the 13-digit number from the decal. The query returned a match. I got a report stating this number is for launchers that fire Dragon surface-to-surface missiles. It didn’t prove conclusively that this launcher was real, but it was a piece of the puzzle, and I was more comfortable writing a story about the discovery.

    Thanks to Jarrette for being a good sport and letting me learn something new about the arcane world of military stock numbers and anti-tank missile launchers.

  • San Antonio man finds missile launcher on property, can’t return it to military

    San Antonio man finds missile launcher on property  can t return it to military   John TedescoI got a tip last night about Jarrette Schule, who found what appears to be a missile launcher on his rural property. I wrote a story that’s running tomorrow but the video is up right now.

    A lot of the in-depth stories I work on take weeks, even months, so quirky stories like this one can be a nice break. Jarrette was a good sport and let me hang out for quite a while as we both marveled at a freakin’ missile launcher.

  • A primer on Michael Fontana, a nurse accused of killing three patients

    Michael FontanaLast week military reporter Scott Huddleston and I covered the story of Capt. Michael Fontana, a nurse who has been charged by the Air Force of killing three patients at Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio.

    This is Military City, USA, and there’s lots of interest in the case and concern about it. Here are links to official sources, and stories by the San Antonio Express-News and other media:

  • The Air Force issued a press release announcing the charges against Fontana. At this point, this is the only document about the case that has been released by the military.

  • This is our first story about the patient deaths and the charges against Fontana. “As far as we can tell, he’s been an exemplary nurse,” said Dave Smith, public affairs chief for the Air Education and Training Command at Randolph AFB.

  • This story by the Austin American-Statesman detailed the case and disclosed Fontana’s past job as a paramedic in Austin, where he didn’t generate any complaints.

  • Our follow-up story identified one of the likely patients who had been treated by Fontana. Her name was Dorothy Gray, a 74-year-old stroke victim from Natalia, Texas. According to an autopsy report, Gray died from “intoxication” of morphine, a painkiller, and lorazepam, a sleep-aid, which caused complications to Gray’s health and led to her death.

    The story was based on an autopsy report and an investigation report by the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s office. Gray’s death was ruled a homicide.

    Gray’s family declined to be interviewed. Her obituary described her as a charming woman who wasn’t originally from Texas, but who often said she got here as fast as she could.

  • A story by WOAI followed up our article by interviewing residents in Natalia who knew Dorothy Gray.

  • A story by the Austin American-Statesman delved deeper into Fontana’s work history and found numerous commendations for his past efforts to save his patients.
  • I’ll post more links in the coming weeks. Feel free to contact me if you have information about the case.

  • Bush’s Vietnam-era records online


    Journalists vacuum up all kinds of information when they work on a story. Many times the interesting documents we’ve gathered end up in filing cabinets, forgotten, as we move on to the next thing.

    In his guide Journalism 2.0, Mark Briggs argues that the modern age of the Internet emphasizes sharing — not hiding — information. And if newspapers are going to thrive, we need to open up our filing cabinets and share our primary documents with our readers.

    So when I found an old CD of Vietnam-era records that we used to write a story about George W. Bush, his time in the National Guard, and the young men in Houston who were in Bush’s local draft board and ended up getting drafted, I thought to myself, someone might find these documents valuable. Let’s put them online.

    Fernando Ortiz, the online producer for, rescurrected the story by me and Scott Stroud, who is now political editor at the Express-News. The story was Stroud’s idea. He wondered, can we figure out who got drafted in Bush’s place and went to Vietnam? What do the men listed with Bush as potential draftees think about him serving in the National Guard and escaping combat duty?

    Today, Ortiz posted the draft-board documents with our story on our Military City page. And maybe the next time a student or a researcher googles about Bush and Vietnam, our story will pop up with the raw documentation that is now out in the open, and not hidden in a filing cabinet.

  • Invalid valor: Vet lied about his service

    Story by John MacCormack of the San Antonio Express-News

    An article by Reporter John MacCormack is today’s most viewed, e-mailed, and commented-upon story on the San Antonio Express-News Web page.

    But it’s a story that very easily could have gone untold. There were no press conferences announcing it. There were no photo ops for television crews to get their images and soundbites.

    John MacCormack
    John MacCormack
    This was a different kind of story. It was based off a tip and the curiosity of MacCormack and his editor, David Sheppard. And it was based on a central question: Was Brian Culp, a self-described war hero, lying about his service record, at a time when he received perks and charitable donations tied to that record?

    Thanks to MacCormack, readers of Sunday’s newspaper now know that Culp isn’t the Army Ranger he claimed to be. Contrary to what he told others, he wasn’t wounded in combat and wasn’t awarded the Purple Heart.

    MacCormack does a nice job explaining how common it is for people to embellish or lie about their military service:

    Embellishing military records has a long and rich history in the United States, dating at least to the Revolutionary War when a German soldier of fortune gained George Washington’s confidence with false credentials.

    Claiming to be having been a key military aide to the King of Prussia but alas, having no papers to prove it, Baron Von Steuben proved to be the exceptional imposter, providing valuable service in training the rag-tag revolutionary army.

    But more than two centuries passed before it became a crime to lie about military honors and achievements.

    Since passage of the Stolen Valor Act, in 2005, such deceptions are punishable by up to a year in prison, and dozens of fake vets have since been prosecuted. Others have gone to prison for receiving financial and medical benefits based on false claims.

    A force behind the new law was B.G. Burkett, an Army veteran of Vietnam who spent more than two decades exposing legions of fake heroes and co-authored the book “Stolen Valor” that documented the phenomenon.

    “It wasn’t just post-Vietnam. It’s every single conflict that’s ever occurred. It happened after the Civil War and it’s happening right now in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said of false claims by soldiers.

    “The No. 1 reason people do this is low self-esteem. The second you say you are a heroic warrior, people treat you differently,” he said.

    MacCormack’s story comes on the heals of a revealing investigation by the Chicago Tribune that found hundreds of people have made bogus claims of receiving medals of valor.

    Most readers thought this was a valuable article. The question is, how can newspapers continue to tell these kinds of stories when newsrooms are shrinking and we’re losing experienced reporters? MacCormack is a veteran reporter and it wasn’t very hard for him to disprove Culp’s war stories. MacCormack is the journalist, after all, who solved the murder mystery of the infamous atheist Madalyn Murray O’hair.

    How can the next generation of John MacCormacks keep telling these watchdog stories?