On Fort Meade, Sydney Johns is more than a boss

The center of the military public affairs world is located on Fort Meade, Md., in a building called Defense Media Activity.  As the destination of frequent tour groups, the facility must be kept spotless. It falls to a small cleaning crew and its street-wise leader to complete this often thankless task.

As the sun sets on another hot Maryland summer day, Sydney Johns is checking on the progress of his four-person team. The daytime employees have all gone home, but for the nighttime cleaning crew, work is just beginning. The former correctional officer has supervised this group for five years, working closely to see that they succeed, and not just on the job.

“My time at the correctional facility taught me a few things,” Johns said. “I was able to bring some of that with me, to teach these young men and women how to succeed.”

Johns and his employees are staffed through Goodwill Industries International, and many of them have disabilities. Because of the unique makeup of this group, he’s taken on the extra titles of mentor and role model. Johns has made time to teach one of his floor techs, 29-year-old Morgan Brandford, important life skills.

“He was teaching me how to save your money,” Brandford said. “How to be responsible, you know, with your bills. He’s a really good person.”

As the night wears on, Johns switches between roles as they go about cleaning the building. He laughs easily with his people and guides them firmly to keep things on track. A simple motto sums up what they’re doing here.

“Just do the very very best you possibly can,” Johns said. “That’s all. Just care about what you do.”

DMA softball team gets new head coach

On military bases around the world, the arrival of summer means the start of softball leagues. For the troops between deployments, it’s a welcome opportunity to relax and hang out with friends and family.

Petty Officer Andrew Gordon is attempting to lead the Defense Media Activity (DMA) team to the top. It’s his first time as a coach, but he has a strong multi-branch team behind him.

If he can pull it off, the bragging rights are significant.

The Fort Meade softball league consists of 17 teams, and it’s serious about its business. It’s organized by the department of Morale Welfare and Recreation and the competition is friendly-but-fierce.

Gordon said the trick is to balance the experienced players with the noobies, and still be competitive.

“We’re here to have fun, so everyone will get into the rotation, but it’s important that we all show up to practice to work on our skills.”

As a U.S. Sailor, Gordon has deployed several times. Being out to sea, away from his wife and two children, is tough. That’s why he’s making the most out of his time on land.

“These are the best times, right now. I’m here with my family, friends, and we won!”

We “won” might be an understatement.

Final score: DMA 12 – Black Knights 1

Navy Petty Officer Tim Haake works and lives through art

Most people in the building have never met him. During the year he’s worked here, Petty officer Tim Haake has beaten a simple path into and out of Defense Media Activity. His work is conducted primarily alone, but it’s a style of flow that he’s been comfortable with since high school.

As a Mass Communication Specialist (MC), Haake is trained to perform a number of functions. Anyone in this rate can be called on to work as a writer, photographer, videographer or graphic designer. Like many MCs though, Haake specializes in what he’s good at: graphic design. While others chat about the latest TV show gossip, he works alone in his editing suite, churning out graphics for the Pentagon.

Haake accepts the good and the bad about his job.

“My editing suite is my Fortress of Solitude.”

“I feel very lucky to have a private space of my own because a lot of people here only have cubicles,” he said. “The pace of the job is what wears me down sometimes. It’s almost constant work, all day long. I love what I do though, so I’m happy.”

Haake in office
FORT MEADE, Md. (May 4, 2016) Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tim Haake shows off his newly-designed logo for Department of Defense News. Haake is a graphic design specialist at Defense Media Activity. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Glenn Slaughter)

The privacy his editing suite affords him lines up with Haake’s personality and he can connect deeply to his work. This peace through art continues into his home, where he sculpts clay figures.

Sitting on his couch, putting the finishing touches on a small octopus, Haake talked about his history with visual art.

“I think I’ve always been kind of a worrier, kind of high strung sometimes,” he said. “I had a hard time making friends in high school. Lunch time was rough for me, so I spent that time in the art room instead.”

Surrounded by his wife and their friends, Haake seemed content, those lonely high school days long past.

“When I work on these projects, my mind is quiet. There’s only good things happening when I’m creating.”


Korean family cafe serves Fort Meade troops

In the Defense Media Activity building on Fort Meade, Md., a small café provides breakfast and lunch for the service members there. It’s run by a South Korean family who have worked through setbacks and used their generational strengths to find their niche.

Young & Michelle Cafe is owned by Young Chin Suh and her sister Whoo Jung Kim, who goes by Michelle. Young’s son Justin works there several days a week. His English is the strongest, so he works the register while the sisters cook. This is their first time working with the military, but Justin said it hasn’t been a big deal.

“The military aspect hasn’t really come up,” Justin said. “Everyone’s just a customer trying to get some food. “

Their menu is limited, as fire safety codes won’t allow a grill. They make due with a small conveyor oven, microwave and crockpot. For a while, the family churned out delicious bulgogi and homemade sweet potato pasta. Justin said it didn’t last long though.

We were using an electric griddle in the back, to cook the food and heat up some of the food. We got shut down because there was no ventilation in the kitchen. Now we’re not really sure if we can make Korean food anymore, so we’re thinking of different specials we can try out.

For now it’s mainly sandwiches. Still, a steady trickle of customers stops by, many bowing in the Korean custom. Justin appreciates the gesture, but said it’s really just second nature to him.

“I’ve been bowing as long as I can remember. I don’t even realize it’s happening.”

Young moved to the U.S. about 25 years ago. Like many immigrants, she sought a better life. She summed up her time here with a shy smile and few words.

“It’s good,” Young said. “Everything’s good.”

The presence of every military branch makes it very difficult for the family to figure out who’s who, but Justin said there’s one way to pick out the peons.

“A majority of the people would take the day off, but there are still a couple of people working. We’re guessing those are the lower ranks.”

Young & Michelle has only been in this building for about six months, so time will tell if they can find a way to express their South Korean culture through food, or make the business work as a basic deli.

Korean family cafe
FORT MEADE, Md. (May 13, 2016) The family-owned Young & Michelle Cafe. From front to back, Justin Suh, Young Chin Suh and Whoo Jung Kim, who uses the name Michelle. The South Korean family has been serving U.S. troops on Fort Meade, Md., for about six months. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Glenn Slaughter)

Soldiers and Super Heroes

Wash News
In the DMA studio, bringing the news to a global military audience. Photo courtesy of DoD News.

When we think of the word “military”, serious words like discipline and precision come to mind. What probably doesn’t come to mind are words like creative arts and comics. U.S. Army Sergeant Luther Washington embodies all of these words.

At first glance, Washington is your average, talented Broadcast Specialist. He works as a news anchor for Department of Defense News, headquartered on Fort Meade, Maryland. The job requires him to take usually-boring press releases from the Pentagon and repackage them for a military audience. It all happens in front of a camera, under very bright lights.

“It was scary as first. I’d never been on camera, never read a script,” said Washington. “I took a lot of notes and did a lot of practice runs, and I’m doing ok.”

He’s doing more than ok. Washington is widely-considered to be the best anchor in the department. His ease in the lime light and natural speaking rhythm make him the go-to guy for the news. His success, however, is his curse.

“To be honest, it’s not really where I want to be,” he said. “I want to be shooting and editing video. My ultimate goal is to become a filmmaker.”

Washington at his cubicle. Are those super hero Pez dispensers on the left? Photo by Glenn Slaughter.

He laments in private that he’s dying to unleash his creative side. That creativity overflows at his cubicle, where an oasis of colorful action figures adorn every possible space.

“I was the child of a single mom, dad wasn’t around,” Washington said. “My mom worked a lot so I was alone a good amount. So it’d be nighttime and I’d be in the dark, all alone with my flashlight in bed but I had Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men to keep me company.”

Batman watches Washington’s back while he works. Photo by Glenn Slaughter.

A lifetime of reading comics hasn’t made him into a fiction snob, though. He still has fun with the films that inevitably follow, even if they’re not accurate to the source material.

“One of the cool things is he’s into old school and new school,” said Petty Officer Lyle Wilkie, one of Washington’s coworkers. “He can enjoy a film based on a comic and not tear it apart. He’s very knowledgeable but shares it in a positive way.”

Washington displays his favorite comics. Photo by Glenn Slaughter.

For now, a transfer into the Creative Services section of DoD News is out of Washington’s reach, but it may be a smart move for the military to unleash the beast.