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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
The term military photographer usually creates visions of explosions, helicopters and impressive tactical maneuvers. While these jobs do happen, the majority of work that military public affairs (PA) specialists perform is inside, sitting in front of an interview subject.
Almost every story in this job field will include an interview of some sort. The location, subject and equipment may vary but the basic rules do not. The key to success in any situation is knowing your gear and working well with your team.
A team of Navy Mass Communication Specialists (MC) was recently called on to interview Terry Cosgrove, a retired Navy MC master chief who was an important innovator in that community. This brought an extra dose of pressure, as it’s not every day your subject has an intimate understanding of the interview process.
The interview occurred at Defense Media Activity, the headquarters for all things military media. This was good news for the team, because that meant access to some nice studio equipment. It was part of an ongoing process to create a documentary film about the MC rating.
The first step to a successful interview is early setup of the equipment. Everything must be ready when the interviewee arrives. This is the first test of a PA specialist’s people skills. Petty Officer Don White conducted the interview, and stressed the importance of teamwork.
It’s very important that we are all on the same page because you want to present a unified front. You want to look professional.”
Once the subject is ready and the cameras are rolling, the interview begins. This is the second test of the people skills. The interviewer must walk the line between obtaining the information he needs and keeping the tone friendly and conversational.
“People’s time is important. You want them to know you appreciate their time. You want the subject to be as comfortable as possible. Especially talking to a retired MC Master Chief.”
The trick is to not read through the prepared questions like a robot. White summed it up simply:
“Your subject will know if you’re not being genuine. Have some interest in it.”
The interview subject will usually walk away with a sense of whether or not he was really listened to and valued. The reputation of the media agency is on the line every time an interaction with a client occurs.
Cosgrove may have been a friendly client to begin with, but his satisfaction with the event is still the sign of a good PA team.
“It’s just great being around Sailors again. That’s one thing that I do miss is the energy, the excitement, the can-do attitude. I don’t miss the Navy that much. In retired life, I’ve moved on, but being around the people that make up the Navy is something that I do miss.”
The technology of today advances at breakneck speed. The professional communicator must constantly learn to stay relevant. People skills, on the other hand, only require practice to keep the dust off. Once learned, they don’t change, but will remain a valuable tool for life.
The bad dream just wouldn’t end as SJA found themselves behind and struggling to keep up in a 59-37 loss to DMA on Feb. 11.
The status of these two teams couldn’t be more different at the halfway point of the regular season. While the Staff Judge advocates watched their last chance at a .500 record fade, 1st place Defense Media Activity celebrated as the current rulers of the league.
Only several fans were in attendance at the Murphy Field House gym but the stands could’ve been full with all the noise generated by DMA. They seemed more motivated from the start, forming a circle and clapping a rhythmic beat as they waited for the opening buzzer. With 21 points, DMA Power Forward Darien Kenney continued to be a key to victory.
“We came out here and we did exactly what we said we would do. We were hyping each other up. At the end of the day it’s all about the team, putting ourselves together and scoring points,” Kenney said.
The size of each team probably made an impact as well. DMA has a 13-man roster and was able to substitute fresh players every few minutes. The opposing SJA players were forced to play nonstop, as their team only had the minimum of five.
The defeat was softened by the fact that the Judges, who work together, experienced bonding through shared trauma. SJA’s John Cheney kept a positive outlook as he caught his breath after the game.
“We just keep working on our teamwork, getting better. We need to get faster than everyone else. It doesn’t always work but there’s always the next possession,” Cheney said.
The Judges get their best shot at a win this season when they face the team from the Navy Information Operations Center. With only three wins, NIOC has struggled to score points lately.
Defense Media Activity faces the 5-2 Vikings next week. It’s safe to say that DMA is on everyone’s minds and they’ve got a fat red target on their backs.
The clock’s ticking for the legal warriors of SJA when they take on first-place DMA and their public affairs squad this Thursday at Fort Meade’s Murphy Field House.
The winless Staff Judge Advocates shouldn’t be picky about who they beat, but a victory here would be extra sweet. They must still feel the sting of the 38-24 smack down Defense Media Activity handed them two weeks ago. Thursday’s game marks the halfway point of the season, and the last chance for SJA to salvage a winning record. DMA is fighting to keep their number one playoff spot.
DMA Power Forward Darien Kenney, with 13 points in their last outing, will be a key to success.
“We need to come out and communicate, hustle and play hard. That’s what it’ll take to win this game. We have a lot more heart than most teams out here,” he said.
The Fort George G. Meade intramural basketball league consists of 18 teams, split between division I and II, with a 12-game regular season. The top six teams from each division go to the playoffs. Each team represents a command on the base.
Created over 20 years ago, the league is funded by the department of Morale Welfare and Recreation. The importance of healthy competition was summarized by league organizer, Sports Specialist Beth Downs:
“The big thing is for the units and squadrons to come out and have camaraderie and friendly competition. It’s good to get PT while taking your mind off the day-to-day work, which can be pretty stressful.”
It’s free to watch but a CAC card is required for entrance to the building. Game time is Feb. 11, 6:30pm.
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This is your Trust Tree and your Sanctuary of Safety.
I’ve been working as a Navy Mass Communication Specialist since July, 2009, and currently work for Department of Defense News. We’re located at Defense Media Activity (DMA) on Fort Meade, Md. This is literally the center of the military PA universe. Every branch sends us their photos, videos and written stories so we can redistribute that information to our global audience.
But it’s not just DoD News. Each branch uses the building to run their service-specific publications. It’s tough to describe such a complex web in one post. Here’s a quick overview (with pictures!) of the moving parts.
Okay these photos aren’t super exciting but hopefully they give a good idea of the size of DMA.
In the Air Force, PA personnel have two names.
TSgt. Parry: “Air Force public affairs is split into two enlisted parts. We have the Photojournalist who take pictures and write stories, blogs, and handle quite a bit of the social media positions. Broadcast Journalists take care of the video side of the house be it for online or for air on American Forces Network. Overseas we also have the opportunity to be radio DJs.”
These two work with me at DoD News but there’s a section for just Air Force. Their publication is called Airman Magazine. (It’s the best but don’t tell them…they’re already cocky.)
This is a fine example of the Army presence. Sergeant Luther Washington is a fan of comics…and being awesome in front of a camera. His job is called Broadcast Specialist. The Army’s publication is called Soldiers Magazine.
This is in the Navy section. It’s where the majority of Navy Mass Communication Specialists (MCs) work on awesome things like All Hands Magazine. With over 20 Sailors in just this area, the Navy has the biggest presence at DMA. It’s because we’re so cool.
Ahh Marines…they’re usually the loudest and most interesting folks in the building. See that bald guy on the left? He’s an absolute BEAST. I’m pretty sure Rocky Balboa wasn’t as fit as that Marine. They stopped producing an online magazine a year ago but you can still find Marine stories at marines.mil and on their Facebook page.
It’s not enough to be a good story teller. All service members here must also keep up their military discipline. A uniform inspection is an effective way to remind us that we’re Sailors first, Mass Communication Specialists second.