Commentary: Public Affairs Soldiers make a difference

Commentary by Capt. Andi Hahn, 63rd Theater Aviation Brigade Public Affairs Officer

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Staff Sgt. Rebecca Wood and Capt. Andi Hahn served as media escorts during their tour of duty at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Reviewing video for security purposes, as here with CBS 60 Minutes reporter Leslie Stahl, was one of their tasks.  Because of changes enacted by the 133rd, journalists are now allowed to talk to personnel and show faces, which made their stories more human. Most important, the media started to highlight the work the troops did at GTMO instead of the treatment of the detainees.

Capt. Andrea Hahn was the commander of the 133rd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment during its deployment to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba 2013-2014.  Following are her thoughts about her former unit, its mission and the public affairs Soldiers that served with her.  The 133rd helped change the public affairs culture at GTMO during its deployment, and as a result changed the focus from the detainees to the service members who served there.

FRANKFORT, Ky. — I’ve spent several years with the 133rd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, starting off in 2008 as a young team leader and executive officer before eventually given the honor of being commander over a year ago.  That’s when the 133rd was mobilized for deployment to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  I was so excited to take on the mission, especially with this detachment as I love what this unit stands for.   Public affairs, as anyone who knows me can tell you, is my passion.

I knew about half of the Soldiers in the unit when I took over and the other half, I was enthusiastic to see what they had to offer and the skills they would bring to the mission.

JTF GTMO

Members of the Kentucky National Guard’s 133rd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment and Indiana’s 120th Public Affairs Detachment teamed up to support the command staff of Joint Task Force GTMO and tell the stories of the Service members stationed at the U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Joint Task Force Guantanamo: what a mission that was!  For those that don’t understand what we did there and think we only scuba dived and sailed, the 133rd MPAD played a crucial role in one of the most controversial and high visibility public affairs missions in the world. It was nothing like Iraq, Afghanistan, or any other over seas deployment; I would know, I’ve been there, done that.  So have a lot of the soldiers in the unit. This was a mission that people around the world do not agree with, do not understand, but love to talk about and document. Which is where we came into play; the 133rd MPAD had to tell a story that people didn’t want to hear about unless it was negative.

I believe I speak for most everyone in the unit when I say that our mission at GTMO was the most challenging of our military careers.  It was also one of the most memorable.

Our mission there was twofold: we were split into a media relations team and a command information team.

The command information team, lead by Capt. Brian Pennington and Sgt. 1st Class Gina Vaile-Nelson, was undoubtedly the best the Joint Task Force has seen to date. Using her outstanding creative skills and experiences throughout the field of public affairs, Sgt. 1st Class Vaile-Nelson redesigned the base publication — The Wire — making a streamlined product unprecedented by any team before them. Her team produced 37 issues while covering more than 500 events and writing approximately 400 stories highlighting the service members and missions of Joint Task Force Guantanamo.

Broadcast pieces and a social media presence was non-existent prior to our wave and under the initiative of Sgt. 1st Class Aaron Hiler, the command information team produced weekly videos and podcasts for the base commander to distribute to both internal and external audiences.

The Wire sample

In addition to supporting the command staff of Joint Task Force GTMO, the 133rd MPAD also handled command information, producing The Wire, the official weekly news magazine serving the men and women of Joint Task Force GTMO.

Sgt. Will Bolton perfected his skills as the illustrious copy editor of The Wire and acted as editor in the absence of Sgt. 1st Class Vaile-Nelson, proving he is capable of producing an outstanding magazine and managing a successful production team. Spc. Lerone Simmons was voted “motivator of the week” by the JTF sergeant major.  Spc. Simmons also facilitated a media visits, including the prestigious Russian Today.  He was always praised for his positive attitude, smiling face and became one of the most published journalists on the team.

The command information team was amazing in their coverage and the quality of their publication!  I saw what they could do with their skills and not only was I constantly impressed with their product and professionalism, I was proud they were representing the Kentucky National Guard.

The media relations team facilitated more than 40 media tours to the detention camps escorting 114 journalists from 72 international and domestic news outlets.  This included highly profiled broadcasts by 60 minutes, ABC news, the BBC and Al Jazeera, just to name a few. They also managed a 24-hour media operations center for 8 weeks of military commissions babysitting 66 news agencies covering the pre-trial hearings for the accused 9/11 five co-conspirators and the alleged USS Cole Bomber.

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Kentucky Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Gina Vaile talks with Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Don Jenkins, Sept. 27, 2013 at U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Jenkins, who earned his medal more than 40 years ago during the Vietnam War, visited GTMO to meet with Service members and talk to them about their service. (Kentucky Army National Guard photo by Sgt. David Bolton, 133rd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

The media relations team made a lasting impact on the joint task force when we were able to convince our command that engaging in interviews with foreign and domestic journalists, no matter what the story angle, was pivotal in highlighting the transparency part of the mission statement. It took months of persuasion, but eventually the JTF Leadership allowed never before interviews with medical personnel and guard force that resulted in negative headlines literally changing to positive ones overnight. Halfway through the tour, we started to see a shift in tone and angle in certain stories that had never been seen before.  Journalists were now allowed to talk to personnel and show faces and attribute a name which made their stories more legit and human.

Most important, the media started to highlight the work the troops did at GTMO instead of the treatment of the detainees.

When the brass at the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Southern Command saw this tonal shift, they continued to allow the troop to do interviews and interact with media under one condition: they had to attend our media engagement workshop. It soon became mandatory that any new person stationed on the island attend our training before ever speaking to reporters. We trained more than 800 Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Coast Guardsmen, and even some civilians, on the proper ways to interact with media.

Our curriculum that we developed specifically for GTMO is still being used today.

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Members of the Kentucky National Guard’s 133rd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment and Indiana’s PAD supported the command staff of Joint Task Force GTMO and tell the stories of the Service members stationed there.  (133rd MPAD photo)

The Kentucky Soldiers in the media relations team were a cut above the rest. Spc. Cody Cooper is probably tired of hearing how he was the youngest and least experienced of the team, but he was a shining star and the media adored him. He and Sgt. Cody Stagner tag teamed giving VIP tours of the infamous Camp X-Ray. If you google news stories about GTMO, you will see lots of pictures of both Cooper and Stagner as they were the media darlings of the tours. They represented our team and our state with the utmost professionalism and I know they gained a lot of knowledge and experience working with so many news agencies in such a short time.

Staff Sgt. Rebecca Wood was my right hand through the whole tour and progressed leaps and bounds from when I first met her just over a year ago. She proved to be a natural when handling international journalists and she shined while teaching media engagement classes too. She left a lasting impression with anyone she worked with and reporters always wanted to interview her and highlight her army career.  She, too, can be seen on several broadcasts from our tour.

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U.S. Marine Corps. Sgt. Maj. Juan Hidalgo, Jr., Senior Enlisted Leader at U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, presents Kentucky Army National Guard Spc. Lerone Simmons, Public Affairs Specialist with the 133rd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, with the Motivator of the Week Award Sept. 20, 2013 at U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The award was presented for outstanding morale and esprit de corps. (Kentucky Army National Guard photo by Sgt. David Bolton, 133rd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

All in all, the mission the 133rd MPAD performed at GTMO was beyond a success.  These Citizen Soldiers all achieved both personal and professional goals while stationed there and I’m so proud to have served with them. This is a unique bunch who think outside the box and produce quality and creative products that are unmatched by any other pubic affairs professionals out there.

As to the future of these great military public affairs troops, they have done amazing work they can do in a short nine month tour overseas.  They are now under the command of Maj. Carla Getchell, an outstanding officer in her own right, and I can only imagine what they will do long term for the Kentucky National Guard. The talents, skill sets and professionalism is already there; they just need to right guidance to pave their way to continued success, both for themselves and for the Kentucky National Guard.

No one will ever love a command or a unit as much as I have loved this group and I will miss being their leader.  I encourage them to be a good example for others and continue to be the rock stars of the Kentucky Guard.

To find out how to get into the public affairs field contact Maj. Steve Martin, email: stephen.d.martin1.mil@mail.mil

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