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NEWS | June 26, 2018

Behind the lens: Ghost writers tell the story

By Maj. Michelle Lunato 98th Training Division (IET)

A good story keeps the reader’s interest. A great story makes the reader feel or act. Regardless of the format—pictures, videos or articles—stories have the power to freeze time and capture a moment of history that can never be recreated. 

Sure, an event may be recurring, but the factors can never be all the same. Take the U.S. Army Reserve Command’s Best Warrior Competition (USARC BWC). It has occurred every year since 2007. Yet, every year is different. There are different competitors, different events and different locations. Each year, two winners are announced: a Soldier of the Year and a Noncommissioned Officer of the Year. That fact is the same. However, the stories about the Warriors are never the same…and neither are the people who write them. 

Covering this year’s USARC BWC, is a team of 11 Soldiers from the 372nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment (MPAD) out of Nashville, Tennessee. Made up of photo/print journalists, broadcasters and public affairs officers, the MPAD has the mission of documenting the weeklong competition that features more than 35 Soldiers from seven Geographic Commands and 22 Functional Commands. The annual competition’s high operational tempo makes gathering stories a challenge. A challenge is just what Soldiers need to make themselves better though, said the unit’s leading NCO, 1st Sgt. Ryan Matson. “If everyone [challenges themselves] individually—and from what I have seen, they have—while still being a team player and helping your buddy,…we all win in the end.”

So as the public affairs Soldiers chase after the competitors with still cameras, video cameras and tripods, they are absorbing some of that excitement, that energy, said the Matson, a Wyallusing, Pennsylvania, native. “To me, the thing about Best Warrior is that winning is contagious and losing is contagious. These Soldiers competing are winners. They are challenging themselves. Even if they break their leg, they had the [courage] to do this.”

After serving in both Active Duty and Reserve capacities, Matson says a lot of people can talk a big game, but the competitors are doing more. “Well, you can talk, or you can do it,” said the first sergeant who serves as a police officer in his civilian capacity. 

Being around that level of motivation and drive for excellence, is a great place for his Soldiers to be. “When they cover these events, some of that motivation bleeds through,” said Matson. 

Documenting the Army Reserve wide event is something new for some of the MPAD Soldiers, and seeing an operation at that level comes with its own lessons, said the MPAD commander, Maj. Olha Vandergriff, a Clarksville, Tennessee native. “It’s really cool. You get to see all the different aspects of the competition, and what the Soldiers are going through. Then, you get tell other people what they are experiencing.”

The USARC BWC is not just an assignment for the MPAD. While they are trying to uncover the interesting and unique facts about the competitors and cadre at the fast-paced competition, they themselves are being evaluated. Not only that, they have multiple layers of people to report to. With the 108th Training Command (Initial Entry Training) taking charge of the overall competition, they have an NCO in charge of the Media Operations Center. With the competition being an Army Reserve wide event, USARC public affairs staff has overall content approval. Then, for the sake of deployment validation, observer-controllers take note of how the MPAD interacts, and reacts, to those added layers of administration. 

Layers of leadership are par for the course and should be expected in any job, said Matson. “At the end of the day, we all have a bunch of different bosses every day. There are eyes upon us every single day.”

And in this case, those eyes are watching all the public affairs tasks of writing articles, creating video packages, taking pictures, and the multitude of little steps it takes to edit, share and market all that content with the public. So everything from the timing of a social media post to the quality of video gathered is evaluated and graded. 

Working with others and getting their feedback is the best way to learn though, according to the MPAD commander. “Sgt. 1st Class [Lisa] Litchfield brings a lot of experience to this,” said Vandergriff about the 108th Training Command (IET) public affairs NCO in charge of the Media Operations Center. “She’s done this before. So I was really looking forward to learning from her.”

Vandergriff, who comes from the Adjutant General Branch, is new to the Public Affairs mission. So she’s not just leaving the storytelling to her Soldiers. She’s doing a little writing herself in hopes of understanding some of her Soldiers’ tasks first hand. “I want to inspire my Soldiers to better themselves,” said the Reserve commander. “Maybe they see me as a person who doesn’t normally write the articles or take the pictures, but see that I’m trying to learn the craft…that I am trying too.”

Sgt. Rachel Leis, an information systems analyst with the MPAD, is trying her hand at public affairs tasks too. With little experience, Leis is picking up a still camera and gathering images of the competitors’ nonstop action. “It’s been exhausting, but fun. Apparently, I can take photos better than I thought.” 

Learning at such a high-level, intense event has more meaning, said the internet technology Soldier who hails from Sturgis, Michigan. “Sometimes those big impactful lessons are the ones that stick with you the most.” And learning at the USARC BWC has basically been an “out of the frying pan and into the fire” kind of week, she said with laugh.

Experiencing that hectic behind-the-story process is something former Active Duty tanker, Capt. Joseph Bisso, who is now the Army Reserve MPAD executive officer, never thought of during his previous deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa. “I was always more concerned with the operational side. Now, I have to look at, ‘how can we tell the story to get the message out?” 

Finding creative ways to tell stories is just what public affairs is about. In fact, the 372nd MPAD’s mission can be summed up by their unit mascot, The Ghost Writers. Sneak in, get the story, and disappear, explained Matson. “The stories are not about us,” said the first sergeant who designed the logo/mascot to help create a unit identity and build morale.

And as if by fate, on the way to the USARC BWC, the MPAD found an actual replica of their illustrated logo, said the commander. “On the way to annual training, we stopped at a gas station, and there was this giant skull with a cowboy hat on that looked just like our Ghostie. So we bought it…and probably spent too much money on it. But it’s sitting in our media operations center and just represents us, our mission.”

Like the mascot suggests, the people behind the stories generally go unnoticed, which is how many public affairs Soldiers prefer it. But with that shadowy role, comes a good bit of assumption on the part of many readers. “A lot of people don’t understand public affairs, and assume it is just taking pictures,” said Litchfield, a Bellingham, Washington native. “Creating stories and public affairs content is not always a simple task, and it’s a lot harder than many people give it credit for.” 

Interesting articles require research and interviews before they can even begin to be written. Fun and informative videos need not only a quantity of footage to be taken, but it must include quality sequences and descriptive audio to engage an audience. Social media posts must be tailored to various platforms and delivered at certain times, regularly and frequently, to be effective. “Overall, it’s not just a point and shoot job. It requires training, experience and professionalism, just like any other career field in the military,” explained the 108th Training Command (IET) NCOIC who has served in the public affairs field for 12 years. 

Though the military occupation requires a number of tedious steps, photo/print journalist Sgt. Anshu Pandeya with the MPAD said he wouldn’t want to do anything else. “If you want to talk about public affairs, I have the best job in the Army Reserve,” said the Franklin, Tennessee resident whose now covered two USARC BWCs and other countless public affairs missions. “I get to see all different aspects of the Army and not commit to just one thing about it. I get to see something new everywhere I go, and—it’s awesome.”

Sharing all those different roles and tasks that the Army Reserve does, including searching for the Best Warrior, is a great way to bridge the gap between civilians and Soldiers, said Bisso. By sharing articles, videos and pictures about Soldiers, “we are painting a picture for those people out there who may have no interaction with the military.” 

And for Citizen-Soldiers in particular, that story-telling mission is even more important, according to Bisso. “Army Reserve Soldiers are not typically from the big military bases. They are literally from the civilian population.” 

He went on to explain that through compelling content, we are telling the public to notice that their neighbors, employees or community leaders are serving their Country in uniform. “Look at what comes from you. These men and women spend 90 percent of their time in your communities. They are one of you,” but also, part of your Army Reserve.

As the Warrior-Citizen competitors come out of the communities, it is no surprise that there is so much diversity said Pandeya, explaining that he’s interviewed competitors with jobs ranging from healthcare specialist to drill sergeant to petroleum supply specialist. People from different cultures and with varying experiences and skills make for great stories, said the public affairs sergeant. “Everyone has all these different backgrounds, and they are coming here to represent the Army, the Army Reserve. We are a pretty diverse group of people [in the unit], and so are the competitors.” 

With all that he’s seen during his time in public affairs, Pandeya said he’s always been impressed that the Army and Army Reserve seem pretty progressive in terms of being a big melting pot and integrating vast groups of people and a variety of skill sets. To him, the USARC BWC competitors represent the Army Reserve, and the Army Reserve is representative of what America is. “We are working together for one mission, the same mission. So you have to be able to trust everyone you work with. It’s a one big family.”