Sunday, November 12, 2006

Temporary Duty

As usual, it's been a while since I wrote anything for this godawful blog. Again, though, I have an excuse: I was on Temporary Duty.

Evidently, it all started when someone at the Great Lakes Recruiting Battalion thought it would be a good idea to get a couple Army broadcast journalists up to talk to area high schools about how cool the job was. A couple months ago, I got a copy of the request, and, since broadcasters are technically in the same career field as I am, the sender asked if I'd be interested. They wanted two broadcast journalists to speak to high school classes in the Detroit area about their jobs. Instead, they just got one of me: a singular 46Q.

Some background: Since the Army (and, presumably the military in general) has moved to civilianize the post journalism field, there have been fewer and fewer journalists (Career field 46) back in garrison environments. When I arrived at Knox, the entire staff of the paper was soldiers... now, I'm the last one left, and I work with a gang of civilians. We used to run the TV station here, and now the all broadcasters (46Rs) have since left and moved on to presumably better things.

So as far as Fort Knox is concerned, I'm the only 46 left. I responded to the email explaining that I am by no means a broadcaster (but stay tuned for my upcoming Podcast), but that I'd be happy to talk about my job with the Detroit high schoolers.

The long and short of it is that the Army flew me to Detroit, hooked me up with a very nice rental car (a Chrysler Sebring with satellite radio) and a hotel room, and paid me somewhere around $100 a day to speak to area high school year book, English, and journalism classes about what I do for the Army.

I'm not used to being on the spot, expected to speak knowledgeably about anything. My job, really, is to come up with questions that get a subject matter expert or other point of contact talking... I'm always uncomfortable on the business end of an interview or photo shoot.

For the weekend that I was left to my own devices, I tried to come up with a coherent speech -- some kind of presentation that would highlight my own reasons for joining and the benefits I've gotten out of having been in the Army. After checking into my hotel (five miles north on Gratiot Avenue from the now-famous 8 Mile Road), I bought index cards, pens, scissors, superglue... hoping that my suddenly-squared away uniform and series of "key points" would get me through a week of high school class periords.

After the first presentation, I realized that I needed to ditch any semblance of a script. It made me feel awkward and staid, and the last thing I wanted was to talk at the kids. It was clear from the beginning that what I should really do was to tell them who I was, what my responsibilities were, and why I decided to take the route I did... and then to open it up to questions. I didn't want to presume about what the students wanted to know or hear, so the question period, in my mind, was the critical element.

Unfortunately. I'm not a natural stand up comic or teacher. When I spoke and moved to another point, I felt it was disjointed and awkward. Still, kids asked questions and wanted to know more about actually practicing the newspaper craft -- at least in the context of the military. I'm not sure if I got anyone more fired up about that... but the recruiters who escorted me certainly have a couple more leads now.

I got questions like, "Who advertises in your paper?" "Did you know you would be going into journalism when you joined?" "Could you be deployed?" "What's your favorite question to ask in an interview?" "Have you ever been 'in the Action?'" "Did the Army pay for your college loans?"

For me, it was at least a productive exercise. Have I accomplised what I hoped to do when I signed up? Has my career over the past four years stood out as much as I'd hoped? Have I done things that your average new reporter not had the chance to do?

Well, yes.

I interviewed Twisted Sister. I crawled through the woods with an infantry squad, snapping pictures while they fired their rifles. I've felt a tank company roll by and shake me in my boots, and I've sat in the gunner's hatch of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle during a 20-mile road march. I've penned two columns, and I've been responsible for the layout and design of a newspaper with a weekly 20,000 circulation.

I bitch about the Army a lot, and maybe there's good reason. But now, as my time is drawing to a close, it's becoming clearer that the things I wanted to accomplish by joining really have been accomplished, and that even though five years is a lot of time, the investment actually is going to have returns.

I'm looking foward to the next phase... but I certainly will never forget this one.