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How The Military Shaped My Communications Career

Most people didn’t have the military career I had. And I’m not saying this to tout my “war hero” accomplishments, battle medals or commendations.   Think more Robin Williams and a “grizzled” 19-year-old behind a Selectric typewriter.

I enlisted in the US Navy for an education. My father had already given me a speech about “no money” and if I really wanted to go to college, I should “let the military pay for it.”  Thanks, Dad. So I met with an Air Force recruiter who spent so much time at my grandparents’ house in Vermont that my grandmother started cooking for him. I was half expecting him to show up at my high school graduation with a bus ticket to boot camp.  But then he was gone. Transferred and not replaced. That gave the Navy a chance to sweep in and offer me something that no one in New England was offered in 10 years – a ticket not only to boot camp but to the Defense Information School (DINFOS).

DINFOS was a very hard get for anyone aspiring to be a military journalist. In fact, there were so few, that all the military services went to the same base for training. My Navy recruiter told me that the only reason I got in was because of my test scores, combined with the fact I was the editor of my high school’s newspaper and hosted a daily afternoon music show on a local radio station. For free.

I departed for boot camp exactly 2 days after my graduation so I could make it through in time for DINFOS. I arrived at an Army base, Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis in September, after a sweaty boot camp in Orlando where the main skill I learned was catching my fellow recruits as they passed out from the heat while marching for hours on end.

I quickly learned that DINFOS was a different experience. Civilian journalism teachers, co-ed dorms (not a good idea), and all the freedom you could want – and take advantage of if you actually had any money, which most of us didn’t. As a joke, DINFOS students refer to themselves as “DINFOS trained killers” because no DINFOS grad would ever be allowed near a gun.

DINFOS was broken into two education disciplines – print/public affairs and broadcast. I sailed through the print portion because I loved to write and had written for both the high school paper and a regular sports column for the local town newspaper. However, my lack of attention to detail resulted in quite a bit of angst from my professor who loved to rip up my papers in front of the class. Every A grade was followed up with – “If you didn’t spend so much time screwing around, you’d have an A on every assignment.” Message delivered. But hey, I was only 18 and that’s what we do!

In all honesty I did all I could to weather the print portion of the DINFOS education syllabus so I could do what I really wanted to do – go into broadcasting. Unfortunately, I was unaware that a “voice test” was required to get into the broadcast portion of the school and I failed miserably.   Although living in Vermont at the end of high school, I gained my “voice” growing up in the suburbs of Boston, where I could “pahk my cah near the hahbah” with the best of them. Boston accents don’t travel well in broadcasting and it pretty much sealed my fate. I was told – “you’ll never be in broadcasting so stick to print.” You’ve heard of someone derogatorily being told they have a “face for radio?”  Well, I had a “voice for print.”

All that said – after my abbreviated DINFOS training, I ended up being the “Good Morning Vietnam” character (though we were post-Vietnam) on the aircraft carrier USS Ranger for four years  hosting the morning show, the nightly TV news (which included shooting my own news video), editing the shipboard newspaper, writing stories for Navy Times, and basically helping keep us OUT of the papers. As an example, the Ranger was sent to the Indian Ocean to patrol Middle East waters during the Iran hostage crisis. Unfortunately, we never got there, ramming a Liberian oil tanker in the Straits of Malacca and sinking it, which caused massive damage to our front hull. For four days I was tasked with keeping the media at bay, saying it was an accident, they hit us, etc. It was all textbook military propaganda. In fact our Captain and Executive Officer were relieved of duty the day after it happened, so I had a pretty good idea someone either fell asleep or passed navigation on to someone who had no idea how to get through the narrow straits outside of Singapore. Needless to say, we did a great job of maintaining public relations camouflage until we were towed into the Yokosuka, Japan shipyard, where the Japanese dock workers greeted us with a new bow, wrapped in the largest congratulatory red ribbon I’ve ever seen. It was the lead image on the Associated Press the next day and our “quiet” accident was no longer so.

Because the Ranger was based in North Island, CA (San Diego), I also worked on getting rid of that dreaded Boston accent. It took all of 6 years, including the two years of shore duty I had at Moffett Field, CA in Mountain View. There I produced training films for P-3 Orion (sub chasers) pilots, edited the base newspaper, played a lot of basketball and softball, and gave tours of Moffett’s giant air hangars which housed the U.S. Navy’s effort to introduce blimps to its air force in World War II.

So after 6 years in the military writing for local and national publications, handling public relations and damage control, managing three closed circuit televisions stations and two radio stations, editing two newspapers, hosting and producing a nightly news show (at sea), morning radio and everything else they threw at me – I was ready for the real world and a great job with someone who would appreciate my varied expertise right out of the box. Think again.

After my six years in the Navy, my education at DINFOS and some junior college night classes (followed by a transfer to a four-year college), I moved to southern New Hampshire to attempt to redevelop my relationship with my father. And I needed a job. My first move was to boldly walk into the Manchester Union Leader newspaper and let them know (I was still only 24 at this point) I was ready to be hired. The editor looked at my military resume and said, “Yeah, I was in the Army and we dug a lot of latrines. What REAL experience do you have?” I sunk in my chair and three more interviews later realized the only people who really appreciated my varied military work experience was the U.S. Navy, and I certainly was not going to reenlist.

Finally, by chance, I walked into a weekly newspaper in Peterborough, NH (the home of the Old Farmer’s Almanac, Yankee Magazine and at that time a slew of technology publications, as well as being the town featured in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”) called the Monadnock Ledger. The Ledger was known for being a launching pad for journalism careers and was staffed with Ivy League and pretentious Boston area college grads. I was not a good fit. But for some reason the publisher took an immediate liking to me and my cocky ‘hutzpah’ and chose me over 250 candidates for the honor of making $9,000.00 a year. Even in 1984, you couldn’t live on that. Long story short – in spite of the money – my career took off. I had editors at the Ledger who helped me mold my writing style with a no-nonsense approach. My editors included Bob Hohler, who is now an award-winning investigative reporter at the Boston Globe, and Mark Brackenbury who for decades was the editor of the New Haven Register and won a slew of national awards for his work.

But I realized quickly that I still wanted to be a broadcaster and to make some extra money – and took on the two most impossible tasks in New Hampshire radio – at the same time! I replaced retiring New Hampshire news icon Fritz Wetherbee (who is still on the air with his Emmy Award winning NH Chronicle on NH Public TV) and sports director Mark Schwartz (one of ESPN’s longest-employed reporters) all in one full swoop. That move kicked off 20 years of radio and television in Tucson, Austin, Albuquerque, Houston, Washington, DC, Baltimore, Boston and Detroit.

Which leads me to today. After my broadcast run was over, in addition to corporate public relations, I started Pitchnoise Strategic Communications in 2006. I tell people I work with all the time, if you want to keep your job, learn everyone else’s. It’s what the military taught me because I really had no one else to pass work to. We were few in number and much in demand. I had more hands-on experience than any newspaper or broadcast company would have ever given me.  I had 30 people working for me at the age of 19, and I said yes to everything even if I didn’t understand the question. The only military order I ever said no to on the Ranger was when the Captain “asked” me to write his wife for him, because he hated writing letters. He wasn’t pleased, but honestly – he couldn’t force me, though I wasn’t completely sure.

This past Veteran’s Day, I heard a wave of people telling veterans “thank you for your service.”  I love that. But for me? I felt the Navy served me and my career much more than I could have ever given back to it. It was my honor, and an experience that will be with me for life and helped mold my career. Go Navy.

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Mark Gilman is president of PitchNoise, a division of Inbound Lead Solutions. With 20+ years experience in public relations, branding, and marketing, he specializes in providing visibility, strategy and market differentiation for emerging and mid-size privately held businesses and non-profits as well as individuals.

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