Wednesday, June 18, 2008

What's in a Word?

A few minutes ago, the Top Chef reunion concluded and it reminded me of something from my past. Yes, I watched Top Chef and my favorite chef - Antonia - didn't win. I can't cook worth a squat, but I enjoy eating food and watching some really cool dishes cook is interesting.

Anyway, what happened to trigger a memory was all the dead air during the show. When the chefs were being interviewed, or while they were cooking away, four-letters words flowed from their mouths. I spent 20 plus years in the military and four-letters are just words to me. One of my favorite cartoons is a Doonesbury strip. It was during the build-up phase to the first Gulf War. The star of the strip was talking to the person next to him who related he was too old for war. He then turned to Doonesbury and said, "Hell, I don't even remember how to use the f-word."

Doonesbury looked at him and said, "Just use it like an adjective."

I love that particular cartoon. I cut it out and stuck it on the wall next to my desk. I loved it because in a way, it rang true.

The last job I had in the Air Force was that of a public affairs specialist. I could work on the base newspaper, edit the paper, write news releases for public release, conduct tours of the base, arrange for speakers to attend civilian functions and a variety of other jobs. But the one job I enjoyed the most was working with the civilian media.

My baptism of fire so to speak was when I worked at the US Air Force Survival School at Fairchild AFB, west of Spokane, Wash. I arranged several media interviews with survival instructors and had my own radio show on a Spokane station where I interviewed an instructor about survival techniques unique to the Inland Empire area. It wasn't difficult working under those conditions.

However, to make sure I was ready for anything the media might throw at me in the future, the Air Force sent me to DINFOS, the Defense Information School, in Indianapolis to learn more of my trade. During one of the courses, we were lectured on how to handle the tough, hard-hitting news questions which seem to always happen at a news conference. After the classroom discussion, we were given scenarios to study and then we would be put in front of the camera and be interviewed by a local reporter.

My scenario was that of a mid-air collision of two US Navy Blue Angels during an air show. No one was killed, but the pilots ejected and private property had been destroyed.

One of the things they told us was when you are asked a question which takes several minutes to ask and in which the reporter is making a number of unsubstantiated points, that we not answer the question at the end, as that will validate all the points made during the asking of the question. The proper thing to do is to ask the person to repeat the question. Most of the time, they will ask only the actual question the second time, leaving the unsubstantiate crap off. When the interviewee then answers the question, there is no other points being validate.

So when my turn came to be interviewed, I got up went to the front of the class and began my exercise. The first question I was asked was what happened. So I gave a brief statement of events, highlighting that everyone survived and the private property destroyed would be compensated for. Then added that a board of qualified officers will investigate the cause of the accident.

The reporter then went into a long, drawn out question berating flight training, demonstration teams, and the military in general and ended it all with the question, "Is what happened today worth the cost?" I looked at her, remembered the training and asked her to repeat question. You'd figure they would throw a curve at ya and they did. This reporter asked the exact same question, almost word for word and ended with the same question.

I figured if I asked her to repeat it again, I'd get the same practiced question, so there wasn't any reason for me to do so. Instead, I cocked my head to the side, squint just so slightly, looked the reporter straight in the eye and said, "Shit happens." Well, everyone cracked up, including the reporter who told me to sit down. I actually got through the exercise without answering a single question. But it was a learning experience for me and that was the entire purpose of the training.

Following the survival school, I was assigned to Columbus AFB, Miss., where I had a couple of run-ins with the media, but for the most part, they treated me good and weren't any trouble. After that assignment, I went to Thule AB, Greenland. There wasn't any media there to worry about except for those who travelled through for one reason or another. I have an interesting story about a Scandinavian reporter who brought all sorts of trouble down on my office and commander of the base...but it's a story I'll save for a future post.

Following Greenland, I was assigned to Elmendorf AFB, near Anchorage, Alaska. It was there where I really came under fire, and from when the memory surfaced.

About a year after my arrival at Elmendorf, the base was holding their annual air show. On that particular weekend, I had the on-call duty. It was the on-call person's job to field telephone queries from the media, obtain the required anwers, clear the information, then pass it on to the requestor. Not a hard job, but one that could take a long time to accomplish since we had to have everything reviewed by the three-star general on base before we could release it...and that was a pain in the ass.

Early in the morning of the air show day, I had been contacted by the command post on base and told that rising flood water at Galena AS, located on the north side of the Yukon River in the interior of Alaska, was going to force an evacuation of the site until the waters resceded. That wouldn't have been a big deal except for two things. First, the evacuees were being flown into Elmendorf during the air show; and second, the two Alert F-15s were being relocated to Elmendorf.

Now, this incident took place at the height of the Cold War. Soviet aircraft were constantly making moves towards US airspace, and Alert aircraft at two sites in Alaska, Galena being one and King Salmon Airport being the other, would be launched to intercept them before they reached our airspace. It was a cat and mouse game, that was played seriously by both sides.

As soon as the C-130s carrying the first of the evacuees to Elmendorf landed, an announcement was made for the show attendees that a real world situation had developed and that it might cause some delays in the scheduled flying activities. That announcement was all the local media needed to flood me with phone calls. I took all the questions (at the time, I had no data what-so-ever) and told each reporter I would get back to them as soon as I could. After getting the required information, I located my counterpart who worked for the general, told him what I had, and he basically gave it the nod of approval as it was strictly harmless facts.

I then proceeded to call back the reporters and pass on the information to them. At one of the call-backs to one of the local newspapers, I was asked another question. The reporter asked if the relocation of the Alert F-15 aircraft posed any problems with the reaction time of the aircraft should the Soviets decide to head our way again. My mind instantly went through a number of scenarios of what would happen with each answer. One of those instant thoughts was that if I said I would get back to you, the reporter would think there was a problem and wouldn't believe anything I got back to him with...and I didn't want that. I also thought that if I answered the question right then and there, without the general's approval, I would probably being damaging my career. But my job at the time was to help people understand the role of the Air Force in their day-to-day lives, and not do anything which would portray the Air Force or this county in poor light. So I answered the question right then and there. I told the reporter it in no way affected the response time of the Alert birds.

The next day my boss and I were called to the general's office. He wanted to know the story surrounding a headline in the morning's newspaper which read: Air Force evacuates Galena: Officials say they can still do their job...or something like that. Inside the article, I was quoted as saying the change in location of the aircraft had no affect on our ability to intercept any Soviet intrusion. The article also talked about the evacuation and flood waters, but the general knew about those questions. Fearing the worst, my boss and I waited for the hammer to fall. But it didn't. The general was so impressed with how I handled the situation, that he stated that from that point on, no one else, other than my boss or I, were allowed to talk to the media about anything, and best of all, we were to use our own judgement as to whether it the information needed to be cleared by his office or not.

Eight months later and hundreds of media queries, I was again in tricky situation and facing the news media. On a Friday afternoon, an F-15B model, a two seat version of the single seat air superiority fighter, took off with an enlisted man in the back seat. The back seater was being given an incentive flight for doing a good job as a crew chief. Two hours into the flight, the aircraft disappeared off radar and never reappeared. We immediately dispatched search teams to the last known radar position of the aircraft and I went to the Rescue Coordination Center which was my job when any search and rescue was occuring. As soon as I got there, I knew we wouldn't be doing a lot of searching that day, as the weather in the area was bad.

In town, the media had found out that we lost and aircraft and I was being flooded with calls regarding the lost aircraft. Since we had not been able to contact the next of kin I was unable to say anything regarding the lost aircraft. Everyone who called knew what we lost. But since I wasn't verifying the information, no one was using it. When I finally could release the information, it was late in the day. I explained about the poor weather conditions in the search area and that we would try again Saturday.

The next morning, I got up and went to the RCC and found the same thing going on which we had the previous day. The weather was just too rotten to do any searching. So, I again called the media I had contacted the previous day, told them there wouldn't be a search that day either and headed home after making sure I had a good battery in my beeper. The news that night made mention that bad weather was thrwarting attempts to locate the missing aircraft and that we would try again Sunday which according to forecasts, would give searchers a good window in which to operate.

The next morning, there was a lot more interest in the lost aircraft, as the news of it had been picked up by national outlets. By 6 am, I had already had half a dozen calls and I knew more would come in. So I called back the earlier callers and as others called, told them I would hold a news conference at one of the gates at noon.

At the appointed time, I was at the gate and so were dozens of news media. Everyone from radio to newspapers to television were there, waiting for what I had to say. Armed with the latest information, I made a short announcement that we would begin a extensive search of the target area at 2 pm when the weather would begin to clear from the area. I then added on the known facts and finally, opened it up for a question and answer period. Most of the questions were simple to answer...until a television reporter from Seattle raised his hand.

I acknowledged him and he began his question. It went something like this: "I have sources which have told me that you didn't loose the aircraft at all, that the pilot actually flew the aircraft across the straits and turned it over to the Soviet for a substantial reward. Do you have anything to say about that?"

I looked straight at the reporter and without hesitation said, "That's a stupid fucking statement. Does anyone have a serious question?"

There was a moment of silence, then everyone, except for the reporter who asked the question, burst out laughing. That statement basically ended the news conference. The reporters headed back to Anchorage to file what they had, I headed back to the RCC to monitor events. Four hours later, called the media again to tell them we had located the crash site.

And it was nowhere near the Soviet Union.

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