Army needs Social Media help…from civilians?

June 9, 2011

Today, there was a great article in Wired.  It was about the Army’s proposal to hire Social Media experts for Afghanistan operations.  This was not a Wikileak; it is a real request for proposal for civilian public relations experts.  (The request is also for well-qualified Dari and Pashtu speakers to participate in the Social Media mission–thumbs up to getting strong linguist for this program.)

I guess I shouldn’t be totally surprised.

Heck, you can read about the Department of Defense spending $384.4 million on Strategic Communications in 2011 or about the billion plus spent on Information Operations for the past few years in a report by the Center for International Media Assistance.  For those keeping score…$384.4 million is enough dough to pay tuition for 50,000 high school graduates to attend college this fall.  The Politico reported that the DOD actually requested $988 million for communications funding for 2010…it didn’t pass.

The reason why this Afghanistan Social Media decision pains me so much is because the minimum qualifications that the Army is looking for–bachelor’s degree and Secret security clearance— is equal or even less than the qualifications of the 150+ public affairs officers we have on active duty.  And of those public affairs officers, several of them have earned Army-funded graduate degrees from top schools like Georgetown the official grad school for Army public affairs officers, UNC-Chapel Hill, Middle Tennessee State, and USC’s Annenberg School. And we even send officers and sergeants to work at Google each year.

Are none of them good enough to run a Social Media program in Afghanistan?  Heck, who’s running these seemingly successful sites right now?  See them here, here, and here.

If you’re still reading this post you’ve probably come to conclusion that I’m courageous or crazy…perhaps both.

Don’t get me wrong here, I agree there is a great need for continued investment in online communications and engaging audiences domestic and international through Social Media. I just think this should be done by training people already in uniform to accomplish these goals.  Really, by the time most photos, tweets, and blog posts are approved by the layers of strategic communications folks at big headquarters in Kabul, Baghdad, Kandahar, it’s a bit too late or too far removed from much of the populace we are trying to influence–many of them are illiterate or don’t have access to the internet.  Meanwhile, the terrorists and Taliban types are able to cause mayhem and make it go viral because they post from the point of origin–often on mobile phones.Soldiers online

I propose the Army purchases smart phones and commercial internet for their public affairs staffs at the brigade combat team level and arm them with the same communications tools as the terrorists.

Last time I checked, a 3G iPhone runs about $200 $49.  If you bought one for every 100 troops in Afghanistan (about one per company-sized unit), the total costs would be about $200,000  $49,000 + usage plans.  The troops already know how to use smart phones & Facebook.  After developing a policy for what to post and battle drills for when to post, I assure you a positive and tangible impact will be made in our information war.

Where there’s no cell coverage…use a Bgan antenna.

Ideally, we’d shift to training more Afghan journalists so they can tell the story of their country and of their security forces through their own lens.  Developing skills for local reporters should be long-term goal.

Well, I’ve said my $0.02.  I’m not critical of the mission, just the method.  I believe we have people, Soldiers & Department of the Army Civilians, who are ready, willing, and able to accomplish the communications goals for the Afghan War.  As an added bonus, after Army folks complete this task they will retain the experience for future operations.  Seems like a cent-sible solution to me.

Honest two-way communication is the best to build relationships and influence people.  I believe in the Defense Information School’s motto:  Strength through Truth

I figure I can’t get fired for this post, however, I might just get orders to Afghanistan. I’m ok with that.

DISCLAIMER:  Views expressed here are the authors own and not necessarily the views of the Army or Department of Defense. Nor is the post an official statement of the U.S. Army.  Just one guys opinion.


7Up Diplomacy

November 5, 2009

My days in Iraq are somewhat unpredictable.  In fact, I think it’s a good day if there are new surprises and challenges.  I am fortunate to work in a command climate that embraces media and values the role of reporters in telling the story of the American Soldier.

Recently, we embedded a reporter from McClatchy News for about a week.  Like all embeds–particularly the ones who spend all their time in Baghdad or the U.S.–my goal is to get them a good dose of what Soldiers experience day-to-day.  This runs the gamut from garrison to tactical operations.

So I arranged to take the McClatchy reporter on a patrol with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 77th Armor Regiment “Steel Tigers” (I like their nickname).  This patrol, like all the patrols we have through Iraqi cities, was conducted with the Iraqi Security Forces.  In this instance, it was a battalion operating under the 40th Iraqi Army Brigade.

It was night…patrol brief was conducted…strapped into 5-point harness in the back of MRAPs..ride out…strain to look out blast proof glass, wishing we could stop in town at a corner were a group of military aged males has assembled for socialization…not to arrest anybody, it’s 2009 not 2003…I wish we could stop and say “Shaaquu Maakauu?”…no stopping though.  Not allowed.  Might not be safe.  Heck, stopping is a silly idea.  I wouldn’t randomly crash a block party in the states.  Dropping in on a gathering in Iraq with a 10′ tall, 60,000 lbs. armored truck, and full-kit probably wouldn’t ingratiate me with the locals.  Silly me.

Fast forward…

…so we end up at an Iraqi Army checkpoint southeast of Nasiriyah.  Walk inside and are met by a proud Iraqi captain.  Iraqis tend to be quite hospitable, regardless of their lot in life.  So he offers us little 500 ML cans of 7UP.

The captain work and sleeps in this trailer most of the time.  Though, like most Iraq Army soldiers he goes on “janzaa” (leave) every few weeks to visit his family.

Sometimes you see the oddest bits of Western culture in Iraq.  The sleeping side of the trailer was dominated by a poster of the   “ideal” suburban home.  I really wanted to say, “Dude, what’s up with the poster?”  But, I couldn’t manage to find the right way to ask, so I passed.  The American dream lives on.

After establishing my legitimacy to bring media–many military people are wary of media–to his checkpoint we had a few minutes of social talk.  Connecting culturally is important when dealing with Iraqi counterparts.  The captain led off the discussion with movies and politics.  He equates the recent uptick in movies with predominately black casts to the Obama presidency.  He likes black movies.  He likes Obama.  Not sure what to make of my phenotype, he asked if I was “Basrawi.”  This has happened to me before.  The majority of the world are people of color, and in Iraq there’s a certain kinship I’ve been met with by many swarthy southern Iraqis.

This captain had served in the Army under Saddam’s regime.  He was based in Amarah in 2003 and decided to bug out after 15 consecutive days of bombing.  According to him, the outcome of OIF would have been different if the Coalition didn’t use so many planes.  I disagree.  Our tanks and artillery would have blasted away the rag-tag Iraqi Army.  At anyrate, this was just simple banter from former enemies who are now allies.  The Iraqi Army will do well to promote this captain.  We went to check out his troops.  They were disciplined, motivated, and vigilant.  A safe ride home and it was mission complete.

I hope to visit this captain again, sometime.  He is a brother-in-arms.


Social Media blocked on the battlefield

July 1, 2009

Working public affairs in a combat zone brings new challenges daily.  I love my job because I get to tell the story of the American Soldier in Iraq.  Specifically, in 4th Brigade, 1st Armored Division.

However, lately, I’ve been really flummoxed at my inability to access Social Media sites.  I feel like I can’t, know I can do a better job as a brigade public affairs officer if I had access to sites that the Secretary of Defense wants me to use.

Herein lies my professional frustration.  The Secretary of Defense has said on numerous occasions that public affairs officers need to reach audiences through social media.  You can read various statements here, here, and video here.

“Public relations was invented in the United States, yet we are miserable at communicating to the rest of the world what we are about as a society and a culture, about freedom and democracy, about our policies and our goals.  It is just plain embarrassing that al-Qaida is better at communicating its message on the Internet than America.” -SecDef Robert Gates, Nov. 2007

The newly appointed Principal Deputy Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs recently said about social media, “It’s not just better one-way communication; it’s better two-way communication. It’s not just us reaching people; it is them reaching us, too.”

And he has a twitter feed on the official DOD Web site.

And almost a year ago Iwrote about the Secretary of the Army encouraging military blogging.

Before deploying my brigade established a presence on several social media sites.  Several are registered on the Army’s official social media directory.

After lengthy days at the office or covering events, I update the 4th Brigade, 1st Armored Division Facebook page on the SniperHill internet in my containerized housing unit…it connects at Slowsky-like 8kbps and I pay $88/month.  The money is not the issue, I consider it a personal expense for occassional professional use, however, I could do much more if I had access at my desk—just like the PAOs & other Soldiers in the states.  Access the senior leaders say I should have.  Access that keeps family members informed.

I feel bad when my brigade commander asks me “Hey, PAO, when are we going to start the brigade blog?”  I have to give him the penguin salute because I can’t effectively launch it without access to monitor the activites or have a truly interactive environment.

For those who think…“stop whining, back in WWII we didn’t have that internet stuff”…I dare you to look at our Facebook page and see what the moms, dads, and spouses say when they see a photo of their Soldier or images of where the special person works and lives.  Now, you will see the power of social media.  I’m happy to “whine” on their behalf.

Recently, the Army allowed access to these sites from bases in the states.  That’s nice, however, when a Soldier can go home to their family at night there is less of a need for social media—except the fan, follower, subscriber base that’s built in garrison can be exploited during a deployment.

Meanwhile, we deployed PAOs are blocked, blocked, blocked by the network managers.  (Except for General Odierno’s PAO who updates his Fan page daily).

For my signal friends, try explaining the classic “bandwidth” argument to the families of deployed Soldiers.  Really, how much bandwidth could about five public affairs Soldiers per brigade effect things—is our networking situation really hinging on five guys uploading photos to flickr and videos on YouTube?  Not to mention the enemy is still beating us to the punch on getting out the story.

I just want do my job as a tell the story of the American Soldier and fight enemy propaganda with truth.  I post on the brigade’s page for the Soldier on guard duty who lives in a tent and seldom has internet access and may not want it–but, his family & friends still want to know how he’s doing.  Without social media access I feel like I have the proverbial a knife in an information gunfight.

DISCLAIMER:  I have submitted a waiver for access that is going through approval channels.  And, of course, views expressed here are my own.  Not the DOD, Army, or my unit.  Hope I don’t get in trouble for this posting. *fingers crossed*

If you’ve read this far, thanks for your interest. Please help us reach our goal of 4,000 Fans on Facebook to represent each Soldiers from the Highlander Brigade deployed to Iraq


The Major’s new clothes: Rapid Fielding Initiative

April 10, 2009

Preparations for deployment continue.  This week I was issued two car trunks full of Army gear.  I’m impressed by the efficiency of the Fort Bliss Central Issue Facility (CIF–clothing warehouse).  In & out in less than one hour.

Later in the week I participated in the Rapid Fielding Initiative and received the latest individual equipment and clothing for the upcoming deployment.  Of note is the Improved Outer Tactical Vest (IOTV) this replaces the IBAS that I wore in Iraq a few years ago.  Just trying it on I feel far more confident in this system.  It’s a bit more comfortable and offers more protection (52 sq. inches to be exact) particularly around the ribcage.  Read an article about the IOTV hereUnofficial Video of a Soldier demonstrating the IOTV to his German Shepard.  You will see the quick release about the 1:30 mark.

Another item was the Army Combat Shirt.  This flame-resistant, lightweight breathable shirt is designed to be worn under the IOTV in lieu of the ACU coat & t-shirt.  Brilliant!  Soldiers in my brigade were issued two each.  I wish I had four.  Oh well.  The last time I was in Iraq I was only issued two sets of Desert Camoflague Uniforms (DCUs).  The green BDUs worked just was well in the desert.  Rest assured you won’t see me sporting the ACS with jeans in airports and shopping malls. (Note to self:  Find that link)  Nice wikipedia entry about the ACS here.


Going back to Iraq

March 18, 2009

Soon, I’ll be headed off for another tour of duty in Iraq this spring.  The process of deploying is unique.  But in many ways it’s like going on a long vacation–expect you take extra steps to prepare for the worst-case scenarios.

Here are some references for servicemembers who are facing the prospect of lengthy deployment.  They are also somewhat useful for civilians who are going to study abroad or work in a foreign country:

Military.com’s Guide to Deployment

USAA’s informative guide to deployment (.pdf)…linked from the official DOD Web site

A variety of publications from AUSA can be ordered in limited quantities.

Soldiers going through predeployment processing at Fort Hood, Tex

Soldiers going through predeployment processing at Fort Hood, Tex

While I’m in Iraq I will keep this blog going.  In fact, I intend to post more frequently.  I’m making an assessment of the ability to use commercial applications/sites in the MND-C area (Southern Iraq).  I might get an iPhone or something I can use overseas to post and upload pictures.

My role in the Brigade Combat Team is to maximize the information the public receives about our missions.  But the majorman blog will be focused on my personal insights and experiences.

Here are some thoughts and analysis on the drawdown of the Iraq mission:

Larry Korb:  The Promised Withdrawal from Iraq (Video here)

Center for American Progress:  How to Redeploy (Aug. 2008) This report details a hypothetical flow of troops in a less this 18 month window.

If there are topic you’d like me to address specifically in this blog or questions you have post in the comments section or drop me a line major_man4 [at] yaho o


Ideas for the 21st Century Military

December 15, 2008

This fall I was afforded a great opportunity to co-author (views expressed were my own and not DoD…see disclaimer in the “About Me” section) a report on Building the Military for the 21st Century:  New Realities, New Priorities.  I learned a lot in this process and have a better understanding of how Think Tanks are able to influence public discussion and policy action.

The public release of the report included remarks by Rep. John Murtha and Rep. Joe Sestak (both retired military officers); and a panel featuring lead author Lawrence Korb, Senior Fellow at CAP; LTG Stephen Speakes, Army G-8 (Programs Director); and Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Michael Dunn, Air Force Association.

(L-R) Lt. Gen. Speakes, Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Dunn, Lawrence J. Korb after panel discussion

(L-R) Lt. Gen. Speakes, Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Dunn, Lawrence J. Korb after panel discussion

I encourage you to take a closer look at the report and the fun interactive that was developed by the Center for American Progress editorial team.

There are numerous stories and blogs that are discussing the report and it’s recommendations. You can find blog posts here, here, and here (last link is about our interactive).

Articles here, here, and here.

“It’s said that a nation’s budget reflects its values and its priorities.”
President-elect Barack Obama

“Given that resources are not unlimited, the dynamic of exchanging numbers for capability is perhaps reaching a point of diminishing returns. A given ship or aircraft, no matter how capable or well-equipped, can be in only one place at one time.”
Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates

Other authors included:  Laura Conley, Sean Duggan, Peter Juul
they can be contacted for further information.


A Major concern for the Army

August 21, 2008

A recent Washington Post article discussed the current shortage of Majors in the Army.  I thought the article was well written and provided good context about the impact of deployments and the expansion of the Army.

Major Insignia

Major Insignia

According to the article:

Majors plan and direct day-to-day military operations for Army battalions, the units primarily responsible for waging the counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Throughout the Army, majors fill key roles as senior staff members, putting together war plans, managing personnel and coordinating logistics.

I’d say that’s an accurate overview.  Though the shortage hurts, we are still fighting and winning wars across the globe.

In general, those of us who continue to serve understand that we aren’t going to get rich in the military.  However, in many of my private discussions my friends agree that a few minor incentives/signs of appreciation would be welcome.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Provide an annual $1,000 “bonus” for all active duty Majors–incl. mobilized reservists (Total cost to Army…less than the price of 100 Toyota Prius)
  • Extend Tuition Assistance benefits to immediate family members if the Soldier doesn’t want to utilize the benefits due to deployments (Total cost to Army…probably less than the price of a $250K Uparmored HMMWV)
  • Allow officers to select duty station of choice for current -or- future assignment (Total cost to Army…”free” someone’s got to fill the slot)
  • Really encourage Senior Leaders (Generals and Colonels) to mentor Majors…some do this really well, some aren’t as engaging.  I suspect that if there were more instances of Senior Leaders having the “How’s your day Major? Where do you see your career going? blah, blah, blah” conversation than many Major’s would simply “feel better.” (Total cost to Army…”free”)
  • Utilize technology to enhance the assignments process (Think: match. com) e.g…A Major fills out a profile of his “desired assignment type, location, duration, family, etc…” that information goes into a computer with an algorithm that spits out potential assignment options.  Through a Social Networking tool, the Major can now contact the Major who currently fills the potential assignment to ask specific questions “How are the schools? Do you like your boss? When will your unit deploy? What are the recreation options? Do you use X,Y,Z equipment?”  All along the way the assignment officer can monitor the conversation and establish report dates based on what works best for the officers–because they will have real-time information.  (Total cost to Army…undetermined; however, the Social Networking technology already exists…just need the “match” feature)
  • Give Majors a free uniform voucher to replace the Green Class A’s.  This is a win-win for the Army because leaders should be the first in the new uniforms and the Majors would appreciate the vouchers. (Total cost to Army would be less than 100 Smart Fortwo!!!)

Let’s hear your opinions…So what do you think?  Should Army Majors simply serve for pride and commitment to duty?  Are the incentives I discussed feasible?  Why do you think the Army is slower than the Navy to embrace incentives? (I have a college classmate who has received $122,000 in bonuses during his Naval career as a Surface Warfare Officerhe’s never been shot at!)