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SEALs invested a week, s°me imagination, and lots °f effort to get an accurate Picture of their business °ut to the public through the once-dreaded media, ^ill the SEALs' week work them—and the Navy? ^e'|| see . . .
For the past several years it has seemed that the natural, sworn enemy of the U.S. Navy was no longer the Soviet Navy, nor any other Military power, but the popular Ameri- j"ari press—the mainstream media that aas so gleefully reported on Navy scandals. real or invented. This adversarial relationship 6egan about 25 years ago, during the war in South- ea« Asia, and has continUed pretty much unabated to the present, much to the distress of the Navy and "» friends ashore.
As a journalist, I am irequently appalled at the "responsible and inaccurate stories in print, radio, and television that slander people, systems, and ""ssions of our armed ^0rces. It is obvious from dtese stories that the people who’ve produced them dave never served or, in s°nte cases, have never set d°ot inside any military ‘Ustallation. The people who generate *dese stories don’t appear to know a frigate from a ferry boat, but seem c°rnpelled to preach their sermons anyway. It is unfortunate that most AmeriCans get their information about the profession of arms from such sources, along with movies like Top Gun, Officer and A Gentleman, and Navy SEALs, and have, as a result, an extremely distorted view of the armed services.
This situation is not entirely the fault of the press. Reporters haven’t always done their homework, but at times they may not have had access. This has been especially true with people trying to do stories about the Navy in the past—the subject of an August 1991 Proceedings article of mine, “The Navy Does Not Cooperate.” Telling accurate, friendly stories about the U.S. Navy has been extremely difficult, for many reasons, over the years, and some excellent journalists have stopped trying.
But the Navy may be changing. Of all the Navy commands, the SEALs and Naval Special Warfare Command (NavSpecWarCom) have been among the most resistant to media attention. While the U.S. Army’s Green Berets and even the Russian Spetsnaz have been showing off for the media, the unofficial motto of the public affairs officer (PAO) for the SEALs seems to have been: We’ll Get Back to You Later. Even so, the SEALs are an attractive story subject and a pile of requests for media support accumulate on the PAO’s desk at Coronado. One of these was from me, asking for help to do a book on the SEALS, and it had been there for quite a while.
When Rear Admiral Ray Smith got tapped to command SpecWarCom in August 1992, he inherited this stack of requests along with everything else. Rather than reject them, he directed his PAO, Lieutenant Commander John Brindley, to see if there was a way to accommodate them. Rather than trying to accommodate some 20 separate requests from a wide variety of media individually (the usual way), Commander Brindley suggested inviting all of these folks at the same time and putting on a series of unclassified demonstrations, briefings, and contacts—the mother of all dog-and-pony shows.
SpecWarCom called the event Photo Week, invited those with requests out-
The Story Behind the Cover
Greg Mathieson is one of those aggressive, intense photographers who works hard to get dramatic pictures—to the extent of wading into the ocean and risking two cameras to get the right shot. In this case, the image was selected for the cover of this issue.
standing, and designed a schedule that gave most of the journalists most of what they were asking for—trainees suffering various indignities, beach operations, live fire, small boats zooming around the harbor—all the drama, action-packed adventure, thrills and chills any media weenie could imagine.
Then came the tough part—getting the plan past the committee. SEALs have been notoriously camera-shy for many years, and nobody likes getting tapped for any kind of talent show.
The annual July 4th demonstration at Coronado is notorious among SEALs, many of whom use all their best escape-and-eva- sion skills to avoid having to participate in the program. But, as we all know, when the admiral wants something to get done, it is going to happen—hurt feelings or not.
Rules of Engagement: Because the SEALs traditionally maintain a low profile, the command published ground rules for the event and a contract. No journalists would be allowed to participate without agreeing to the conditions and signing on the dotted line. Although most of us thought this was a bit silly and had never been asked to sign such a document to cover any other special operations community, we signed. It was a way of telling us we weren’t trusted, but most of us on scene knew our profession had a reputation for being untrustworthy— our colleagues had earned this for us. Considering the special efforts SpecWarCom was making for this event, it didn’t seem too far out of line.
One of the rules specified that no recognizable photographs of SEALs could be taken, without saying what “recognizable” meant—which is one way of saying that no interesting or useful photographs could be taken. One of the PAOs detailed to support the event said this meant only distant shots or backs-of-heads would be permitted, while another said that, since the
SEALs would be heavily camouflaged with face paint, there wouldn’t be a problem with close-ups of faces. This disagreement caused the most consternation among our mob. We decided among ourselves to shoot what we thought we needed, unless directed otherwise by the ever-present public affairs officers and then submit the shots for review after processing.
About 20 people were invited, 16 accepted and 11 showed. The journalists who arrived were a mixed bag: a team from a Swedish newspaper with no knowledge whatever of U.S. military affairs, a screen writer working on a script for a feature film, one Navy photojournalist, a husband-and-wife team working on a book, plus four others (myself included) gathering material for other books on SEALS.
About half of us had extensive experience covering military affairs as a specialty, and three of us had spent long periods with the Army’s Green Berets. This occasionally produced generally light-hearted conflicts between the PAO escorts, most of whom (other than Commander Brindley) had little prior contact or experience with special operations forces, trying to explain aspects of the subject to people who’d written books about the subject. On the other hand, we were pretty funny ourselves at times.
Although experienced military journalists hate briefings (and lunch breaks), the pitches offered as part of Photo Week were more interesting and informative than the standard welcome- aboard speeches. We actually learned things from the senior chiefs, the team commanders, and Admiral Smith, when they visited with the group.
They actually said things—kind of a novelty for this sort of thing.
We had a day of basic underwater- demolition/ SEAL training, with people suffering valiantly through the obstacle course, physical training, and small- boat drills on the beach. Suffering makes for great pictures, and we were all quite pleased. Then we got an hour or two on the bay with a 30-knot rigid inflatable boat zooming around dramatically with a SEAL squad embarked. Several thousand dollars worth of Nikon cameras got drenched with salt water when one of the passes was a bit too dramatic, but nobody complained—we had asked for close-up action, and we got it.
There were another couple of hours with the same SEALs demonstrating beach operations, complete with combat swimmers coming in through the surf. Although these SEALs were quite uncomfortable about being inside the effective range of the 35-mm. cameras, they cooperated with requests for specific setups—and the photographers cooperated by using hats, weapons, swim masks, and other equipment to mask facial features on those who were worried about being recognizable.
Then the real fun began. After a
Although I didn’t get to spend as ^Uch time with the unit as I normally d°> or to do the kind of “tag-along” reSearch I’ve done with the Army’s Spe- c>al Forces, this week provided enough Material to illustrate a major part of my book and I was grateful for the support. h°r a first-ever try at this sort of thing,
* thought it was well executed.
0100 link-up and a three-hour ride to a remote desert compound, we were introduced to a squad from SEAL Team *'Ve for a few hours of night patrolling and a live-fire demonstration. This particular group had no heartburn at all about being photographed, and this revelation produced a classic media frenzy. Now it was the public affairs officers’ turn to giggle as 11 journalists tried to figure out just what to do with all this dramatic potential. After the sun came up, the squad even produced "'hat seemed to be an unlimited supply °f smoke grenades for even more theatrical pictures.
were having s° much fun that °ne of the public affairs lieutenants just about laughed herself sick.
Then, when "e had shot the St)uad in just about every variation anybody e°uld think of, a hesert patrol vehicle (DPV) was rolled otit, cour- ksy of SEAL Team Three.
The DPV demonstrated how well it c°uld fly, drive through trees and zoom across the desert. Finally, we were herded back in the bus for the trip back t° civilization.
Lessons Learned'. This Photo Week "'as, as far as the participants were c°ncemed, a successful mission and °ne that produced some substantive lessons for units throughout the Navy. SpecWarCom demonstrated the kind of Positive initiative that could and should be tried by other commands, a way of Setting friendly, accurate, detailed coverage with a minimum of disruption to ihe units. It was similar to annual ^nriy and Marines capabilities demonorations, complete with weapons live fire and dramatic tactical displays— events that give interested journalists an opportunity to gather information f°r manv projects in one concentrated Period.
The constraints turned out to be mild and tolerable. In the end we needn’t have worried about the photo restrictions. After the processed film was reviewed, the public affairs officer was extremely tolerant of closeups, except for those of a few individuals. Of the 708 photographs I submitted about 15 were rejected, and none was particularly precious or critical to telling the story. It was a small price to pay for reassuring this community that its security concerns would be respected.
This idea of a concentrated media opportunity is something just about any
Navy command can use to get its story told. It is an efficient way to reach a national stage while minimizing the diversion from the normal training routine. I believe that the Navy can convert most of the negative, inaccurate, irresponsible press coverage to friendly, supportive, accurate reports by encouraging journalists—as SpecWarCom has done—to visit a unit long enough to get the big, detailed picture. If it is done once a year or so, and is a regular event, you’ll find journalists adding it to their planning calendars and making regular appearances—at conveniently long intervals.
There’s another important lesson in all this: The best public affairs officer the Navy will ever have isn’t the PAO escort, but the young sailor or junior officer who is an evangelist for his or her unit and branch of service. We met some of these people on the teams; their energy and enthusiasm are always
How do you take pictures of people who want to retain a little privacy? Carefully—and with their consent and cooperation. The photographers used hats and weapons to mask faces where possible, didn't take pictures of people who didn't want to participate, and sent exposed film to the public affairs officer for review.
infectious. Nobody wants to publish anything negative about these great people.
This is a critical time for our military institutions, with many changes in the works—changes designed by people who don’t know who you are or what you do. It is extremely important that Americans understand the Navy better. And I think the Navy has two excellent models for improving the quality of information that gets out. One of these is the SpecWarCom initiative.
The other is the U.S. Marine Corps.
The Marine Corps probably has the best public relations operation in the
SEAL Team Three didn't file a flight plan for their demonstration of the desert patrol vehicle, but they certainly made it fly. And also flying were the SEALs in the rigid hull inflatable boat operated by the Special Boat Squadron. Such demonstrations are too often considered trivial and unproductive interruptions of training, but they can be a dramatic way to get the attention of the general public.
business, one its bigger brother ought to emulate; I have yet to meet a Marine who didn’t promote the virtues of the Corps by his or her enthusiasm, bearing, good cheer and energy. The SEALs we met were mostly like that— they sell the Navy’s best qualities with their obvious competence. If you want to improve the image of the Navy among Americans just let your star performers charm a few responsible, professional journalists the way the Marine Corps does.
In fact, anybody in public affairs, in and out of the military, ought to study what the Marines do. They make it easy to tell a friendly story about their community by making it easy to see what they do, and by being proud of who they are. They’ve made it easy for me to fly in the F/A-18, get off shore for amphibious exercises, rumble around the back lot at Twentynine Palms. They do things differently than the SEALS, with much better support for solo reporters, but they’ve got the assets to provide that kind of support. The point is that, big or small, units can and should start looking for ways to get their success stories told. How it gets done depends on the unit. If the Marines, the Green Berets, and—would you believe—the Russian Air Force can do this successfully, the U.S. Navy can too.
Why bother with public affairs at all? Well, to a certain extent it is re-
quired by law. It is also your only real link with the folks who pay your bills and who carve out the policies that shape the Navy in all its detail. Americans have largely lost touch with what happens in the fleet, the Corps, the Army, the Air Force and the Coast Guard. What they see in newspapers, on the news, and in books and films is as close as most people will ever get to profession and community. Time invested in helping the media get things right will yield high returns.
Mr. Halberstadt, a photojoumalist based in San Jose, CA, has written a number of military books-
Through Another Lens
Photos by Greg Mathieson
Eleven photographers participated in the SpecWarCom's photo week. They shot thousands of images and thousands of feet of film. The SEALs story will be seen by millions.