23 December 2010

Lessons-Learned after a Year of Mil-blogging

I started writing the Red Bull Rising blog on Dec. 20, 2009. Coincidentally, over the course of this rough-and-tumble roller-coaster year of now-you're-deploying-to-Afghanistan-and-now-you're-not (with bonus rounds!), Dec. 20, 2010 turned out to be my mandatory retirement date from the Iowa Army National Guard.

I'm officially a civilian next month, although I'll continue Red Bull Rising as an unofficial historian of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division, as well as the larger division community. (Call it ... "Red Bull Nation?")

We have lots to talk about in 2011.

For now, however, I'd like to share these reflections as I prepare for another productive year of writing and reporting ...


Your high-school English teacher was right: Write what you know. The trouble is, if you don't end up hiking across Asia, or running with the bulls, or doing something obviously notable and sexy in your life, it can be a trick to figure out what it is, exactly, that you "know."

After 20 years in uniform at least one weekend a month, and working my day job as a newspaper and magazine journalist, I realized what I knew:
  • I knew about being a citizen-soldier in the National Guard.
  • I knew that it was difficult to translate experiences between military and civilian friends and family.
  • I knew how to communicate within, without, and about an organization.
So, 12 months ago, I started this blog.

I started writing the Red Bull Rising blog as an experiment. My military job potentially involved both internal and external blogging, and I wanted to learn not only some of technological tricks and tools--setting up and maintaining a blog, interacting via social media such as Facebook--but also how to gather an audience from the ground up.

(Before I go any further: If you're reading this, thanks for being a member of that audience.)

One of the things I wasn't expecting to learn? How great people can be. Even as a faceless, semi-anonymous blogger, I've "met" any number of people who have offered insight and advice, kept me honest and on my toes, and introduced me to still more people and opportunities. I cannot say this enough: I am honored and humbled.

I'm certainly not an expert in military blogging, or "mil-blogging," but I offer here a few personal lessons-learned, best-practices and rules-of-engagement (R.O.E.):

Write ONLY what you know. Do not speculate above your pay-grade, or outside your right-and-left limits of fire. Avoid chasing, spinning, or regurgitating rumors. Nobody likes a know-it-all.

Write only what you are SUPPOSED to know. Realize that if you're the only one who knows something, there may be plenty of reasons to keep it that way.

Don't over-correct. You may know more than the guy spouting off on Facebook about "Fobbits" and "POGS" (you may even wish to sarcastically educate him on how to spell "pogue" correctly), but you don't need to correct him at every turn. All of us is smarter than one of us, and the social network is self-correcting. Stay in your lane. That said, everybody on the Internet range has the right and responsibility to call "cease fire" on any unsafe act, OPSEC violation, or general dumb-a--ery. Just be careful when you take the safety off.

State the mission. Write a "who, what, where, when, why and how" statement about you're about, then stick to it. At the same time, give yourself some room to explore, grow, revise and revisit your purpose. In Red Bull Rising, I write about "ways to remember, celebrate, and support citizen-soldiers, particularly those of the 2nd Brigade, 34th Infantry division." If a potential topic doesn't fit that description, I force myself to ask whether the blog is really the right place to write about it.

If you wouldn't want it on the front page of the New York Times, don't write it. This useful rule works in a variety of ways: Don't write jokes into official memos, assuming that they'll edited out before distribution. Don't write hateful or slanderous words. Don't write about friends, family, and colleagues without care. Don't write about military details that pertain to dates, plans, strategies, or capabilities.

Take a breath. Do not aspire to be the first draft of military history. If there's big news, wait for perspective and official release of information. You don't need to always hold the official Army line, but you do need to wait for information to be vetted, processed, and released. The Army supports those who tell the Army story honestly and openly--and who demonstrate discretion. Particularly where the physical and emotional lives of other soldiers are involved. 'Nuff said.

Avoid talking about politics or religion. This was a good rule both when I was dating and living in a dormitory, and it seems like a good rule for blogging as well. Many of my friends, both long-standing and on Facebook, are staunch liberals or starched conservatives. I prefer not to take sides. I prefer to think of all of us as "Americans"--or (shout out to Canada and Australia) better yet: "allies." We are ALL on the same team. We are all New Yorkers now.

Be respectful. Whether you choose to talk about logistics and tactics, or about politics and religion, argue the merits of your case and avoid personal attacks. Play nice, and realize that too many problems in this world are caused by tribes who can't agree to get along--or even to talk--for the greater good.

If you begin to think it's about you, you're wrong. There have been many times in my life (and my blog) that I've come off like a know-it-all. (See above.) There's a fine line between self-promotion and self-aggrandizement, and I've probably crossed it too many times to mention. I've seen too many of my creative heroes, however, cross into self-deception and self-destruction. Keep it real. Keep focused on your mission, not on yourself. It's not about you, even if you're writing about your personal experiences.

It's not about you--it's about the troops. And their families.

It's about the Red Bull.



  1. I'll say, pretty good list of rules to live by. But I think bloggers are, by their very nature, narcissists. It gets really hard to not think about yourself... cos yourself is awesome.

  2. Great list, Sherpa and I have to say I have learned much from you this past year. Keep it up, Sherpa Scribe.

  3. All excellent rules to live (and blog) by..

    For me, the one that resonates the loudest? It really is NOT all about ME! It IS all - and always - about our troops and their families, and yes, they are ALL 'ours'. We are all on the same team. :)

    I am sooooo glad you started this blog, even if I don't get over here as often enough as I would like. NEVAH enuff hours in any day....:(

    Thank you for all that YOU do. WRITE ON!

  4. Thank you Sherpa - I have learned so much from reading your posts (especially love how you give us an acronym and then explain how it's pronounced!)

    Please keep up the writing!


  5. After nearly a year of following your blogs, I must conclude that you are a most honorable person and, therefore worthy of thanks. Integrity is rare these days, especially in the milieu of BLOGGING.

    Thank you for your insight and dedication. Thank you for being a LIGHT in the darkness.

    Merry Christmas, Sherpa. To you and Yours. :)

  6. @ jodiwho, you said it all for me too. Thank you Sherpa!

  7. The silver threads of the cyber-space are certainly a good thing. The woven threads allow us to connect and meet some pretty amazing people who we might have never known had we passed them on our city streets.
    I, for one, am mighty glad that our silver threads were crossed.

    Merry Christmas, Charlie. May you and your family be ever so blessed!

  8. What is funny about all of this is that many of us read and comment on the same blogs. It is not only enlightening to read your blog but reader and frequently also bloggers comments. Doesn't POG stand for Person Other than Grunt and therefore not spelled pogue? Just picked up from reading mil-blogs - they may be wrong. Thank you for your long service. My son is an AF pilot and probably a "lifer". I wish he could blog about what he does but many things fall into your opsec categories and he is busy running things to keep them getting all the training they need (and we hope they need lots of it). Keep it up and we all will keep reading. Hi Kanani, Ky Woman, Paxford, Coffypot and others who aren't on this comment line today. Love and blessing to you and your family for the coming year. Again thank you for standing in the gap for those of us serving at home.

  9. @ All: Chalk another lesson up to this group of comments: "End-of-year lessons-learned lists may generate unforeseen good tidings." Thanks, all, for your readership and support.

    @ Lorraine: I guess I've heard the "person on than grunt" explanation, now that you mention it, but the term "pogue" pre-dates by a couple of decades/centuries. Derives from our nautically inclined brothers, apparently. (Ala "pogey-bait"). I do see, however, that the "POG" reference (as a "retronym"?!) is mentioned in the Wikipedia entry:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pogue Thanks for pointing it out!


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