18 January 2011

Making Connections

When I was an Alexandria, Va.-based newspaper intern with USA Today/Apple Computer’s College Information Network, my copydesk colleagues at Gannett News Service contacted me with this stumper of a question: “What is a carbine?”

This was 1989, mind you--before the Internet and before Google. This was when the “Gannett New Media” division was only in the business of delivering USAToday in Español, on the radio, and on T-shirts. (Remember the popularity of Coke-brand clothing? We were going to sell purple “Life” and green “Money” sweatshirts--just like the section fronts in the newspaper!) We also re-broadcasted Gannett news copy to college newspapers via Apple-supplied computers and 1200-baud modems. That's where we interns came in.

(Note: This was before the word "intern" became a Washington punchline, but you can giggle anyway.)

The copy desk was working on a mention of an M1 carbine. Neither the AP Stylebook nor the dictionary definitions had helped. As a last-ditch effort, they went to the guy in the newsroom with the shortest haircut—-an ROTC cadet from Drake University.

Go Bulldogs!

I learned two things that day:
  • A “carbine” is a shortened rifle.
  • There are precious few journalists who "speak military," who are even familiar with the basics of military language and life.
This was 1989, after all. It was before Desert Storm, before September 11, and before 10 years-and-counting of two-wars-and-counting.


I’m now a recently retired member of the Iowa Army National Guard. In my civilian life, I’m a freelance magazine editor and writer, with specialties in architectural history, community planning, and “how-to” home remodeling topics.

In my part-time military career, I regularly found myself working as an internal communicator—-not as an Army journalist, but as a lessons-learned analyst and “knowledge manager.”

I always said a J-degree provided a good liberal arts education coupled with a proven ability to communicate. It has served me well.

Since December 2009, I’ve been blogging about what was to have been my family’s second deployment, this one to Afghanistan with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry “Red Bull” Division (2-34th BCT).

The “Red Bull Rising” (www.redbullrising.com) blog started as a personal project, an attempt to translate to non-military readers what being a citizen-soldier is all about. I’ve found the work rewarding, the response gratifying, and the need to learn new J-tricks constant. I’ve grown a daily audience of a couple hundred readers, and have found my words featured on Doonesbury’s “The Sandbox” on Slate.com, and mentioned on Tom Ricks’ “Best Defense” blog at Foreign Policy magazine.

I’m not the most military guy in the world. I’m not the most charismatic, or most physically fit, or the most tactically savvy. But I ask good questions, and I occasionally manage to put people and pieces together in unique ways. In 2010, for example, I arranged through my mil-blogging contacts the only National Guard unit screening of the Sundance-winning documentary “Restrepo.”

So, based on such successes, I've decided to take Red Bull Rising to the next level.

One of the great things about freelance life is having the freedom to follow where the work is leading you. In addition to continuing to write about the U.S. 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division, I've been brainstorming ways I could help create opportunities collecting, sharing, and archiving the stories of soldiers, veterans, and their families.

Here's what I've come with:
  • I'm applying to embed with my old unit as civilian media later this year.
  • I'm composing an organizational history specific to the 2-34th BCT's Afghan deployment, while also expanding my focus on Red Bull history to include World War I to present.
  • I'm reaching out to local journalism education programs to engage student journalists, to explore how they might help document, preserve, and distribute the stories of Red Bull veterans and their families.
As always, I appreciate your attention to the Red Bull Rising blog. I wouldn't have gotten this far without your support and readership!



  1. You're not kidding about the lack of journalists who "speak military." At my last paper, I was our "military" expert by virtue of having come there after a three-year stint at the Fayetteville, NC paper. It frightened me that I was the "expert," but at least I knew that it's not a 21-gun salute just because seven rifles are fired three times each. And I knew that E-4 was not a rank. And that a Marine is not a soldier.

    I LOVE your idea of reaching out to journalism programs, for two reasons: It will help preserve important local history and help the next generation of writers learn how to accurately tell those histories.

  2. Debra, on the same note - someone please tell the news media that a "base" is not the same thing as a "post"!


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