Under the bluish tint of the fluorescent lights in a nondescript room, I raised my right hand as I swore to defend this country against her enemies foreign and domestic. I didn’t really know what that meant. It was spring 1996. Operation Desert Storm, the U.S.-led 43-day war waged against Iraq in 1991, was a distant memory. And the bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which would leave nineteen airmen dead, wouldn’t take place for a few more months. Military service, it seemed to me then, was simply a necessary step toward a debt-free college education. Before ISIS. Before America’s Global War on Terror.
I didn’t cry at boot camp. At least not initially. Feeling done with central Virginia—feeling that it was certainly done with me—I didn’t long to return home. I had been kicked out of the same college twice, hurt by the same stepfather more times than I care to remember, and as a young Black woman had grown tired of the false patina of equity where vestiges of the Confederate South lingered. The military offered a lifeline. I grabbed it hard and fast and in return promised to never let go.
After basic training, I went to Maryland to join the cadre of troops trained each year at the Defense Information School (DINFOS). During college I had worked in the control room of a small, local cable news station in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I became friendly with one of the reporters, who’d regularly allow me to observe him as he reviewed videos of his interviews and put together his story for the nightly newscast. When the recruiter asked me about my interests and hobbies, I told him about my part-time job, and he suggested I join the Armed Forces News Service. When I got to Fort Meade, I was greeted by a matrix of trailers that housed the technical school where I’d learn to be a military journalist, a job I hadn’t even known existed just a few months before. Instructors called us “DINFOS-trained killers” upon graduation. We were prepared to deploy anywhere in the world with a camera and microphone.
After World War II, believing a well-informed public and armed forces were necessary for defending the nation, the Army Information School opened in 1946 at Carlisle Barracks, in Pennsylvania. This created a formalized military institution to teach mass communication, supporting “an external and internal information program that would apply both at home and abroad.” The following year, the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps began sending students there, though each would eventually establish separate public affairs programs, and by 1964, the service branches fully centralized their public-affairs programs to form the Defense Information School. Today the school provides training in a variety of subjects to a broad range of students. Besides the U.S. Armed Forces, Department of Defense (DOD) civilians and international military students study public affairs, print and broadcast journalism, photography, video production and media-equipment maintenance, as well as graphic design and digital media.
I thought I was well on my way to becoming a real reporter, like my mentor at the cable news station. I remembered how I had watched from the audio booth as he exchanged pleasantries with a local politician before their live interview was set to begin, chatting about the NFL and the poorly performing Washington Redskins. Within seconds, the on-air light flashed in the studio, the reporter shifted in his seat, his voice deepened and his easygoing smile disappeared as the politician faced tough questions about his voting record. By the time the discussion was over, the politician’s reputation had been thoroughly scrutinized. Loosening his tie, slapping it hard into his hand after he got off set, he bolted out of the studio. I was hooked.
The DINFOS creed is “strength through truth,” though as I would learn, it often failed to acknowledge that the so-called truth was heavily vetted by the brass before every broadcast or published report. I learned how to tell the Air Force narrative, selecting words and phrases that resembled authenticity and transparency, but never veered far from the predetermined military messaging. As an Armed Forces News Service broadcaster there would be no “gotcha” moments like what I saw at the cable station. Interviews with military brass were scripted and approved by a bureaucratic chain long enough to rival any government institution. My commitment to that narrative would be tested when, a few months later, I deployed to Japan.
I arrived in Okinawa in 1996. The island was still reeling from the news of a brutal gang rape of a twelve-year-old local girl by two Marines and a sailor stationed at Camp Hansen. After the report went public there was a massive public outcry on the island that intensified after the commander of the U.S. forces in the Pacific, Admiral Richard C. Macke, joked that it would have cost as much for the accused rapists to pay a prostitute as to rent the car they’d used to abduct the child. Tens of thousands of locals filled the streets, and protests stretched across the island, energizing revanchist activists looking to reclaim land occupied by American service members. The entire U.S. military presence in Okinawa and security alliance with Japan was under threat.
There are more overseas U.S. bases in Japan than in any other country in the world. Though it accounts for less than one percent of the nation’s territory, Okinawa Prefecture, the far southwestern string of islands on the Japanese archipelago, is home to nearly 75 percent of the U.S. military facilities in Japan. The region was part of the Ryukyu kingdom until 1879, when Japan formally annexed it. After World War II, Japan agreed to concentrate most U.S. forces there, far from the mainland—the establishment of the massive U.S. military base infrastructure after the war was easily accepted, in part, because Okinawa was considered not “really Japan.”
The stakes were high for the American military, which now faced fervent opposition to its sprawling presence on an island that had long been subjected to occupation. The DINFOS-trained killers of the military broadcast detachment in Okinawa stationed at Camp Butler couldn’t produce enough “troops doing good” stories. We needed to shift the narrative away from the assault in Okinawa, an innocent violated by her American occupiers.
I quickly learned that achieving success in the military largely boiled down to following orders. And in that sense, I was a good airman. I wrote military news reports featuring sailors and Marines volunteering to clean up trash at Sunabe Seawall, or donating canned goods to a food pantry, or visiting Okinawan senior-citizen centers. I was a military woman whitewashing the bad behavior of military men. Looking back, it was like telling the story of a deadly typhoon by reporting on the construction of new homes after the storm.
One by one, stories about the strategic value of Okinawa and the U.S. presence providing a safeguard against an encroaching North Korea and newly assertive China creeped their way to publication. The military messaging-through-journalism program appeared in specialized military publications, local base newspapers, and broadcast through what is now known as the American Forces Network—a government television and radio service provided to service members, and their families, assigned overseas. Some of this messaging would eventually wind up in news sources closer to home. The press, I learned, could wield far more influence than any captain or colonel, prime minister, or president.
Never did we mention the burgeoning rate of violence against Asian women at the hands of U.S. service members, much less the devastating impact of military sexual trauma unfolding across American bases around the world. Four years after the attack, all the curfews imposed on service members following the sexual assault had been lifted. Protests gave way to a handful of demonstrators with taiko drums posted outside our security gates. A droll rhythmic reminder of the Okinawan resistance to the bellicose American military. Today, what I remember most about that time are the stories I couldn’t tell.
My dream of becoming a network news reporter, to one day present comprehensive, investigative stories on live TV, began to unfold while watching AFN and studying TV personalities such as Christiane Amanpour, Lesley Stahl and Diane Sawyer. Amanpour asked the questions of military leaders I couldn’t. I questioned whether there was a place for someone like me at the network news level: a Black woman and a college dropout. But in 2000, while assigned to Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, a news director recruited me to join his television newsroom in West Texas.
By that time, after four years of active-duty enlisted service, I was eager to shed my uniform and drop “sir” and “ma’am” from most phrases. Unfiltered journalism, real reporting lay ahead, I thought. It was while I was working as a news reporter in that El Paso TV station that the first plane hit the World Trade Center’s North Tower. By then, I was not expected to deliver talking points on behalf of the military anymore. Instead, I delivered the military’s talking points on behalf of the media. Ratings and media consultants replaced the captains and colonels.
Spin, granted as the truth, appeared in national broadcasts and newspapers across the country, rapidly leading us into the longest military conflict in American history. Spin told us of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—there were none. Spin told us of Iraq intelligence agents meeting with a terrorist connected to 9/11—they did not. I was no longer a DINFOS-trained killer, a necessary cog in the military’s messaging machine, but I was doing the job anyway. I carried the official vetted narrative of the military from press briefings, by public-affairs officers fellow DINFOS graduates and incorporated it into my stories ever the good airman.
El Paso is headquarters to Fort Bliss, one of the largest military posts in the Army, which meant the station was quick to report on any military news. Its most significant military story came in 2003, when members of the 507th Maintenance Company were taken as prisoners of war (POW) during the early stages of the Iraq invasion. They were separated from a convoy when they came under attack in Nasiriyah. Eleven soldiers were killed or died from their injuries during the ambush, and six were captured, including Shoshana Johnson, the first Black woman in U.S. history taken as a military POW. But it was the narrative of the nineteen-year-old private from West Virginia that the press latched onto—the young blonde soldier captured in a foreign land, only to be rescued by American heroes in uniform.
It was easy to get swept up in the breathless coverage. Still beholden to the lifeline the Air Force provided all those years ago, I joined in. Many of the features treated the story of Lynch’s capture and return as a kind of metonym for the U.S. military presence in the Middle East: at once heroic and vulnerable, an American hero and damsel in distress. At the time, the glorification of Lynch and her rescuers by the domestic press helped to soften criticism of the emerging military strategy in Iraq. America continued its unwavering support of troops, largely because most Americans weren’t fighting in the wars. It’s the reason why failed military operations, policies and strategies remained unchecked—out of sight, out of mind.
The nation was at war for twenty years, but most Americans were not. More than two million service members—less than one percent of the U.S. population—served in Iraq and Afghanistan following 9/11. Currently, an estimated 1.4 million people serve on active duty in the military. The majority of America experienced the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through the lens of the military-media complex—with messaging crafted by DINFOS graduates stationed at bases around the world and supposedly independent venues nevertheless conditioned by military talking points.
It’s been more than two decades since I left school to join the Air Force and took the oath to defend America. As I reflect on the role I played as an Air Force veteran turned broadcast-news journalist, I recognize that my military experience uniquely positioned me as a reporter, providing me with significant background knowledge and many contacts within the defense and veteran communities. But it also made it easier for me to continue perpetuating narratives that privileged accounts from the military above those of its victims.
I finally put my military benefits to use to pay for college and later graduated from Columbia Journalism School. I believe I’m still serving my country today, but now it’s by telling the stories of the so-called “hidden figures” of war—women of color whose contributions to military service have too often been ignored in the annals of history—and by drawing attention to blind spots in military and veteran policy.
There were times when I used to question how my reporting might have been different had I never served in the military. To this day, American power continues to be conveyed and shaped by our military’s talking points, which tells me there are still plenty of other good airmen spreading the story. After twenty exhausting years of war, perhaps it’s time that the truth about our military no longer be premised on reinforcing its strength.
This essay is a special web supplement to our issue 27 symposium, “What is the military for?” Click here to see the rest of the symposium.
Image credit: Fort Meade Public Affairs Office, “DINFOS instructor takes artistic skills to Meade courtroom” (Flickr, CC / BY 2.0)