Friday, December 16, 2011

The Overture of Responsibility and Symbolic Generosity in a Time of War

by Ramon Shiloh

I am an American Soldier. I am a Warrior and a member of a team.
I serve the people of the United States, and live the Army Values.
I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade.
I am disciplined, physically and mentally tough, trained and proficient in my warrior tasks and drills.
I always maintain my arms, my equipment and myself. I am an expert and I am a professional.
I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy, the enemies of the United States of America in close combat.
I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life. I am an American Soldier.
- The U.S. Soldier‟s Creed (Army)

Within every branch of the United States military exists an ethos that empowers the soldiers to focus on their allegiance to their country. Most of the armed service men and women leave loved ones behind for extended periods of time, only to return mentally disciplined, psychologically damaged, physically injured or as casualties of war. Their willingness to enlist, engage and die in defense of their country, especially during an active war, is fueled by an enormous amount of strength and courage. Yet, those who choose to join the military do not consider it an act of bravery, but rather an honor and privilege that allows them to be able to serve and protect.
“For me, it was pretty simple,” explains Major Dexter Brookins, who has dedicated 22 years of service to his country through the Army. “I joined as an 18year-old in 1987 and back then a drill sergeant scared you just the way they looked or their tone of voice. So, for me, it was easy to break me down in order to conform to be an American soldier.”

As a Battalion Operations Officer stationed in South Korea, Maj. Brookins is in charge of readying his battalion for battle, even in times of peace. “I know the war ended over 50 years ago, but the benefit of being in Korea is to make this place a better country. My son may join the military and be stationed in Korea. As I make better relations with the South Koreans, I want to make the bridge better for him if he chooses to make it here. On an international scale, I know we're making countries better. I've been to Afghanistan and visited our military and I think Korea is an example of what Afghanistan was. In about 50 years from now, I think Afghanistan will be built up the same as Korea is today. So, as I serve around the world, I feel I am making a positive impact in somebody else's backyard.”
Still, after nearly seven years of combat in the Middle East, many members of the military feel they are not being recognized for their service to this country. Maj. Brookins believes that the mainstream American media plays a large role in this crisis and has a responsibility to rectify the situation.

“When you look at your major news channels, you see more stories about our injured brethren than the positive news stories that our service members are carrying out. I know that the media is focused on whatever is hot today, but service members are saying, 'give us that time slot' and go out there and conduct those interviews where our service members are deployed and talk to their families,” says Major Brookins.

His views are supported by a recent study conducted by Maeve Hebert of Hart Research and Sean Aday and Steven Livingston from the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, who analyzed the objectivity and biases of 1,820 wartime stories that have aired on the five major American news networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox News Channel) and on the Arab satellite channel, Al Jazeera, since 2003. Results showed that the overwhelming number of stories broadcast by Al Jazeera and the American networks were fairly balanced and supportive of the American-led war effort. Yet, data also revealed broadcasters painted a sanitized picture of a war largely devoid of blood, dissent and diplomacy.

To combat this, Maj. Brookins says he “encourages our soldiers to go out there and tell their own stories as much as possible. I'll be leaving next month and I'll be visiting my nieces' school to talk about my military life. That‟s one way I can send my positive message,” he says.
Dureil Farnell, who serves as the Entertainment Program Manager for the Marine Corps Community Services (MCCS) in Okinawa, Japan, says that even as a civilian employee of the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and the son of a father who served in the Air Force, he took for granted the sacrifices our soldiers make for our country. “I was just like every American, oblivious to the extent of what the military actually goes through,” he notes.

With experience as the head of an entertainment company under his belt, Farnell accepted the DOD position, which has allowed him to spend the past 11 years obtaining fresh entertainers on a demanding schedule to offer a gratifying diversion for troops who are ready for deployment. “I understood how the military works and the paces they go through to serve their country, making us safe and comfortable,” he says. “When I recognize this job means a lot to those who serve is when I recognized how important it was to serve in the terms of what I do.”

Civilian Frank Tagatac can relate to Farnell‟s experiences. As an Air Force brat, Tagatac constantly moved around and established relationships all over the world in the military community. He says his role as the Pacific Regional Entertainment Coordinator for the Armed Forces Entertainment (AFE) program become even more personally gratifying after 9-11 because it allowed him to support the large number of troops fighting for freedom.
“Just being a part of these events and personally knowing those troops over there fighting, I think it‟s important to acknowledge our brothers and sisters in combat and show them we care,” Tagatac explains.

Farnell has partnered with Tagatac and Captain Cody Gravitt, Pacific/Western Hem Circuit Manager for the Air Force, to encourage more American civilians to get involved through the programs offered by the AFE, which operates under the DOD. Established in 1951, the AFE provides live entertainment in an effort to enhance the quality of life for U.S. military personnel stationed overseas.

Because of its government sponsorship, artists who partner with the AFE often find themselves entertaining the soldiers who are serving on the frontline. During WWII, the Camp Shows
program recruited and transported thousands of well-known celebrities to entertain the troops. Today, AFE hosts at least 1,200 shows around the world each year, reaching more than 500,000 personnel stationed at 270 military installations. From muddy makeshift stages to show stopping extravaganzas, the performers bring a piece of home to those stationed so far away from all that is warm and familiar, while also providing service members a well-deserved break from the action.

“These festivals and events provide a number of different benefits,” explains Capt. Gravitt, whose duties include contracting acts to entertain deployed and overseas service members, as well as their families, for all the military branches. “The fact that we have the resources and capability to bring in acts that cover a whole spectrum of musical tastes and talents is great for our service members who wouldn't have been open to it before. But, that's really secondary to what I consider the primary issue which is that we don't go to war as individuals; we go with members of our unit. And, those who are left behind are left with other families, dependants and spouses, which is the community that allows us to succeed while the service members are gone.

That sense of community needs to be established in order for growth in every relationship.”
Capt. Gravitt asserts that a handshake can make difference in making better relations with all neighbors. “Just a simple handshake and a gesture of thanks for what people are doing serves as a gentle reminder that someone out there appreciates their service. The single greatest thing that a person can do for their country is to stay as informed as you can, stay out of harm's way and be cognizant of each other. Whatever the output is for one another, it's to recognize that togetherness is a national endeavor.”

The newest act to join forces with the AFE is three-time Grammy nominee Neo Soul artist Dwele, who recently wrapped a two week, 11-show tour through Japan and South Korea. Setting up the tour schedule took nearly a year to organize, but leaders from Dwele‟s camp, as well as the AFE, fought hard to make it happen.
“Dwele is actually the first celebrity AFE has independently booked on its own, separate from our partnership with the USO,” explains Farnell, acknowledging the enormous benefit of having someone of Dwele‟s caliber attached the program‟s marquee. “Now, we have leverage to bring in other high-profile names.”

Ron Estill, head of RT Music Group, says the collaboration is mutually beneficial. “We have been looking at new ways to guide Dwele in unique demographics to strengthen his resume, but also with a cause at hand,” he explains. “It's one thing to see these events when you‟re flipping channels and celebrities are doing USO performances. But, you really never think about how much it is touching those soldiers until you are in the interior of it. Artists should know there is a greater cause and it starts with tours like this.”

Dwele kicked off the tour at the annual MCCS Camp Foster Festival in Okinawa, Japan, on October 18. In his role as regional entertainment coordinator supervising more than 72 regional bases, Tagatac played a central role in bringing Dwele and his band to the soldiers. He hopes this will help pave the way for bringing in more acts to remote, isolated locations where troops are not able to venture far to see live acts.

“If there are places that cannot have those Dwele moments due to staff or base support, AFE sends them comedians, actors and professional athletes, with handshakes in tow,” he says. “Bringing entertainment to the troops has been very successful in offering morale assistance, offering a taste of home and making them feel we care and are thinking about them.
Performing in these many venues, I feel like I'm tapping into a new market. It's different and fun and humbling at the same time. It's really beautiful to perform for the troops because when I get off the stage, I can really feel what they are feeling,” Dwele explains as he takes in the sights of two gun-toting soldiers walking the perimeter of Camp Casey in Dongducheon, South Korea.
“As much as I appreciate them, in return they're embracing my music and that feels good. When you look at the routine they go through, how strict their life is, it seems like everything here is work-work-work. But, when they get dressed and come out to have a good time, that's when I feel the need to step it up and work for them, keep their mind off of things.”

Ahmed Walker, a Sergeant in the Marine Corps stationed in Okinawa, Japan, says the troops are very appreciative of the sincerity Dwele as shown on the stage. “It was a damn good show and everybody I saw in the crowd definitely enjoyed themselves. I think Dwele brings out an element to the music industry that is lacking right now. With everybody so caught up in voiceover this and voiceover that, in reality, nobody can sing anymore. When you get a raw piece of talent like Dwele, who can hold a live show without any vocal assistance, it's a throwback to the old school and what my pops was listening to, but with a modern twist. He combines it real nice.”

This is exactly the response Estill was hoping Dwele would receive, noting that this type of collaboration “has been in the back of my mind for quite some time, not just for Dwele, but for any one of our other artists, too. The apex of it all is when Dwele landed the campaign for the new McDonald's McCafé commercial. I thought, „Well, now, this could be a perfect marriage in getting my vision and awareness off the ground!”

Unfortunately, the timing was off and Estill was unable to enlist the full support of McDonald's corporate weight before the tour began. But, Estill remains hopeful that fast food giant will recognize the enormous benefits to be gained in supporting our troops. “I decided I needed to make these two weeks happen, go back home and show McDonald's the blueprint and say, "Hey, this is what happened and you need to be a part of this and get engaged.”

Estill admits that setting up the partnership wasn't easy, but the work was well worth it if this unity with AFE encourages other industry execs to support a cause that could potentially be a positive for music labels who rarely put their money where their mouth is.
“From what I've witnessed on this tour, there's a huge disconnect between the great things that MCCS, AFE and the Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) programs are creating and what people need to know about. When I meet the troops, I reflect about how this is such an underutilized platform in the sense of brightening someone's frame of mind. This platform needs to be utilized, because with more recognition, it will place a sense of duty in the minds of those ready to uplift unnoticed areas.”