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NEWS | Sept. 14, 2006

Dakota Guard unit bringing the stories home

By Sgt. Eric Jensen & Spc. Chris Erickson

MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. - Members of a South Dakota-based National Guard unit are making a difference in the Global War on Terrorism by bringing the brave stories of Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors and Marines back home.

The Soldiers work in U.S. Central Command’s Media Engagement Team. They make contact with public affairs officers and service members in the CENTCOM theater of operations, coordinating interviews with local, regional and national media. They also have the opportunity to use their military skills as broadcast and print journalists to produce stories after visiting different units in any of the 27 countries across the CENTCOM area of responsibility.

“This is an excellent opportunity to put our PA (Public Affairs) skills to work,” said 2nd Lt. Dan Murphy, media operations officer for CENTCOM Public Affairs forward headquarters office in Qatar.

“We have the opportunity to reach out to media all over the United States and connect service members to media around the world, the opportunity to tell an important story – the service members’ story,” said Murphy, who is from Bismarck, N.D.

The Soldiers are from the 129th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, a single unit made up of National Guard Soldiers from North and South Dakota. It’s headquartered in Rapid City with a detachment located in Bismarck. The unit is split into three sections: Camp As Sayliyah (Doha, Qatar), Tampa, and Atlanta.

Soldiers overseas and those in Tampa perform similar duties as Media Engagement Teams. Two other Soldiers, Sgt. Jon Haugen and Sgt. Chris Keller, work at the Digital Video and Information Distribution System in Atlanta, which connects civilian media with the military serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain.

For most of the seven Soldiers in Qatar, it is the first time they have been overseas. It’s an adjustment that has taken some getting used to.

“You understand that it is going to be hot, but the wind on our first day made it worse,” said Spc. Brett Miller, Bismarck, N.D. “It felt like sticking a blow dryer to your face, putting it on high and holding it there all day.”

Camp As Sayliyah serves as the location for the military’s Rest and Relaxation Program in the Middle East. Service members come to the camp for four-day passes that give them a break from their day-to-day deployment routine. The camp provides many activities for visiting Soldiers.

The 129th takes advantage of the perks as well.

“For one, the chow hall is much better than others. There’s much more variety, the food is better and the staff is friendly,” said Staff Sgt. Mark Watson of Spearfish, S.D.

Sgt. 1st Class Jennifer Schwind, of Fargo, N.D., said she felt guilty at first that she was so lucky to enjoy the safety and conditions of Tampa while many of her peers were in much worse places.

“Part of the reason I volunteered for deployment was that I wanted to experience what other deployed Soldiers experienced and make the same sacrifices that so many others have,” said Schwind. “Now, I feel very fortunate to get this experience to work with Central Command and many service members within the area of operations, to learn more about so much positive work done in theater and help spread that good information.”

While the amenities on As Sayliyah and in Tampa are enjoyable, some Soldiers of the 129th find even more satisfaction in the mission they support.

Miller said, “it feels like we are making a difference at least to the Soldiers we interview. Their families get to read or hear their story and it’s a very rewarding job in that way.”

Marvin Baker, acting first sergeant for the 129th, said he felt a lot of satisfaction from the job the unit has already done.

Baker said he thought that while the unit is a small piece of the puzzle, they are progressing and generating the kinds of media products that make U.S. service members and their families proud that they are serving in the military during the Global War on Terrorism.

In August, a three-man Media Engagement Team was sent to Afghanistan to cover multiple units for broadcast and print stories. The team was there for 10 days. This was the first of several different missions that the 129th will take on in the CENTCOM area of responsibility.

“I look forward to missions to get out and see what our Soldiers are seeing firsthand,” said Watson. “You see what’s going on in the news, but, until you step in the same dirt, feel the same heat and smell the same smells, it’s a whole different ballgame.”

Many of the Soldiers feel, and both Baker and Schwind said, that the job the unit does has a large effect on morale, both for service members and their families. They said it helps people keep a positive outlook, and that, in turn, can keep service members excited about their contributions, no matter what their duty.

The Soldiers of the 129th have long been involved in the Global War on Terrorism, reporting and covering all mobilizations and demobilizations of North and South Dakota National Guard units since September 11, 2001. The unit spent three months, March 22 to June 30, 2003, deployed to Fort Riley, Kan., in support of operation Noble Eagle.

The unit also was activated during Operation Joint Guardian in 1997 and spent almost nine months in Bosnia.



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