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Wednesday, April 23, 2014         

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Military adopts new media

Blogs and more are now tools for communication

By William Cole

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There's a scene in "From Here to Eternity" in which bugler Montgomery Clift broadcasts a mournful taps at Schofield Barracks with the aid of a megaphone.

It was a message within a message. Clift's character was lamenting the loss of a buddy, and the bugle call then -- as now -- signals "lights out" at the end of the day.

These days, though, mass communication with the troops is more likely to come via cell phone text, Twitter, Facebook and Flickr.

The Pentagon is making a big push into new media and social media, and the old bugles and bulletin boards have given ways to blogs, BlackBerries and tweets.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has a Facebook page. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tweets out short messages.

Every morning at 6, before he heads out for "PT" (physical training), Schofield Barracks commander Maj. Gen. Bernard Champoux checks the 25th Infantry Division Facebook page and his commander's blog.

Champoux said it's a great way to check on his soldiers and their families, their concerns, mainland families with a relative in Hawaii, and Schofield veterans.

"It's a 24-hour ability to communicate with an extended audience," Champoux said. For younger soldiers, he added, "that's how they communicate."

Spc. Michael Ballou, a 22-year-old soldier with the 25th Infantry Division Band, estimates he sometimes sends out as many as 100 texts to other soldiers in a single day while figuring out band logistics during busy performance times.

"If I didn't have the phone numbers of all my NCOICs (noncommissioned officers in charge) on my cell phone, I probably wouldn't survive," the Atlanta man said.

Champoux, who took command of the 25th Division in February, said in the future he'll only contract for cell phones that have texting capability.

The Army still uses bulletin boards for messages, Champoux said, "but what are our soldiers doing? They are walking right past them with their heads down as they are texting Mom, Dad, girlfriend, wife or squad leader."

Senior commanders are now often blogging, some awkwardly, some with enthusiasm. "Milbloggers" and "blogger's roundtables" for online reporting sources are the new buzzwords within Defense Department communications.

"If you look at the demographics of print media ... (and) how we are all communicating, we're not totally reliant on print media like we use to be," Champoux said.

Pacific Air Forces, headquartered in Hawaii, was so proud that it hosted some local bloggers during recent Rim of the Pacific war games that it wrote a news story about just that fact.

The embrace of social media represents an abrupt about-face for the Marine Corps. Last August, the Corps issued a directive banning the use of sites such as Twitter, Facebook and MySpace on government computers.

"These Internet sites in general are a proven haven for malicious actors and content and are particularly high risk due to information exposure, user-generated content and targeting by adversaries," the ban stated.

But on Feb. 25 of this year, the Pentagon issued official policy on new/social media stating that the "default" for nonclassified networks was open access.

In March, the Corps reversed course and fell in line with the Pentagon policy, and last month, the Defense Department launched an updated "social media hub" providing advice for military users.

The Army's social media guidelines point to some reasons for the new enthusiasm.

With social media, the Army said, it can do more than just deliver its message.

"We can have conversations about it with members of the Army family, the American public, the press and other interested parties all at once," the guidelines state.

Price Floyd, a deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, said in March that military leaders should get involved in social media because lower-ranking service members invariably will already have been busy blogging or posting about their units.

"So the question is not whether or not they (commanders) want to participate," Floyd said. "The question is, do they want to impact what is said about them and their unit or their base or their command?"

Champoux, the 25th Division commander, acknowledges there are dangers inherent in the new and often instantaneous free flow of information.

Some people post offensive comments to a blog or Facebook, and those entries are pulled as soon as they are noticed. Champoux said that if a comment is critical of command, however, he'll leave it up.

Of perhaps greater concern is "operational security," or "opsec." The Navy, following the old adage that "Loose lips sink ships," advises social media users to talk about events that have happened, not that will happen.

On July 31, a new soldier posted to the 25th Infantry Facebook page that he had orders to report to Hawaii with the 3rd Brigade on Aug. 23, "and I was wondering when they were gonna be deployed?"

Schofield commanders previously had said the 3rd Brigade would be going to Afghanistan in the spring, but base officials, being cautious, posted to the site four days later that "operations security processes protect critical friendly information. Your unit will brief you on deployment timelines upon arrival."

Champoux said, "I think there are ways that we can communicate and lower our vulnerability." Chief among them is immediately taking down any information that might put anybody at risk.

Champoux said his challenge was communicating with Army leaders, soldiers and their families here and an extended audience of families and 25th Infantry veterans across the United States.

The division commander thinks he found a solution with a website that links to Facebook, Flickr for photos, Twitter for short messages, and his commander's blog.

"In 90 days we grew, so now we have over 2,300 fans on Facebook," Champoux said.

The intersection of information and people interested in the 25th Division is readily apparent on its Facebook page.

Robert DerMarderosian posted that he was looking for buddies who served with him in Cu Chi, Vietnam, in 1968 and 1969.

A 25th Division "welcome home" post for the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade's return from northern Iraq drew 53 comments.

Carol Shipley Lehto wrote that her daughter is heading to Schofield on her first Army assignment.

"Hope this Facebook page makes the unknown more familiar," she said. "Hawaii is a long way from Tulsa, Okla. I'm still adjusting to life as a military mom."





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