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Eagle Flag: Memoirs of an Airman

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Ryan Throneberry
  • Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst Public Affairs
When I was "asked" to participate in the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center's semi-annual Eagle Flag exercise, I looked at the opportunity as a paid vacation of sorts.

Of course, at the time I had absolutely no clue how truly involved I would become.

I work as a public affairs specialist for the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst Public Affairs office. When I was told I would be playing an Associated Press embedded journalist, I thought how unique of an experience this could turn out to be. PA specialists are trained to work with civilian media but are rarely afforded a chance to act like one. And so my unkempt alter ego, Johnnie Walker, was born.

The goal of Eagle Flag is to provide U.S. forces with an environment to exercise the knowledge and skills required for any type of forward operation in any environment, regardless of mission or aircraft type. That's just a fancy Air Force way of saying the exercise is like a mock deployment.

The exercise took place in the fictional country of Nessor, an American-friendly nation in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The U.S. force's mission was to open a joint task force port, officially known as a JTF-port opening. The success would allow a secure point through which allied forces could deliver anti-terrorism equipment and cargo at the request of the Royal Nessorian Armed Forces. A JTF-PO is an operation during which forces quickly open and establish logistical support and open distribution nodes immediately after securing an area.

Before any of the participating units hit the ground, the good people with the 421st Combat Training Squadron and the EC were hard at work preparing every tiny detail for both the cadre and role-players. And that's where I came in.

During the exercise, it was my job to interview various U.S. military officials to get a sense of why they came to this host nation and to gauge the accuracy of their responses. I produced a daily newsletter with photos and an article. The newsletter gave the participants a chance to see the impact of their words in real time; providing what I hope was an invaluable lesson for these military leaders, since real-world journalists are far-less forgiving. Additionally, I like to think my role imparted the value of having a good PAO on-hand. One of the participating units did not include a public affairs officer with them. The commander soon learned that this could prove disastrous to a mission. The vacancy incurred a lack of community relations and slow rate of disseminated information which only made it more difficult for these American forces to operate in this foreign land. This experience helped show me how important my job really is in a deployed environment.

One of the coolest experiences I had during the course of my time with Eagle Flag was an opportunity to train junior officers from the United Kingdom's Royal Air Force on media relations. In my 'Johnnie Walker' character, I grilled these Englishmen with a barrage of tough questions at the behest of their commander. Soon thereafter, I debriefed them on their performance and explained to them the U.S. DOD standard for media interaction. I shared with them the importance of staying in their lane of knowledge and to not venture out or give personal opinions as official statements. They were very receptive to my critique and I went home that day feeling as though I had made an impact on these allies from across the pond.

Looking back, one of my absolute favorite parts of this experience was they ability to 'mess' with company and field grade officers (within reason) with no repercussions. How often does an airman first class get to make snarky remarks to a major in the field? The answer is, close to never.

I interviewed a young Army lieutenant on one occasion. He was the officer in charge of a distribution node. A distribution node is set up away from a JTF-PO as a decentralized area to set up cargo movement. The interview went a little something like this:

"So, a node is basically set up to relieve congestion around the flightline, correct?" I asked.

"Exactly," said the lieutenant.

"Interesting," I said. "I'm actually doing a news spot for nasal spray. I'm trying to compare the congestion relief power of Afrin to a distribution node in a deployed environment. Would you care to give me an endorsement for the advertisement? Gotta pay for this publication somehow, right?"

"As a government worker, I cannot endorse a private organization," he said staunchly.

"Darn, that's too bad," I responded. At that moment a gust of wind sent dust swirling in all directions. "Gahh, this dust is killing my eyes! Say, that reminds me. I'm also doing a spot for eye drops. I'm sure you're a fan of Visine because of your working conditions. Any comments?"

Becoming wise to my scheme, the young lieutenant chuckled "... no, no. I'm sorry sir, I can't give you any comments. Nice try though."

All in all, my experience with Eagle Flag is unforgettable. The two weeks I spent away from my office really showed me that I not only enjoy my job, but may even excel at it. The team of cadre and organizers even asked for me to return for the next exercise. With any luck, I will be able to lend my journalistic expertise once again. I could think of no better way for a young Airman like myself to expand my knowledge while helping others to do the same. Looks like I'll have to keep Johnnie Walker on the top shelf till next time.