It was tempting. I could get a college degree for free and see the world in the process. But I thought long and hard about the commitment afterwards, and ultimately settled on attending a state university to study journalism.
But I always wondered what might have been.
Last week I had a chance to see first hand what might have been. A former student of mine, Jennifer Cunningham, who now works as a Navy Reserves public affairs officer for NAVCO (Navy Office of Community Outreach) and also works full time as community outreach coordinator for Navy Region Northwest, based in Bangor, Washington. She nominated me for a program the Navy has called "Leaders to Sea," which allows civilians a VIP and intimate tour of a Navy ship. I went to San Diego and embarked to the USS Ronald Reagan, an aircraft carrier about 30-40 miles off the California coast.
"Leaders to Sea is a program through which key leaders from all sectors--corporate, civic, government, education, nonprofit, service--embark on a Navy warship at sea," Cunningham explains. Those nominated to go on the program pay their own way, including airfare to the port city, hotel before departure, and even cash for food aboard the ship. "Even though the embark does not cost the Navy anything, we get a great deal from it. By educating leaders, especially those in non-fleet areas who may not know as much about the Navy, we are able to reach a broader audience and teach them about their Navy."
They sure did that. Notice how Jennifer said "their" Navy. That message was loud and clear consistently, in briefs with the rear admiral, captain, and senior aviator. In conversations with sailors, from chief petty officers to anyone we talked to, and especially the public affairs team that led us around for two days, we were constantly reminded that the Reagan was our ship, and that the Navy serves us.
My group of 14 civilians, which included a community college president, a group from an insurance company, a group from the Kansas state legislature, and several business owners, were uniformly impressed. Access to top leaders of the ship and up close views of many operations on this virtual floating city was public relations at its finest. Conventional tactics are nice, but face to face conversations and personal experience are the most enlightening and persuasive.
I'll never forget standing 20 feet from F-18s on the flight deck as they made arrested landings with tail hook or took off via catapult. I and the group of civilians did the same, in a C2 Greyhound, also called a COD (Carrier Onboard Delivery), catching a wire to land and going from 120 miles per hour to zero in 2 seconds, and then catapulting off the ship a day later going from zero to 130 in 3 seconds. I've always had a positive view and respect for the Navy and all armed services, but now I have a deeper and personal understanding of all that they do. Seeing a ship at port or a decommissioned ship serving as a museum is one thing, but an active ship in full operations is much more educational.
The public affairs team was impressive too. Not only were they gracious and knowledgeable, they had as healthy an understanding of PR as they did of the ship. Two of them plan to get their master's degree in a special program San Diego State University has for Navy officers. One of them also plans to earn the APR-M, the new accreditation in military communications from PRSA. When we returned to the base in San Diego after two days aboard, they left us with a folder containing a DVD video of our landing on the ship, bios of the officers, informational brochures about the ship, and several of the Navy's publications.
If you're interested in seeing some of this yourself, you can check out http://www.navy.mil where you can see photos, videos, publications, and links to various social media sites, for the Navy overall as well as individual ships. It won't be the same as flying out to a ship, but if you are in public relations you'll be tempted to salute the men and women who are active in our profession in OUR Navy. At least this video should get your heart beating faster: