The Invisible Men: Army Staff Sgts. Long Brown and Brad Swayne
By Bob Whitmer
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 9, 2003 Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Air Force Gen. Richard Myers entered the Pentagon briefing room to give an update on the global war on terror.
The eyes of the world were fixed on that 1 p.m. Dec. 11 news briefing. Members of the Pentagon press corps were on hand to grill the secretary and chairman. Broadcast networks around the world readied to carry the briefing live.
Unbeknownst to many, the briefing could not take place without the work of two American soldiers. Behind a large glass window, Army Staff Sgts. Long Brown and Brad Swayne are virtually invisible.
The two noncommissioned officers are broadcast technicians assigned to the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. Dressed in civilian attire in the darkened control room, they are the technical medium between the Pentagon and the American public.
Assigned to the Army's Visual Information Division, Brown and Swayne are on loan to public affairs to operate the studio.
Before being assigned to the Pentagon, Brown served as a drill sergeant for two years at Fort Jackson, S.C. He called the transition from drill sergeant to the Pentagon briefing room "a culture shock." But, he added, he welcomed the challenge.
"Brad had to brief me on how everything worked," he said, "but right now, I'm enjoying being down here."
Airborne-qualified Swayne was assigned to public affairs in July 2000. Having traveled the world with the 4th Psychological Operations Group at Fort Bragg, N.C., he was ready to stabilize awhile.
Swayne described Brown as "an easy-going, very intelligent guy who knows what it takes to get 'it' done. He is self-motivated, like a good NCO should be."
"We get along well," Brown said. "It's just in our nature, I guess. We're down-to-earth people coming together as a team and getting the job done."
Swayne has been able "to make the briefing room take a technological leap forward in presentation of PowerPoint slides and video," said Terry Mitchell, chief of the Defense Press Office's Audio-Visual Division.
The two noncommissioned officers do what it takes to run the studio during the globally televised news and background briefings by the department's top civilian and military leaders. Setting up the briefing room, preparing multimedia presentations that often accompany the briefings and performing system checks of the electronics, the two sergeants often go unnoticed.
The better they do their jobs, the more invisible they become. When done right, everything appears to be happening all by itself. Only in the rare instance when a question is missed or a remark from Rumsfeld isn't audible is it apparent that someone is at the controls somewhere.
Since numerous microphones from various news networks would clutter the lectern and make capturing questions nearly impossible, the television networks take their audio feed from Brown and Swayne. Reporters from major newspapers, wire services, magazines and trade publications plug in as well.
"Even when things aren't working right and we're trying to figure out why, they're just not uptight about things," said Joe Fields, a videographer with American Forces Radio and Television News Center. "It makes it so easy to deal with stress when the people you're working with aren't falling apart."
As Rumsfeld and Myers gave opening statements, Brown and Swayne operated the studio's state-of-the-art audio console, controlling every microphone in the room. The pace of the questions and answers was quick. Briefings and literally every word spoken are important.
Brown controlled the microphones as the secretary and the chairman addressed the media, answered questions and even bantered between themselves. Swayne controlled the ceiling microphones, designed to capture questions from the reporters. Since two mics open at the same time would diminish the audio quality, Brown had to perform what are known in broadcast terms as "cross fades" between Rumsfeld's and Myers' microphones.
As Rumsfeld responded to each question, Brown carefully monitored the secretary's audio level and made minor adjustments in volume and equalization. Having learned the secretary's animated vocal habits and tendencies, Brown has learned to anticipate when adjustments might be needed.
"I usually look at the body language of the speakers," Brown said. "If I hear him fading out and then take a breath, that's when I anticipate him coming in really loud."
As Rumsfeld spoke, Swayne scanned the audience and studied the reporters' faces and body language to determine who might ask a question. Briefers and reporters usually telegraph their intentions in ways casual observers would probably miss. Swayne, however, has learned to anticipate when a question might be asked, and he must be prepared to act instantly when that happens.
Before the first syllable of a reporter's question is spoken, Swayne must determine who is speaking, where he or she is sitting, and then turn up one of the six ceiling-mounted microphones pointed nearest the reporter. As difficult as that job is when one reporter asks a question, it's much more difficult when five reporters ask questions simultaneously.
"I pay attention to the briefer and I go mostly on logical breaks," Swayne said. "There are times you can't see who is asking the question and so you just have to know where people are sitting and know their voices. It's just a reaction at this point."
The sergeants take pride in what they do.
"You look on TV every once in a while and say, 'That's me, that's my work.' You can be pretty proud about that," Swayne said.
Despite the fact they're rarely singled out and recognized for their work, both sergeants are more than happy to remain behind the scenes.
Swayne said he "didn't join the Army to be thanked."
Brown agreed. "It doesn't bother me, because that's just part of the mission. If we get recognized, that's good, but if not, we're going to drive on."
(Bob Whitmer is chief of Broadcast Engineering/Operations and staff supervisor of the Department of Defense Press Briefing Room in the Pentagon. He and his team of Army broadcast technicians provide audio, video, and multimedia support during press briefings conducted by the defense secretary and other senior military leaders.)