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Civilian-Leader Engagement Builds Understanding, Advocacy

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

PANAMA CITY, Panama, Aug. 20, 2008 – When Jason Reed scanned the horizon from the bridge of USS Tarawa during this year’s Fuerzas Aliadas Panamax exercise, the Walt Disney Studios executive vice president wasn’t scouting out a location for an upcoming motion picture.

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Navy Rear Adm. Joseph D. Kernan, right, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command and the U.S. 4th Fleet, chats with John Stross, center, owner of Leverock’s Restaurant in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Jason Reed, Walt Disney Studios executive vice president, during the civilian leaders’ visit to Panama to observe Panamax 2008. Defense Dept. photo by Donna Miles

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Reed was among civilian business and civic leaders from around the country who traveled here yesterday to observe the ongoing Panamax 2008 exercise.

The annual exercise began Aug. 11 and continues through Aug. 22, bringing together air, ground and naval forces from 20 countries to confront a fictional terrorist group threatening the Panama Canal.

U.S. Southern Command, which is sponsoring Panamax, invited the community leaders to see the exercise activity firsthand so they could return home to share what they learned.

The trip was part of an increasing effort within SouthCom and throughout the Defense Department to reach out to “movers and shakers” within the civilian community to help educate them about the military.

Mario Alvarez, SouthCom’s communication and outreach chief, organized the trip as part of his campaign to increase awareness about the command, which has no units, no bases and only about 1,500 people assigned to its Miami headquarters.

“The way I look at it, the more knowledge people have and the more understanding they have of what we do, the better,” he said.

The Defense Department has long recognized the importance of reaching out to influential members of the civilian community so they could draw their own conclusions about the military rather than relying on what they read in newspapers or see on TV.

The first U.S. defense secretary, James V. Forrestal, created the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference program in 1948 to introduce civilian leaders with little or no military exposure to the workings of the armed forces. Six decades later, the JCOC remains the department’s premier civic leader program. Participants in the twice-annual trips are selected from hundreds of candidates nominated by military commands worldwide and pay their own expenses.

Most of the leaders who visited the Panamax exercise yesterday, including Reed, were past JCOC participants. “We want to maintain that relationship after we start it,” Alvarez said. “Our goal is to build stakeholders.”

Other participants, like David Stritzinger, chief technical officer for Brightstar Corp., and Bert de Armas, a senior vice president at Mellon United National Bank, were Miami area leaders getting their first exposure to both SouthCom and the military.

Alvarez remembers his amazement after arriving at the SouthCom job three years ago that many local leaders knew little about the combatant command on their doorstep. Committed to changing that, he joined the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary and other civic organizations, set up a speakers bureau to get SouthCom staff to speak to groups about the command, and started an aggressive community outreach program.

“We need to change people’s perception of the military so they understand that what we do isn’t all about killing,” Alvarez said. “We’re involved in humanitarian assistance. We do disaster relief. We train other military forces in our area. We need people to see these things so they can go back and talk about what they’ve learned with their circles.”

Toward that end, SouthCom now sponsors about four trips a year within its area of responsibility so community leaders can see its operations. Alvarez has taken numerous civilian groups to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to observe detainee operations. He recently took them aboard USS Kearsarge, which is transiting Central and South America and the Caribbean, providing desperately needed medical, dental and veterinary care as well as engineering assistance.

Yesterday, another group of civilian leaders spent a day visiting the combined exercise control group’s center for the Panamax exercise, then boarded UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to fly offshore to the USS Tarawa, the command and control flagship for the exercise.

Throughout their visit, group members received briefings about the activities of about 7,000 troops, more than 30 ships and a dozen aircraft involved in the exercise.

Navy Capt. Brian Luther, commander of USS Tarawa, conceded to the civilians as they toured his vessel that it’s “a technological marvel.” But Luther said he hoped a bigger takeaway would be new insights into people like 21-year-old Seaman Spencer Williams, who was steering the Tarawa while the group visited the bridge. “The true treasure here is the men and women who serve here who are very proud of their ship and of what they do,” he said.

“It’s pretty amazing to have them see a multi-billion-dollar asset being run for the most part by 19- and 20-year-olds,” agreed Navy Capt. David F. Bean, Tarawa’s executive officer. “We entrust them with a tremendous amount of responsibility, and they live up to it. We have a lot of bright kids on board. I hope [the civilian leaders] take that message back with them.”

Dan Simons, president of the electronic division at The World Company of Lawrence, Kan., and co-manager of WorldWest LLC, said the visit “reaffirmed what a great job our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are doing.”

Living in a college town, Simons said, he sees examples of young people he refers to as “slackers.” Not so, he said, in the military. “They’re doing a [kick-butt] job,” he said. “They’re really good people.”

John Stross, owner of Leverock’s Restaurant in St. Petersburg, Fla., said the visit gave him a new appreciation of those who serve in the military as well as their leaders. “These are ordinary people doing extraordinary things and being led by some of the country’s very best,” he said. “It’s scary to think what we would do without them.”

Reed, the Walt Disney moviemaker, said he walked away from the visit struck by everything from the professionalism of the crew to the flexibility of the Tarawa to handle different missions to the multinational scope of SouthCom’s operations.

Reed conceded that political debate sometimes overshadows “the incredible job” servicemembers are doing and the professionalism of the military as an organization. He said he’ll strive to apply these insights to his movie-making ventures so he’s able to more accurately portray “not just the technical aspects, but also the spirit of the military.”

Ultimately, Reed said, everyone benefits when civilians have a better understanding of their military and how it operates.

“As an engaged citizen who is more knowledgeable about what our government is doing, you’re better able to act as an advocate,” he said. “And it’s important to have civilians be advocates, particularly for the men and women who put their lives on the line to ensure our safety and security.”

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Related Sites:
Panamax 2008
U.S. Southern Command
Joint Civilian Orientation Conference

Related Articles:
Panamax Exercise Emphasizes Combined, Interagency Cooperation

Click photo for screen-resolution imageBill Knightly, right, U.S. Southern Command’s training and exercises director, shows civilian leaders a diagram of activities in the Panamax 2008 exercise during their visit to the combined exercise control group’s center in Panama City, Panama. Defense Dept. photo by Donna Miles  
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