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Meet Janet Langhart Cohen, the Secretary's Outreach Partner

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 8, 1999 – As millions of folks have come to know, joining the military is a family affair. Whether you're an entry-level private or the Pentagon's top civilian leader, your family is along for the ride.

Since Defense Secretary William S. Cohen took office in 1997, thousands of service members have seen his other half. In the year ahead, many more will become acquainted with Janet Langhart Cohen.

The secretary's wife has brought the glamour of show biz to the military and is working hard to acquaint the American people with the unparalleled performance and deep-rooted patriotism of their uniformed sons and daughters.

In a recent American Forces Press Service interview, Janet characterized joining the military family and getting to know service members as a "life-altering" experience. "I'm impressed with their dedication, their commitment -- that they're willing to put their lives on the line for so little in terms of compensation, but for the values that we stand for," she said.

In the Persian Gulf last Christmas, Janet said she asked a young troop, "What makes you do this?" and he replied, "I love my country, and somebody has to be here." She said she then asked him, "You've just come off Desert Fox, how do you feel?" and he said, "Every morning when I laced up my combat boots and I put on my camouflage, I never knew if I was putting on my death clothes. But I was willing to do it for my country, my family."

"A lot of people don't believe that we really do have people who join the military for patriotic reasons, not just for a job or for college benefits," Janet remarked. "They really believe in what they're doing."

Janet recalled being in awe of some American fliers she met in Bosnia. One pilot, however, humbly attempted to lessen her admiration. He told her, "Ma'am, we're just regular people. We're not from Mars. We're just like you. We come from civilian life, and when we leave here, we go back." He didn't change her mind.

"They're still special," she said. "They're all heroes to me."

Until there's a major conflict like Kosovo or a disaster at home, Janet said, most people aren't aware of the sacrifices required of service members. She hopes to change that view. As the secretary's wife and as a volunteer DoD television journalist, Janet champions her husband's outreach efforts to ensure America appreciates its military men and women.

Two years ago, Janet two-stepped with soldiers in Tuzla, Bosnia, on a cold Christmas Eve. Last year, she took singer-songwriters Carole King, Mary Chapin Carpenter and David Ball to entertain troops in Italy, Turkey and the Persian Gulf.

A seasoned television journalist who's worked in New York, Washington, Chicago and Boston, she began hosting "Special Assignment," a TV interview show on American Forces Network. Her half-hour kickoff show in March included an exclusive interview with President Clinton aboard Air Force One. She quizzed the president on military pay, family issues, deployments and his impressions of today's armed forces.

Since then, she's interviewed top military commanders, civilian Pentagon leaders, the services' senior enlisted, and even "Saving Private Ryan" film director Steven Spielberg.

Janet also helped spark the Pentagon Pops, a musical tribute to the nation's war heroes. Medal of Honor recipients from World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam attended the first show, hosted by the Cohens at Washington's Constitution Hall in February 1999 Pentagon officials are finalizing plans for the next Pops, scheduled for February 2000.

"We're hoping it will be an annual event because it's a wonderful way to reconnect, to raise awareness and to show off our military," Janet said.

Janet married William S. Cohen while he was a U.S. senator from Maine. The couple was preparing for the senator's retirement after three terms in the House and another three in the Senate when fate -- or more precisely, President Clinton -- changed their plans.

Janet recalled she didn't know what to expect when the president nominated her husband to take the reins at the Pentagon as the nation's 20th defense secretary. Her previous exposure to the military had been extremely limited.

"The very first time I saw my father he was wearing his Army uniform, she said. "He had just come back from World War II. I remember when he hugged me his uniform was very rough." Later impressions of the military came from movies and the evening news, especially TV coverage of the Vietnam War, she recalled. The Cohens now hope to influence the way people think about the military by using the same means of communication.

While the secretary speaks to state legislators and business people and in other public venues, Janet said she tries to use her broadcasting experience to link the military and popular culture and help the services recruit and retain quality people.

"I think we've raised the awareness that we have a fine military and that we're still hiring," she said. "Maybe we can get people to say 'Gee, I want to be a part of that organization; I'm patriotic. Maybe I can come into the military and serve my country, develop leadership and other skills and see the world.'"

She said her "Special Assignment" show reaches out to interview prominent people in civilian society to "reconnect" the military with the folks at home. "If we interview people in civilian life," she said, "whether it's the president or Steven Spielberg, the mainstream press will pay attention."

Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" wasn't the greatest recruitment film, but it did make people aware of service members' commitment and sacrifice, Janet said. "The question we have to ask ourselves every day is have we earned the dedication of our people who are deployed now?" This sense of obligation is prevalent when she travels at her husband's side.

At first, Janet said she was leery about what military wives would expect of her. "When Bill first got the job, we'd land in different countries, hit the tarmac, and we'd separate," she said. The men would go off in one direction while their wives would escort her in another.

"I wanted to go where he was to listen to what the policies were and what they were talking about," she explained. "I was thinking the wives were probably going to take me shopping -- well, we didn't go shopping. We'd go to meetings with other spouses. And I listened to what they had to say, and I observed and learned about their military culture. I saw how supportive and dedicated they are.

"I found that there were many things I heard that maybe Bill wouldn't hear," she said. "I hear stories because I'm listening and asking questions like a journalist."

Family members and service members alike voice concerns to the senior leader's spouse about health care and other issues. "When service members are deployed, they want to make sure that their families are taken care of," Janet said.

As a result of her visits to bases stateside and overseas, Janet said she'd like to see improvements made. "Our people deserve at least adequate housing and quality education," she said. "They don't want any luxuries. They're not asking for a different color paint. They want computers available for their children, and nowadays, that's no longer a luxury. That's a necessity. And they want access. They want the libraries to be open when the kids can go in and use them."

As the Cohens enter their final year as the Pentagon's first couple, Janet said she's already picked out a gift for her successor. "I'm going to give her a box of handkerchiefs," she said. "At times she'll shed tears of sadness. At other times, she'll wipe away tears of pride. When you're with our troops, it's more than patriotism; it's love of country, yes, but it's love of them, all of them."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMrs. Janet Langhart Cohen (left), wife of Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, meets a group of Air Force personnel serving with the American peacekeeping force in Sarajevo, Bosnia, in September 1998. DoD photo by R. D. Ward.   
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageJanet Langhart Cohen (left), wife of Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, has lunch with Army soldiers serving with the U.S. contingent of the NATO-led Stabilization Force in Sarajevo, Bosnia, in September 1998. DoD photo by R. D. Ward.   
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageDefense Secretary William S. Cohen and his wife Janet Langhart Cohen step off a U.S. Air Force C-32 transport aircraft at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., at the completion of a five-nation European trip in September 1998. DoD photo by R. D. Ward.   
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