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Photojournalists find mentors through Air National Guard news program

BERRY FIELD AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. - Staff Sgt. Darrell Hamm attends a distance news writing course here Dec. 7, 2014, to enhance his career abilities as a photojournalist for the 118th Wing, Tennessee Air National Guard. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Krista Hair/ Released)

BERRY FIELD AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. - Staff Sgt. Darrell Hamm attends a distance news writing course here Dec. 7, 2014, to enhance his career abilities as a photojournalist for the 118th Wing, Tennessee Air National Guard. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Krista Hair/ Released)

SELFRIDGE AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Mich. -- About two dozen Air National Guard Airmen are better able to tell the story of America's Airmen thanks to a new writing mentorship program.

The course, Understanding Air National Guard News Writing - and More, was launched in early 2014 and relies on a long-distance mentorship program to allow Airmen in the Public Affairs career field to hone their skills as writers and journalists.

The program has already paid dividends, according to one graduate.

Senior Airman Elise Stout of the 126th Air Refueling Wing in Illinois wrote a news story in July that highlighted the contributions that Illinois Guardsmen make to U.S. Strategic Command.

"That article was about how we support the nuclear deterrent mission, one of the main things we do to defend the nation," Stout said. "The story went Air Force-wide and shows how the Guard supports the Air Force mission on a daily basis.

"I could see the big difference in that story, writing it as a journalist rather than the essay-style writing I do in my school writing," said Stout, who is also a student at the University of Illinois.

Stout, who has been in the Air National Guard for about three years, was among the last Public Affairs Airmen trained solely as a photographer, rather than as a photojournalist. Several years ago, the Air Force consolidated the photographer and public affairs specialist career fields, meaning writers were now photographers and photographers were now writers. While the initial training for new Airmen now includes both skills, sending all those Airmen who were already on the job back to the basic school was simply a logistical impossibility.

That presented a big challenge to Airmen like Senior Master Sgt. Preston Chasteen of Oklahoma's 138th Fighter Wing. He'd been a photographer since he first enlisted in the mid-1980s.

"I embraced the transition into the public affairs community, but I needed to gain a new tool in my tool box," Chasteen said. "Writing an Air Force news article is different than what you learn in Composition in a college class."

Hearing feedback from the field, public affairs leaders at the National Guard Bureau in Washington and the ANG's I.G. Brown Training and Education Center in Tennessee started looking for a solution.

"Good, experienced news writers exist in the Air National Guard, but they are scattered at the various wings," said Master Sgt. Mike Smith, the principle architect of the writing class. "That left a lot of wings where they had some excellent photographers who were now being called on to be writers, but they had no training, they had no mentor on site," Smith said. "What we needed was a plan to put the mentors and the trainees together, despite the distances."

Smith's program spotlights five experienced writers from around the ANG and offers the tips, tricks and techniques from their collected experiences. The five-month program is built around a series of assignments given to the student writers to tackle during their monthly Unit Training Assembly with their home unit. The assigned stories are then edited by Smith, commented on by the mentors, and returned to the student. All of the editing is done by e-mail, with the periodic phone call when necessary. One of the benefits of the class is that the students are writing local stories about local operations, which, after the editing process, are then available for local publication - or beyond, as was the case for Stout's article.

Twelve students completed the course in early 2014. A second rotation recently began with 10 more students.

"I give the articles a hard edit. They come back with a lot of red marks on them, but our students are starving for this level of feedback. Our true mentors don't just tell us how great we are," Smith said.

Among the biggest challenges for the Guard journalists who are serving with their unit generally one weekend a month, is finding the stories and then carving out the time to get the story turned in.

Master Sgt. Tom Kielbasa, a photojournalist at Florida Joint Forces Headquarters, first learned his trade working as a newspaper reporter. Now, he's serving as one of the mentors in the class.

"At a daily paper, you need to have a story a day," Kielbasa said. "To find the news, you just start talking to people. Everybody has a story, especially on drill weekend."

Kielbasa said the course is also intended to force the journalist to get the story finished in a timely manner.

"Today's news cycle moves quickly," he said. "We have to operate at that same speed if we want to contribute to the discussion."

Smith said he intends to bring in additional mentors and to continue to offer the course on a twice-a-year schedule in the future. Interested Airmen or public affairs supervisors can contact TEC for information on participating in the next class cycle, scheduled to begin approximately May 2015.