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Home > Publications > Quill > TIP SHEET: Covering the Military if Not Your Regular Beat


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Tuesday, June 7, 2016
TIP SHEET: Covering the Military if Not Your Regular Beat

By Kay Nolan

•Contact public affairs officers at an individual’s unit to verify his or her service record. If you don’t know the unit, you can contact the main public affairs office for each military branch. PAOs have access to records for current service members, including reservists and National Guard members, as well as veterans who served within the past 10 to 20 years, depending on the branch.

•To verify service records dating from World War I to the 1990s or so, consult the National Archives and Records Administration office in St. Louis. Requests must be made in writing using Standard Form 180. Because the billions of records stored there are not computerized, a response normally takes two or three weeks. Members of the press and Congress, however, can file a more urgent request by sending the form via email to congressional.status@nara.gov or by fax to 314-801-0763. Key words to use are “time sensitive” and “expedited media request.” For questions, a special phone number for media is 314-801-0816. Randi Dolphin, National Archives and Records Administration customer service representative, said that service records from the 1950s to 1970s typically are filed by “service number” instead of an individual’s Social Security number. Also, she notes that the U.S. Air Force did not exist until 1949, although the Army had an Air Corps during World War II.

•Active-duty service members are required to carry an Armed Forces common access card, or CAC, photo ID. “They should not object if you ask to see it, as a quick way to verify that they are really in the military and to verify rank,” says Joseph Coslett, public affairs officer at the Defense Information School. “There’s an expiration date on there as well.” Military retirees are also issued IDs. “If they say they’re retired military, they’ll have a retirement card,” Coslett said.

•Army vehicles have a code stamped on the front and back bumper that identifies the unit to which it belongs, according to Capt. Eric Connor, deputy chief of media relations for U.S. Army Reserve Command at Fort Bragg, N.C. “If you see that, all you have to do is Google it,” Connor said.

•To identify a Navy vessel or aircraft, you can call Navy public affairs and send a photo.

•Silver and Bronze Stars, Purple Hearts and other medals can be verified by contacting the branch or unit a recipient served in.

•The website www.cmohs.org lists all Medal of Honor recipients by state.

Other tips for covering military components in a story:

•Always verify a service member’s rank. “We once took a reporter on an air refueling flight, and when we finally saw the story, she identified the pilot as a ‘lieutenant sergeant.’ That’s not even a rank,” said Nathan Wallin, an Air National Guard public affairs officer.

•Use AP style, not military style, for rank, advises Jenn Rowell, a longtime military reporter. “Don’t just copy what the military sends us, which is all caps (e.g., SGT).”

•Avoid the common mistake of describing all former service members as retired. “The term ‘retired’ technically means the individual is getting a pension, either by having served 20 years or longer, or by being medically retired,” said Drew Brooks, military editor at the Fayetteville Observer. “Few people actually retire from the military.” For most others, you can say “veteran” or “served from X date to X date.”

•It’s OK to approach a service member for comment involving non-military or non-political topics; for example, a “person-on-the-street” interview about a snowstorm or back-to-school shopping. You don’t have to run the quotes past a PAO. Be aware that members of special forces, such as Navy SEALS or Army Rangers, may decline even benign interviews or photos, since anonymity might be crucial to their safety and that of their families.

•Be aware that members of the military are not supposed to wear their uniforms at political rallies, protests or other non-military events. Veterans are not supposed to wear their uniforms, except for very few exceptions, such as funerals, weddings and ceremonies/parades on Veterans Day, Memorial Day or Fourth of July. Do not ask service members, reservists or veterans to dress in uniform for photo shoots or just for effect. “It’s not a costume and shouldn’t be treated as one,” Brooks said.

•For journalists who expect to cover military issues often, Rowell recommends the book “Pen & Sword: A Journalist’s Guide to Covering the Military” by Ed Offley (2001, Marion Street Press).

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