As we head into the fast-approaching Fourth of July weekend, dreaming of poolside get-togethers, fireworks and hot dogs, we wanted to take a moment to express our sincere gratitude for all of those who serve in the armed forces to make this holiday possible.
Here at Weber Shandwick Southwest, a heartfelt and very close to home thank-you goes out to one of our very own, Eileen Suarez, who went on leave from Weber Shandwick one year ago to begin her service for the U.S. Navy.
Eileen is a U.S. Navy Reserve officer currently serving as the Print & Forward Media Team Chief in Kabul, Afghanistan.
While we’re eagerly awaiting having Eileen back home in Texas, we couldn’t wait to hear about her experience as a public affairs officer for the U.S. Navy one year later. Read on to learn more about her experience in her words:
1. Could you tell us a little bit more about your position with the U.S. Navy and what that means?
My unit’s main focus is twofold: to increase the local population’s understanding of the benefit of physical security, as well as to encourage Afghans to support the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. We have a media department, and through our TV, print and radio section, we are able to deliver targeted messages to our intended audience across the country. As a public affairs officer (PAO), I am the Print and Forward Media Team Chief. My team creates a variety of products such as bi-weekly newspaper inserts, a monthly magazine, and monthly billboards that are disseminated nationwide.
2. What is a typical day like?
My day-to-day varies quite a bit, and depends on the job function I’m performing and the environment that I’m in. There are days where I experience extended déjà vu, and some of my best times have been when I get to leave the base. I have had the opportunity to meet various Afghan leaders, eat local foods and even have the chance to climb a mountain!
3. Wow. Perhaps a better question might be – what is a very atypical day like?
One of the most exciting moments I had was when I visited the School of Public Affairs (SOPA) in Kabul, where I took photos of a graduation ceremony. That morning I woke, put all my gear on (about 50 pounds worth) and headed out to meet the guys. It took two hours to get to SOPA because Kabul has the WORST traffic! My heart was pounding like crazy as we drove through Kabul because you never know what could happen. I took many photos from the vehicle (PAO mode: I have to document everything!) and I was trying to keep my composure by listening to happy music. Many of the people we drove by gave us strange looks, others ignored us. A terrifying moment was when a group of children pretended that they were shooting at us with their “finger guns.” I saw a lot of fruit stands, drove by Chicken Street (a popular shopping area), and kids playing soccer (very popular sport in Afghanistan). Even though there were some scary moments, I am glad I was able to see some of the city and the local population.
4. Have you always had an interest in being in the Navy Reserve? When did you first become a Navy Reserve officer?
After I graduated with my masters, I worked for my step-father’s magazine, LATINA Style, and I was in charge of the military affairs section. One weekend, we attended the Association of Naval Services Officers (ANSO) National Conference in San Diego. I talked to many Navy officers and I was surprised to find that I could keep my civilian job AND do public affairs in the Navy! I was convinced that I needed to commission! When we returned to Dallas that Sunday, I told my parents I was joining the Navy Reserve and on Monday, I was in a recruiter’s office starting the paperwork.
I commissioned in February 2013 and it has been an incredible experience. I have traveled all over the country. I did an exercise in Germany where I conducted media training as a role-playing reporter and now I am in Afghanistan. My second year in the Navy I completed the Department of Defense Information School (DINFOS), which qualified me as an official Public Affairs Officer. I have ongoing training that that not only makes me a better PAO, but increases my skill set for my civilian job.
5. What has been the most surprising takeaway/learning about your time abroad?
In my current unit, I interact daily with people of different nationalities (Romanians, Polish, Italians, Australians, Afghans, Turks, etc.). Every person has a unique cultural sensibility. Imagine a combined team of people from different parts of the world who have to work and live together seven days a week, 10 hours a day! It can get interesting. Everyone has a different opinion, but it is incredible when we all come together to execute our mission.
Here are a few takeaways from my time in Afghanistan:
1. Our problems can be trivial compared to others around the world.
I never realized how fortunate I was/am until I came to Afghanistan. Women are treated differently here, especially in the rural areas. I appreciate the time that I got to sit down with them to learn about the culture and listen to their stories. They have endured so much, but regardless of their challenges and situations they know that they can overcome anything. One woman told me, “I am strong like rock.”
2. Working abroad opens up doors
While seeing landmarks and tasting a variety of foods in other countries is such a wonderful experience, traveling is about the experiences we encounter and the people we meet. It is about the lessons we learn from others that we could never experience back home. I work with people from all over the world. I have learned basic greetings in three different languages (Dari, Romanian and Italian), expanded my public affairs knowledge, and have challenged my own thoughts and beliefs based on conversations with the people that I have met.
6. What lessons have you learned that will be most transferrable to those in the civilian PR industry?
1. Expect the unexpected
Sometimes we become too comfortable with our daily work routines. Here, we have our weekly meetings and we know what products we have going out each week. However, there are times that the environment changes and we have to respond quickly by developing an unexpected product and figure out a way to disseminate it as soon as possible. For example, we recently were scheduled to disseminate a newspaper insert about recruitment for the Afghan National Army. Unfortunately, there was a terror attack in Kabul where there were multiple causalities. In one day, we had to design a newspaper insert about the attack and get all the proper approvals. A normal approval process takes weeks for each insert. I learned to keep my cool and expect the unexpected.
2. Never stop learning
I try to make it a habit to have coffee or tea with the people I have met in Afghanistan to learn about their background and about their lessons learned based on their experience (some people have been here for more than six years). The PR industry is constantly changing. What you may have learned in school a couple of years ago may not be relevant today. We are lucky to work for a company that encourages professional development. We have the freedom to work on different accounts and increase our skills in event planning, social media, and are even able to work on new business opportunities. Becoming a Public Affairs Officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve was a way for me to create a gateway to endless learning opportunities. As an officer, you are required to take a variety of courses and go on multiple missions/exercises each year that challenge you as an individual.
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