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Women's History Month: Public Affairs Officer

Navy leaders and pioneers

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Ms. Meghan Patrick Henderson is currently serving as Public Affairs Officer of Commander, Task Force 63/Military Sealift Command Europe and Africa.

Q: Why did you decide to serve the Navy?

A: My story with Navy public affairs began in September 2008, a few months after I'd graduated college, when I accepted a graduate student internship with the Navy's noncombatant command, Military Sealift Command (MSC) - a GS-4 position at the time.

I was wide-eyed and energized by the prospect of supporting our nation's military through the power of writing.

I had pursued journalism throughout my undergraduate career and was working on my master's in journalism from Georgetown. I loved reporting, and my work felt meaningful. I could serve the greater public by digging for truth and sharing my findings.

I knew little about public affairs when I began working for MSC, but I quickly fell in love with the craft as I recognized that journalists and public affairs officers share the same values.

Transparency, access and the dissemination of information are the building blocks of these two complementary and yet distinct flavors of communication. The natural tension that exists between journalism and public affairs is almost singularly responsible for the protection of the first constitutional amendment and U.S. democracy. These protectors of the free press set apart the United States from other countries with great power. My first experiences with the U.S. Navy taught me the value of harmonizing the two crafts.

Throughout the past several years, the world stage has demanded the voice of public affairs officers. I've told the U.S. Navy's story in events ranging from the recovery of missing aircraft in the Pacific Ocean and counterpiracy operations in the Gulf of Guinea, to the actions of deployed forces in Afghanistan and support for NASA's newest space missions.

I believe that finding your calling is the result not just of an alignment of your passion and skills, but also what the world needs.

Q: Who have your role models or mentors been that have influenced you or helped to guide you?

A: The role models and mentors that I have gravitated toward in my 30 years of life are those who focus on what they can give to the world - not what they
can take from it, or what it owes them. They use their days, minutes and energy thoughtfully and purposefully. They seek to include and promote, rather than exclude or diminish. They are observant and thoughtful, as well as intelligent, hard-working and focused. They can be tough or compassionate, when the situation calls for it. These people are gems and hard to come by. I believe that once you find mentors and role models, you should aspire to invest and give to them as much as you ask from them. The best relationships are valued by both parties.

Q: Please tell us a story about someone, perhaps in your family or otherwise, who has influenced you or challenged you to become more than you ever thought you might.

A:Both of my parents are my heroes, but in the spirit of Women's History Month, I will focus on my mother. My wonderful mom and dad raised me and my four younger siblings in Upstate New York. When I was 13 years old, my mom was
diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, a terrible, progressive disease that has since robbed her ability to walk and has limited the physical movement most people take for granted. Despite her limitations, challenges and constant physical pain, my mom remains one of the most grounded, loving and encouraging people I have ever met. She tackles each day with determination and goals: enduring a strenuous physical therapy session; handling our family's accounts and business; supporting my father and siblings with our very busy life tempos; planning weddings and events. Her disease has progressed to the point where many people would give up their daily norms. But instead, my mom pushes through with determination and the hope of making each day a good one.

Of the many things that I have learned from my mom, the most applicable item for this forum is her endurance and her tolerance of life's misgivings. Even when life has catapulted hardships against her, she doesn't complain and focuses on the positive. She addresses the situation and moves forward, the best that she is able.

I personally cringe when I hear people complain about small physical discomforts and annoyances. Often these things are miniscule compared to true hardship. The best leaders are skilled at controlling their energy. They know that there's always someone who has it worse than they have it, and always someone who has it better. To expend energy on inconsequential thoughts is wasteful, and detracts from the task at hand. It also makes life a lot less fun than it is when you focus on the good in this world, and the positive.

Q: Please tell us which past assignments are the most memorable to you and why.

A: Memory #1: As the public affairs officer aboard a U.S. Navy ship on its deployment to West Africa, I planned a press conference with the U.S. Embassy in Accra and the Ghanaian navy to share the results of joint maritime operations. The morning of my event a Ghanaian military figure stomped on a local reporter's camera, creating a rift between Ghana's media and its' military. I recognized that the Ghanaian media felt disrespected, and I saw a great risk that negative press would overshadow the important work our joint militaries achieved. I believed we needed to create an atmosphere of openness and give the media respect and appreciation it felt denied. I briefed my U.S. and Ghanaian military leaders of the situation and prepared them to field questions. I directed my leaders to proactively introduce themselves to every
reporter who attended our event. After the press conference, I promptly sent the reporters multimedia and transcripts. These efforts successfully alleviated the media's escalated negative sentiment. Positive press coverage of my event reached thousands of Ghanaians and focused on the joint activity and regional partnerships - not on the military drama - and the coverage contributed to a decrease in illicit fishing in Ghanaian territorial waters the following year.

Memory #2: For two years I was the editor, primary writer, and layout designer of my Navy command's newspaper, read by every Navy admiral and more than 10,000 others in the military community. Its principal purpose is to boost morale by internally communicating the activity of the Navy's noncombatant ships to the Navy's civilian mariners who operate them. When a 6.0-earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, these ships and mariners provided 70 percent of the initial relief effort. For our next newspaper, I produced a special edition exclusively covering stories related to Haiti. Among its many operational activities, relief efforts provide perhaps the easiest way to
understand our Navy's impact. I knew that elevating our coverage of Haiti would enable families and friends of these mariners to better relate to their important work. I interviewed 100 mariners to share stories about their efforts to provide aid, from distributing fresh water tanks and clearing underwater debris, to performing emergency medical care and helping survivors bury their dead. I also compiled a four-page photo spread to communicate this impact visually. The special edition received Department of Defense awards for its coverage and was so widely shared it was reprinted to accommodate the requests for copies.

Q: What does being a leader in the Navy mean to you?

A: Keeping one eye on the mission and the other on the people. Be a life-long learned and a master of your profession. Be aware of people's needs. Convey ideas succinctly and motivationally.