Don Branum, staff writer for the Air Force Academy’s official newspaper, The Academy Spirit, was named the Defense of Defense (DoD) 2013 Civilian Communicator of the Year. The award is part of the Thomas Jefferson Awards Program, which recognizes the top military and DoD civilian journalists in the categories of print, photo, and broadcast media. This prestigious award is likened to winning a Pulitzer Prize in the civilian world.To win the Civilian Communicator of the Year award, entrants must submit five samples of their work from at least three categories such as commentary, a series, hard news, feature, or photojournalism. Journalists from all branches of the military, including Guards and Reserves, plus DoD civilian journalists, compete for a Thomas Jefferson award. The awards ceremony took place on May 9th at Fort Meade, Maryland.
“Essentially, Don just won the highest honor any Defense Department journalist may receive, the DOD equivalent of the civilian Pulitzer Prize,” said David Cannon, the Academy’s communication director, in an article published in the Academy Spirit. “This award tells us what we already know — that Don is an extremely talented writer, not only able to tell the Academy story, but to tell it in a way that shows the impact across the DOD and across our Air Force.”
Don Branum, a solitary Pagan living near Colorado Springs, joined the Air Force in 1999 as a computer programmer but switched to Public Affairs in 2004. In 2011 he left active duty military service but stayed in Public Affairs at the Air Force Academy as a civilian writing for the academy’s newspaper.
The Wild Hunt caught up to Branum to talk about what it’s like to win such a prestigious award and what the climate is like today for military Pagans.
Cara Schulz: You’re just back from receiving the highest award a Military or DoD journalist can earn. What was that experience like?
DB: It was a lot of fun! The award ceremony included photography, videography and radio broadcasting awards, and I enjoyed seeing and listening to clips of what those award winners had contributed. We have men and women both in and out of uniform who are telling the services’ stories in amazing ways.
Afterward, I visited a friend who taught a portion of my journalism course back in 2004 and who now works at the Defense Media Activity, as well as a fellow Air Force writer whom I admire, and I had dinner with a couple of Pagan friends who live near Annapolis. I only wish I’d gotten to stay longer, because it would have been fun to catch up with all of my friends in the area and play tourist for a few days.
CS: What would you say are the differences in standards between mainstream civilian journalists and military or DoD journalists, if any?
DB: Civilian journalists and DOD journalists both use the same tools out of the same toolkits. DOD journalists write ledes and bridges for “hard news” stories pretty much the same way our civilian counterparts do, and we follow Associated Press style when we write, just like many (if not most) civilian journalists.
But where civilian journalists write for editorial boards, DOD journalists write for the senior leaders at their unit or base. My job is to support my commander’s priorities, with the commander in this case being the Air Force Academy superintendent. So every story I write ties back in some way to something that the superintendent feels is important, whether that’s promoting the academy’s efforts to provide strong backgrounds for its cadets in both technical expertise and the liberal arts or sharing how the academy strives to create an atmosphere free from sexual harassment or assault.
CS: Do you believe winning this award will impact your career?
DB: I imagine it will … I just have no idea how!
CS: Speaking of impacting your career, do you feel your religion has had any impact, positive or negative, in your career?
DB: I think my faith has had a positive effect overall, though it’s been indirect. One of the central practices of my personal faith is listening to understand. That can mean listening to the Universe, listening to my gut, listening to my wife. Everyone has a story to share, and I consider it a privilege to be part of that sharing.
CS: Has the military, in general, changed in attitude towards Pagans since you first joined?
DB: My experience, from April 1999 onward, has been largely positive. That wasn’t always the case — I have at least one friend who had a very rough go in the ’80s because she was Pagan. But I attended Wiccan services through most of Basic Military Training, and my training instructors never had a problem with it. My personal religious item in Basic was a Tarot deck, instead of a Bible, and the instructors never had a problem with that, either. Fort Hood had an open circle as early as 1997, sponsored by Sacred Well, if I recall correctly, so Wiccan religious services on military installations was a thing even then.
That’s not to say it’s been all unicorns and rainbows. The Fort Hood circle was desecrated in 1999. That same year, George W. Bush publicly opposed the inclusion of Pagans in the armed forces in 1999, when he was governor of Texas — and possibly because of that, the Veterans Administration didn’t approve pentagrams as religious symbols for our fallen brothers and sisters in arms until 2007. And of course the academy had its own troubles with its religious climate around 2005, which I followed pretty closely.
But I think the academy’s Falcon Circle worship area — built with a $50,000 investment from the academy and established as an official part of the historic Cadet Chapel — stands as a visible testament to how far the armed forces in general, and the academy in particular, have come since 2005. In addition, Dr. David Oringderff, was invited to the academy’s religious respect conferences in both 2010 and 2012 and was very happy with the strides he saw in the academy’s religious respect education programs in just two years’ time.
CS: Do you plan to continue on as a DoD civilian journalist or do you have other plans?
DB: I’m living in a cozy little neighborhood near Garden of the Gods right now, so I’m in no hurry to pack up and move. Plus I haven’t run out of stories to share here, so for the time being at least, I’m comfortable with where I am. Of course, if the New York Times calls tomorrow asking to set up a Colorado Springs bureau, I can’t make any promises …
The five articles submitted for Branum’s DoD 2013 Civilian Communicator of the Year application are:
* Academy firefighters step up efforts to confront Black Forest blaze
* ‘Water, water everywhere’: Cadets report on biosand water filtration efforts in Mozambique
* Commentary: Opening combat positions for women essential to diversity, future Air Force
* Falcons upend Black Knights, 42-28
* LGBQ cadets discuss Academy climate
Although this is the highest award Branum has earned, it isn’t the first. In 2004 he graduated from the Defense Information School, where all military and DoD journalists and Public Affairs specialists are trained, as a distinguished graduate. He went on to win the Air Force Space Command Print Journalist of the Year and Air Force Space Command Best News Article in 2007. In 2013 he was awarded Air Force Civilian Print Journalist of the Year, third place.