Thursday, December 17, 2015

Day Sixty Seven. Influence: Tobias Naegele

No one taught me to write for magazines. Beginning in 1955, I taught myself.

No one taught me to write books. Beginning in 1984, I taught myself.

Tobias Naegele taught me to write for newspapers.

Tobias and his staff at the Army Times Publishing Company, that is. Beginning in 1993.

It's a different skill with steep learning curves.

I remain an author, not a journalist. I've never held a salaried job — you know, like employment — writing. But for 20 years, roughly 1993-2013, I wrote an opinion column in Air Force Times that was unique: No one else has ever done anything like it. Others have published commentary about the Air Force but none with such frequency or visibility.

During that time, I frequently visited the Springfield, Virginia newsroom. I was there the day British-born Sean Naylor, now a premier war correspondent, became a U.S. citizen. I was there the day Bruce Rolfsen polished off a brilliant piece about the state of the Air Force. I worked with Bryant Jordan on a story about the A-10 Thunderbolt II, the "Warthog."

Real paper

Even regular readers don't readily grasp that this is a real newspaper, not a government publication. Tobias's team worked to bring the best military news to young service members and to senior brass, often in an adversarial role with the latter. (Air Force chief of staff General Michael Ryan actually threw me out of his Pentagon office). The full-time staff were newspaper people, not military people, few were veterans and fewer were subject matter experts although Jim Tice knows more about the Army than anybody and Christopher Cavas—the source of my souvenir rubber airplane model—is one of the world's two or three top experts on the Navy.

At a newspaper, ethics is everything. You don't make up quotes. You don't fudge facts. You never borrow the prose of others. That's as different as it gets from my experience making up stuff for the men's adventure magazines.

Accuracy in newspapers is life-and-death. A good newspaperman, Tobias—a strong-minded but fair leader—had no place for factual error. One day, the newspaper floor covered the story of a flyer who accidentally ejected himself in flight from a Navy F-14 Tomahawk fighter. They conducted telephone interviews of witnesses. They found a photo of the plane. They labored over every detail of this unintended bailout, which the victim survived. They included stats on the plane. Finally, after being seen by at least half a dozen preparers, the story went into print. Every one of those six preparers knew perfectly well that the F-14 was named the Tomcat. But no one caught the typo and the plane appeared in print as a Tomahawk. Fury ensued.

Photo of Air Force chief of staff General T. Michael Moseley and me aboard his plane to Paris in 2007 depicts me in "interview" mode.

Tobias wasn't the most difficult boss to work for. Tom Breen was. He hired me, paid from day one $150.00 per column or twice that given to those who offered occasional commentary. When Tom and I argued about the column on the phone, my Young Soon expressed fear the decibels would damage our house. "You're off the column!" Tom would shout. "You're off the column!" But he could make peace more quickly than anybody I know. Tom, a newspaperman to the core, joined me attending the 50th anniversary celebration for the Air Force at Las Vegas in September 1997. Tom was ripped from us too soon,


I paid for my travel during this period, while writing the column and continuing magazine and book work. An exception: Tom sent me on a May 1, 1996 roundtrip accompanying William Perry to a ceremony opening a training facility at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico aboard a VC-9C Skytrain (serial number 73-1682). It was my first chance to interview a sitting Secretary of Defense. Perry looms above those who followed, especially the inept William Cohen, whom I later interviewed in Alaska.

I interviewed the big guys to convey to them what the little guys wanted. Their own base visits were orchestrated and rarely told them what real airmen wanted and needed. My column was for the staff sergeants and the captains—not the very junior-most airmen but the ones doing the work. We have always had better than we deserve and we owe everything to them.

I argued in 1998 that after we identified the American in the Tomb of the Unknowns as A-37 Dragonfly pilot Michael Blassie, he should retain the Medal of Honor we gave him when he was unknown. I lost. I argued in 2001 for better arrangements for deploy airmen to vote, I won. In 1999, I argued against religious proselytizing in the workplace. That battle goes on.

I argued for an award of the Medal of Honor for overlooked Vietnam para-rescue jumper Staff Sergeant William Pitsenbarger (August 8, 1944-April 11, 1966), had help, won, and attended the posthumous award ceremony in 2000.

I argued against torture and other violations on the Law of Armed Conflict and in favor of treating detained terrorists under the 1949 Geneva Convention on Prisoners of war. I lost. I was a strong advocate for a most robust combat search and rescue force, a real need in recent years. I lost. I favored the far superior Airbus A330-MRTT, or KC-45 over the Boeing 767-200, or KC-46, as the new Air Force tanker. I lost but became new best friends with Mobile, Alabama Mayor Sam Jones where the KC-45s would have been assembled.

On September 23  2013, cartoonist Austin May imagined me helping troops think up a name for the new tanker, which became the Pegasus.

Much of the time, I submitted copy to Kathleen Curthoys at Air Force Times; Kathy and her husband Scott became fast family friends. Another influence was Barbara Harrison protector of newspaper style. You can write for magazines without knowing what a style manual is. Not newspapers. In the 1990s, Barbara would brook no reference to "e-mail." The term had to be rendered as "electronic mail." Another editor was Linda Monroe, who could spot a grammatical error in a two-word sentence.


Air Force Times had eight editors — most of that time, the official title was managing editor —during my 20 years as a freelance columnist from 1993 to 2013:

Tom Breen (January 20, 1946-June 22, 2011); Jim Wolffe (March 1, 1956-December 2, 2008), Julie Bird, Lance Bacon, Rob Colenso, Kent Miller, Mel Gray, and Becky Iannotta. In November 2013,  I ended an entirely different, 20-year column writing for a different publication Aerospace America magazine where Becky's husband Ben Iannotta was then the newly arrived editor, only my second at that venue.

The family-owed Army Times Publishing Company was sold to Gannett on June 28, 1996 and was re-named Gannett Government Media Corp on October 20, 2010.

In addition to my Air Force Times opinion column, I wrote a weekly history feature weekly and separately for the four Military Times newspapers, sometimes with a frequent co-author, Fred L. Borch, with whom I also wrote for World War II magazine. A retired Army colonel and judge advocate, Fred is my source on military law issues and a valued friend. I collaborated on one history feature with William T. Randol, one of my six best friends.

Tobias and I devised the history columns partly during our occasional Thai lunch together near the company's Springfield site.

I interviewed Marine Chief Warrant Officer Hershel "Woody" William who fought Japanese troops on Iwo Jima with a flamethrower to become a Medal of Honor recipient. I wrote about Hawaiian musician Don Ho (August 13, 1930-April 1, 2007), who piloted C-97 Stratocruiser transports during the Cold War. I wrote about Tobias's father, an American soldier who worked in U.S. camps for German prisoners of war.

Going out

Final photo is me at Kunsan Air Base, Korea, in 1999 not long after a trip to Ice Station Ruby near the North Pole.

Today is Day Sixty-Seven since symptoms and 15 since surgery for my fatal primary brain tumor. I've glad I got newspaper experience but sad it happened at the end of the newspaper era. I still read real newspapers in real print every day, printers' ink and all. I'll bet you don't, which makes you part of the problem.

The company for which I wrote is now undergoing changes and will no longer offer the traditional newspaper as  its staple. A great American newspaperman, Tobias Naegele, has worked on to broader medium work. The traditional of the American newspaper on its way out.

Other names that touched my life in the newspaper world: Scot Achepohl, Peter Atkinson, John Bray, Lavenia Berryman, C. Mark Brinkley, Dave Brown,Joe Bush, Michelle Butler, John Burlage,
Gina Cavallaro, Joe Chenelly, Angie Clark, Joe Clark, Laura Colarusso, Andrew Compart, Jennifer Correro, Greg Couteau, Jessica Cox Matt Cox, Philip Creed, Kristin Davis, Andrew deGrandpre, Jami Dyer (Nichols), Michelle Early, Brian Everstine, Philip Ewing, Mark Faram, Sam Fellman, Steve Fleshman, Scott Fontaine, Gidget Fuentes, Katie Gill, Keely Goss, Joe Gould, Annette Graham, Nicole Guadiano, Susan Gvozdas, Cecilia Hadley, Markie Harwood, Rod Hafmeister, Dorothy Herman, Matt Hevezi, Matt Hilburn, Robert Hodierne, John Hoellwarth, Michael Hoffman,
Erik Holmes, Kurt Jenson, Jelani Johnson, Kimberly Johnson, Signe Johnson, Brian Kalish, Colin Kelly, Kelly Kennedy, Patricia Kime, Jacqueline Klimas, Paul Koscak, Phil Kuhl, Sam LaGrone, Dan Lamothe, Kamala Lane, David Larter, Jill Laster, Chris Lawson, Tony Lombardo, Steve Losey,
Christian Lowe, Gordon Lubold, Peter Lundquist, Brian MacKeil, Chris Maddaloni, Scott Mahaskey,
Toni Maltagliati, Bill Matthews, Amy McCullough, Brendan McGarry, William H. McMichael, Noel Montrey, Vago Muradian, Alex Neill, Christal Newby, Jean Norman, Seamus O'Connor, Katy O'Hara, Oriana Pawlyk, Donna Peterson, John Pulley, Jenn Rafael, Maureen Rhea, Markeshia Ricks,
Cathy Riddle, Kristina Rogosky, Sheila Ross, Peggy Roth, John Ryan, Richard Sandza, Michele Savage, Jeff Schogol, Seena Simon, Karen Small, Tom Spoth, Joshua Stewart, Philip Thompson, Andrew Tilghman, Gordon Trowbridge, Diane Tsimekles, Melissa Vogt, Jason Watkins, Steven Watkins, Vanessa White, Jack Weible, Grant (Gina) Willis, Jack Wittman, Patrick Winn and Beth Zimmerman. All newspaper people, all.

For two decades, Air Force Times enabled me to write in a different way about American airmen. I'm an author but I'm also an airman. No term means more. This was just part of my life but it was a meaningful part. So I owe much to Tobias Naegele but I owe it all to the staff sergeants and captains out there who are doing it for us. It was my privilege to fly in the F-15E Strike Eagle with them and to conduct flight-line, foreign-object inspection with them.

It a perfect world, we would drop the warrior ethos and return to the citizen-soldier. We still can.
Without any of faux patriotism or the fawning over military members that too Americans practice and without that noxious custom of thanking people for their service, let us remember those staff sergeants and captains every day. 

It is, in the end, about those who fly and fight.


  1. You're an awesome blogger! Nice post, Bob.

  2. Thank you for sharing. You are a superb author.

  3. Bob, thank you for this peek into some of your many adventures. It has been a pleasure and privilege to work with you during our years with Air Force Times, and to know you since then. Looking forward to your next novel! All the best, Kathy