By JEAN CLAVETTE GRAVES
Public affairs specialist
FORT POLK, La. — As a sixth grade student we were asked to write an essay about what we wanted to be when we grew up. As a rebellious pre-teen I vividly recall writing about my aspirations to become an undertaker.
I had broken my leg skiing (actually coming up the tow rope) that year and was in a bit of a dark place. I recall doing my best to make the essay as disturbing as possible to get a rise out of my teacher, Mrs. Greenberger, who we not so affectionately referred to as Mrs. Green Booger.
Fast forward 36 years and I find myself working at the Fort Polk Public Affairs Office as the community relations specialist for the installation. While I never had any intention of becoming an undertaker, I doubt my 12-year-old self-envisioned she’d be living in rural Louisiana, working for the Department of the Army as a public affairs professional. Shoot, she probably didn’t even know what public affairs was and was probably still holding out hope for meeting, falling in love and marrying a mysterious prince from an obscure European country.
Where am I going with this? The installation chief of staff complimented me on my efforts in coordinating a community engagement at the Central Louisiana Regional Port in Alexandria recently. The commanding general wanted me to invite stakeholders and community leaders from Rapides Parish to visit the port to view the barge operations associated with the current rotation and I helped make that happen.
I told the chief, “Sir, community relations is so much fun, it doesn’t really seem like work.”
I was being slightly sarcastic when I said that, you know, like when Soldiers working at the gate say, “Living the dream” in response to an inquiry about their day. Sure, some days are more fun than others, but for the most part, I think I may very well have the best job on post and I often wonder how I got here doing what I’m doing.
I’ve been working since I was 12 years old. My first job was delivering the Milwaukee Journal, every afternoon, 6 days a week and on Sunday mornings. Even while I wrote an elaborate plan to become an undertaker, I was essentially running my own business, selling subscriptions, collecting payments and delivering the newspapers to what I grew to be the biggest route in the city of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. My step dad, Pat, will argue that it was his paper route, because he took care of it for me when I was at my dad’s every other weekend, and he always drove me around on Sunday mornings, but for the most part, without fail, I stuffed those papers, loaded up my wagon and provided exceptional customer service to nearly 200 subscribers for more than two years. I learned so much from that paper route. I’m sad that kids these days don’t have the opportunity to operate one.
Throughout high school I had several jobs, but working at Baskin Robbins and delivering pizzas for a local mom and pop joint called JR’s are the ones I remember and enjoyed the most. My dearest friend on the planet, Mary Stollenwerk and I became best friends forever during our years scooping ice cream, making sundaes, blizzards, ice cream cakes, pies and more.
JR’s was a crazy place. I worked with a dude name Dan who ONLY made pizza, so it was up to me to do literally everything else. I waited tables, made sandwiches, did all the dishes, and delivered food in my 1978 Pontiac Grand Le Mans. At one point the transmission in that car was so bad that I couldn’t go in reverse and would have to make sure I could pull through or park on the street to prevent getting stuck in someone’s driveway.
After high school I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During my five years as a student, earning my four-year degree, I worked for the rural sociology department as a research assistant. I envy students today with internet access. I had to walk all over campus finding books and articles for the professor I worked for at one of the university’s plethora of libraries.
I also augmented my student loans to support my substantial party habit by working at Subway, a bridal shop, another local pizza joint, a grocery store and a private dorm washing dishes in the cafeteria. The dish-washing gig was by far the worst job I ever had. I didn’t last more than a couple weeks there before I had my roommate call them pretending to be me and quit.
A college education is important, but with a bachelor of arts in sociology with a double major in history, your options for high paid employment are limited. My first job after college was selling ads for a regional bridal magazine, followed by a stint in a multi-level marketing scheme, third shift at a gas station and K-mart custom portrait studio. A “Be all you can be in the Army” advertisement convinced me I was lacking discipline in my life and I decided to enlist.
Many people enlist for patriotism, love of country or adventure. I joined for the student loan repayment and spent five years as an E4 military personnel specialist. I entered the Army and left the Army as an E4. I was great at my job, but I wasn’t really into the being a Soldier part. Sure, I loved my uniform, the camaraderie and had some amazing experiences, but I was a terrible marksman and literally got scared in my hasty fighting position during field training exercises. I decided I’d serve the Army better as a civilian and found myself on transition leave when terrorists attacked the Pentagon and World Trade center on Sep.11, 2001.
I started working as a Department of the Army civilian in October of 2001 and have pretty much been working for the Army ever since. I’ve been a transportation assistant, secretary, administrative assistant, human resources specialist and the garrison administrative officer at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
From February 2009 until we moved to Fort Polk in January 2012, I had the closest job to being an undertaker I’d ever want. During the three years we were stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado, I worked at the casualty assistance center training notification and assistance officers in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and North and South Dakota. That was a difficult job. Most of my friends while we were stationed at Fort Carson were widows who came to my classes to share their notification stories. Working in casualty with an active duty spouse was challenging, especially because my husband was in Afghanistan for the majority of my time working there.
We arrived at Fort Polk in January 2012. While we were living in our camper waiting for a permanent place, I interviewed and was selected for the job I currently have, but due to a hiring freeze, the job offer was rescinded and I found myself looking for non-Department of the Army jobs. I landed a position as a contract education counselor at the Education Center followed by the on-site director for McNeese State University.
I eventually got my foot back in the door with the Army in a term position as the transition service specialist at the Soldier for Life-Transition Assistance Center. That was an awesome job, but when my husband decided he wanted to retire from active duty and stay here I knew I needed to find a permanent position.
In July 2017, I came full circle back to the Public Affairs Office and was selected and able to accept the position with the community relations team. When I started there were three of us, now it’s just me. My job, has given me the opportunity to meet so many wonderful people in the surrounding community, parishes and even at the state level. When people ask what I do, I say I, “hob knob for a living.” I talk to people and help bring our Soldiers and commanders together with community leaders and organizations whenever possible. I facilitate and foster relationships with civic, corporate, academic and government audiences to increase public awareness about the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk and to inspire patriotism and garner support for our Soldiers and their Families in the region.
Some days I coordinate color guards for parades, on others I coordinate speaking engagements for installation and garrison leaders. My professional journey was long and winding. As an Army spouse for more than 20 years, I had to take advantage of opportunities whenever possible to augment and enhance my skill set. I volunteered and pursued higher levels of education. I went back to school and earned a master’s degree in public administration. I used spousal education and tuition opportunities through Military One Source and earned a graduate certificate in adult training and development, and I volunteered as an Army Family Team Building master trainer and developed my platform skills.
Sure, some days, when I’m sitting in a meeting, doing a slide or operational order I think, “This sucks!” But most days, when I’m visiting with chamber of commerce presidents, tourism bureau employees or local elected officials, helping a color guard as they prepare to lead a parade, or at the governor’s mansion with the commanding general, I know I have the best job. On the rare occasion I hear anyone say something negative about the installation, the local community or the state, I am able to equivocally dispel their negative assumptions based on my personal knowledge of the goals of our installation leaders and the people who live in our local community.
Childish fantasies have made way for adult realities. Maybe I wasn’t swept away by royalty, but my prince charming was a Soldier in the U.S. Army. I never really wanted to be an undertaker, but that essay proved that I probably had no clue what I wanted to be when I grew up.
Partying my way through college highlighted the fact that I may not have been a very serious person and hob-knobbing was an unknown occupational pursuit at the time. My 12-year-old self would be pretty impressed that her grown-up self is doing something so impactful for her community and the Army and having a blast doing it.