March 14, 2014

One Sailor’s blog from the 86th Academy Awards Red Carpet

U.S. Navy Petty Officer Second Class Stephen Hale talks with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt at the 2014 Academy Awards in Los Angeles, March 2. Hale, along with U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant Robert Harnden, Rock Grant and Eric Gabriel, worked the red carpet, recording shout outs from stars for broadcast on the American Forces Network to a worldwide audience of nearly one million military, DoD civilians, retirees and their families. March Air Reserve Base is home to the AFN Broadcast Center, where the global signal originates from.

Man, what a blur. Ten hours down on the red carpet, dodging rain and crammed with more than 200 photographers and broadcasters into what seemed like a skinny can of potato chips. I have never felt more like a sardine in all my life.

Well, other than those deployments on an aircraft carrier.

All for the hope that screaming like a banshee would pay off and someone famous would come over to me and do a quick interview.

For those of you who don’t know, I work at the American Forces Network (AFN). AFN is a TV Network where we broadcast programming for our troops all over the world, as long as we don’t air commercials. They get to watch things like the Super Bowl, just like us, except they don’t get to see those funny commercials. Instead, they get Public Service Announcements or command information. We basically fill the commercial break with spot material and promos. Obviously, we run out of spots and promos very quickly, so we look to fill that time with other material, some of which are celebrity shout outs, if possible.

That’s where events like the Academy Awards come into play, as well as others, like the Grammys, the Spike TV Guys Choice awards, Golden Globes, etc. My team’s job is to work the Red Carpet, in uniform, fight the masses and hope for an interview. It is an incredible experience to go through individually. Not only is it an individual adrenaline rush, it is a very necessary task.

You see, AFN is an extremely unique entity. We have a global audience of people who are looking to us, sometimes as their only source of news, sports and entertainment. My team is tasked with getting a message from the stars, to the troops. That is why we are there. Not for “selfies,” not for food, and not for personal agendas.

It is a huge responsibility. That responsibility drives us at AFN. We are the medium to which these stars will communicate to our Sailors, Soldiers, Marines, Airmen and Coastguardsmen, world-wide. Knowing that our presence on the Red Carpet is one way of connecting that world to our world fuels us to get the interviews other news outlets don’t get. As a military member, I represent a unique opportunity from other news outlets. I give them an opportunity to completely be themselves. For just a few seconds, they can take off their glamor face, take a deep breath and express genuine, heart-felt appreciation to our men and women in uniform.

The day’s activities began at 9 a.m., with our arrival at the parking lot. We were in our best military dress uniforms and our civilian team members wore tuxedos. We take a bus eight blocks to the theatre. Once there, we go through security and all our equipment is scanned. When we finally make it to the red carpet around 10, we have to find our small, designated spot. I kid you not, we had two roughly 32-inch sections for which to put two talents, two camera men and their equipment and two “spotters.”

Once in position, we began our introductions and stand-up packages. We expected this to take about 15 minutes for each celebrity, but something happened today that kind of set us back a tad.


Rain, rain and then more rain, it rained from about 10:30 a.m. until almost 1:30 p.m. and then bam! Clear, sunny, blue skies. Go figure.

As fate would have it, our section was being blocked by what looked like the “Today Show.” But I think they were a different “Today Show” because they all sounded British. Very nice people, but without a doubt, in the way. But the uniform speaks and before long, one of the Oscar runway directors said, “No way, not in front of the troops.” So they moved.

By 2 p.m., we were rolling.

The red carpet is very long and had three photo stops along the way. We were next to the paparazzi stop 2. I like that position and here is why: The stars have two options when they come in. They can go down media row, which is where they hit the three photo stops and where they can choose to speak to one of the many media outlets, or they can take option B, which is the fire lane. The fire lane goes right down the middle of the red carpet and is basically the celebs way of saying, “I won’t be doing any interviews tonight.”

So because we are next to “Pop Stop 2,” all the celebs had to stop and do their read and repeats. But they get a solid 15-20 seconds of camera flashes, so it creates a bottleneck of people waiting for their pictures. That’s when I just wave a microphone at them and ask for an interview. I am not the only person waving a microphone, but I am the only person wearing a uniform, so yea, it helps. I just yell with my loud obnoxious voice, “Mr. Spacey, say something to the troops!” And here comes Kevin Spacey.

From 2-4:30 p.m., it is relatively slow, with actors coming to up to us, looking for some publicity. It’s people like so and so from such and such movie that wrote the score and is being nominated for such and such. We may not know them, but we are happy to have their support.

Then the last half hour are usually household names. They are either fashionably late or don’t need extra publicity, but either way, their time is valuable. They don’t just do any interview. Some people, like Brad Pitt and Angelina, are just a bit too famous to “need” to do interviews. So when they stop to talk to you, you know it’s because they want to. They passed on literally hundreds of other interviews, but they stopped for us. That really speaks volumes.

Then you have guys like Matthew McConaughey, Jason Sudeikis, Johnny Knoxville and Channing Tatum who get pretty fired up about the military and don’t even want to rush the interview, because “I wanna know how you are doing, man!” But the most memorable are stars like Anne Hathaway. She came to us. She sought us out. Same with Sandra Bullock. They didn’t even have to be asked. They wanted to be near us. They wanted to talk to us, and they wanted to talk our ears off.

As much as I want to be there, these stars want me to be there even more. Not necessarily me, but us, AFN. They know that we are “the go between.” They know that we are the connection. Leonardo Dicaprio will not remember who I am. Olivia Wilde won’t try to look me up on Twitter. Amy Adams won’t recall what my smile looks like, and Jessica Biel won’t remember that I stuttered four times when I talked to her. But they will all know what the American Forces Network is and they will remember to “find that military guy” so they can “talk to the troops.”

You see, on nights like tonight, thousands of our service members across the world are shutting down for the night and hopefully, if they are lucky, they have a TV that will air AFN. It’s the same for Super Bowl, the same for NBA All Star Weekend, the same for March Madness, the Emmys, the Grammys and the Oscars. They don’t have UVerse, Time Warner Cable, Cable One, Verizon, Direct TV or any of that other stuff. They have AFN. So if they are some of the lucky few that aren’t in a foxhole, that aren’t on watch, that aren’t on a ship with a lost satellite signal, this will be their feed. I was that audience and I know how badly I needed AFN.

People think what I do is a waste of time for the military. Even some of my fellow service members think I am not a “real soldier.” I can see their point I guess, but that doesn’t offend me. I serve. I deploy. I go to dangerous places. I have missed holidays. I have missed birthdays. I had to watch my wife ball her eyes out at 5 a.m., when I left on deployment. I remember how much that sucked. And I also remember that during those months at sea, I wanted ANYTHING that reminded me of home. I watched so many TV shows and movies that I would have never watched, just because my wife was watching them and I wanted to be connected to her. I read about athletes and celebrities because that kept me connected. Do you want to know how I was able to do that on a ship deployed to the middle east?

The American Forces Network.

Our motto for AFN is, “We bring you home.” Our goal is to bring our troops home, in whatever way we can. If home for them is watching the Oscars, then let’s bring it to them. And if I can get Kristen Chenoweth and Bill Murray on camera to tell our troops how important they are, well, then that’s my mission.

If possible, I always try to ask one question in particular, “On a night like tonight, what does it mean to you to have that type of audience?”

Matthew McConaughey had the best answer tonight, off camera. Because for him it wasn’t an answer for the camera; it was an answer for me. He looked me dead in the eye, patted me on the back and said, “Ya know, on a night like tonight, this is a waste of time. This is silly. We should be having a red carpet for you guys. Without you, this would be for nothing. You’re the hero. You guys are the ones who we should be giving awards to.”

But I don’t need an award. I am just a Mass Communication Specialist doing my job while wearing my uniform.

The thing is, that uniform and its reputation are pretty famous in their own right. Truth is, our military should feel right at home on the red carpet.

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