Special to American Forces Press Service
June 23, 2009 - Beth Reece always dreamed of seeing her name in print. But as a young girl growing up in the sleepy town of Beckley, W.Va., she couldn't have known how much the military would help her achieve that goal. Reece loved to write and had a passion for words. By the time she graduated high school, she was determined to make a career of writing, but wasn't sure how she would pay for the college degree that would be her springboard into the world of journalism.
So she decided to go to work for Uncle Sam to get some life experience, see the world beyond the West Virginia foothills and earn money for college. Reece didn't realize how she'd thrive in the Army -- eventually spending five years working in South Korea and at Fort George G. Meade, Md., writing first for a magazine and then for a weekly newspaper, Soundoff!
"I was surprised to find that I actually enjoyed being a soldier as much as I loved writing," said Reece, a civilian writer for the Defense Logistics Agency here. "I even earned the rank of sergeant before I was old enough to drink."
As a young soldier, Reece took her lumps as she climbed the ranks.
"I had an editor who always said it was a military journalist's job to make people feel good about what they do," she said.
That same editor also pushed her to stretch -- to test new subjects and techniques -- to become a better storyteller.
"He was the same editor whose marks made my stories bleed with red ink, but I'm the writer I've become because he made me fix things instead of doing it for me," she said.
Reece's determination to excel and natural ability to turn a phrase began paying off and she started racking up bylines and awards before her peers who had gone to college even finished their sophomore year. She won several Keith L. Ware journalism awards, which recognize Army military and civilian print and broadcast practitioners for journalistic excellence.
After leaving the Army, Reece continued to write for military publications. In 1998 she was named both the Department of the Army and Defense Department journalist of the year and eventually realized her longtime dream of writing for the Army's flagship publication, Soldiers magazine.
"For years it was my dream to write for Soldiers magazine, but I honestly never thought it would happen to me," she said. "A lot of the work that I did there made me realize how much I enjoy writing about people. If I could spend the rest of my career just writing about people, I'd be thrilled."
She said she particularly loves getting to know people through the interview process and finding the right words to convey their stories and engage readers.
Her favorite story is one she penned about a Korean War veteran who grew up Jewish in Nazi-occupied Hungary. After being liberated from a concentration camp by U.S. soldiers, Cpl. Tibor "Ted" Rubin joined the same Army that saved him, eventually serving in the Korean War, where he was captured by Chinese forces and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. Nominated four times by his comrades, Rubin was awarded the nation's highest decoration -- the Medal of Honor -- in 2005.
"The spirit of this man still overwhelms me because he used the horrific experiences he went through in a Nazi concentration camp to save the lives of his fellow POWs," she said. "His story was so powerful and is by far the most rewarding story I've ever written."
Shortly after, the story earned Reece her own honor -- she was named the Defense Department's best flagship writer that same year.
Reece began working in DLA's public affairs office about 18 months ago. As a writer for "DLA Today," the agency's internal news, information and multimedia Web site, as well as Loglines magazine, its flagship publication, she's jumped in with both feet.
"Beth has the unique ability to draw the interesting human interest aspects out of a story -- the things other people can relate to. She takes good story ideas and makes them into great stories," said Jack Hooper, DLA's deputy director of public affairs. One of the first stories Reece wrote at DLA was about the "flag ladies" at the agency's Defense Supply Center Philadelphia, "A Dying Art Thrives at DSCP." The story followed the work of eight women who, sitting side by side in the supply center's flag room, embroider the nation's presidential and vice presidential flags. DSCP is the only place in the country where the flags, which are displayed during meetings with heads of state and at press conferences, are still made by hand. Though not available for purchase, just one presidential flag is worth an estimated $12,000.
Reece spent a day with the ladies, many of whom learned their embroidery skills at the feet of mothers, grandmothers and aunts, listening to their personal stories, watching them work and getting a feel for their bittersweet attitudes toward work considered by many to be old-fashioned.
Using what she learned, Reece crafted a story that told the tale of how one of these flags is made, but also the histories of the women who painstakingly labor to create flawless flags. It earned her praise from the supply center and her own office, but also from the same folks who had honored her previous work.
Prodded by her coworkers, Reece -- ever humble and highly critical of her own work -- reluctantly submitted the story in the feature article category of the Defense Department's Thomas Jefferson Awards, which recognizes both military and civilian print and broadcast journalists for outstanding achievement furthering the department's internal information goals.
Judged on its ability to communicate the essential who, what, where, when, why and how of a news article, but through the use of human interest, emotion and atmosphere, Reece's article beat out the competition and was named the department's best feature story of 2008.
"When it was announced that the story had been selected as the winner, there was a unanimous 'wow!' in the office," Hooper said. "Beth joined a solid public affairs team last year and made it better. And this is the first time that I'm aware of that the DLA public affairs office has had a first place winner."
Reece and other competition winners were honored for their achievement during a ceremony at Fort Meade last month. Almost every member of her office attended.
"We're proud of her. This is a big deal," said Kathleen Rhem, DLA's chief of internal information. "Beth winning this award proves that it doesn't take a 'sexy' subject to write an amazing article. She won against journalists who have the entire armed forces to write about. The best writers will find stories everywhere and distill them into something inspiring."
Reece handles the accolades with her usual self-effacing style.
"It's comforting to know that after 20 years of writing for the Army, and now for DLA, I haven't lost the passion for words that inspired me to pursue writing as a career. But I really don't believe I'm the best in [the Defense Department] at any type of writing, regardless of the awards," she said. "I grew up in a small town where most kids feel like they're stuck. It's nice to know I've managed to get out and find success."
(Heather Athey works in the Defense Logistics Agency public affairs office.)