WASHINGTON: A former Navy public affairs officer who spent the past two years defending military action overseas is now speaking against the war in Iraq. Lt. John Oliveira retired from active duty January 31 after the pressure of "spinning" (his word) a war he didn't agree with led to a self-described nervous breakdown on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt.
Since returning home, he's spoken to about a dozen news outlets criticizing the Bush Administration for waging a war that he felt "didn't make sense."
"Anybody in the PR field, no matter where you work, you have to have some kind of faith, have to believe in what you're doing to have credibility as a PR professional," Oliveira told PRWeek. "You're not selling cars. You're selling your friends, your neighbors, your family."
Oliveira also claims the Pentagon and White House failed to supply adequate communications support once the war in Iraq started, placing the burden on him and fellow PAOs to defend the war to an increasingly hostile media.
"Two weeks before the war started, I get this big report with 'shock and awe' and all this other stuff they were selling, and they say, 'This is what we need you to talk about," he said. "But then the shooting starts and all those communication points now mean absolutely nothing - and we didn't see anything for weeks. They'd just say, 'Look at the newspaper and see what the White House is saying.'"
Oliveira spent more than 16 years on active duty, becoming a PAO in 1997. Navy documents show he was honorably discharged after failing to "select," or be promoted, for two years in a row.
The Navy disputed Oliveira's claims that communications support was lacking during the war, providing PRWeek with reprints of "public affairs guidance" articles placed on a Navy intranet service every few days throughout the war. Lt. Admiral T. McCreary, a senior Navy PAO, said regardless of whether talking points were provided, the military expects its spokespeople to "exercise judgment" and "be aggressive" in the field.
A colleague of Oliveira's, Lt. Commander Brenda Malone, said her experience aboard the USS Harry S. Truman did not jibe with Oliveira's account. "I felt as though the support I got from the senior Navy leadership all the way up the chain of command was absolutely superb. I felt like I had all the information I needed to do my job."
Nonetheless, Oliveira said he witnessed a decline in morale among his fellow PAOs. "I know that for a fact there are folks out there who don't believe in what we're doing, but they're not in a position to walk away."