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Dave Andersen: Might of the Pen

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Maj. Dave Andersen:

Might of the Pen

January 2006

It was bitter cold on a recent December day in midtown Manhattan and I?d come a long way to be there. Far from a chore, but somewhat hesitant because I thought writing was the last thing on my interview subject?s mind. But I?d been focused on Maj. Dave Andersen?s writing for years.

Through security and up to the ninth floor. From a large office the Major waves me in as he finishes a call. Marine-abilia line the walls from an obviously successful 20-year career.

Noteworthy was a once-crushed four-by-six photo of three children holding a puppy hanging on his wall. No one he knows, just a relic from a search at Ground Zero.

I was right, the Major wasn?t thinking about his writing.He?ll be retiring soon and is planning for his future. His love of ice hockey has led him to incorporate a summer hockey camp project he?s performed for two years. Boot Camp Hockey implements Corps values into the training process for young players.

Although the week-long camp will cost players about $800, the Major is working hard to collect scholarships. He donated the first one: The Louis C. Andersen Scholarship which was named for his father, who died in 1994 after retiring from the Navy as a boiler technician. Other scholarships are being donated by military groups.

?We preach honor, courage and commitment,? he explains, ?and I have a passion for teaching youth,? says the father of a daughter and two sons: Heather, 18, Nicolas, 16 and Zachary who is eight.

?Obviously they?re our future. Marine Corps values can be passed in a non-military way.?

The week before the Major was in Breckenridge, Colorado teaching a young Marine to ski. Sounds cushy, not material for an Andersen story. Hardly. Working with Al Giordano of the Wounded Warriors Project, Andersen
took leave to help out in the Rockies.

A newly medically retired Marine SSgt. John Jones of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Division who lost both legs to his service in Iraq was one the trainees.

?The persona he gave off was of a Marine Staff Sergeant: he had that little recklessness but was focused on the mission.?

He described the cold of skiing down the slope with the SSgt,no poles and a camera, ?My head was an ice cube.? But he knew the good outweighed the bad.

?I can go inside and warm up. He can?t go inside and get new legs.?

When that story runs it?ll probably break all the rules of journalism, which is what makes his pieces so powerful. ?I don?t like to follow style or rules,? he says referring to the journalism guidelines many consider biblical.

I press on and he humors me. ?I have to find something I want to write about,? he says of when pen meets paper. ?I have three stories in the works.?

?I like to be very personal and let you be inside my mind and let the feelings come out. I want to feel we?re having a conversation.?

The Major studied journalism in college yet was an artillery officer until about eight years ago. He then worked at the Pentagon in public affairs before coming to New York five years ago.

Inspiration. It?s been four years since his piece about finding SgtMaj. Curtin “We Never Leave Our Brothers Behind,” appeared online. I won?t be forgetting that day anytime soon.

It was at a time in my journalism when I realized that editors of civilian newspapers, my bosses, weren?t quite as enthusiastic about local military workings as I. Routinely I would leave the local Marine post excited about their recent contribution to community or country, only to find my story idea rebuffed. So I?d pitch again, the second or third time receiving a nod to write.

How could those editors not love such news? Didn?t they care that these Marines, their Marines were working so hard, without publicity, for us? When my story would finally run, often it was on page one, but only due to slow news on that particular day.

Frustration set in. I felt alone. My lone comrade in arms was George Barnes, but he had a cushy staff position with a New York Times offshoot and everything he wrote ran on page one. He wasn?t worried about feeding his family v. writing news close to his heart; he could do both. His father was a Marine lieutenant colonel retired. All was well for him.

Then I found Maj. Andersen?s story searching the web. It hit me like a freight train. Here was a Marine officer working out of what arguably is the second most influential Corps public affairs office. He was writing about his experience honoring a fallen Marine. The details of preparation for the gruesome find. Tortuous moments bringing SgtMaj Curtin up to his brothers. Facts that illuminated the love of Curtin?s wife.

I recall pacing my hardwood hallway, tears rolling, grateful,so grateful. That story was my license. My license to write about great Marines and their loved ones. From my heart. With passion and detail. It certified my calling.

So I called him. Hunted for the number a bit, but finally got through. I didn?t care that he obviously thought he had an insane writer on the line. I vividly recall telling him, ?That?s my voice. Thank you.?

Corps Stories launched weeks later. Today, without any marketing, this narrow, passionate voice of journalism is read by thousands in dozens of countries daily. I was right. Maj. Andersen was right. The editors – they were wrong.

END

(Editor’s note: Special thanks to GySgt Alex Kitsakos for his invaluable contribution to this story.)