One of the men behind a Facebook page that has struck fear into the hearts of commanders everywhere came out from behind the screen during a panel Monday at the Army’s biggest annual conference, in Washington.
Retired Sgt. Maj. Kenneth Ramos, also known as @WTFIOguy, is a former psychological operations soldier and the voice of Sergeant’s Time.
“We’ve been told that we’re oath-breakers or it’s against Army values and norms,” Ramos said of feedback on W.T.F., which rose to fame with viral posts from soldier submissions of the funniest and, sometimes, more ugly parts of serving in the Army.
But they also post calls to action for veterans in need, he added, and work behind the scenes to help soldiers through some of the issues they find too sensitive for publication.
And he shared the page’s origin story: The original Army W.T.F. Moment happened during an Afghanistan deployment, as original members watched a soldier chase a goat with an M-4 rifle slung around its body across their forward operating base.
Maj. Megan Jantos, an Army information officer who runs the From the Green Notebook blog, moderated the panel, joined onstage by 1st Lt. Kelsey Cochran, a former artilleryman and current public affairs officer known on Twitter as @LadyLovesTaft, as well as Doctrine Man, retired Col. Steve Leonard, and Brig. Gen. Pat Donahoe, deputy commanding general of operations for 8th Army in South Korea.
The message: If leaders want to tell the Army’s story, be available to their troops and have their fingers on what’s going on in the force, they need to get online.
“When they’re not there, [soldiers] are going to look for other people who claim to be leaders, but might not be providing the best example,” Leonard, who started tongue-in-cheek Doctrine Man web comic in 1999, told Military Times in a Friday phone interview.
“If you’re not out there, then you’re not really engaging in the same way that most of your people do,” he added.
And if they see themselves portrayed in a way they don’t like, they have the opportunity to set the record straight, Donahoe said.
“Does that apply to me? Does that apply to my unit?” he said. “Army W.T.F. does that for us in spades. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. They’re just a medium for that.”
W.T.F. and dozens of other accounts provide a “telescope” directly into formations, he added.
“And often, all W.T.F. does is put up a photograph,” he said. “If this is your unit and you don’t agree with it, then fix it. If you agree with it, defend it.”
But participating in social media doesn’t have to mean engaging directly with the public, Donahoe said, at least not at first.
“I went into social media solely for the professional development piece of it,” told Military Times in a Thursday phone interview. "When I was going to Afghanistan, I sent out a note and said, ‘Who should I follow if I’m going to Afghanistan?’ "
Another Korea-based leader, U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. Robert Abrams, has set the standard for senior leadership on social media.
“I think people think it’s a very high-threat environment,” Donahoe said. “I think it’s a very low-threat environment.”
The rules are simple, he said: Stay in your lane, and don’t get into fights.
“It’s the same prohibitions we have on public speaking. I’m not going to air my political views. I’m not going to comment on a political decision by the president,” he said, and if a private first class starts flaming him, “I’m not there personally with him, so I can just stop. I just don’t respond.”
For her part, Cochran takes a more personal tack on Twitter, broadcasting her daily musings on life as a junior officer.
“I’d also say that I’m a thinking person, and I share the level of detail I’m comfortable sharing,” she said.
Despite criticism and threats ― from “ruining” her career all the way to death ― she said, the positives outweigh the negatives in her efforts to humanize service members.
“I didn’t know people in the Army could be cool,” is one of her favorite bits of feedback, she said.
That kind of discussion should be cultivated, Leonard told Military Times.
“What you don’t want to, and this is the danger we run into, that leaders would immediately jump onto social media and start turning it into a punitive space, or a censored space,” he said.
The goal should be to help the next generation learn how productively to craft their thoughts, he added, not censor them.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.