U.S. Army by Staff Sgt. Shaiyla Hakeem
354th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
July 13, 2018
As seconds pass, we lose frames of moments that are never to be seen again unless it is captured, frozen in time, shot through the lens of a camera ... combat camera that is.
The emergence of social media provides a new avenue for the world to connect with the U.S. Army, its Soldiers and what they are doing on a daily basis. There is always training, but there is not always a public affairs officer (PAO) or specialist there to capture it. To rectify this, the Army developed the Unit Public Affairs Representative (UPAR) Program.
A UPAR is an appointed position that requires a Soldier, organic to the unit, to write stories, take photos, prepare for potential media engagements and escort news media representatives when a public affairs officer or specialist is unavailable. The position of a UPAR is not a military occupational specialty (MOS) but an additional duty where Soldiers are trained to standard by brigade PAOs. Commands often implement the UPAR program where operational tempo, proximity of forces and personnel limitations are unpredictable.
High-speed Spc. Henry Villarama, 173rd Airborne Brigade, enlisted six years ago as a nodal network systems operator-maintainer (25N), which ensures lines of internal communication systems are maintained and open within tactical environments.
Villarama discovered the UPAR program from a flyer posted at his brigade gym. He thought he would be a great candidate for the position because of his extensive camera knowledge from his time as a night-life photographer in downtown Washington, D.C., prior to his enlistment.
“I learned how to first take pictures in the dark, and I was able to create beautiful images with very little light,” he said.
According to Villarama, there were several Soldiers interviewing for the brigade UPAR position and despite his photography experience, another Soldier was given the position. He did not, however, let the misstep discourage his movement toward becoming a UPAR. Instead, he applied his Army resiliency skills to “put things in perspective,” and told himself, “It’s okay.” Shortly thereafter, opportunity found him by way of a senior non-commissioned officer.
“Our battalion sergeant major found out about me applying (for UPAR) and said, ‘Well if you were going to do it for them (brigade), how about you come do it for us?’” recalled Villarama, “And I said, ‘sure!’”
He has been the UPAR for the 54th Brigade Engineer Battalion (Airborne) since May, but despite the short timeframe, he said the additional duty has been life altering.
Villarama loves being able to connect Soldiers with their families, he said. At the end of the day, he is happier because he is doing something he loves, and it’s not so much “work” anymore. He now has the opportunity to communicate with Soldiers he normally would not talk to and is able to link families to Soldiers through social media outlets. Additionally, he is able to coexist in two worlds, information technology (IT) and UPAR missions, not to mention being able to gain a vantage point from leadership positions and training aspects outside in his MOS.
“Now, I have constant communication with company commanders, first sergeants, and I’m able to be a part of things my MOS wouldn’t normally do,” explained Villarama, “Like a night air assault with an infantry regiment during a training exercise; not many November’s (25Ns) are doing that in that capacity.”
Villarama said his UPAR positively affected his life in such a strong way that it changed his mindset to, “What if people just did what they love to do instead of spending 20 years in an organization doing something they hate?”
With this in mind, he plans to eventually change his MOS to a 46S, a future MOS within the Army that will combine public affairs specialists and broadcasters. Villarama believes his life is going to be a long adventure. In all future aspects, he said that, “If the opportunity presents itself and God opens doors, I’ll just jump and let Him (God) do the rest.”
UPAR positions are open to every MOS. Hard-charging Spc. Joshua Cofield, an infantryman with the 1st Battalion 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), heard about the UPAR program from a battle buddy while attending Bible Study. Cofield has experience with making personal physical fitness and travel videos for social media, using knowledge he acquired knowledge from a high school Art & Videography class. He prefers video over photography.
“With photos, you can tell a story, but it stops there,” explained Cofield. “With a video, you can put a little bit more emphasis on what you are trying to really tell.”
Cofield said taking on UPAR responsibilities has given him a different perspective on the Army. UPARs usually serve battalion commanders and work to engage with local media, social media and other media outlets.
UPAR duties allows him to focus on the command and the Army as a whole, rather than just through the vantage point of his specific MOS.
“Sometimes when you are in a MOS, that is all you see,” he explained, “It’s becomes like tunnel vision.”
On the opposite side of lens, gung-ho Spc. Kelvin Murielresto, an infantryman with 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), prefers photography over video. He learned about the UPAR program from his platoon sergeant, who encouraged him to interview with civil affairs staff for the position. The rest is history. Murielresto has been a UPAR since mid-December and loves taking photos of his infantry comrades.
“At the end of the day, you create something really amazing,” explained Murielresto. “I try to capture what I see and try to show people what I see.”