A new breed of military spokesman Academy officer told the truth, good and bad

January 09, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

The year was 1969. Tom Jurkowsky had finished his journalism courses at Boston University but had to put his aspirations for a newspaper career on hold: Facing being drafted into the Army, he instead chose to enlist in the Navy.

"I was going to do my four years, get out and go back to school," he said.

Fast forward to 1996. Springtime in Annapolis. Instead of asking a newsman's questions, Jurkowsky -- now risen to the rank of captain -- is on the other side of the notebook, answering the media's questions as public affairs officer for the U.S. Naval Academy.

Jurkowsky refers to it as his "spring of hell." Worse than his tour in the Gulf of Tonkin 25 years earlier, it was an intense period at the academy of scandal and soul-searching.

Jurkowsky stood at the forefront, making excuses and/or apologies for the car-theft ring, the LSD ring, the pedophilia charges, the sexual assault charges, and the internal disruptions that rocked Annapolis and its 4,000 midshipmen.

"It was just one thing after another," he recalled. "It was gut wrenching. It seemed like we just couldn't do anything right."

But apparently Jurkowsky did something right as the man who -- like the navigator on a storm-tossed ship -- ushered the Naval Academy through its worst public relations disasters.

Today, Jurkowsky leaves Annapolis for the Pentagon, where he will become the Navy's chief of information ("CHINFO," in Navy lingo), replacing Rear Adm. Kendell Pease, who is retiring.

Recently promoted to rear admiral, he joins the top 222 officers in the 390,500-person Navy. While his fellow admirals command naval fleets or hold top Pentagon posts, Jurkowsky will be the lone spokesman with an admiral's star. It will complete a unique ascent for an officer whose rise to the Navy's top ranks came during an extreme shift in military openness.

Over the years, from Vietnam to Grenada, the military had often worked hard to keep the American press and public in the dark. Regular officers once handled the Navy's public relations and honed the art of "no comment." But Jurkowsky joined a new breed of officers trained to tell the public the Navy's stories -- even the embarrassing and ugly ones.

"Tom was one of the early ones to recognize the need to be more open," said retired Adm. Carlisle A. H. Trost, former chief of naval operations who hired Jurkowsky to be his spokesman in 1986. "His philosophy is one I always appreciated, even if it's one that I'm not sure I always agreed with. Tom is a very open guy. His philosophy is: Let's get the word out."

But it was a rebel's role. Jurkowsky had to retrain -- and sometimes argue with -- gruff military officers whose instinct was: Don't tell; keep it secret; protect national security.

Naval Academy Superintendent Adm. Charles R. Larson also said that, at times, his "emotional" reaction to reporters' requests for information has been: "The hell with them."

But Jurkowsky would talk him through such crises and explain how each situation should be handled. Often, that entailed giving out more information than Larson would have liked.

"Its kind of an unnatural act. It's sort of like being protective of your family," Larson said. "But I have three people on my personal staff -- and Tom is one of them -- who have the ability to come in here and argue with me. And I like that. I need that."

Larson had many such arguments during the "spring from hell." Larson recalled how he would wake up certain Saturday mornings that spring and see Jurkowsky's face at his front door. They'd sit on the back porch drinking coffee and hashing out an approach to the latest crisis.

"There was such a high level of focus on the Naval Academy

after the cheating scandal. The scrutiny was much more intense than anything either one of us had ever seen. I was very grateful I had Tom here with me to help me go through it, dousing those fires," Larson said.

Jurkowsky declined to specify an example of persuading Larson to release information. Those were private conversations, he says, illustrating how he has managed to serve his two masters -- the Navy and the press.

Earlier in his career, Jurkowsky got intense practice in the art of fire-dousing: He was spokesman for the Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor after the 1991 Tailhook scandal, in which aviators and officers assaulted women at a convention in Las Vegas.

"He got a good trial by fire in handling those issues," Larson said. "People really saw his capabilities."

Jurkowsky was born in Springfield, Mass. His father, who died in 1995, was a bus driver and his mother was a seamstress and bookkeeper. Both worked extra jobs to pay for their only child to attend private school and college.

Jurkowsky and his wife, Sally -- a former USO director he met during shore leave in Portsmouth, Va. -- and their two daughters will continue to live in Annapolis, in a house they recently had built after fire damaged their Naval Academy home.

The Naval Academy's new spokesman is Cmdr. Mike Brady, an Annapolis native and a Naval Academy graduate. Brady has been a Navy spokesman since 1985, in Pentagon and overseas posts, most recently as director of public affairs for the Bureau of Naval Personnel. Brady says that he, too, has been trained to practice military openness.

"Twenty years ago, naval officers considered it a good day if there were no news stories about the Navy," Brady said. "I consider that a bad day."

Pub Date: 1/09/98

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