Katie Peterson | Staff Writer
From graduations to changes of command, Memorial Day commemorations to Hall of Fame inductions, and redeployments to retirements, Fort Leavenworth hosts several ceremonies throughout the year. Many things go into making these ceremonies a success, but perhaps the glue of it all are the narrators and emcees who lend their voices to them — the Voices of Fort Leavenworth.
Narrators are not the stars of the show, but they are the ones who keep the show going and running smoothly so it is crucial for the right person to take on the task.
Finding the Voices
The Command and General Staff College arguably hosts the most and the largest ceremonies throughout the year with the International Flag Ceremony, International and Fort Leavenworth Hall of Fame inductions, the International Graduate Badge Ceremony, and graduation cere- monies for the Command and General Staff Officer Course and School of Advanced Military Studies. Therefore, choosing the right narrators for those ceremonies is very important, said Jeff LaMoe, director of operations and support, Army University.
“The function of the narrator in our ceremonies is that they have two constituencies they’re talking to. One, is they’re informing the audience and we want them to make the audience feel at ease and that it is a pleasant experience. It is almost like a show for the audience,” LaMoe said. “The other are the participants in the ceremony. Depending on the size of the ceremony, there are maybe about two to up to 12 (participants). The participants who are sitting on stage and have a couple thousand people looking at them, they don’t want to make the wrong move and embarrass themselves and bring any discredit to the college or to the ceremony.
“So, I always tell participants, it is a narrator-driven event,” he said. “So, the narrator is actually coaching the participants through. They don’t have to memorize anything about the ceremony. The narrator will cue them about the next event and they just have to be prepared to do that.”
All of that and more is considered when potential narrators audition.
“The G3 and I go out about every six months and we just put a feeler out to see if there is anybody interested,” said Rita Durocher, chief of the Visitors and Ceremonies Office, Army University. “The last time we did that was a couple months ago and a couple folks showed a little bit of interest, so we had them come to a couple of our rehearsals. Then, come to find out they really weren’t interested because it does take some time. It is an additional duty.”
After an initial interest is established, the interview process begins.
“It is important that they are interested in doing (the narration). If you assign someone to be a narrator…they don’t really have the aptitude or the inclination and they’re not going to be very good at it,” LaMoe said. “So, we’re looking for volunteers and we want to know why they’re interested in (narrating).
“Then, we’ll have them read a script and familiarize them with the program and let them know what other responsibilities they have. Then, they meet the team,” he said. “They have to have the right demeanor. They should make the official party look good and not upstage them. It is important that they not be real rhythmic in their delivery either. They have to understand what they’re saying and be able to inject the right inflection and tone in their voice.”
Retired Lt. Col. Vincent Carlisle, training analyst for the Army Learning Coordination Council, Army University, has been narrating CGSC events since 2003. He said he remembered his auditioning experience.
“I went to the CGSC Operations Office and offered to serve as a narrator,” he said. “The G3 heard me talking to his people and yelled from his room that my voice was too high. I responded back that I talk differently for ceremonies. He had one of his people get a script for me and I read the first paragraph. He ‘hired’ me on the spot.”
LaMoe said Carlisle is one of his favorite narrators.
“He’s got great stage presence and demeanor. He has a very pleasant expression on his face,” he said. “He’s real careful and meticulous about how he pronounces things and he’s, I think, one of those you wouldn’t notice unless he was right up there on stage. He doesn’t upstage any of the official party or the award recipients. He’s very good at being cordial and genuine about that task of narrating.”
Not every organization has an audition process like CGSC, but there are still criteria for finding the right person.
“The battalions usually have their go-to narrators for large ceremonies. The smaller ceremonies are chosen internally by the company first sergeants. I go to all those ceremonies and choose who I like for the large ceremonies,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Veronica Knapp, 40th Military Police Battalion (Detention).
“At the company-level ceremonies, I am looking for an individual that represents the unit well, looks sharp in their uniform, their voice has clarity and carries, has confidence in speech and the right pronunciation and pauses in the narration. The narrator is the key to a successful ceremony. They must know everything that is happening during the ceremony from attendees to drill commands to music.”
Knapp said Sgt. Evan Ruchotzke, 526th MP Company, 40th, is her go-to narrator.
“His voice has clarity, carries and he speaks well without stuttering, stammering or mixing up words,” she said.
For Will Brown, chief of operations, Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security, his criteria changes based on the event.
“If it is your standard Army event, I’m just looking for a command voice and somebody that has the experience of being around generals and people like that so they won’t be cracking under pressure,” Brown said. “With the 6888th (monument dedication ceremony Nov. 30, 2018), I was looking specifically for a female and I was looking for a minority female. I was looking for one who could look really good in the uniform and have a command presence, but at the same time represent the ladies (of the 6888th) well.
“Sometimes it is based on the event, based on the audience, but I’m always looking for someone who is organized, who looks well in whatever they’re wearing, has a command voice and also be adaptable,” he said. “It is a lot of trial and error.”
Preparing the Voices
Though the narrator is simply reading from a script, it doesn’t mean that proper preparation isn’t necessary. First, the script needs to be polished, which often the narrator will help with.
“The narrator helps craft the length of the ceremony. Our ceremonies typically are targeted to be an hour and the idea is that they are long enough to appropriately honor the people who are being honored on stage, but not so long that the people that don’t have family members on stage lose interest,” LaMoe said. “So, (the narrator) takes the script and modifies it and then gives us suggestions.”
George Marcec, Garrison Public Affairs operations officer, has narrated Memorial Day ceremonies, retirement ceremonies, changes of command and road dedications. He said he thinks it is important for the narrator to be involved in the script preparation.
“It is best if whatever agency is doing (the ceremony) has the narrator help in developing certain things because then as the narrator you’re more comfortable with how things are going to go before you actually read it,” he said.
Next, practice. For CGSC events, full rehearsals are done for each ceremony. CGSOC graduation is practiced twice, once outside on Main Parade and once in Eisenhower Auditorium of the Lewis and Clark Center, in case weather forces a change in location.
“The voice inflection is different from outside to inside,” Durocher said.
Knapp said rehearsals in every aspect are key.
“First impressions are lasting impressions,” she said. “A poorly conducted ceremony gives the appearance that the unit responsible for the ceremony is undisciplined or substandard.”
Narrators will practice on their own, too, often using certain techniques to make sure they’re prepared.
“This is a little silly, but after I’m familiar with the script, usually after two or three reads, I’ll read it in a funny voice to make sure I can do it without the giggles and with natural, expressive pauses,” Ruchotzke said. “Sometimes it is a fake British accent, other times it is (comedian) Paul Lynde. Just whatever feels fun.”
Mark Salas, director of Human Resources, Fort Leavenworth Garrison, has narrated several changes of command, and award and promotion ceremonies. He said rehearsing in the ceremony venue is important for him.
“As I’ve gotten older, I need my glasses more and more for reading stuff,” Salas said. “So, I always try to make sure to rehearse it where I’m going to (narrate) because the light will screw you up, too. The brighter the light, the easier I can see it. If I don’t have enough light, I need to make sure I have my glasses.”
Polishing and reading through the script and running through the ceremony are not always the only part to preparation. For Jim Fain, who has been director of CGSC’s International Military Student Division since 2003, name pronunciation is key in all of the international ceremonies.
“At arrival, we have our (international military students) provide a simple voice recording. They read from a card that says, ‘Hello, my name is …, and I am from … My friends call me …,’” Fain said. “I refer to these recordings as I look at the name, and it has proven to be an effective way of preparing. After doing this for such a long time, I have also learned to recognize patterns and letter combinations in certain names that help. So, each year it gets a bit easier.”
As the IMSD director, Fain said his personal relationship with the international officers contributes to his narration preparation as well.
“I am a retired Army foreign affairs officer and my education in international affairs, operational FAO assignments and my experience directing the program — now having supported more than 1,550 IMS and their families from 115 countries — affords some insight into how our IMS view us and our ceremonial activities,” he said. “I realized early on that our academic year is bracketed by two IMS-centric ceremonies — the International Flag Ceremony and the International Officer Graduate Badge Ceremony.
“I view these as bookends that represent two very important, but different things,” Fain said.
“The flag ceremony represents a public statement by the U.S. Army and our participating partner nations, of a common commitment to collective security within a framework that recognizes universal human rights. This is a very serious ceremony, and the IMS take great pride in representing their nation here as part of a program that is the oldest and largest military cooperative education program in the world, at arguably the world’s premier staff college.
“The narration focuses on these concepts. There is no mention of the individual IMS in this ceremony as it is about their country’s decision to be a part of this,” Fain said.
“The badge ceremony, conversely, focuses on the individual IMS and celebrates their successful completion of an incredibly challenging program of graduate-level instruction … As each individual IMS receives their graduate badge from the commandant, their favorite picture from the year is shown on the huge screen. The staff groups go crazy when their IMS gets badged, and while all of this is in good taste; it has a fun and less formal feel than the flag ceremony. All of this is possible because of the relationships forged among the students, between our IMS and their military and civilian sponsors and the remarkable teaching faculty. Because I am integrated into this entire process, I can transfer the mood into the ceremony. It would be difficult for someone from outside the IMSD to bring the same feel to our ceremonies.”
Highlights of the Voices
Being the narrator for multiple events has its perks, from introducing distinguished guests to someone liking “the voice” and requesting the narrator for another ceremony. Several narrators have identified these opportunities as the highlight of their narrating experience.
“There tends to be a snowball effect in narration where each ceremony serves as a sort of audition for additional ceremonies,” said Capt. Casey Johnson, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 705th MP Battalion (Detention). “Having the opportunity to introduce the governor of Missouri during the 15th MP Brigade Ball this past October was definitely one of the highlights of my narrating experience.”
Ruchotzke said sharing in the events themselves is the highlight for him.
“Whenever I get tasked to narrate, it is usually for a fairly sizable event with diverse audiences with a lot of rank present,” he said. “It can be intimidating, but also very rewarding when you’ve gotten to share a historic moment with your subordinates, superiors, friends and family.”
Jeff Wingo, Garrison Public Affairs officer, has narrated Garrison changes of command and award presentations at the Veterans Day parade, but he said his most memorable event was in 2000.
“There was an event I narrated in Bosnia where we transitioned from 10th Mountain Division to 49th Armored Division,” Wingo said. “When I look back on that it is like, ‘Hey, I was a part of history.’ That was a significant event. It drew a lot of media attention and it is not like I was of importance, but I was there and participated.”
Marcec said he most enjoys narrating ceremonies honoring people he knows and who personally asked him to narrate. This happened often when he served as an Army broadcaster in Fort Jackson, S.C.
“It is nice to have a peer, someone else who was a broadcaster, or a narrator ask, ‘Hey, can you narrate my retirement ceremony?’” Marcec said. “They asked you to (narrate) because they respected you and then you knew them, so you really have an investment in wanting the ceremony to go well.”
Salas, who has been narrating events since third grade when he narrated his school’s Christmas play and later participated on the speech team in college, said for him it is about using a gift.
“I’m an extrovert. I have no fear of public speaking. I enjoy it,” he said. “I think I just have a loud, good, strong voice and I realized it at a young age and I just never had any problem capitalizing on it. We all have our gifts and to me, that is my gift and I need to help out with it.”
Charles Davis, deputy of operations for the Visitors and Ceremonies Office, Army University, has narrated for various battalions and the Combined Arms Center since the early 2000s. He said his most memorable event was the Frontier Chapel groundbreaking ceremony in August 2008, but not for the typical reason.
“I was still on active duty and showed up in the (Army Combat Uniform), while others were in their Class A uniform,” Davis said.
“Also, the late Ike Skelton was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. After having introduced Ike Skelton, the congressman from Missouri — I pronounced it ‘Missouree,’ — he made his way to the podium and said, ‘Good morning everyone. Now, normally I don’t find it necessary to remonstrate the narrator, but son, it’s pronounced ‘Missourah.’’ When I announced the ceremonial shovel dig participants later on in the ceremony, I pronounced it ‘Missourah.’ It was a memorable ceremony for sure. I was able to get some pictures with him and I have continued to tell this story ever since.”
Tips from the Voices The voices of Fort Leavenworth had some helpful tips to share with anyone interested in being a narrator.
“Lessons learned, if you’re feeling sick and your throat is scratchy, don’t do it,” Wingo said. “Always have a backup. Don’t let your confidence override your ability.”
“As the narrator, you guide the ceremony on its path and it is important to keep things on track,” Davis said. “Part of taking on that responsibility is to be able to roll with the punches when something happens unexpectedly and it is completely off the rails.”
“There are a lot of soldiers with the ability to contribute to their unit by performing narration duties. You don’t have to have a truly distinctive voice to deliver a solid performance,” Johnson said. “Seek out a mentor with some narration experience and prepare for the job as you would anything else. Then make it known to your leadership that you’d like to try out for the position at the next available opportunity. You may find this duty to be a rewarding opportunity to give back to your unit. I know that I have.”