Assignment OutreachNC: Interview a Veteran – Winners!

In celebration of Veterans Day (November 11) this year, we thought it would be a nice touch to host an Assignment OutreachNC essay/interview contest. We asked students between the ages of 5 and 18 to submit interviews of veterans within their families and/or communities. Readers, they delivered! The editor’s inbox was flooded with fascinating, witty, clever, heart-breaking and ultimately incredibly human essays, stories, taglines, titles, and questions, all bundled together into interviews that tell the stories of the people who have served our country through times of war and peace alike. 

The hardest part of this assignment, and the aspect I grossly underestimated, was choosing a winner. I agonized. I set essays out on tables, in the office kitchen, and at coffee shops. I asked all of my co-workers and our editorial committee to read and re-read essays and to write down first, second and third choices. We all sat and laughed together, nodding in recognition of brilliant questions and fascinating answers and agreed on one thing: this whole decision process was hard!

We’d like to thank (hands to our hearts) everyone who submitted an interview. We had interviews come in traditional question-and-answer format, in story format and in essay format. We had writers of all ages submit interviews, and we heard stories that will stay with us forever. Thank you all. 

And now (drumroll, please)…..we are pleased to announce the First, Second and Third Place Winners of Assignment OutreachNC: Interview A Veteran! 

First Place: Sarah Massey 

Sarah’s interview, published alongside this announcement, is with her father, Michael Massey, a 27-year veteran. Sarah asks intriguing questions including “What made you stay in the military for 27 years,” and “Can you think of the most boring moment?” What we love about Sarah’s interview is how her questions flow from one to another, following the stream of the interview and conversation in such a natural way. We especially appreciate her father’s reminder to his daughter before she leaves the house each morning, which you’ll have to read to appreciate. It says a lot about her father, his experience and how he chooses to pass along his wisdom and knowledge to his daughter. Thank you, Sarah, for an excellent submission. 

Second Place: Lily Peters

Lily’s interview with Mr. Butch Culbreth, an Air Force veteran, is creative, imaginative and includes a list of “fun facts” about Mr. Culbreth that made the interview unique. Lily was able to provide an interview without questions but which somehow enables readers to know which questions she’s asked Mr. Culbreth even if we aren’t privy to them, a signature of solid interviewing and writing skills. Great work, Lily! We’ll be looking for Mr. Culbreth among the puffins. 

Third Place: Kayden Thompson 

Seven-year-old Kayden interviewed fellow churchgoer Mr. Don Bentley (along with his wife Donna) and asked such questions as “Did you see combat?” and “Were you awarded any medals?” She also asks Mr. Bentley, “What was the food like?” We like where Kayden’s mind is at, and we have to agree that Mr. Bentley sounds like (as Kayden writes) “…the nicest non-family member I’ve ever met.” Wonderful job, Kayden. 

Congratulations to all of our winners! Readers can find both Lily Peters’ and Kayden Thompson’s interviews online at 

Finally, I can’t sign off without acknowledging an honorable mention in the form of best title. The interview came to me, and I immediately stopped what I was doing and clicked on the email. 

Honorable Mention – Best Title: Jonathan Marroquin 

“There’s a Snake in his Shirt! A Glimpse Into One Man’s Experiences in the U.S. Army”

We look forward to next year’s submissions, so be on the lookout for more interviews and assignments as we barrel into 2020!

And now, here is our winning essay:

My name is Sarah Massey and I’ve lived alongside a veteran for 17 years, on and off due to deployment. This interview is of my father. His name is Michael Massey, and he was a part of the U.S. Military for 27 years. He’s 52 this year with an untamed beard that he couldn’t be more proud of–since he earned it after retiring. This is his proud story:

Sarah Massey: Could you tell me about yourself and what was going on in your life at the time you joined the military?

Michael Massey: I grew up mostly in Louisiana, with one year each in Arkansas (5th grade) and Mississippi (10th grade) in the middle. I once did the math and realized that I lived in 10 different homes in 12 years of school. We weren’t a military family, I just think my dad had some nomad in his blood. When I graduated West Monroe High School, I had a promissory note from Louisiana Tech University to be their place kicker starting in 1986. I was interested in Forestry and wanted that degree. 

SM: So why did you ultimately join the military?

MM: Well, within a year, I realized I wasn’t ready for college. That and finding out La Tech decided to go with a different kicker rather than me was enough to nudge me toward something else. I didn’t know what that something else was, but I did remember many conversations my dad and I had on military service so that was on my mind. A friend of mine, Chris Burns, had signed up for the U.S. Navy nuclear program and talked to me about joining. Then, my best friend’s dad started talking to me about his service as a Navy UDT, called “Frogmen” (precursor of today’s SEALs). I was going nowhere fast, so I decided that I wanted to be a Frogman. I signed up on a contract called the DiveFarer Contract. Basically, it guaranteed you would take a direct path to Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL school or BUD/S. This meant the candidate would go through Navy Basic Training, then “A” School, and finally to BUD/S.

SM: What made you stay in the military for 27 years?

MM: After a short time in the Navy, I decided I wanted to move over to the Army. I never have enjoyed beaches much (though I still love the water) and I wasn’t keen on the idea of traveling around on a ship for months on end. So, I joined the Army and immediately started looking for the way to Special Forces. After one year in the Army, I went to the U.S. Army Special Forces Assessment and Selection course and was selected for service as a Special Forces Communications Sergeant. Once I graduated the Special Forces Qualification Course and was awarded my Green Beret, my wife and I moved to Germany where I would join my first Operational Detachment-Alpha (ODA). It didn’t take long until I knew I was doing what I was meant to do…and doing it in some pretty awesome places. So, I did that for the next 23 years. 

SM: What were some of the most memorable moments for you? Starting with the best.

MM: My most memorable moments? Wow! The best will have to be in a grouping of sorts. The best were when we deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. I don’t mean to sound weird or coarse, but when you’ve gone through all that training and learned so many things for years, you want to know if you can do it for real. The only way a combat soldier can find the answer to that question is to be in combat. 

I was so proud to deploy with a group of men that I consider, and in fact are known around the world, to be the very best at what they do. 

I never thought I was the best, but I loved being around the best. Still do.

SM: What about the worst moments?

MM: The worst moments are when a friend has been killed. Unfortunately, they are also in a group. We lost some incredibly good men who were incredibly good friends. 

It’s not that it’s all that shocking for a soldier to be killed in combat, it’s that I always considered those men to be just one superpower away from being Superman. So, when they were killed, it was hard to imagine that it was possible.
But it was and is. 

So that’s the worst.

SM: Yeah. Can you think of the most boring moment?

MM: Most boring. Ha! The most boring was no different for me than I imagine everyone else…waiting. Riding an Air Force aircraft, for hours. Sitting in a hangar in the worst places on earth waiting to go somewhere, for hours. Having strange layovers in the most remote locations (Pirinçlik, Turkey) because weather won’t let your helicopter fly, for days.

SM: And the most exciting?

MM: The most exciting will also need to be grouped. Every time you step into the unknown you get an adrenaline rush. From jumping out of an aircraft at 25,000 ft to flying into a combat operation, the excitement was almost overwhelming for me. I had a healthy bit of trepidation mixed with probably unhealthy excitement. I was a little scared and a little happy at the same time. Again, I never considered myself one of the best, but I was always excited to be with the best.

SM: Okay, so last question, looking back on your career, how would you describe your feelings about serving your country and what it meant to you?

MM: The idea of serving my country didn’t cross my mind very much in those 27 years. The idea of serving the men I worked for and with, traveled with, sucked up the bad with, celebrated happy moments with, and generally love as brothers was on my mind always. I lived, and in fact still do to some degree, to serve those men. I was in a constant state of amazement at how good they are at what they do. Even thinking about them now, I am still amazed. This country, and the huge majority of people in it, will never know how well they were and are protected by these incredibly tough, intelligent, and talented warriors. 

So, for me, it was 27 years of watching the greatest movie that could ever be made with the greatest cast of characters ever conceived.

How does one follow such a beautiful line? To conclude this interview and essay, I would like to use a quote of Mr. Massey’s I believe sums up his experiences and thoughts from in and out of the military, and one he reminds me of before I head off to school every morning: “You are ALWAYS being assessed.”