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    Colonel Richard H. Breen, Jr. ’77: A New Mission

    Colonel (R) Richard H. Breen, Jr. ’77
    April 16, 2020
    It is the resilience and professionalism of my teammates, not necessarily me, that gets us through a crisis. I just provide guidance.

    Colonel (R) Richard H. Breen, Jr. ’77, past president of the University's Alumni Society Advisory Board, is the director of Strategic Communications for the Military Health System (MHS), Department of Defense, at the Pentagon. In this capacity, he directly supports the assistant secretary of defense for Health Affairs and the director of the Defense Health Agency in all aspects of Military Health communications. He is coordinating all the military medical communications activities for the MHS during the COVID-19 crisis. 

    The MHS is responsible for the delivery of health care to more than 9.5 million beneficiaries eligible for the military health care benefit worldwide through 53 hospitals and more than 400 medical and dental clinics, as well as all health policy for the department. It serves as medical advisor to the White House, conducts an extensive research and development program, manages the education and training of all military medical personnel, leads a military medical university called the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and conducts coordinating activities with all federal agencies including the Center for Disease and Control, Health and Human Services and the Department of Veterans Affairs. The MHS consists of Army, Navy and Air Force medical departments, a joint staff surgeon, the Defense Health Agency and the University.

    During COVID-19, he is coordinating all strategic planning, operations and tactics impacting medical issues for the 9.5 million beneficiaries, managing two of the five largest DoD websites (health.mil and Tricare.mil), conducting media training, interfacing with the media, pitching stories and responding to media inquiries, leading a customer service interface program, managing a newsroom, developing outreach products for strategic partners, managing several social media platforms and serving as the senior communications advisor to the entire worldwide Military Health System.

    We asked him a few questions about his work and life during COVID-19.

    What does your day-to-day look like and how is that vastly different from what it looked like before the crisis?

    The greatest challenge is the higher level of intensity in the daily mission and managing both the speed and accuracy of timely, critical information in an environment that changes by the minute. My day starts at 0545 hrs. (5:45 a.m.) when I receive my first media reports from the previous 24 hours. Then I work with my media team to conduct an analysis and prepare to brief senior leaders on media engagements daily at 0730 hrs.  At 0800 hrs., I set the day's priorities for my team of more than 80 people. At 1015 hrs. daily, I hold a communications operations call where I receive updates from the team on worldwide communications missions.  These include a situational overview of how the department is managing the crisis and the impact of the communication, the critical information that needs to be disseminated to both beneficiaries and stakeholders worldwide and updates on programs, policies and activities. 

    Throughout the day, there are numerous meetings, briefings, discussions, strategic advising and project guidance provided. At 1700 hrs. (5 p.m.) I have a leader’s recap, review the missions of the day and begin the plans for tomorrow. Then at 1800 hrs., I go for a long walk with my wife Lorrie (Marywood University '78), return to my computer and respond to the more than 300 emails I received throughout the day. Today’s biggest challenge (Friday, April 10) is a major media presser in the Pentagon Briefing Room. 

    The real challenge is sorting through conflicting information from multiple sources to consolidate the most accurate message...

    Obviously, Communications and outreach are incredibly important at this time.  How do you ensure that the entire country hears your message?

    Great question and a hard question. Fortunately, my communications team has a good network and series of communications tactics developed over years of hard work, planning and outreach. The challenge is not the delivery or the dissemination of information. The real challenge is sorting through conflicting information from multiple sources to consolidate the most accurate message to be delivered to our various audiences.

    Testing of the COVID-19 virus, access to care, canceling elective surgery, waiving co-pays, limiting pharmaceuticals and communicating a 500 percent increase in calls to our 24/7 nurse advice line require focused communications. Just think of the stories. The deployment of the USNS Comfort and Mercy hospital ships, the establishment of Army field hospitals, the activation of National Guard and reserve medical units, the early graduation of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences medical school and graduate school of nursing, the research efforts to find a cure and the education of the military medical force are stories we try to tell worldwide.  And we use multiple channels: media, our two websites, video conferences with stakeholders, internal communications, gov. delivery email blasts, video messages, daily leadership messages, graphics, are some ways.  Sending products to stakeholders and encouraging them to share our communications message are also key to success.

    Bottom line. Consistent, accurate, timely and credible information delivered fast over many channels contributes to success. The challenge is getting this data and validating it. And we are always looking at ways to cut through the massive news clutter. It is a real challenge. The key is finding the right, unique story that grabs the interest of the audience.

    How are you coping, personally, with what is going on right now?

    Keeping everyone on my team focused, encouraging personal time and family time, emphasizing exercise and movement and sometimes using comedy to put some leverage into the day. However, we experienced a tragedy recently.

    On April 2, my media relations chief, Kevin Dwyer, died in his sleep. This was not COVID-19 related.  At 51 years of age, the previous night, he had completed a long bike ride, spent time in his yard and called his sister saying what a great ride he had. When he did not come to work on Thursday, I sent the Alexandria, Virginia, police to his home where they found him in bed. Single with no health issues at all, we were stunned. On Friday morning at 0800 hrs., I conducted a phone call with my team to break the news to them. The hardest part is we are all separated and cannot grieve as a team.

    I can handle a long day. I’m a soldier, and I have served in several crises. I am devastated at the loss of both a colleague and friend, especially during the Easter season.  So, I pray a lot and do all I can to encourage my team to honor his memory through our work.

    How have you relied on your training?

    I totally rely on my training and experience. I was the senior spokesman as an Army Colonel on the grounds of the Pentagon for the first three weeks after the attack on 9-11 and conducted media training to the New York National Guard in New York City.  As the senior Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Army Military District of Washington, I led a wartime scenario on a battlefield in my hometown. I had a very young and inexperienced team, so my leadership was critical to success. We did two daily news conferences in front of more than 300 media daily, briefed senior leaders, dignitaries, congressional and in some case celebrities on the operation and the specifics of what happened. I have commanded six times in uniform and am very comfortable in crisis scenarios. But it is the resilience and professionalism of my teammates, not necessarily me, that gets us through a crisis. I just provide guidance. These pros execute the mission flawlessly.

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