Winning the Information War: An Interview with Col. Myles Caggins – Former Spokesperson for the International Coalition Against ISIS Pt.1

Between August 2019 and September 2020 Col. Myles Caggins served as spokesperson for the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), their mission – to destroy ISIS.

His time in the position saw him act as the representative for this critical mission in an extremely complex situation, further compounded by crisis that occurred during his tenure.

Despite the issues he faced he completed his assignment in such a manner that he was roundly praised by the host of entities that he had to work alongside during his tenure.

In this interview with Overt Defense he talks about his upbringing and army career, how he took on and tackled the challenges presented as CJTF-OIR spokesperson and his views on the importance of information warfare, relationships between partners and how soldiers can be one of the greatest assets in fighting this all too little considered aspect of war.

Overt Defense: Can you tell us a little about your upbringing? What was it like?

Col. Caggins: I was born into a military family at Heidelberg, Germany in January 1975. My dad at that time was a Major, an Army engineer officer, commissioned out of Tuskegee University. My mom and dad have been married since 1966 …they’ve been the greatest influence on my life. My dad was a lieutenant out of Fort Benning, TX and had volunteered for Vietnam. This was 1965.

They had a going away party. My mom…walked in and my dad set eyes on her and knew immediately that this was going to be his wife. Three weeks later they were engaged. He goes off to Vietnam, they stayed in touch by letter, he comes back and they get married. They’ve been married for fifty-three years.

Growing up in a military family as an officer’s kid I was exposed to diverse people, languages, and foods from a very early age. I was at Seoul American elementary school and in the class, the majority of the students were Korean. Being there kindergarten through third grade and coming back and living in Northern Virginia, I was always exposed to different people and felt I belonged everywhere.

‘I’ve always had a curiosity about different cultures, different people and languages’

I think tracing that forward to the recent experience in Iraq, Syria and the Middle East representing the global coalition, I’ve always had a curiosity about different cultures, different people and languages and have not been afraid [of them].

Similar to the people in the region. I think one of the reasons some of the people in the region received me well was that I broke down some barriers and demystified some things that they had about American and coalition troops. After my dad retired from the military I went down to Houston, TX and graduated from Eisenhower High School in 1992.

What inspired you to join the U.S. Army?

During my senior year my mom and dad called me down to the living room and into what we call in the military an ‘L’ shaped ambush; they were each sitting there in a chair.

My mom said “Hey son, you’re going to college next year.

Of course, that’s what we do in our family.

She said “Who’s going to pay for it?

And I’m looking at my parents like “Well…aren’t you guys going to pay for it? Y’all do OK…

They look at me and “No. that’s not the way it is,” and they told me I’d have to apply for an ROTC scholarship. They didn’t care if it was Army, Navy, Air Force, I had my choice. So I applied for the Army.

It was a four-year scholarship. The two schools I was choosing between were Morehouse College and Hampton University. I picked Hampton because there are a lot of historic sites (I’m into history) and the campus is beautiful; I think it’s the most beautiful campus on the east coast. Also the ROTC department was very welcoming.

One of the brilliant things the ROTC cadre did was that they had all the freshman cadets from the Army and Navy live in the same wing of a dormitory. My roommate – one of my good friends, Myron Bell – he was enlisted and did a program called “green-to-gold” to get a commission.

Myron was the oldest guy in the program; he was about 24-25, I was 17. So even though my dad was a retired Colonel, I didn’t know anything about the military life really… Myron took me under his wing and got me together as a freshman. There were a lot of great cadets in that program who have been friends of mine for life.

Friendship, mentorship, camaraderie; that’s what has kept me in the military all these years now – 24 years. It all started there at Hampton University.

Can you give us a few details about your career in the military? Where have you served and with which units?

When I was commissioned in 1996, I was an Ordnance Officer. So logistics was my focus. I faxed in my top ten duty locations that I wanted to go to; they called it “The Dream Sheet”.

I received a call from the guy who managed assignments and he says: “Cadet Caggins, good to talk to you. Got your dream sheet here, none of that is available. Your choices are Germany or Korea.

I said, “Wait a second, why is nothing available? Surely there’s something at one of these bases?”

He says, “Well, let me welcome you to the Army. You can let me know now if you want Germany or Korea. Or you don’t let me know and I’ll make the decision for you.”

So Germany was my first assignment. I landed there on the day I turned 22. Initially, I was a missile maintenance platoon leader, then had some other company level leadership positions. Eventually I was selected to be a junior aid to the Corps commander.

My first deployment was to Albania during the Kosovo war – Operation Allied Force. I was there supporting the General, managing transport to get him and his key staff to where they needed to be. It was an opportunity to get exposure to senior leadership and decision making. And – though I didn’t realize it at the time – to some public affairs.

I remember a visit by Gen. Wes Clark, who was Supreme Allied Commander Europe. He came to see us in Albania; it was muddy and he was clean, pristine and sharp. He had a CNN crew and some others following him around, he had an entourage of six or seven full-bird colonels – it was quite the sight.

He did a press conference out there with the perfect back drop. As I think of it now it was really good stage craft for the agenda that he was trying to push of getting our troops that we had there into the fight.

(Probably not the press conference Col. Caggin’s is referring too, but a demonstration of Gen. Clark’s awareness of the use of public affairs)

After Albania I went to the Captain’s Career Course and then went to the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Hood. I went there because it was reported that they would be rotating troops into Kosovo. As a young military officer I wanted to go where the action was – ‘to the sound of the guns’. So I thought with 4ID I’d make company commander and eventually take a company out to Bosnia.

Well, one of the first gifts I got as a 1st Lieutentant was a copy of Colin Powell’s “My American Journey” and one of his rules is: ‘Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.’ Because then 9/11 happened.

In January 2003, I received a phone call over the MLK long weekend, a very unusual occurrence, from my battalion commander. The next morning me and the other company commanders showed up in his office and he said: “Here’s our orders, we are going to Iraq.

I deployed out to Diyala province; we shipped out in April, 2003. We were supposed to go earlier but Turkey decided that 4ID would not be allowed to ship equipment through there. We were originally supposed to attack from north to south. So all our equipment had to be rerouted to Kuwait.

So we missed the initial wave. My company, part of 2nd Brigade, 4ID, drove up into Iraq in early May. I recall driving up Highway 1, there were some Marines there headed south. They had spray painted some sheets: “Have a nice summer.” Little did they know that they would be back; we all would be over the years.

We moved up into Baqubah and then pushed further north-east and established FOB “Normandy”. One of the first things we had to do there was hold discussions between the United States and the Peoples Mujahedeen of Iran (MEK). That was to get them to capitulate; this was an armed group that was anti-Iran but they had a lot of weapons and we wanted them to peacefully lay down their arms. They weren’t going to fight us, but we didn’t want them to plough into Iran and make a larger conflict at the time.

The MEK operated a lot of heavy equipment, including Chieftain MBTs

During my time there as a Forward Support Company Commander I was also in charge of detention operations. We detained about 1,300 people. At the time we did not have that many linguists so we’d do the most rudimentary interrogations. Some of the missions were we would search a whole town, round up all the military aged men and question them. 

There is no doubt in my mind that there are probably several – I’d go as far to say dozens – of people who we detained that later turned into terrorists.

‘Most of all I learned that our soldiers are humans, each with different motivations, feelings, backgrounds’

We’d push them up through the brigade, some of them would end up in Abu Ghraib or Camp Bucca. In 2003-4 we saw the insurgency start to begin, initially Saddam’s Fedayeen but turning into militant terrorist groups. They did rocket attacks, IEDs, everything got more sophisticated over time. Diyala remains a contested area to this day with ISIS still having a presence there.

I had great soldiers out there, men and women. We returned in April 2004, I came back to Fort Hood and changed out of company command in January 2005.

How did it feel to leave your Company command?

I did thirty months in Company command. I was certainly very sad to leave these troops who I had been with and who had taught me so much; I learned way more from them than they ever learned from me.

Most of all I learned that our soldiers are humans, each with different motivations, feelings, backgrounds and they come into the Army for many reasons. It is incumbent upon leaders to learn and respect and listen to the troops.

That’s something I did much better on my last day of command than on my first.

How did you come into the role of communications spokesperson? Was it always your intention to follow this career path in the Army?

[After Iraq] there was a push for the Army to send company commanders who were successful in combat to instruct at the Captain’s Career Course. I went to Fort Lee, Virginia and during my time there I was promoted to Major and selected to be a Public Affairs Officer; this was a result of the redesign of the Brigade Combat Teams that meant each had to have a PAO to deal with internal and external communications.

I had the opportunity to apply for an Army Graduate School Scholarship. When choosing the school I received a flyer in my mailbox about Georgetown’s new Masters in Public Relations program. I applied and drove up to meet the Dean, Denise Keyes – absolutely wonderful person who has been a key figure in my transition to Public Affairs – and she more or less admitted me on the spot! Georgetown actually wrote down my tuition to the Army cap.

‘The Army’s the Army and you’ve got to keep your boots muddy’

As my time at Georgetown came to an end I started looking around at where I would next go. I thought I might stay in DC and work on social media but the Army’s the Army and you’ve got to keep your boots muddy. So beginning of 2009, I headed to Fort Meade for Public Affairs school for a few months and then to Ft. Bliss, Texas and then 31 days later I was on a plane headed to Iraq.

My commander, Col. Peter Newell – who was decorated for heroism for the 2nd Battle of Fallujah – recognised that in 2009 we were entering a different environment with a different mission that required a different mind-set. Our role was to be the proof of principle for the advise-and-assist mission. I was PAO for 4th Brigade, 1st Armored Division.

When I first meet Col. Newell he says: “I think maybe we should set something on Myspace or Facebook.

I said: “Sir, I already set up a YouTube and Facebook when I was on transition leave.

Those initial Facebook pages we set up before the Army even had any doctrine or formal guidance on social media. The very first Army guide has the 4th Brigade, 1AD as some of the exemplars for social media. From May 2009 to May 2010 we embedded media more than any Brigade in Iraq.

I learnt this in Georgetown; taking an entrepreneurial role and reaching audiences. At that time I was thinking of mainly reaching an internal audience, letting the families back home know how the troops were doing. Fast forwarding to my time as Coalition spokesperson, I definitely learned the power of social media for informing the world.

When I returned from Iraq in May 2010 I was made the PAO of the 1st Armored Division; a job I enjoyed quite a bit. I did that for a couple of years and then moved onto an assignment at U.S. Army Central Command – did public affairs for a while and then became Executive Officer for Brig. Gen Charles Taylor. In 2013, I received orders to report to the Pentagon to the Office of the Secretary of Defense Public Affairs Office.

Initially, I served on the Africa desk. The day I took it over was the day Boko Haram kidnapped the Chibok schoolgirls and the #bringbackourgirls campaign started. Then I switched to being the spokesman for Guantanamo Bay.

In the spring of 2015, I got an email saying the National Security Council (NSC) was looking for Assistant Press Secretary for National Security. I applied and I was selected. I learnt a lot at the White House and had the opportunity to travel to seven different nations on Presidential trips – Vietnam was cool because dad was a veteran; really tickled him that his son was going back with the President of the United States.

Returned to the Pentagon in 2016 and was selected for promotion to Colonel and also to go to Harvard Kennedy School to do a National Security Fellowship. [In 2018 I was assigned] to the U.S. Army’s 3rd Corp, at the time out in Iraq [as part of] the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF–OIR).

I returned to Iraq 22 August 2019, and served [as spokesperson for CJTF-OIR] in Iraq, Kuwait and Syria until 13 September 2020.

You’ve spoken previously about the importance of communications in modern war fighting and even said you think soldiers should post pictures of their daily activities to social media. Why do you think this kind of activity is important? What does it accomplish? Also, how do you reconcile this activity with the dangers of giving away potentially classified information, such as when soldiers using the Strava app in 2018 accidentally exposed base locations?

This week Eddie Van Halen died. Yesterday on social media an Army sergeant posted a video of himself playing some of Van Halen’s greatest hits on guitar. It posted on Facebook, it has over a million views.

It’s an Army sergeant wearing his uniform, rocking it out. The guy just sounds great! Over a million views. You won’t find any videos that the U.S. DOD has put together with professional productions that have a million views!

Social media is powerful and it’s done best when it’s most authentic and transparent. And that’s when you have young soldiers that are being their organic selves.

‘Social media is powerful and it’s done best when it’s most authentic and transparent’

This guys playing guitar. Nowhere in it does he look to the camera and say “Be all you can be, join the Army.” But the comments are loaded with patriotism, pride for the soldier playing the guitar, curiosity about the military. He’s doing more for our Army advertising than some slick commercial that’s appearing in the middle of the night on an FCS football game.

We can get a lot of mileage out of service members that are doing. We can’t be scared of soldiers on social media. You specifically asked about the geo-tracking and the bases in Syria. OK, right, turn your geo-tracking off, that’s fine.

But we have to provide not just guidance to soldiers on what not to do on social media, we should encourage them to do more to tell their story. There are service personnel who have tiktok and instagram pages with tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and, in a few instances, millions of followers. Go check how many followers the Secretary of Defense has. Go check and see how many followers any random General or Admiral has.

‘You’ll start to see the power of social media that our young troops, who do this in their spare time, have!’

Then you’ll start to see the power of social media that our young troops, who do this in their spare time, have and the influence they have over their peers. And those peers are the people we want to have positive thoughts about the military.

I trust our soldiers on social media. And if there are soldiers that are goofy or not tactful – as long as it’s not promoting illegal or immoral activity, discrimination or harassment – as long as they are being their young, fun selves and enjoying the military then we want people to see that.

I say “our stars wear stripes”. Our most adored people are enlisted people; the privates, the corporals, the sergeants. They are our stars.  

As the official spokesperson for CJTF-OIR, you were the “face” of a highly contentious operation. Did you relish the opportunity or did it give you pause when you received it?

I was optimistic when I headed out to be the spokesman of the CJTF. I knew most of the prior spokesmen and for me this was like if I played football and was a quarter back I’d want to play in the Super Bowl.

This, for me as spokesman, was the Super Bowl of public affairs. I was excited to go to the role.

How did you go about tackling this job?

I operated mostly in Baghdad, but I would also get around to Kuwait and other places. In each place I would always check in with the public affairs staff on the ground, including combat camera soldiers, just to see how they’re doing.

Learn from them, get insights on their experiences. One of the big things that I’ve talked about before in interviews [is] the lack of internet connectivity and the need for cell phones.

That was in 2019. I noticed this and so getting the soldiers the connectivity to be able to compete with Russia and the regime and militias. That was one of the key goals and it took months to do that.

Way too long in my professional opinion and that’s because of the prevailing attitude from the U.S. Defense Department that information is mostly an afterthought or that it should be done with super expensive programs. We really operate in an industrial way in the Information Age when it comes to information Warfare.

The coalition against ISIS involved multiple nations. What problems did you face in managing the joint information campaign and how did you resolve that?

My commander, Lt. Colonel Pat White, gave us latitude to engage the public within guidelines from the global coalition, State Department, Pentagon, sometimes the White House. So there were Army, Marines and Air Force on the team.

Then there was also a public affairs officer from the Italian contingent, France, Germany, Spain. I had an Australian officer on my team from the RAAF. And the brigades had public affairs officers, the Aviation Brigade, Special Operations, the Brigade Combat Team and Task Force Iraq.

So it was a pretty robust group and one of the goals I had was to bring them together and also coordinate the inputs and outputs from them. So it’s a coalition; it can’t just have an all U.S. field.

Everybody’s there to defeat daesh (ISIS), but there are other some national considerations, some different ways that the nations want to portray their activity. Some nations for instance would allow their soldiers to be on photo [or] video but you couldn’t use their name.

Other nations might allow you to show their special operators full face and other nations would not want any photos at all of their special ops, especially if their special operations were undeclared. Quite a mixed bag. Some nations would allow us to talk about a particular aircraft that they had flying over Iraq or Syria and others would not want us to talk about certain aircraft or activities in the two nations.

There were a lot of different considerations as we’re trying to tell the story of the global coalition.

[Plus] the staff rotate. Some of the staff were there for four month tours, some for six months [or] nine months. I was there for 12 and a half months.

It was an interesting challenge; on boarding new members of the team, getting to learn their strengths and encouraging them to do more, become more proficient.

‘We were down to a really bare bones operation’

And this is the work that our coalition was getting out of Air Force E4/5s; airmen and sergeants. In many instances, they were doing the work of senior non-commissioned officers or captains or majors. But we didn’t have a lot of structure.

I mean, comparatively, when the Iraq mission was happening in 2010, the public affairs was led by a two star general who had four colonels on his team and so on, lieutenant colonels and majors and so forth. We were down to a really bare bones operation.

What problems did this cause?

So we were down to about three thousand troops there. The axe would be swung on public affairs.

My view is that each base needed to have public affairs in the same way that each base has military police, a medical section, a lawyer. It needs public affairs too.

I spent hours explaining why we needed to have combat camera on each base and where each base needed to have a public affairs officer. And in some instances I had to say “Hey, remember that time Iran shot those ballistic missiles? And it was pretty good that we had, you know, combat camera there to capture [the] damage.

But most of the people in the CJTF, because they had other focuses, were not so attuned to what was happening in the information environment. We had an internal daily news report, it just depended on if people read that.

A lot of things that we were doing, we were trying to reach audiences in Arabic and Kurdish language and it just wasn’t necessarily captured by our English speaking coalition.

The concluding part of our interview with Col. Caggins will be published on 16th November. Col. Caggins discusses the challenges of his role in Syria and his new role at Fort Hood.