Read a Marine Corps PAO Story by ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Author JD Vance

Corporal Matt Hunter directs a Humvee into one of Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 252's KC-130Js so that it can retrieve a piece of cargo carried by the aircraft from Al Asad, Iraq, to Baghdad. Hunter is a loadmaster, and in that capacity serves many roles in the preflight, in-flight and post-flight phases of the squadron's missions. (Cpl. James D. Hamel)

The Marine Corps story datelined Al Asad, Iraq is a lot like thousands of others by the military services’ public affairs personnel. But most of those aren’t written by a guy who left the service to become a best-selling author with a Netflix movie deal.

“Keeping the KC-130Js of Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 252 in the air requires maximum cooperation between the squadron's multiple moving parts,” the story starts. “While maintenance Marines on the ground ensure the planes can fly, and pilots are at the controls, it is the air crew that ensures the mission is accomplished safely and efficiently.”

Maybe that hints at the kind of prose readers have since enjoyed in Hillbilly Elegy, author JD Vance’s memoir about growing up in the tough neighborhoods of southern Ohio before joining the Marine Corps and, ultimately, heading to law school at Yale on the GI Bill.

The story, housed on the Pentagon’s Defense Visual Information Distribution System (DVIDS), carries the author name Cpl. James D. Hamel. That’s Vance’s birth name. The photos that accompany the story, which carries the headline “VMGR-252 Air Crews Make Mission Possible in Iraq,” are also by Hamel.

Without the Marines, Hamel aka Vance would never have written “Hillbilly Elegy” or the movie of the same name. His experience in the Marine Corps is an important part of the narrative’s story arch.

Stories like this one by Vance are common among combat correspondents in every branch of the military, highlighting certain aspects of the military mission, anywhere in the world. Vance did one tour in Iraq during his time in the Marines.

Every branch has some kind of photojournalism occupational specialty. To become a combat correspondent in the Marines requires the completion of all the Corps’ basic training instruction as well as the 56-day Basic Public Affairs Specialist Course at the Defense Information School (DINFOS) on Fort George G. Meade, Maryland.

DINFOS is a Department of Defense training center where all its journalists and public affairs troops are trained. Aside from writing, students learn photography, video production and digital media.

Vance began his journey in the Marine Corps in 2003. After four years in the military, he got out and attended the Ohio State University and later, Yale Law School. His memoir was published in June 2016.

Today, he lives in Cincinnati, where he founded a nonprofit to address some of the systemic issues he recalls in his best-selling book.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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