Guest blog by Eric Atkisson, Director of Communications, U.S. Patent & Trademark Office
As director of communications for “America’s innovation agency,” I lead a highly talented team of communication professionals charged, among other things, with promoting the vital role that patents and trademarks play in fostering innovation, competitiveness, and economic growth. I enjoy my job because I enjoy communication in all its forms. I believe that words and images matter. I believe in their power not only to educate and inform, but to inspire. I believe this is especially important in government service. Without clear, compelling, and effective communications, we do our stakeholders and taxpayers--and more importantly our fellow citizens--a great disservice.
I was born in Houston, Texas and grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin. There was an unspoken tradition of public service in my family. My father, who created and chaired the Department of Public Administration at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, was a public servant most of his adult life, including 18 years in the Army Reserve. My older brother was an Army officer in Vietnam. One of my grandfathers was a Canadian infantryman in the First World War and a U.S. Navy Seabee in the second. And, my grandmother, aunt and sister were all public-school teachers.
I enlisted in the Army Reserve when I was 17 and graduated from the ammunition specialist course at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama on the same day that Iraq invaded Kuwait. Exactly 30 years ago this month, during my first semester of college, I was mobilized for Operation Desert Shield and deployed to Saudi Arabia, where my reserve unit--the 395th Ordnance Company of Appleton, Wisconsin--managed the largest ammunition supply point in military history. I served there for all of Operation Desert Storm and returned to Wisconsin only a week before the next fall semester began. In May 1994, I graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Ripon College with a Bachelor of Arts in history and a commission as a second lieutenant in the Army National Guard, through ROTC.
I had always dreamed of being a writer, history professor, or both, but my life took a somewhat different turn. After moving back to Texas in 1995, I joined the 100th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment of the Texas National Guard and went to the Public Affairs Officer Course at Fort Meade, Maryland. Public affairs was a great fit for me because I loved journalism, photography, and videography. As a public affairs officer (PAO), I served in El Salvador after Hurricane Mitch and Galveston after Hurricane Ike. I traveled overseas for exercises in South Korea and Poland. From 2002 to 2004, I took a break from public affairs to command a National Guard personnel services detachment, including a deployment to Kuwait in 2003 for Operation Iraqi Freedom. I also completed a Master of Arts in political science from Texas State University-San Marcos.
On the fifth anniversary of 9/11, I started my first federal government job as a public affairs specialist at U.S. Army South in San Antonio. It was there that I truly honed the skills of my trade, including speechwriting. I also saw more of Central and South America as part of my work, including Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, and Colombia. At the same time, in my weekends with the National Guard, I served as deputy PAO and then PAO for the 36th Infantry Division headquarters in Austin. That culminated in my third and final deployment to the Middle East from 2010-2011 as PAO for U.S.-Division South in Basrah, Iraq, where I led a 21-person multinational public affairs team.
After that deployment, in late 2011, I was hired as a public affairs specialist at the Commerce Department’s U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in Alexandria, Virginia. During my first few years at the agency, I wrote speeches for the director and deputy director, crafted communication strategies, and performed other duties in the Office of the Chief Communications Officer (OCCO). I also was a founding member of the USPTO Military Association, an affinity group that provides fellowship, mentorship, and advocacy for our agency’s veterans. One of the first things we did was organize annual Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies that have since become a deeply ingrained part of USPTO culture.
In 2017, I was promoted to communications and marketing supervisor, and just a few months ago I was promoted again to lead the newly formed communications division within OCCO. During my years at the USPTO I also completed, thanks to the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, an advanced professional certificate in public relations and corporate communications from Georgetown University and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from George Mason University. You can read my most recent story, about Steadicam inventor and filmmaker Garrett Brown, on the USPTO.gov homepage.
I would gladly encourage any young person interested in public service to consider a career in the federal government. I would also encourage them to start with military service, if able. There are many non-combat specialties in the Armed Forces, in addition to public affairs, that can be excellent preparation for a career in the federal government.
I view my job at the USPTO in much the same way I did my military service, as an opportunity to serve the American people in the best way that I can. This has been especially meaningful to me since I retired from the National Guard in 2014, after 25 years of service, as a lieutenant colonel.
Veterans Day to me is not just an opportunity to reflect on that service and the men and women I was privileged to serve with, but on the selfless spirit, perseverance, and resilience that veterans throughout our nation’s history have demonstrated in the face of adversity, time and again. One of my earliest memories is of my grandfather telling me about the Red Baron--Germany’s fighter pilot ace of the First World War--who repeatedly flew above the trenches where my grandfather fought in early 1917. When he returned from the war in 1919, scarred by bullets, shrapnel, and poison gas, the world was being ravaged by a pandemic that ultimately claimed more than 50 million lives. As so many of his generation did, my grandfather persevered through it all and even volunteered to serve in the next world war--an example of selflessness that inspires still to this day.
His final act in life was to die peacefully, at the age of 86, on November 11: Veterans Day.
Ed. note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series highlighting the contributions of Department of Commerce Military Veterans in honor of Veterans Day.