CBS Evening News anchor and managing editor Norah O'Donnell reflects on the early life lessons from her military family that she's now passing on to her children.

By Norah O'Donnell as told to Maressa Brown
May 28, 2021
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Norah O'Donnell and family
Norah O'Donnell and her family.
| Credit: Courtesy of Norah O'Donnell

I consider it one of the great blessings in life that I grew up in a military family. My father, an infectious disease doctor, was drafted during the Vietnam War and then decided to stay in the Army for another 30 years. And because of that, I’ve had a strong connection to the military my whole life. I was even born at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

If I had to point to one big experience that really changed my life, it would be our family's move to Seoul, South Korea when I was 10. We lived on the Yongsan Garrison military base for two years. In Korea, students are required to start learning English once they're in middle school, and my mom met someone who was looking for a child to create English language tapes. So, I got a job recording these English language tapes, and then ultimately an English language television show, which appeared on a PBS-like station.

That proved to be a formative experience and opened my eyes to the world. I learned the value of hard work and independence because I got paid for the recordings. It wasn't a lot, but it was enough that I could go buy my favorite cassette tapes—Madonna, Jack Wagner, Lionel Richie. It also served as a primer on how to be a broadcaster. By the time I got to college, I realized, like many young adults, I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do. So, I dipped my toes in a lot of different things. I worked at the World Bank, at a law firm, and then, I interned at ABC News on This Week with David Brinkley. That was the beginning of my journalism career.

One day, I was sent down to the White House for the afternoon. I was there in the little White House booth with Ann Compton, the longtime ABC News radio correspondent, and Brit Hume, who was then the White House correspondent for ABC News. And I got to go into the East Room of the White House where President Clinton was holding a press conference. I remember just thinking, "Oh my gosh, this is unbelievable. I'm in a room with the President of the United States!" Ann Compton ended up driving me home because her son had football practice nearby, and she offered a piece of advice that stuck in my head: "Keep everybody's name and telephone number, because you never know when you're going to run into those people again, and it'll serve you well."

In retrospect, I have found that to be true. The quality of your life is built on the quality of your relationships. And that opportunity and forging that relationship with Ann Compton led me to say, "Wow, journalism is something I'm really interested in."

And as I went on to pursue my career and became a mom, I continued to hold these experiences and a variety of early life lessons—rooted in my military family—in mind.

My parents have always firmly believed in the value of serving your country, the nobility of public service, and the idea that people sacrifice a lot to serve their country. With that in mind, I try to approach the people I interview with a sense of respect.

I also believe that information is power and knowledge, and there are rights and wrongs and rules. That was drilled into me as a child. There are things that you do, and you don't do, and a real sense of ethics and integrity. My parents would always say, "Don't lie. You'll never be able to take back a lie. It's just better to tell the truth."

They also taught me about humility. When you're in the military, it's about serving your country; it's not about the individual. As a journalist, it's my job to ask questions that further understanding. It's not about me. It's about the person I'm interviewing or the issue we're trying to bring to light.

In an effort to pass these lessons onto my children, I talk about my work with them all the time. I started a series called "Profiles in Service"—the title of which was inspired by President John F. Kennedy's book Profiles in Courage—to highlight people who serve our country in exemplary ways. Our first "Profiles in Service" story was on Simone Askew, who was the first female and first Black woman to lead the Corps of Cadets at West Point and then went on to win a Rhodes Scholarship. I talked with my kids about what exactly it takes to make it to West Point, what Askew said to me, and about just how impressive she is.

More recently, I shared the investigation that we did on sexual assault in the military with my children, explaining how many women reported the abuse, which is exactly what you're supposed to do, and then that they were retaliated against.

In our household, we often talk about the sacrifices people who serve in the military make. My sister now serves in the Army, and when she was gone on Thanksgiving, my children gained a real understanding of the sacrifice that many people who serve go through and how it leaves a hole in a family.

For many families, it's far worse. Some have a loved one who doesn't come back. That's really what Memorial Day means. It's really a difficult time for military families because it's the day that we remember the men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Last year, for the first time, I went to Arlington National Cemetery for Memorial Day and to Section 60, which is dedicated to service members who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are dads and moms in lawn chairs, and they sit there all day for the weekend with their son or daughter because they miss them so much. It's like nothing I've ever seen. One of the great pleasures of being a journalist is that I get to be present for moments like those.

I will never forget how growing up in a military family and living around the world ultimately led to my career in journalism and taught me the value of public service. Every time you think about your freedom of religion or freedom of the press, that's because of the lieutenants and the privates and the captains who gave their lives for the country. That's what makes America so different. We have those rights, thanks to the men and women who died to protect them.