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Sink or Swim: Marine Achieves Excellence Within the Military, Civilian Sector
Department of Defense | May. 9, 2023
Three years after the inception of her award-winning film, U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Laiqa Hitt watched as she received a standing ovation for the premiere of "Panacea" in Syracuse, New York, on April 22. Hitt, the director of the film, worked on the piece with a classmate and professors from Syracuse University.
What started as a college assignment would blossom into one of Syracuse University's only Gold Telly awards. Since then, the 25-minute, short documentary following a dancer at Syracuse City Ballet has won more than 40 awards.
Hitt currently works as the staff non-commissioned officer in charge and operations chief of Communication Strategy and Operations, Marine Corps Installations Pacific, where she handles administrative affairs, training readiness, teaching and mentoring, coordinating support and coverage, and reviews all graphic, photo and video products from her unit. She has received awards for her visual products from the military and civilian sides.
But, long before her position, credentials and awards, she underwent a major change early in her career that began at her first duty station, Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni. At the time, Hitt was a broadcaster for the American Forces Network, where she struggled to find her place at the unit.
"I was struggling to get used to the culture of the public affairs community at that time," Hitt said. "This eventually led to an ultimatum where I either had to essentially sink or swim."
Hitt's innate passion for art and storytelling proved to be greater than the challenges in front of her. This built a hybrid foundation for overcoming obstacles and developing skills for compelling storytelling.
"One of the most cathartic moments in my life was when I thought I would never see the rank of sergeant," Hitt said. "I thought I was going to get administratively separated from the Marine Corps because I was just a really bad Marine, and I ignored the repercussions of my actions and choices. It was a very hard pill to swallow."
After Hitt's wake-up call, she dedicated months of her life to getting better at her job. Eventually, she fell in love with her work, where her passion was telling the stories of others.
Hitt arrived at AFN, MCAS Iwakuni, as a private first class and left as a sergeant two years later with unit-specific accomplishments and Visual Information and Excellence in Communications awards. The VIEC, founded by the United States Marine Corps Combat Correspondent Association, is a Marine Corps wide competition for CommStrat Marines and civilians and is held in high regard across the occupational specialty. Winners of the competition attend an annual symposium at various locations across the United States to accept their awards.
She did not attend her first symposium while stationed in Iwakuni, Japan, but the award did help her receive orders to the Pentagon where she faced a similar situation from her first unit, sink or swim.
"I was working a lot of hours, but I'm a firm believer that you get what you put in," Hitt said. "I don't think I would've gotten into Syracuse if I didn't put in rep after rep, set after set, and all the hours in Japan and at the Pentagon."
After spending three years at the Pentagon, Hitt was admitted into the Military Motion Media program at Syracuse University in 2019. Syracuse University is the most advanced school enlisted CommStrat Marines can attend and requires an application to get in. Graduates of the program are considered alumni of Syracuse University and gain either the 4543 military occupational specialty, advanced combat photographer, or 4573 MOS, advanced combat videographer. Hitt graduated as a 4573.
During the course, Hitt was assigned with producing a 15-minute short documentary by Tula Goenka, professor and graduate director, Television, Radio & Film, Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University. Hitt chose to work on the project with Jared Bunn, her close friend and producer of Panacea.
The film Panacea highlights the struggles that many have faced due to the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic. This storyline following Caroline Sheridan, a dancer with Syracuse City Ballet, captivated Hitt and Bunn and they believed they had to do the story justice and share it with the world.
Does one give up on their dreams because of an unlucky situation or do they find a way to persevere?
"When it comes to storytelling you'll just know when you found a gem in the rough. That was Caroline's story and I have only had this feeling a few times prior to this," Hitt said.
Hitt and Bunn had ultimately fulfilled their assignment, but they wanted to create a longer film to fully capture Sheridan's struggles and transformed the film into a 25-minute masterpiece that captivated audiences.
In July 2020, Hitt and Bunn split the duties required to finish the film thousands of miles from each other, when they left Syracuse for their new military orders. Up until this point, the full-length film was at 80% completion but was still in progress even while Hitt was on an exercise for the Marine Corps in September 2020.
"The most challenging part was not letting my professional life interfere with my project," Hitt said. "My first and most important thing every day was to make sure my Marines were taken care of."
While on exercise, Hitt was finishing the film all while managing her Marines, reviewing visual products, coordinating with her parent command in Japan, coordinating with the command she was administratively attached to and photographing the exercise. Despite all her duties, she still found time to work on the film.
"Working with Laiqa was a privilege because it's so difficult to find someone that almost rivals the passion of your own," said Bunn. "In a way, Panacea was like our baby, because we both wanted to be the best it could be, and I don't know if I'll ever find something so special again."
Finally, in December 2020, the production of Panacea was finished. The film was submitted to film festivals. They have amassed a total of 45 different awards and counting.
"When you're watching Panacea, you're also watching my life. Those 25 minutes were months of my life, from all the heartbreaks and time spent leading up to the film's creation," Hitt said. "It sounds super cliche, but you can't let life's obstacles get in the way of your goals and passions. Just keep asking yourself, what is the end goal?"
Hitt and Bunn will close this chapter once they've put Panacea on today's top movie and TV show streaming platforms, but they will keep their eye out for the next story that will strike the same passion.
In the meantime, Hitt's objective is to challenge Marines in Japan under her supervision and foster growth as her first command did for her. Due to her heavy influence on all published products, she is responsible for the development of Marines to uncover stories and develop artistic storytelling within the Marine Corps.
"Even if they don't pursue this occupational field, I want to kickstart [in my Marines] that passionate turning point that I had," Hitt said. "I want to be able to see that point in their career where it just clicks."