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Reports from a region in conflict

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It's not just a job, it's an adventure

Journalists preparing to cover the war start with military training.

By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 9, 2003

FORT DIX, N.J. -- Army Sgt. 1st Class Keith Rickenbacker turned to the eight men and two women assigned to his Foxtrot squad, a ragged line of lumpy journalists with all the military bearing of a beanbag.

Rickenbacker saw combat in Somalia, trained Army Rangers in the swamps of Georgia and is assigned to the prestigious Old Guard at Fort Myer, Va. Now this.

But he is a good soldier, and he betrayed no chagrin.

"Hoo-ah!" Rickenbacker called, the Army's all-terrain term for yes, roger, ready.

Foxtrot stomped their feet and adjusted their packs. A couple stubbed out cigarettes.

"Hoo-ah," the reporters called back.

It was foot-numbing cold, with a wind that made their eyes water, then froze the tears on their cheeks. Ahead was a 5-mile march through the snowy pine barrens of south-central New Jersey, a chance to learn a week's worth of lessons on surviving combat.

In a nerve gas attack, get the gas mask on within nine seconds.

Guns, helmets and other battlefield souvenirs may be rigged with explosives. Don't pick them up.

If you stumble into a minefield, freeze. Do not call for help on a cell phone, because the electrical impulse could set a mine off. Retrace your steps.

In the event of war with Iraq, the Pentagon plans to put hundreds of print and broadcast journalists with combat troops, a departure from the strict division between combat and the press that has defined military-media relations since Vietnam.

This month, the Pentagon is expected to assign slots in individual Army, Navy, Marine and Air Force units to news organizations that have applied. Reporters would "embed" in those units, getting to know the officers and troops and following them to battle.

To prepare them, the military is running 240 reporters through training camps like the one held two weeks ago at the Air Mobility Warfare Center at Fort Dix.

For five days, 60 journalists from about 45 organizations, including the St. Petersburg Times, marched with full packs in sub-freezing temperatures, ate lukewarm field rations, dived for cover from mock enemy fire, and learned to become a difficult target for terrorists.

In classroom lessons and field exercises, they were taught mine safety, navigation by compass and convoy operations.

How infantry squads operate and how to tell the pop of the American M-16 from the plunk of the AK-47. How to disinfect drinking water, apply a tourniquet, splint a broken arm.

"The more you know, to the lesser extent someone is going to have to babysit you," Col. Jay DeFrank, director of press operations for the assistant secretary of defense and an architect of the embedment program, told reporters on their first day of training.

"I don't want to be trite about this, but a battlefield is no place for amateurs."

* * *

John Koopman is bald and 44, neither in shape nor out, a veteran writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. But what distinguished him from his colleagues at Fort Dix was the black globe and anchor on his left bicep, a relic of his four-year tour with the Marines in the 1970s.

At the start of the course, when instructors asked if anyone had served in the armed forces, only Koopman raised his hand. With no draft since 1973, journalists with military experience have become rare, feeding a deep mistrust between the media and the military.

Many reporters believe the military lies and craves secrecy. Many soldiers believe the media are antimilitary and enjoy making them look bad.

The relationship wasn't always so contentious. During World War II, reporters like Ernie Pyle, Homer Bigart and Edward R. Murrow lived with the troops, chronicling their victories and defeats for readers and listeners back home. In a way, they were part of the war effort -- the Army even lobbied to keep Pyle at the front, where eventually he was killed.

That changed during Vietnam. Reporters joined the troops then, too, but were furious at the armed forces establishment for its shoddy prosecution of the war. While the coverage remained largely pro-soldier, it also became antimilitary.

The United States left Vietnam in 1975, but the sour relationship between the military and media persisted. In 1991, when the United States attacked Iraq during the Persian Gulf War, reporters generally weren't allowed near troops.

Colin Nickerson, a veteran foreign correspondent for the Boston Globe, was among a handful of reporters who accompanied the Marines as they rolled into occupied Kuwait from Saudi Arabia.

He found most troops agreeable, but not most high-ranking officers.

"The Marines liked it, I'd say, from the level of captain on down, and certainly the grunts ... liked being interviewed and liked people paying attention," Nickerson said.

Colleagues with Army units, however, got nothing, he said. "They had public affairs officers reading them press releases from the Pentagon in Washington, and that was it."

The military imposed similar restrictions last year in Afghanistan. At Fort Dix last week, Steven Myers of the New York Times and other reporters who covered that conflict complained to DeFrank, the Pentagon spokesman, that they learned of major actions only afterward, and weren't allowed to speak with troops.

DeFrank said the Defense Department believes its media policy in Afghanistan was misguided and even harmful. Without an independent press corps in the field, the U.S. military couldn't combat Taliban charges of misconduct, or counter Arab propaganda.

"There were times it would have been in our best interest to have media," he said. "We want the most credible information to get out, and we know it's most credible when we don't have anything to do with it."

DeFrank said the Pentagon does not intend to censor news reports in Iraq. However, reporters who see classified information or equipment likely must first agree to have their stories screened, to ensure they don't betray secrets, he said.

Many reporters remain skeptical the military will actually embrace embedment, and DeFrank acknowledged the program's success ultimately depends on relationships reporters forge with their assigned units.

But he and other officials repeatedly cited what they insist is the Pentagon's new philosophy: allowing the media to cover the young men and women actually doing the fighting will produce friendly news.

"I am a believer that the U.S. military and particularly the U.S. Air Force ... have a wonderful story to tell," Air Force Maj. Gen. Chris A. Kelly, commander of the Air Mobility Warfare Center, told reporters.

"It's not the policies that come out of Washington, it's not the equipment available to us, it's the young folks -- the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines -- that make the United States military what it is."

Kelly later added, "Our young men and women can and will do anything. That's where the stories are."

* * *

The jambalaya is surprisingly good, the chicken with noodles isn't bad. Never trust a burger served in a pouch. Trade the meatloaf for the cheese tortellini.

Alongside lessons about chemical warfare and weaponry, reporters learned essential basics, like how to heat an MRE, or Meal Ready to Eat, their dietary staple for the week.

The course also introduced the media to the regimentation of military life. Each hour of the day was accounted for, from reveille at 0600 to the last exercise at 1900.

The 47 men and 13 women came from organizations as diverse as the New York Times, the Omaha World Herald, Polish public radio and every major TV network.

They bunked eight or 10 to a room in Air Force barracks and were assigned to six 10-person squads. Each squad had two trainers from the Army, Marines or Air Force, typically a young officer and a sergeant.

It wasn't long before they were making "GI pudding" with the hot chocolate mix in their MREs, hustling to class and using military slang like OPP-4 instead of saying "opposition forces."

The course also forced reporters to consider some practical problems likely to arise when they're teamed with troops.

As a group, journalists are as soft as a warm doughnut. During the one mandatory workout session, many couldn't complete 40 minutes of pushups, situps, jumping jacks and other exercises. Several began and ended the session with a smoke.

Should placement in infantry units be limited to those who can pass a physical test?

What about uniforms? Journalists who look like soldiers may be mistaken for combatants, not unarmed observers. But without camouflage they may stand out, endangering themselves and their units.

Security concerns may prevent filing stories or contacting editors for days. A shoulder-mounted TV camera looks a lot like a rocket launcher.

* * *

With Foxtrot's answering "Hoo-ah," Sgt. Rickenbacker and the other trainers led the reporters into the pines.

The journalists had spent the first three days of their training week in the classroom, followed by two days of field exercises to apply what they had learned. The final test was the 5-mile march.

"It's one of the evils of war, I guess. You go into a war zone, you're going to get shot at more than likely," Army Staff Sgt. David Buitendorp, a member of the Old Guard, had said during a class on dodging direct and indirect fire.

"You must react right away and take the correct action. That will keep you alive so you can tell your stories."

An hour into the march, soldiers playing the role of OPP-4 lobbed canisters of green gas into the column, then opened fire. Only one member of Foxtrot remembered to yell "Gas, gas gas," while the others tried frantically to react.

Some flopped to the ground but couldn't get to their masks. Others got their masks but didn't drop -- making them easy targets for bullets. A National Public Radio reporter was lectured for dropping his backpack before fleeing into the woods.

Most eventually got into their masks and found cover, hiding behind mounds of frozen dirt among the trees or climbing over a roadside embankment. Their rapid breathing fogged the gas masks.

"I would have been soooo dead," Nicholas Kulish of the Wall Street Journal said. His friends in Foxtrot nodded agreement.

After the march, as the journalists were bused to the barracks, trainers encouraged them to get in shape, and push to practice with the units they're assigned to. One week is not enough.

"I would have heaped more misery on you all," Buitendorp told several reporters. Some nursed sore knees after banging them on rocks. "More tears on the training field, less blood on the battlefield. I believe in misery."

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