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Media Cover Media Learning to Cover War

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 22, 2002 – The scene atop Cardiac Hill at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., was somewhat surreal today. A group of about 30 media representatives were poised at the summit waiting to photograph and interview trainees on a road march.

But as the trainees hiked into view, it was quickly apparent this was no ordinary military unit. Nearly 60 reporters in a ragtag mix of military protective equipment and civilian outdoor apparel tromped up the hill with a dozen or so Marines and soldiers offering directions along the way.

The media on the march were completing the final leg of the seven-day Joint Military Contingency Training for Media course. They had spent the past week with the Navy and Marine Corps gaining a familiarity for military operations. The last steps of the way was this five-mile road march, carrying 25-pound packs, complete with "ambushes" and a "gas attack."

The media waiting for them atop the hill had been invited to get a taste of the training and interview their counterparts. Most spoke freely of the situation's irony.

All irony was forgotten, however, when the Marines launched the first simulated attack. The trainees dove for cover, seeking the best possible hiding the woods had to offer. They got even more serious when smoke began wafting around them in a simulated poison gas attack.

Some got their protective masks on like seasoned military pros; other struggled and lamented that they'd be dead in a real attack. But all seemed to realize the seriousness of what they were learning.

"The most useful training by far was the nuclear, biological and chemical training," ABC News's Jim Scuitto said. He has covered military operations in Afghanistan and is currently based in the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Qatar.

The media trainees assumed they were preparing to cover a war with Iraq, even though military officials are quick to remind all that no decision has been made regarding using military force in Iraq.

"The one thing that will be different about this war will be that (chemical) threat," Scuitto said. He said the briefings on different types of chemical and biological agents and their symptoms were particularly useful.

The "confidence chamber," in which participants were exposed to tear gas to demonstrate how military protective masks work, brought the seriousness of the potential threat to focus for a lot of people.

"Even when you do it right, you're likely to get a taste of (the gas). It gets into your skin, and a little bit is going to get down your throat invariably," Scuitto said. "That just shows how dangerous the environment can be, because even when you're prepared, and even when you're forewarned, it's not necessarily completely safe. That's a sobering thought, but that's also useful because it's the kind of thing you have to be prepared for."

Reporters lauded other training as well. "We landed in a hot (landing zone), figured out where we were supposed to be in relation to where the troops were going to be, how to get on and off helicopters, what to do for a gas attack, how quick you have to react," said Fox News Channel's Pentagon correspondent Bret Baier.

Baier has also covered military missions in Afghanistan and said in the next war he'd like to embed with a unit. "I think this next war is going to be a lot different media-wise. I trust (the military) that they're trying to get a lot more people in more forward areas," he said. "I think that if that happens and you're able to file stories with the military, then that's the most compelling story out there and maybe the safest place to be."

That's exactly what the military wants reporters to think. Military officials would rather have media members embed with units and remain under their protection than running around the battlefield on their own. It's safer for the media and safer for the military.

"We believe in this. There has been a lot of discussion about how best to prepare journalists for embedding in a more conventional conflict should the president order us into whatever is next, perhaps Iraq," said Marine Brig. Gen. Andrew Davis, director of Marine Corps Public Affairs.

"We want to have journalists with us who are knowledgeable enough to write smartly about the military, get the ranks right, understand the tactics and the equipment and also have enough self-protection and field skills so that they wouldn't endanger themselves or endanger the mission or endanger the Marines," he said.

Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke traveled to Quantico to participate in the march this morning. She said she thinks the military and media members who participated each recognized how hard the others work.

"One of the things I'm hearing from both the media and the military is they have a new and greater appreciation for how hard each other's jobs are," she said.

ABC's Scuitto agreed. "I already had a lot of respect for what these (military) guys do," he said. "But you gain more respect when you see the type of training these guys go through."

Embedding media members with military units isn't without controversy. On the evening before the big march, some media members expressed their discomfort with being seen wearing camouflage military equipment. Many used white tape to write "press" or "TV" boldly on their gear.

Media members want to clearly define their role as noncombatants on the battlefield.

"Particularly in certain parts of this world it's already perceived that the American media is on the military's side," Scuitto said. "I don't believe it true, but that's the perception."

Davis said the military recognizes the potential problems and agrees wholeheartedly. "We have been scrupulous about keeping the distinction between noncombatants and combatants," he said.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageCNN correspondent Mike Boettcher (left) watches as Fox News Channel Pentagon correspondent Bret Baier struggles with his protective mask. Smoke in the background simulates a gas attack. Photo by Kathleen T. Rhem  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageNavy Seaman Levon Harry, a hospital corpsman tends to the injured Richard Sisk, a reporter from the New York Daily News. Sisk was burned on the hand and leg by a simulated weapon. Military officials noted this brings home the dangers of covering military operations. Photo by Kathleen T. Rhem  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageFox News Channel Pentagon correspondent Bret Baier puts on his chemical protective mask in a simulated poison gas attack. Photo by Kathleen T. Rhem  
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