Journey in journalism

The military put a group of national journalists though its first ever combat survival course this week with an amphibious carrier boarding, a helicopter insert and a march into ambushes at Quantico Marine Corps base.

The aim was to teach military reporters, photographers and cameramen how to operate with troops and what to do if they came under enemy attack, especially chemical or biological.

“There’s been a lot of discussion about how best to prepare journalists for [taking part] in a more conventional conflict should the president order us into whatever’s next, perhaps Iraq,” said Marine Brig. Gen. Andrew Davis. “We wanted to have journalists with us who were knowledgeable enough to write smartly about the military, get the ranks right, those kinds of things — and also have enough self-protection and field skills so they wouldn’t endanger themselves or endanger the mission or endanger the Marines.”

So when diluted tear gas was pumped into the base gas chamber, also called the “confidence chamber,” media members were not given extra time to don gas masks, just the standard nine seconds.

“You really get a sense of what these guys go through and some of the possibilities, especially the gas in the confidence chamber,” said Greg Gursky with FOX News, who has rotated in and out of the networks’ war pool for five years. “It sort of opens your eyes as to how quickly it can happen. That was just a tear gas agent. You can just imagine a chemical in war … it could mess you up pretty quick.”

Participants started each day at 5 a.m., ate military food and Meals Ready to Eat (or MREs), and sat through basic classes on the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. The group rode a hovercraft to the USS Iwo Jima amphibious assault ship in the Atlantic Tuesday, landed in a “hot” landing zone by helicopter Wednesday and experienced the disorientation of tear gas in a gas chamber Thursday.

The military plans two other training courses at Fort Benning, Ga., and one on the West Coast, spokespersons said.

During a five-mile march Friday, one injury occurred when a reporter’s left hand was hit by exploding shrapnel from a firecracker meant to simulate an artillery attack.

The morning’s first eruption of gunfire and explosions halted the march along a path in the woods. Green and yellow smoke panned through the trees and simulated a chemical attack. Participants were on the ground on the side of the dirt road just inside the tree line, most with the masks on and lying still, but some had problems.

“We have some briars out here, sir,” said M.E. Sprengelmeyer, a reporter with Scripps Howard News Service, who had jumped into a ditch and received cuts. In the next ambush, he thought he had taken cover fast enough but was too quick with his mask.

“I didn’t quite have a seal on my gas mask, and one of the sergeants came over and declared me dead,” he said. “So I’ve died before, I’ll die again. But hopefully when it comes to the real [thing], this will help. We know what to do. We won’t die in reality.”

The Marines intend on embedding, or assigning, up to four journalists per infantry battalion in future conflicts, like what was done in Afghanistan, Davis said. National war correspondents at the event said they assume a war is imminent with Iraq, which is believed to possess bioweapons.

Besides the chemical preparation, many journalists said they benefited from the simulated war environment.

“The hardest part was probably sleeping out in the cold. It was very cold, although we got tents and the guys normally don’t sleep with tents,” said Jim Sciutto with ABC News.

“In this group, a lot of these people have been all over the world. I’ve only been on one overseas deployment with the 26th [Marine Expeditionary Unit] in Afghanistan,” Sprengelmeyer said. “I didn’t have the kind of training, you know, on packing, how to live, and some of the first aid stuff I was lacking on. And of course I’m overweight so I needed to learn how much I need to get in shape.”

“It was pretty intense,” said Joe Loebach, a Pentagon reporter for NBC, who admitted some of the week was public relations, “but regardless, it was an eye-opener for every one of us here as to the front-line skills required.”

With so many media in one place, the Quantico open house for the exercise Friday offered the unusual situation of the media covering itself. More than 40 reporters and photographers came to cover the 58 media participants: At one point a dozen cameras and nearly as many microphones pointed down “Cardiac Hill” as the media trainees made their way up it before those on assignment, some ducking along the tree line, swarmed around the group.

“What do we do if we’re assaulted by the media?” one reporter asked.

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