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Military, Journalists Practice Working While Under Fire

Reporters in Pentagon's 'boot camp' program learn what to expect from combat situations; service members learn how to deal with media.

November 18, 2002|Carol J. Williams and Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writers

ABOARD THE USS IWO JIMA — This 844-foot-long amphibious assault ship was coursing over choppy waters 40 miles off the North Carolina coast when a sudden warning -- "Missile incoming, starboard side" -- roared through its cavernous entrails.

It was a nocturnal war drill that the ship's 1,500 sailors had been through many times before. Alarms clanged, orders were shouted, sailors manned gun turrets on the misty deck, and dozens of firefighters sprang into action.

But this time, the crew was operating under the gaze not just of the ship's commanders but of 58 journalists, notebooks in hand and cameras rolling.

In an unusual experiment launched over the weekend by the Pentagon, reporters, photographers and cameramen from 31 news organizations are spending a week with the military in potential combat situations. It is an exercise that defense officials describe as an important part of their contingency planning for media access to military operations if the United States makes good on threats to invade Iraq.

Aside from the drills aboard the Iwo Jima, the reporters, including one from the Russian news agency Itar-Tass and another from the United Arab Emirates, will visit the Marine Corps headquarters in Quantico, Va. Among the matters to be covered there, Pentagon officials say, are reactions to direct and indirect fire; protection against nuclear, biological and chemical attack; and identification of mine hazards. They also will take part in an overnight march with 25-pound backpacks and will board a helicopter with the war gear.

Pledging to improve on what has become an increasingly adversarial relationship with the press in times of hazard, the Pentagon is running the "media boot camp" this week to expose journalists to the rigors of war. Mock drills involving missile hits and enemy encounters are designed to show reporters the complex interaction of sea operations and front-line maneuvers, purportedly in anticipation of media accompaniment of troops headed for the threatened Persian Gulf confrontation.

"We're trying very, very hard to raise the comfort level of the media and the military. We're trying to make it better," Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke told reporters gathered for the first of what are expected to be four media-military training sessions.

The sessions could serve other public relations purposes for the military as well, including conveying the sense to Iraqi leaders that the United States is accelerating its war preparations. Whether the program will actually clear the way for greater media access in the event of war remains unclear.

In any event, the rank and file clearly reveled in the extraordinary attention being paid to their unsung roles in the looming war's run-up.

"I'm glad the media's here. I want people to know exactly what we're capable of, how hard we work," said Gunner's Mate 3rd Class Dave Richards, 21, from Jackson, N.J. "Our preparation is 24/7. One minute you're in your rack, sound asleep. The next thing you know, all hell's breaking loose -- even if it's only a drill."

It was just such a test that exposed this troop-deploying craft to a mock missile attack Saturday night -- a scenario that included a botched interception effort to give damage-control crews some practice.

The exercise was eerily reminiscent of the October 2000 terrorist attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole off Yemen. A small boat approaches with unclear intentions, ignoring efforts at radio contact and warnings to turn around or confront live fire.

Such noncompliance prompts deployment of the Iwo Jima's 30-foot inflatable launch to observe and engage the potentially hostile craft. That involves bearing down on the intruding vessel to prevent it from attacking the $1-billion Iwo Jima and its priceless human cargo.

"It's my job to protect the ship, and I have to look at it as a cost-benefit analysis. It can be me and two or three other people who get killed, or me and 2,000 people. It's a greater-good situation. I have to look at it that way," said Boatswain's Mate 1st Class John Obrien of Lima, N.Y.

A 29-year-old human shield between the ship and its suspected enemy, Obrien would be expected to deflect the approaching vessel or die trying.

"There's always been that danger. I think I'm just more aware of it now," Obrien said. "There's always that feeling that it can't happen to me, but the Cole incident brought to the forefront that it can."

Most reporters seemed as glad as the crew members to go through the exercises, though they were a bit skeptical that the program presaged a greater willingness on the military's part to bring journalists along during actual combat.

"This has been an evolution over the last two decades," said Mike Boettcher, a veteran CNN reporter who has covered U.S. military action in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Beirut and Grenada, as well as wars in Kosovo, Central America and the Falkland Islands.

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