By: Matthew Barakat, Associated Press Writer
(AP) Lugging 25 pounds of gear, several dozen journalists wrapped up a week of military training Friday with a five-mile hike that included a few mock ambushes along the way.
Except for a reporter who suffered minor burns from a smoke canister, the journalists completed their hike with nary a shin splint.
“They’re doing good,” said Lt. Col. Rick Long, the public affairs director at Quantico Marine Corps Base who had worked closely with the reporters since they arrived Tuesday. “You don’t have time to go into great detail with them, but you can give them some basic skills that can save their life.”
The training — hosted first by the Navy, then the Marines — began last Saturday with 58 journalists bouncing 40 miles across 6-foot waves to the USS Iwo Jima, the Navy’s newest amphibious assault ship. From the Norfolk Naval Station, the journalists moved to Quantico.
The training is designed to give journalists rudimentary military competence and perhaps give commanders more confidence in allowing them on the front lines during a war with Iraq. Media organizations complained during the Persian Gulf War and the Afghanistan conflict about lack of access.
“I wish I had had this training before,” said Barry Shlachter, a reporter with Knight Ridder newspapers. “I’ve made 11 trips to Afghanistan and I’ve never had any training like this.”
The seminar included physical activity like the march and training in such things as proper use of a gas mask, mine awareness, using a map in unfamiliar terrain, and basic military first aid. The journalists also learned how to identify and avoid enemy fire in hostile territory.
In one exercise, they took off in a helicopter and got a dose of battlefield conditions.
“He gave us all the Afghanistan moves in the chopper, ducking and weaving,” said Ross Simpson, a radio reporter for The Associated Press. “Your stomach is churning. Your adrenaline is kicking.”
When they got off the chopper, the reporters were instructed to hit the ground quickly to avoid sniper fire. Simpson learned afterward that his unit of reporters had done reasonably well: The mock snipers said they would have been able to pick off only about two of the nine who came off the chopper.
“For a guy like me, who just turned 60, it’s a real physical test,” Simpson said. “But if we go to war with Iraq … those reporters who have been through this will be better for it. Us old dogs learned some new tricks.”
During the march, New York Daily News reporter Richard Sisk, a former Marine and Vietnam veteran, rolled into a lit phosphorus canister and suffered minor burns on a hand and leg. Medics bandaged his hand, he finished the walk, and was then taken to the hospital for treatment.
The media march was itself a media event. Some reporters bristled at the notion of televised shots of reporters in camouflage training alongside Marines, fearing it would blur perceptions outside the United States about the media’s independence.
Many reporters went out of their way to identify themselves as media, with ID tags or civilian clothing on top of their camouflage.
“We just don’t want to be perceived as soldiers,” said Scripps Howard correspondent Michael Sprengelmeyer, who wore a purple striped shirt over his flak jacket. “We don’t want to endanger ourselves or anybody else.”