The Few, the Proud -- the Reporters

At a crash Marine training course for journalists, I learned how to digest Marine food, don a gas mask in nine seconds -- and avoid politics

By Laura Cohn

I'm not one to wake up at 5 a.m. every day, rely on a compass to find my way, or protect myself by donning a gas mask within nine seconds. Until last week, that is. But after spending five days training with the Marines at "The Basic School" on a base in Quantico, Va., with about 60 other journalists, I'm beginning to think anything is possible.

As 1 of just 10 women assembled for the Pentagon-sponsored training for reporters heading for the Persian Gulf, I was worried about keeping up. While I'm in pretty good shape from practicing yoga, I imagined myself as Goldie Hawn's character in the movie Private Benjamin. Remember? Her entire platoon had to march in the rain as punishment for her ineptitude.

My sense of doom grew on the first day, when the commanding officer warned: "If you're expecting frills, you're going to be disappointed." But since BusinessWeek is sending me to the Gulf soon to cover Central Command in the event of a war with Iraq, I buried my fears, hoping I would leave with a better idea of how the military operates and how U.S. forces feel as they prepare for conflict.


  The week gave me an appreciation for what young men and (a few good) women go through -- physically and emotionally -- as they gear up for war. I had never been on a military base before. Nor had I ever spent much time talking to experts who knew what to do if the enemy uses chemical and biological weapons. And since "real" trainees were also at The Basic School -- a six-month finishing school of sorts -- the experience revealed to me the intensity of actual Marine training, how young volunteers feel about war with Iraq, and what the armed forces think of the press.

Monday morning, Feb. 3: Having dropped off my military-issued flak jacket, Kevlar helmet, canteens, and an excruciatingly heavy backpack in the grungy hovel I was to share with two other correspondents, I wandered across the base to the mess hall to get some "chow" (yes, they still call it that). Once I paid my $3.25, I grabbed the most edible-looking items off the salad bar and found myself chatting with a Marine-in-training who couldn't have been more than 18. (The average Marine is 22.) He invited me to sit with some of the others, but when we approached a table, one of the trainees pointed at me, and said: "She can only sit with us if she's a Republican."

Hmmm. Considering the Pentagon's much-touted desire to "embed" reporters with units going into battle in the Persian Gulf to inform the public of the realities of war, it wasn't the warmest of welcomes. So I explained that I was a journalist there for the media training and that I was basically harmless. Besides, my party affiliation didn't really matter at mealtime, right? That must have piqued their curiosity because the Republican-loving recruit looked at his colleagues, shrugged, and beckoned for me to sit down.


  Aside from trying to fit in at the chow hall, one of the biggest challenges of the week was grasping the lingo. After seven years of being a reporter in Washington, I thought I'd heard all the acronyms and that I was "good to go," as the Marines like to say. How wrong I was. Boot camp means learning a whole new language of military jargon.

A favorite new addition to my vocabulary is MRE, which stands for "Meal Ready to Eat." The 3,000-calorie MREs, eaten by soldiers in the field, contain several compact packages of labeled food. The labels are a good thing, since some of the items would be hard to identify otherwise. Not being a big carnivore, I opted for the vegetarian MREs, which usually consisted of peanuts, peanut butter, saltines, pound cake, and some sort of pasta dish that you heat up by adding water to a heat pack. Then you wait for three minutes for some kind of a chemical reaction in a cardboard box. The idea didn't exactly whet my appetite. I mostly ate peanuts all week.

When we weren't comparing the contents of our MREs (the enchiladas were deemed particularly nasty), military trainers briefed us on the subject of staying alive in a war zone. In the most somber session, we learned how to ward off a gas attack. By Laura Cohn


  The instructor, an expert in the field for 17 years, began his lesson by reminding us: "This is a no-joking sort of thing. In today's world, the threat is real." After sizing a protective mask to my head, I practiced putting it on, resting the hard, inner plastic part to the bridge of my nose, and sealing the cold, rubbery outer rim to my face as quickly as I could.

On a command of "Gas! Gas! Gas!" I learned to hold my breath, close my eyes, and don the mask within nine seconds. Ten seconds or more risks contamination, we learned. And even though we were practicing in the safety of a classroom, my heart raced every time we went through the drill.

Then we hiked across the base to a real gas chamber. We lined up by platoon, put on our masks, and entered a few at a time. Once inside the small room, our teachers released tear gas and gave us a few minutes to breathe under the protection of the gear. Then they gave the signal. We broke the seal of our masks, exhaled the poisonous air, and resealed the masks. To my surprise, my mask worked. I was relieved, yet terrified.


  Another test of our physical strength came when we took helicopters across Quantico. Having never ridden one before, I wasn't quite sure how my stomach would react, particularly while digesting an MRE. Before we boarded, I went inside and talked to the young heli-pilots about their experience with the HC-53, which they proudly called "the bird."

They eagerly showed me the hauling equipment in the belly of the bird that enabled it to lift trucks off the ground. They also boasted that the "coolest" official they had ever transported was Secretary of State Colin Powell. I realized I was in good hands -- and somehow didn't wind up using the barf bag I had discreetly asked for.

Once the bird landed, we set up camp. We were handed tents packed in small green bags. It didn't seem like tents could possibly be in the bags, which were only about six inches by two feet. Somehow, they were, and I'm here to tell you it's no picnic setting up tents in freezing weather.


  That night, the temperature dropped to 18 degrees. I've been skiing all my life, but I've never been as cold as I was that night. Adding insult to injury, the stillness was filled was the snoring of 50 men. And I somehow wound up setting up my tent right next to one occupied by the loudest snorer in the history of the world.

At least it sounded that way. The snoring started early -- and lasted all night. The next morning, one of my fellow trainees said she thought it sounded like a horse dying. I argued it sounded more like the last moments of a cow. The culprit, a well-known network correspondent, joked that perhaps we now understood why his wife didn't object when he told her he was off to cover another war.

While the week brought a lot of laughs, it also was filled with sobering reminders of war. During one of the closing sessions, an official who spent the week with us apologized for skipping out on the gas-chamber training. "I missed the gas chamber because I had to tell an officer and his young wife why he has to leave here in four days," the official told us. In response, the classroom grew silent.

That officer is well on his way to the Gulf by now. But he should be well prepared, given the intense training he did at Quantico. If the rest of us get there, I hope we'll be ready, too.

Cohn is a Washington-based correspondent for BusinessWeek

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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