Boot Camp For Gonzos

I'm sprinting across an open field, the roar of helicopter rotors so deafening that I can't tell where the machine-gun fire is coming from. "Get down! Spread out!" shouts a young sergeant. I trip over one of my squad mates and face-plant almost on top of him.

It's Day 5 of media boot camp and we've just landed in a "hot LZ." (For laymen, that's a very loud and chaotic landing zone under enemy fire.) It's not real, of course; the shots and explosions are only noise. But the journalists around me look terrified even so. "Alpha Squad, go!" my commanding officer yells. I watch my platoon mates jump up and run forward. A tiny woman reporter trips and falls, sending her helmet down over her eyes. A beefy sergeant picks her up by the collar like a piece of luggage and heaves her forward. "Bravo Squad, Go!" Now it's me again; I'm up on my feet, my lungs are burning. "Damn, I didn't know middle-aged people could run that fast," I think as I struggle to keep up.

Two days ago I arrived at Quantico Marine Base with 50 other journalists. The commandant promised us action, and he has not disappointed. This place is like a fantasy military camp for wanna-be Marines. We're issued camouflage gear and face paint, assigned to platoons and woken up by bellowing officers at 0500 hours, or 5 a.m. The idea is to give us a taste of what we might experience should we ever deploy with the Marines to write about them. With Iraq looming, the training is charged with an undercurrent that's made us all want to run a little faster.

I'd worked in Cambodia before. I covered 9-11. But I'd never been in a classroom with a giant painting of a Marine in a gas mask sticking a bayonet in the chest of a German soldier. (As I struggled through 10 pullups on the exercise bar outside during a break, one of my fellow journalists nicknamed me "Six-Pack," in joking reference to my modest beer belly. It was going to be a long week.) "If you want to cover a unit, we don't want you to be a burden on them," a burly general tells us. "Our men and women have a job to do. One of those jobs will probably not be to take care of you."

He didn't have to tell me. Before leaving, I packed my bag with all the comforts I could find: blister tape, hi-protein energy bars, a fancy flashlight. As they say in the Marines, I was "good to go." That's when I learned lesson No. 1: never let your bag out of your sight. Mine disappeared on the first day of training, when I loaded it into the bus. Since then we'd ridden around on other buses, an airplane, a military hovercraft and a ship, and it was anybody's guess where my gear had ended up. One day our minders would assure me that they'd tracked it to a base in North Carolina; the next it was believed to be in the belly of a military aircraft on its way to Alaska. Meanwhile, the Marines prepared a "kit" for me--a maroon washcloth and a toothbrush. "Sir, this is not a civilian installation," a leathery supply officer spits when I ask for clean clothes. "You're with the Marines now." I'm lucky she doesn't throw me in the brig.

Lesson No. 2 comes next: it doesn't matter what you're wearing in the Marines--you'll be miserable anyway. Soon everybody is in wet, dirt-smeared clothes, operating on no sleep--or even hospitalized. One of my bunkmates, an overweight newspaper photographer, had survived Haiti. But the mock helicopter assault proved too much. He twisted his knee crossing the field and now he's hors de combat. A young wire-service reporter is the second to go, after she twists her ankle in a sinkhole as we follow a platoon through the woods. Too bad for her: she misses the part where they fire live machine-gun bullets over our heads. Another bunkmate catches fire when sparks fly from a phosphorous grenade during a simulated gas attack.

By this time, I'm no longer amused by the spectacle of large middle-aged men panting for air and pulling hamstrings. Instead, I've begun to listen to the straight-talking killers at the front of the class with growing trepidation. It wasn't just the uneasy sense of what to do when someone is shooting at you, or how to extract yourself from a minefield. It was more what people really mean when they talk about weapons of mass destruction.

I learn the answer to that on Day 6 as I sit in my chair, my face frozen in a grimace. On the screen at the front of the class, the soldiers display pictures of dead Iranian soldiers with terrible blisters on their bodies. After that they explain how nerve agents suffocate victims. We enter the "gas chamber" wearing gas masks and full-body protection suits. It's filled with tear gas and we're instructed to close our eyes, hold our breath, take off our masks and then put them back on. The tear gas burns my freshly shaven face; several classmates run out gasping for air and crying. Obviously the real thing would be much worse. If we go to war and I'm with the Marines, the bullets will be real, and tear gas will be the least of our concerns.